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What the Chautauqua Bell Tower Reminded Me: How to Be a Christian in a Pluralistic World... and Family

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A few Saturdays ago, I took my yoga mat to the shore of the lake near the guest house where I had been staying.  There was a bell tower nearby that had played Christian hymns throughout the week.  As I finished my yoga session and stretched out in the last resting pose, the bell tower began its morning concert.  8 a.m.  Throughout the week I recognized the hymns immediately, but this one was hard to place.  Familiar, yes, but I couldn't pin it down.  

Then the neurons in another part of my brain started firing.  

Aha!  It was one of the tunes used for Aleinu, a prayer recited in Jewish liturgy several times a day.  I thought it was a bit strange coming from what I thought of as "the Christian bell tower."  Then the next song pealed out, and I burst into tears when I recognized the tune and remembered the words that went along with it: "You will be a blessing, you will be a blessing, lekh lekha," based on the words in Genesis 12 when God calls Abram to "go forth from his country," and blesses him.  

My daughter had sung the song during her Siddur (prayerbook) ceremony when she was given her first one in second grade.  It was a moment filled with both joy and bittersweet tears. Joy as we watched our daughter both reenact and represent the fulfillment of God's promise to Abram to make of him a great nation, and to be a blessing to others. Bittersweet, because she was clearly setting out on her own journey, going forth from "our country," foreshadowing that moment when she will sail off into the sunset -- and we will pray that we have prepared her well enough.

How on earth could someone have known to play this tune at this descendent of a Methodist encampment where I had been staying all week? While it's not typically a "Shabbat tune," I assumed it was being played because it was the morning of the Jewish sabbath.

The answer?  Because it was Chautauqua.  I had had the good fortune to spend a week as a chaplain for the United Church of Christ (UCC) house on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institute in western New York state.  As many people said throughout the course of the week, it's nearly impossible to explain what it's like if you've never experienced it.  And yet at that moment, lying on my yoga mat listening to those songs, I realized in a heartbeat -- or rather, in a musical note -- what had been so special for me about being there.

The whole was clearly greater than the sum of its parts.  And the "parts" were pretty amazing all by themselves.  I had heard the Rev. Otis Moss III from Trinity UCC in Chicago preach six times (if that had been the extent of the week, dayeinu, it would have been enough!).  The afternoon "Interfaith Lecture Series" challenged us to broaden and deepen our commitments to our own traditions in conversation with the "religious other." I had heard, among others, Dr. Amineh Hoti, a Pakistani scholar and Cambridge professor, speak about her projects to foster tolerance and interfaith dialogue in Pakistan and beyond.  Shane Claiborne spoke hilariously about his experiences of peacemaking and social justice work from Calcutta to his radical evangelical community in inner-city Philadelphia.  Rabbi Debra Orenstein spoke about continuity and change in Jewish life, finishing her lecture with tears of apology to someone in the audience who had shared with us her numerous rejections from synagogues because of her interfaith marriage.

But the "whole" was more related to what happened in between the big events of the week: when I led Christian services and discussions at the UCC house and shared hundreds of conversations with other folks similarly interested in interfaith issues, spirituality and religion, social justice and the arts.  People wanted to know more about the mixed blessings of our interfaith family life and how I raise Jewish children as a minister.  Some just wanted to know more about Judaism.  I revisited my own (sometimes painful) decisions not to convert to Judaism, to raise Jewish children, to heed the call to Christian ministry.  I heard similar stories from other people, Jews and Christians alike, whether their children had married "out of the faith" or whether their children were simply uninterested in any sort of traditional "faith life" at all. I attended Shabbat services, as well as Muslim prayers on Friday afternoon.  I shed tears with others who had lost spouses and parents or, in one case, with a woman on her way home to a Hospice house who regretted she hadn't passed more of Jewish tradition on to her grandchildren.

As a Christian mother of Jewish children on the Upper West Side of New York City -- whose children go to Jewish day school -- I spend a great deal of time being "the only one" who isn't Jewish in a very Jewish world. I jokingly say that 95 percent of my life is Jewish, and it's in my role as a Protestant Chaplain at the Jewish Home that I get to be "a Christian."  While that is, of course, not technically true, it's my light-hearted way of saying that I am rarely in the position of being a "Christian among Christians."  This isn't just happenstance.  Because, often, when I'm a "Christian among Christians," I am equally uncomfortable.  In that setting there is often, at best, a sense that while other religious traditions exist, they are simply unimportant to Christian identity. Or, at worst, a triumphant sense we have a corner on The Truth.  Perhaps subconsciously, I seem to have created a life where I am rarely a "Christian among Christians."

But at Chautauqua I experienced being a Christian in an entirely different way. Chautauqua is an institution committed to honoring and expressing the convictions of its Christian heritage -- after all the bell tower plays Christian hymns most of the week. But it is also an institution committed to welcoming people from all religious backgrounds, inviting them not only to participate in the wider institution's events, but also to hold their own worship services and educational meetings to which, in turn, all are invited. This is Christian tradition at its best: not just tolerating the "religious other," but committed to fostering dialogue and relationships with people from other traditions -- and perhaps, most importantly, committed to growing, learning, and even changing as a result of those relationships.

That was the whole that I experienced when Aleinu and "You Will Be a Blessing" burst into my heart, mind and body at the end of my yoga session.

As I walked back to my room, I fell in line with another woman walking away from the bell tower. "You can't believe what I just heard.  This may sound kind of funny, but I'm a Christian minister raising Jewish children and that bell tower just played songs that I've only heard in my child's Jewish school when she was receiving her first prayerbook! It's like my whole existence is symbolized in the songs coming from that tower: Christian in orientation, but honoring the ways Judaism is so much a part of my life!"

"Yeah, that was me, I played those songs."  

"What?" I was sure it was a computer playing the tunes. "You mean you picked that music?"

"Not only did I pick it, I also played it.  I have the sheet music and I play the bells in the tower four times a day, seven days a week.  There's no computer.  On Friday nights at six, I usually play 'Ein Keloheinu' and 'Hatikva' too."

I spontaneously hugged her and thanked her.  Thanked her for reminding me what is possible when we can be confidently rooted in our own traditions enough to reach out, embrace, and learn from "the other."