Friday, January 18, 2013

Week of Prayer For Christian & Interreligious Unity

For well over 50 years I've personally espoused, supported and put great personal effort into the ecumenical enterprise. In the past 20 years, my understanding has expanded to the need to pray not simply for "Christian" unity, but for "Christian and Interreligious" unity. The time especially during and immediately after Vatican Council II seemed to be marked by great ecumenical fervor. While much of that has remained here and there on the local level, I've seen interest and effort gradually dwindle over the years. That isn't to say that much hasn't been accomplished to date, at least on paper. In some cases there've been real, significant, and, I think, lasting breakthroughs. Yet, as we begin another week of prayer for unity, I sense the disgruntlement, misunderstanding, mistrust and ho-hum attitudes which pervade the religious world.

For myself, I'm wondering if all along I was waiting for some grandiose actual coming together of at least the major Christian religions in a body. Sounds naive even writing that down! As I approach the sunset of life I frankly don't envision much of any, if any, visible organizational unity. But I do see lots of possibilities for a deeper coming together in the heart and spirit, which might lead to much more practical, cooperative effort together to, as Pope John XXIII put it, "cry the Gospel" with our lives. I believe that that would be accomplished only through a mutually serious immersion of ourselves, individually and corporately, into the Word of God. 

Many members of our Diocese of Northern California, along with others across the U.S., are currently engaged in what has been termed a "Bible Challenge" for 2013, a tag I certainly wouldn't have chosen to use. The American societal environment today, from Congress on down to the schools and beyond, fairly reeks of "challenge", confrontation, in-your-face interaction. The Jesus I've come to know didn't/doesn't operate like that, except in the face of sin and untruth. At any rate, I would've billed the endeavor as something like "An Invitation To The Word". What is proposed is reading three chapters of the Hebrew Scriptures, one Psalm, and one chapter of the Christian Scriptures each day, Monday through Friday, for a year, during which time one will have virtually read the entire Bible. The assumption is, rightly or wrongly, that on Sundays the Scriptures would be shared in common.

This isn't, by any means, a new approach. I was introduced to something very similar back in the early '90's when two lay missionaries from the Solomon Islands, Barbara and Charles Dugnolle, of Episcopal World Mission, made an appointment to see me at St. John's, Chico. When they called once or twice earlier, I simply put them off, figuring it was the same old pitch for money. It was that, but it turned out to be much more than that. Though I figured I’d give them only 15 minutes of my time, we talked for about an hour and a half! They told fascinating stories about their ministry in a school where Barbara taught and an eye clinic which Charles was setting up.  While they were theologically evangelical, in some ways more than I was comfortable with, their obvious spirituality, sincerity, and enthusiasm won me over. In the following years we became good friends.  

In our meeting Charles and Barbara introduced me to what they called a “Scripture Covenant”.  The idea was for the parish priest, and any parishioners who wished to join in, to commit to reading three or four chapters from the Old and NewTestaments, and three or four Psalms. The invitation was to “covenant” to this formally in writing. The idea wasn't to formally study Scripture, but simply to read the Bible in a continuous manner, to let it wash over one’s mind and heart, so that in the course of the year a substantial part of the Bible would be read, perhaps even several times. I wisely began doing it myself before ever introducing it to the congregation and to a few of my clergy colleagues, and found it truly helpful, despite requiring some intentional planning and honest perseverance. 

Whatever such a regimen is called, it seems to me that it could go a long way, practiced continually, to form our hearts and to instill attitudes oriented toward the oneness which Jesus so earnestly prayed for. I recommend it as a positive tool one might utilize, beginning in this Week of Prayer for Christian and Interreligious Unity.


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