Christian-Buddhist Double Header: An Exploration of Interfaith Worship Inspired by Saffron Cross
Friends, today is the day! Happy anniversary, Saffron Cross! To celebrate one-year of joining thousands of interfaith partners and friends in spreading the love, the Kindle version of Saffron Cross is available this week for only $2.99.
Today, we welcome Kate Rademacher back to the blog. Kate is a new convert to Christianity (Episcopalian) and her husband, David, practices Tibetan Buddhism. Read on for Kate and David’s Saffron Cross-inspired “double header” of interfaith worship.
Fred and I continue to be grateful for the many couples like Kate and David who’ve reached out to how our interfaith love story has connected with their lives.
Read, enjoy, and share. Thanks!
“Mommy, do you think I’m more of a Buddhist Christian or a Christian Buddhist?”
My eight-year-old daughter was musing about her spiritual identity over dinner. I grinned at her, not answering—allowing a moment of silence to form while she continued to consider the question for herself. I love her thoughtful inquiry, love that she feels so engaged with both my husband’s tradition and mine. I have one of Lila’s drawing pinned up in my office. In it, there are two stick figures, one of me praying and one of my husband meditating. Underneath, Lila wrote several sentences in large, wobbly print, full of misspellings. “I have a strong relashinship btwen me and God and Booda. My mom is a Krischin and my dad is a Boodist which makes me want to be a Krischin and a Boodist too.”
The sweetness in our interfaith family is palpable. But nonetheless, Sunday mornings can feel hard. My husband, David, and I take turns bringing Lila with us—one week she goes to church with me, the next week to the Buddhist center with him. The routine makes sense, but it can end up feeling disconnected, like we’re sharing custody in a divorce.
It never occurred to me that it could be any different until I read J. Dana Trent’s memoir, Saffron Cross.
Instead of heading their separate ways, Dana, an ordained Baptist minister, and her husband, Fred, a devoted Hindu, have chosen to honor each other and their marriage by worshiping together each week. With humor and self-effacing honesty, Dana describes the adventures—and misadventures—that she and Fred have had trying to navigate the how and the where and the why of interfaith worship.
When I mentioned Dana and Fred’s practice to David after reading Saffron Cross, I was surprised by his unequivocal response. “We should do that.” Usually I’m the one orchestrating our social calendar and trying to rally his support for my plans. But this time, David was the one pushing. “When can we start?” he wanted to know.
So we planned our first Christian-Buddhist double header. The beginning of September meant the end of the summer schedule at church; the times would now align perfectly so that we could go first to my service and then immediately proceed to David’s meditation center, where there would be a short teaching and chanted prayers.
That Sunday, it felt strange and sweet to leave house as a family. We were running five minutes late and arrived at church flustered, but at least we were together. I glanced at David repeatedly during the first half the service, worried that he was bored and disengaged. I reflected on what he said the night before. “I will be sitting in the pews, experiencing the service as a Buddhist. Just like I expect you to experience the meditation session as an Episcopalian.” On one hand, it seemed like the obvious and right approach. Our job was not to check our religious identities at the door. We were coming to both worship services as our authentic selves. Still, I wondered, what were the implications of this? Would it be sacrilegious for me to bow in front of statues of Buddhist deities less than an hour after I had knelt at the altar rail to receive the body and blood of Christ?
In her first years of interfaith marriage, Dana discovered that shared worship—including attending services at Hindu temples and retreats with Fred’s guru—deepened her Christian faith, rather than undermining it. She writes, “Our biggest fear is that when we open ourselves to others’ understandings of God, we will jeopardize our own path. And yet, the opposite is true. The Holy Spirit breaks free from our human-made constraints and moves fluidly among us, crossing our unnecessary lines drawn in the sand.”
