Jon, a Catholic writer, and Michal, a Reconstructionist rabbi, live out the challenges of an interfaith relationship everyday as husband and wife, and as parents to their daughter Sima, who is being raised Jewish. In MIXED-UP LOVE, the couple explores how interfaith relationships impact dating, weddings, holidays, raising children, and family functions--and how to not just cope, but thrive.
This is an engaging and practical resource for singles who are considering dating outside their own faith, couples in interfaith relationships, relatives and friends of "mixed" couples who seek information and understanding, and parents desiring a fresh perspective. With clarity, insight, and humor, Sweeney and Woll demonstrate how to engage with your partner, family, and faith like never before.
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About the Author
Michal Woll is a gifted rabbi, liturgist, pastoral counselor, physical therapist, and yogi. A graduate of Northwestern University, M.I.T., and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she has a passion for teaching and creating ritual, and deep appreciation of Judaism as both a communal identity and transformative, spiritual path.
Jon and Michal live in Ann Arbor, Michigan with their daughter Sima.
Read an Excerpt
By Jon M. Sweeney, Michal Woll
FaithWordsCopyright © 2013 Jon M. Sweeney Michal Woll
All rights reserved.
We love to go hiking in state parks. Along mountain paths there are signs, similar to most roadways, telling you what to expect and how to stay on the path. Someone has usually hashed marks of paint on trees, a small swath of white or yellow on the bark, showing the best way to progress upward. There can be so many hashes and signs by journey's end, it feels like cheating to say you actually hiked a mountain. Such a hike can seem less like an adventurous journey than like falling forward in the way you're pointed. This is not what explorers were doing when they sought the source of the Nile.
Such clear signage isn't usually available in life, personal, professional, or religious. But it sounds a bit like how Jon's Sunday school teachers who used to speak of "following God's will," which was supposed to be easily discernible from reading the Bible. Surely, it's never that simple. Or at least it wasn't for us. In this realm we feel more like Speke and Burton asking the natives which way to turn.
Granted, by the time we met, we had both traveled rather complex paths in our religious lives. While your own journeys may have fewer twists and turns, exploring your own path—how you were raised, the choices your family made for you and those that you made for yourself, the examples that were presented to you about religion and relationships—will help you understand who you are now as a person exploring an interfaith relationship. You may be surprised by what you discover.
JON Not only have I somehow missed the clearly marked path, or done a lousy job of following the obvious signs, but my religious life hasn't necessarily been a process of going forward. Nor do I claim to be climbing upward, as if I can tell that I'm getting progressively closer to God. In some ways I'm actually going backward.
I was born into a non-denominational evangelical church, moved to Episcopalianism before I was twenty, and eventually became a Roman Catholic. Today, even though I'm still a Catholic and go to mass, I pray and practice mostly with Jews, and Michal likes to repeat a remark made by a friend over dinner years ago that perhaps I'm eternally regressing, and Zoroastrianism must be next in line for me. This is really just a joke, but sometimes I wonder.
Baptist -> Episcopalian -> Catholic -> Jewish -> Zoroastrian? -> Did cavemen have a religion??
I was born with an evangelical Protestant imagination and have been trying to expand it ever since. "Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me"—I sang that hymn over and over as a child in church in Wheaton, Illinois, leaving my pew for the center aisle, walking forward to commit and recommit my life to Jesus Christ. If you share a background like mine, you know what I mean. Wheaton was the macrocosmic mecca of evangelicalism and a microcosmic world that included Vacation Bible School, "sword drills" (games training kids to quickly find Bible references), worship services dominated by sermonizing, mission trips from the suburbs to Central America, and one-on-one evangelizing, even revival tent meetings—I helped organize one once.
Earnest belief came early. When I was five, I kneeled with my father in the living room to ask Jesus into my heart. That's of course what we called it—what millions of people still call it. Phrase by phrase, I repeated after my dad: "Heavenly Father ... I realize that I am a sinner ... I ask for your forgiveness.... I want to change and become a new person.... I ask you to come into my heart." This may sound ludicrous to many of you, but believe me, I meant every word of it. Or at least I knew how to demonstrate that my meaning was sincere. With a perspective that has changed much over the last forty-odd years, I now realize that meaning is more complex, and best practiced rather than stated. But back then it was simply spoken words that were heartfelt.
I was fascinated with the crucifixion. We learned about it often in Sunday school, and I had it described to me in vivid detail from the pulpit. The passion of Christ—the stages from his arrest to his humiliation to his trial and then death—enthralled my imagination. Jesus knew every kid's nightmare: to be taken away, stripped naked, beaten up, pointed at, and laughed at. And, as I was taught, I had done these very things to him—made it necessary for Jesus to undergo such awfulness. So I experimented. I would close my bedroom door and strip my action figures naked, leaving Batman and G.I. Joe to hang on crosses of my own design, easy to link together with Lincoln Logs. Then, I would sit quietly gazing at them, praying with as deep of a sorrow as I could muster. By the time I was in Christian high school, I gave a chapel talk in which I presumed to describe, Mel Gibson–style, what it was like to be crucified.
