Lent, the 40+ day preparatory period leading up to Holy Week, is arguably the most Christian time of the liturgical year. Institutional Christianity teaches that Jesus was born into the world as God’s only son, sent to die for us on the cross to redeem us for our sins. For many, belief in that statement, and the various assumptions underlying it, defines what it means to be a Christian. The gospel narrative, so steeped in dogmatic tradition, seems to offer little breathing room for an interfaith approach. Throw kids into the mix, and you might find yourself literally gasping for air.
Many Christians do not accept those seemingly basic tenets of the Christian tradition, and it’s not the version we celebrate at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC. Our order of worship is familiar – welcome, opening song, time of reflection, Old Testament reading, New Testament reading, sermon, passing of the peace, passing of the offering plate, prayers, and benediction. But the service itself is qualitatively different. The welcome is the calling of the four directions derived from pagan traditions. The opening song could be a hymn, a gospel tune, or a current hit heard on satellite radio. The time of reflection includes the ringing of a Buddhist bowl. In addition to the Bible readings, we often read a passage from another sacred text (e.g., Tao Te Ching, Qur’an), and the sermon, which we call a “meditation,” is interactive. One Sunday morning, a woman scurried out about halfway through the service. She was actually sweating as she said, “I have NEVER heard such blasphemy in my entire life.”
I stepped into this milieu, as Jubilee!’s Nurture Coordinator and Curriculum Specialist, one summer several years ago. My job was to develop an age-appropriate, interfaith Sunday School curriculum for preschoolers through high-schoolers. By fall, I was already dreading the Lenten season. I had nightmares about the crucifixion as a kid, and I certainly didn’t want to be responsible for burdening the next generation in the same way. What were we going to do? Just take 6 weeks “off” from Christianity and ignore Holy Week and Easter? Like nearly all other Christian churches, our minister follows a lectionary, and Easter is our most well-attended Sunday. Surely, some of the kids would hear something about someone rising from the dead a full six months after Halloween!
With nowhere else to turn, I started reading the Bible – the actual gospel stories that happened after Palm Sunday which the Bible repeatedly calls “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.” I also read, for the first time in a long time, the accounts of the crucifixion. It was an eye-opening week. Although most churches celebrate Palm Sunday one week and Easter the next, there were many interesting Jesus stories that occurred in between – during the so-called Passion Week – when even most church-going families are not in church.
It was a multi-week, interfaith unit just waiting to happen. We now call that unit Jesus in Jerusalem, and we have three, 4-week units that we rotate through each year. The best part about it (in my opinion) is that the stories that are so highly Christian in nature also offer numerous, age-appropriate opportunities to connect with other sacred texts and other faith practices. Here’s a taste of what we do with our Upper Elementary and Middle School kids when we read these stories during our Lenten period.
The Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:34-39, also Mark 12:28-34 and John 13:31-35)
This passage contains one of the many versions of the “golden rule” – love your neighbor as yourself – found in both the Hebrew and Christian Bible. I must admit that this lesson plan is not particularly original on our part since the “golden rule” is widely-known in interfaith circles. It has been used as the foundation for Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion, and some version of it shows up in at least a dozen other faith traditions. For a great list check out this page at Religious Tolerance.org. There’s also a great kids’ book called…what else…The Golden Rule.
Jesus Denouncing the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-36)
Unlike the “golden rule” passage, the story of Jesus denouncing the scribes and Pharisees might seem a little less obvious as an interfaith opportunity. While mentioned in Mark (12:38-40) and Luke (20:45-47), it is the Gospel of Matthew that offers Jesus’ lengthy diatribe against hypocrisy. That passage finds Jesus railing against other Jewish leaders of his day. In some ways, the passage is problematic: it doesn’t paint Jesus in a particularly compassionate light, and it can be used to reinforce the idea that “Jesus was killed by Jews,” a view that has been known to hamper even the best of interfaith intentions. However, the passage contains some great metaphors that kids in this age range understand quite well (e.g., cleaning the outside of a cup but not the inside), and it’s a very clear statement against hypocrisy.
As it turns out, other faith traditions aren’t big fans of hypocrisy either, and therein lies the connection. The interfaith angle makes perfect sense given that some definitions of “hypocrisy” focus specifically on being disingenuous about religion. The Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao Te Ching all contain passages denouncing hypocrisy in its various forms. There’s even a made-for-kids Jataka Tale called “The Phoney Holy Man” that offers a moral message on the theme. Although the topic of hypocrisy is decidedly less feel-good than the “golden rule,” there’s no denying that it’s still a great way to foster interfaith connections. (For my full blog post on this topic, click here.)
Jesus Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, and Luke 22:39-46)
The basic story of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane is one of the most well-known passages in the Christian Bible. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus retired to a garden (or grove) to pray. Some of his disciples came along. The gospel accounts vary, of course, but the main idea is that Jesus was in great anguish about his impending death. He prayed to be spared; then he prayed in acceptance. The disciples kept falling asleep, and before the dawn of the following day, Jesus was arrested.
Despite occasional assumptions to the contrary, Christians hardly have a monopoly on prayer. In fact, every religion has its own form of the practice. There are prayers of intercession, gratitude, mourning, and praise. You can sing them, say them, chant them, whisper them, and think them. You can bow your head, prostrate yourself, dance around, sit in lotus position, kneel, sway, or twirl. You can fold hands, hold hands, or throw them up in the air. There are Jewish prayers, called tefillos, and 5-times-a-day Muslim prayers, called salat. There are Hindu prayers, Buddhist prayers, Shinto prayers, Sikh prayers, Baha’i prayers, and Native American prayers. There’s even a great kids’ book published in 2014 called Everyone Prays: Celebrating Faith Around the World. In truth, this quintessential Christian story is also one that allows us to connect, deeply and immediately, with every other faith tradition on the planet.
For progressive Christians, Lent can feel like a theological veal crate that confines and immobilizes. While practices vary across denominations, this entire portion of the liturgical calendar moves inexorably toward the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. For those of us who don’t view Jesus as the redeemer of our sins, it’s often hard to stay connected with those aspects of the story that really do speak to us. It’s simply way easier to just ignore the whole thing. And with #Muslims4Lent currently all the rage on social media, it can, ironically, make a progressive Christian feel more distanced than ever.
Focusing on Passion Week narratives that reveal Jesus’ humanity, rebelliousness, devoutness, and compassion offers a way to find meaning instead of controversy, a way to connect with other Christians who may view Jesus in a completely different way. But these stories also offer a wonderful bridge that spans the gap between Christianity and other religious traditions. It’s a gap that can seem particularly cavernous at this time of the year. And most importantly of all? It speaks to both kids and adults.
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]