So I tried to trust that our interfaith worship would have spiritual integrity. And as soon as the sermon began, the tangible benefits of being at church with David became apparent. The priest began with a funny quip about how she always instructs newlyweds not to leave the sponge in the kitchen sink if that’s what one person prefers. Common courtesy is a part of loving our neighbor as ourselves. She explained that the etymological meaning of “neigh” is “near.” We learn to be loving by practicing with those who are closest to us, not by cultivating a hypothetical compassion for imagined strangers we’ll never meet. My shoulders released. David and I had been bickering all week about chores, arguing about whose standard—his desired cleanliness or my preferred slobbiness—should be the accepted family norm. And now, here we were, sitting side by side, receiving a gentle reminder to be kind, to be generous, to practice simple humility with those nearest to us. All of my annoyance from the week dissipated, and I made a silent commitment to put the sponge back in its little suction-cup holder from then on. Most of all, it felt meaningful to hear the same message together, at the same time. It wouldn’t have been the same if I had told David about the sermon later.
Meanwhile, Lila sat beside us, engaged in her typical church-going activities: fidgeting, doodling, flopping across my lap, sliding to the floor, re-arranging the hymnals. Each week, I accept this behavior; I look around and see her peers squirming in just the same ways. But the Lord’s Prayer is the one exception I make. Each week, as the familiar words begin, I kneel beside Lila, hugging her shoulders tight. She knows this is the signal to pay attention, and we recite the words together.
But that week, with my husband beside us, Lila gently pulled out of my embrace. She began bending my fingers together in a complicated pattern. Soon my pinkies were intertwined, my index fingers folded over one another, ring fingers pointed to the ceiling. It was a mandala symbol. Practitioners at my husband’s center routinely twist their fingers into this representation of a purified universe. Both David and Lila had tried multiple times to teach me how to fold my hands this way, but the pattern always eluded me. That morning, as we murmured the familiar words of scripture along with the congregation, Lila gently guided my fingers until they were in just the right place.
Dana writes, “Divided worship meant dissociation.” When she and Fred were considering whether to worship on their own each week, she realized that “interfaith separation” would have meant that she and her husband would “be on parallel paths, never to cross.” Her heart told her that “there was a larceny in that choice—something sacred stolen that God had actually intended for us to experience together.” As I gazed down at my fingers, folded into a perfect Buddhist mandala, and listened to the prayers of the Holy Eucharist, I knew that this moment was something that God intended for our family to experience together.
The morning wasn’t all easy. There was a tense moment in the car when David complained about the images in the Old Testament reading that seemed to reflect the actions of a vengeful God. And later, as I listened to the teaching at his Buddhist center, I longed for a message that more overtly emphasized a call to social action and service. But for once, these felt like small quibbles; I anticipated that they’d be fodder for interesting future conversations over the dinner table.
After the church serviced ended, we’d had just enough time to drink a few sips of coffee before hustling Lila into the car. As we settled onto the cushions at David’s Buddhist center, the teacher smiled at us.
“Isn’t this the morning you worshiped together?” he asked as class was beginning.
“Yes,” David replied. “We just came from church.”
“Ah, well, what a wonderful day,” his teacher smiled. “Double the rejoicing.”
“Double the blessings,” David and I responded in unison, without missing a beat.
We looked at each other and laughed. “Wow, well, I guess you are in sync,” said his teacher. And then bending his head slightly, he brought his hands together in prayer position. “Now, let us begin.”
It was a beginning. I was pleased that our Christian-Buddhist double header didn’t generate too much grumbling from our eight-year-old about worship overload, and David is already asking when we can do it again. In Saffron Cross, Dana’s breakthrough moment with interfaith worship occurred on the eve of Pentecost, the season in which “languages and differences are set aside, and we truly begin to understand one another.” After a morning of listening for and discovering some of the ways the Holy Spirit moves between us and connects us, despite our differences, I did feel more in sync as a family. I am grateful for the inspiration that Dana and Fred’s example provided which helped us discover how shared worship can yield double the rejoicing. Double the blessings.