Q: I'm a member of the United States Power Squadrons, and every year we hold a nonsectarian memorial service in a church for members who died the previous year. The doxology is sung after the offering. This response refers to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. While I am a Christian, I think this is disrespectful to Jews and other non-Christians attending the service. Wouldn't it be better to use a response that refers simply to "The Lord thy God"? — C., via email@example.com
A: The first question I'd ask you is whether by "nonsectarian" you mean a nonreligious service or an interfaith service. Generally, people mean interfaith when they say nonsectarian, so I'll assume that's the type of service you mean. I believe there are two spiritually legitimate schools of thought on how to conduct a spiritually satisfying interfaith service:
1. No Christ, no Jesus, only God
Some believe that for the sake of maximum spiritual comfort all prayers in interfaith services should refer only to God or the Lord our God, and never to Jesus, Christ, or the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. (By the way, feminists don't like the word "Lord," which is clearly a masculine term for God.)
The advantage of this approach is that the generic word "God" encompasses everyone in the congregation. The disadvantage of this approach is that it produces vanilla prayer services that are unsatisfying, particularly to the Christians who are present and who usually represent the majority of congregants.
2. Jesus yes, Christ no
In this approach, the name Jesus is used but not the title Christ, which means "Messiah." If a passage from the New Testament is used in the service, it obviously makes sense to state, as it says in the texts themselves, "Jesus said..." However, when it comes to a directive to the congregation to pray together, it would be wrong to say, "Let us pray in Jesus' name" or in Christ's name. Obviously, non-Christians don't pray in Jesus' name and the leader would be asking those participants to do something that violates their religious beliefs.
I like this way of praying, and my friend and former God Squad partner, Father Tom Hartman, and I used it for years. It's just fine to use the name of Jesus with texts that refer to his teachings. However, when it comes to actually praying together, I think it's best to find a place where everyone in the room can say "Amen" with a full and undivided heart.
Let me also add that using the term "Allah" instead of "God" is not helpful. It implies that for Muslims Allah is different from God, and this is not true. For Muslims, Allah is God. In general, I believe that not enough sensitivity is shown to Muslim worshipers at interfaith services, and every effort should be made to include them.
The problem is that texts from the Quran must be read in Arabic and not in translation. This isn't always possible if an Arabic reader is not available.
Psalms are always a good choice for texts because they bridge Jewish and Christian beliefs. For a memorial service, nothing is better than the 23rd Psalm. I also like this passage from Job (14:7-9) because it speaks of how hope can rise after despair:
"For there is hope of a tree, that if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and its tender branches will not die. If its roots are old in the earth, even if the trunk dies in the ground, at the first scent of water it will bud and bring forth boughs like a plant."
My favorite New Testament text for interfaith services is from I Corinthians (12:4-11)
"There are different gifts but the same Spirit.
"There are different ministries but the same Lord.
"There are different works but the same God who accomplishes all of them in everyone...it is one and the same Spirit who produces all these gifts, distributing them to each as He wills."
The main thing to remember is that such interfaith services are best judged by how they make people feel when they leave. There should be a feeling that the sacrifices of those who served have been lifted up for praise and honor. There should be a feeling that our religious traditions are broad enough to include us all, and there should be a feeling that the ways we're different are so much less important than the ways we are all the same.
If you achieve this, you have used just the right words.
(Send QUESTIONS ONLY to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)