My father worked in the world of evangelical book publishing and so I was exposed at an early age to some of the pillars of our faith. I sat at dinner with Charles Ryrie, the seminary professor and famous Bible translator, and went to lunch with what was then a young, heavyset magazine editor named Jerry Jenkins, later to become famous as the author of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels.
It was strange being a certified Christian in a public school full of kids who I knew were going to hell. I was supposed to witness to my playmates, to save them from the eternal torment that they were headed for, but I never did. When I was baptized in church in the fourth grade, such a momentous event was unknown to anyone at school.
After nine years of public school, I attended a religious high school. Wheaton Christian High School (now called Wheaton Academy) was a sort of prep school for nearby Wheaton College. My family would have struggled to afford the tuition had my mother not been the school principal's executive secretary, making it free. It was a rigorous education, with lots of one-on-one attention from teachers. One teacher, Mr. Masquelier, made a sizable impact on my life, feeding my curiosity to learn, and insisting more than any teacher had ever done that I work harder. I was able to take classes that included Modern European Literature and a Shakespeare seminar. The reader in me was born. I pored over a lot of books that were outside the curriculum as well, including the complete poems of Wordsworth (as a freshman, while moodily strolling among elm trees), Wendell Berry essays (introduced to me by a local bookseller), and the dialogues of Plato. My mind was expanding just as my spirit was at its most sensitive.
Attempting to atone for the sin of failing to convert my playmates in grade school was one reason why I chose a college that surprised even my conservative parents: Moody Bible Institute. My parents had met and married at Moody, in downtown Chicago, but they never imagined that their son would choose to go there. Moody was primarily a place for training missionaries or evangelists, not lovers of the liberal arts.
Since childhood, I'd been to "Founder's Week" at Moody every February and watched with admiration great evangelical preachers from around the world. I recall being enthralled once as a famous British minister preached for an hour. Each sermon was broadcast live around the world on radio, and a series of small lights lit up on the pulpit to signal when stations would be breaking for commercials at the top of the hour. I watched as a tiny yellow light quietly lit, signaling two minutes remaining. "Let me conclude by simply saying this ..." the minister began. A minute later, the orange light came on. Sixty seconds. "Let us pray ..." he said. Finishing praying, all eyes reopened (but mine), and the small red light gently shone. I was impressed beyond words. Moody would school me further in the ways of God-talk, and give me an opportunity to put them into practice. Surely that, I believed at eighteen, was more important than all the books in the world.
My only year in Bible college proved to be a shocking adjustment, however. I was at heart a student full of questions and curiosity, and Moody was geared toward young people who already felt that they knew the answers to life's questions and only needed to deepen their commitments. So instead of discussing new ideas, there I was in classes such as Evangelism 101, learning how to witness on the streets of Chicago.
The summer before college, I had applied to become a missionary, and at the end of my year at Moody I was sent by the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society as an assistant church planter to Batangas City, the Philippines. I was instructed to convert the native Catholics, to show them the importance of praying to ask Jesus into their hearts. We taught that the sacraments of the Catholic Church, such as taking communion, going to confession, and doing penance, would not bring either happiness or security, on earth or in heaven. We claimed that the Church made these things up, and they'd become like idols to people, something to completely eschew. We preached that each person must profess born-again faith in Jesus Christ, and be re-baptized, or baptized correctly. Catholics are usually "sprinkled" with water as infants, as we liked to differentiate, rather than "immersed" in it, as we believed the scriptures showed it should be done.
That summer was a turning point. Faced with devout Catholics living engaged Catholic lives, I simply couldn't disrupt them. The pain of some of the people, as they struggled—weighing the relative merits of eternal salvation (as we were presenting it) versus everything that they knew and loved (their families, their communities, their Church)—struck me deeply. The experience highlighted what I had begun to realize before I left: asking people about their religious beliefs can almost feel indecent. Most people find it inappropriate, if not wrong, to challenge such things. I also began to realize that what they said they believed was not that important. Most people don't have a ready answer to questions of belief. I'd been taught how that was a serious problem. But my Catholic friends in the Philippines were the first to show me that a creed doesn't make Christians. A life does.
Sitting in Filipino living rooms, I watched as Catholics prayed, and I wanted to pray as they did. In church I witnessed their liturgical celebrations and wanted the joy and mystery they seemed to experience. I began to study the lives of famous Catholics like Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila and saw how they seemed to be seized by a love for God and a desire to be a channel for that love in the world in practical ways, ways that had little to do with my faith.
