COMMENTARY: AN INTERFAITH REFLECTION
The following is an interfaith reflection given by the Rev. Tim Iverson, a recently retired Lutheran pastor, at a Shabbat service Temple of Aaron synagogue on the occasion of Christmas 2016. SPIN welcomes receiving copies of sermons or talks on interfaith reflections to be published here and on the SPIN website.
Good morning. My name is Tim Iverson. I am a recently retired Lutheran Pastor. Half of my career has been as a pastoral leader of congregations, and the other more recent half has been as director of an organization that supports health care programs with Lutheran Churches in the developing world. I am pleased for the invitation to share with you briefly my own experiences and convictions about inter-faith relationships, a subject very dear and central to my life.
Personally, I often find in scripture, such as in Psalm 145, an abundance of testimony to the broad reach of God’s loving nature, blessing, saving purpose and relationship with all whom he has created.
From Psalm 145
I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.
All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power,
The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings.
The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them.
The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.
And it is from that Word that I am moved to begin by suggesting that if there is a place for interfaith relationships in our lives, it is because of the nature of our God who initiates them before us, and to speak of the possibility, the permissibility, yes the desirability of interfaith relationships is to speak of the God who can be discerned in, with and through them to reveal himself, and to work his will for the blessing of life—and all that enriches and nurtures life– in all of God’s creation.
My own interfaith journey began with my marriage to a woman whose mother came from a Lutheran denomination different than my own—that was a big departure from expectations and tradition in those days–and a Jewish father, Archie Gingold, a man whom I suspect some of you may have known
After marriage, my wife and I became Peace Corps volunteers in El Salvador, Central America–the single most important experience of our lives in shaping our love and commitment and careers. After Peace Corps we moved to New York City, where I attended graduate school in Social Work Administration and worked in Puerto Rican South Bronx while my wife worked for Visiting Nurse Service in East Harlem
Following a decade in social work, I followed a long-held calling to enter training for ordained ministry
While in seminary, I fell in love with the Old Testament and extended my study of Hebrew. This served me well later when I, by then a congregational pastor, visited the hospital death bed of my wife’s Aunt, and offered readings and prayers in Hebrew while we waited for her Rabbi to arrive.
That aunt’s daughter, a single woman without other relatives, has ever since invited me to officiate at Passover in her home each year, an honor and a joy to which I always look forward
I left congregational ministry in 2000 to lead an organization supporting healthcare programs through Lutheran Churches in the developing world. In Nigeria, where the Islamic Boko Haram persists in its terrorism, I once visited a village where we were supporting community health projects. We had come to hear the report of the village health committee on the priorities they had identified for improving community health. The entire village, composed of both Muslim and Christian members, had turned out for the meeting, and all were seating on colorful mats on the ground surrounding the village center. As was their tradition, the meeting opened with prayers from an Imam, “May Allah bless our village, and our guests, as we meet together to work for long life and health for all,” and closed with prayers from a local pastor. In between, a lively conversation between and among the villagers reached agreement that the village (and its animals) needed its own clean water well.
Over the years I have found this story repeated often wherever I have traveled. Health and the prevention of disabling illness and the premature death of children is a powerful common interest around which to build harmony in situations where division and conflict are more common, and I believe that the God is present in such efforts to bring about peace and life, as the Psalmist says, satisfying the desire and need of every living thing he has created.
Over the years I have come to enter cross-cultural and inter-faith relationships with an expectation borne of countless affirmative experiences that God awaits me in the unknown and the stranger, offering through them something that I am lacking—often an experience or testimony about God that is new or renewing to me–providing something that helps complete me, filling out my own faith and knowledge of God, and blessing me with healing, peace and renewal of hope in life.
On the other hand, while finding beauty, inspiration and a witness to God in other traditions, I have never concluded from this I therefore should give up my own particular faith, nor am I ever free from the obligation to evaluate and discern whether it is God that I am encountering or an adversary of our God of life. I believe that we each should be strong and faithful and articulate in our own convictions, thankful for the particular ways in which we have met and experienced our God, and aware that in them we have ourselves received precious gifts of faith that it would be Godly to share with others.
May the promise and presence of God in this often fearful and hopeless world come to you abundantly—even from outside your own faith and tradition–and bring you renewed hope and joy, healing for our brokenness, and long life and health for all!