The souls of the people I met no longer looked desperate, as I once believed of all souls that hadn't prayed the prayer of salvation. This, I now realize, was a sort of Catholic stirring inside of me, as Christian life before the 16th century was infused by the idea that there is a small piece of divinity resident inside of us. Meister Eckhart called it a spark. Julian of Norwich called it a part of our will that never really wanted to sin. It was the first Protestants who made popular the notion that there is not a shard of goodness in humankind.
I was a miserable failure as a missionary. In fact, by the time my summer was over I was convinced what I was doing was wrong—that there was something wrong with my childhood faith. I began to fall in love with Catholicism. I was sent to show them how they'd gotten it all wrong, and instead, they showed me.
Having transferred out of Bible college, my evangelical vision was being gradually replaced by something much broader. I wandered from church to church looking for others like me. Mennonites counseled me on how to register as a Conscientious Objector with Selective Service. Swedish pietists at the Evangelical Covenant Church showed me that it was possible to have differing points of view on religious matters and still gather together and worship. And the monasticism of Thomas Merton's writings drew me more than once to visit his old monastery in Kentucky.
Becoming a Catholic would have absolutely killed my parents, not to mention my grandparents, so it never seemed an option. Then, while waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant at night, and working part-time at a campus bookstore, I began attending North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. I thought for a while that I might become an Episcopal priest. I remember fondly Don Dayton's Karl Barth seminar, and David Scholer's introduction to the Gospels; I took every January term class offered by Paul Holmer, who'd recently retired from Yale and come to North Park to teach Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, and Lewis. But after two and a half years I left, realizing that I was in no shape to pastor anyone. This was just at the time when the market for religious and spiritual books was burgeoning and my love for books and ideas sent me in that direction. That was 1991, and for more than two decades now, I've worked with books in one way or another.
Most of that time I was a good Episcopalian, for almost twenty years, preaching in church on occasion, and serving on diocesan discernment committees. But I've had the opportunity to keep my fingers and toes in many spiritual pots. I've never been a one-church person, and I've never really been a one-tradition person, either.
It was for that reason that when I was curious to find a new and more challenging job in 1997, I replied to the founder of a Jewish spirituality publisher in Vermont, curious to see what he sought in a head of marketing. It turned out that he wanted someone who understood the Christian market, yet also had a broader perspective. Friends told me that taking the job was nuts; what did I really know about Judaism? My parents told me that taking it would appear to compromise my Christian belief; can you be a Christian and market books reflecting another religious tradition? But I accepted the position and became the vice president of marketing for Jewish Lights Publishing.
Two years later I cofounded a new publishing imprint dedicated to multi-faith explorations of spiritual and religious topics. We named it SkyLight Paths Publishing and it became rapidly successful. I acquired, created, edited, and marketed books by people of faith and spiritual practice talking with each other across the traditions. We created new editions of classic spiritual texts, most of which have names that sound forbidding, such as Zohar, Philokalia, Ramakrishna, Ecclesiastes, and Gita, but we tried to make them more accessible. Then we did the same for spiritual practices, showing how the same practice tends to pop up in different forms in many different religious traditions. There were reasons why people began calling our small company in Vermont "the Ben & Jerry's of religious publishing."
Along the way I began writing myself. Praying with Our Hands introduced twenty-one ways that people across religious traditions use their hands, not just their thoughts or spoken words, to pray. Working on that project rekindled my interest in Catholicism, making me want to explore and write about Catholic subjects, and as I did, I was drawn to live a more Catholic life. I began carrying a rosary in my pocket, praying it only when I was alone. At work I would sometimes pause at midday to pray the noontime liturgical hour—in the men's room. I even went to confession for the first time while on a business trip in London where no one would know me. For a decade I was a Protestant writer who appreciated Catholic tradition. I would give talks at conferences and in parishes and say, "I like how you think, how you look at the world, and I want more of that in my own life." And I meant it.
Excerpted from Mixed-Up Love by Jon M. Sweeney, Michal Woll. Copyright © 2013 Jon M. Sweeney Michal Woll. Excerpted by permission of FaithWords.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Unequally Yoked? xv
Part I Becoming Ourselves
1 Leaving Home 3
2 Seeking Love, Keeping Faith 25
3 Who Am I? 37
Part II Coming Together
4 Getting to Know You 55
5 Got Commitment? 74
6 And With This Ring 92
Part III Creating Home
7 Our December Dilemma 119
8 Creating a House of Faith 134
9 Visiting God's House 142
10 Blessing Our Children 153
Part IV Re-creating the Future
11 Am I Ruining Your Life? 171
12 Finding and Creating Allies 181
About the Authors 197