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Rev. Phyllis J. Leopold
Rev. Phyllis J. Leopold

FORUM ON FAITH

King's rise shows how little things can make a big difference.

by Rev. Phyllis J. Leopold

Published: Saturday, January 17, 2015

Danbury News Times

It's that time of year when we pause to celebrate a wonderful and hard earned holiday. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did a great deal for our nation. He even gave his life.

I've always been fascinated by the way he first became famous. It was not in the usual way. It was not because he served the biggest church in the world. Nor was it because he had earned, so to speak, some great ministerial stripes.

The situation was much simpler.

The clergy in his town had gathered to plan their annual Thanksgiving Service. He was "the new kid on the block." The group of clergy did the customary thing. They asked the new minister in town if he would be the guest preacher. And, he said yes.

That was it. One community sermon. And, it blew people's hair back.

My mother, and much of her generation, was raised in a church which put a high value on "thou shall not." For instance, shall not curse, drink, dance, or gamble. For my grandmother, and many in her generation, the list included shall not wear lipstick.

I'm glad I came up at a time when the emphasis of the United Methodist church moved in a new direction. As a Sunday School child, Confirmation Candidate and later, theology student, the focus on getting close to God was not just on what "not to do" but also and maybe even more-so on what "to do."

Some say the downside of focusing on what "to do" is that people end up doing too much. They "don't know how to say no." I understand the downside and frequently get caught up in it.

Yet, I'm still glad my faith formation was set in a positive context. The kind that includes "you should not" yet also emphasizes what "you shall do."

Several of us recently had a very interesting conversation at ARC which had to do with building a list of "hot topics." The list included many subjects, such as: race, gun violence, effective policing, mental health, homelessness, climate change, and religious relations in other countries.

One person said a hot topic for him is "the little things."

He then gave several examples of how neighbors cared for neighbors when he was growing up and he lamented how he has seen that value erode. That turned our conversation in another direction.

Suddenly, we were all talking about God.

We talked about the "little things" we learned while growing up in our different communities of faith. A Jewish mother in our conversation wondered if her children would pass these things on "when they have children."

What Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. did at that Thanksgiving Service was, in the big scheme of things, very little. He was invited to give a brief sermon and he simply said "yes." The clergy took a risk on the new kid. He could have turned out to be a dud.

About 10 years ago, our federal government made grants for special projects so communities would have the funding they needed to celebrate the life of MLK. The purpose of the program was to help people see the holiday not as a "day off" but as a "day on." ARC applied for a grant and was awarded funding. The grant was used so people in the Greater Danbury area, especially youth, could do things to keep the spirit of Rev. King and his "dream" alive.

For me, a reason for believing in and following God is because there is nothing else like this supreme being who calls and sends ordinary people to have all sorts of dreams of making the world a better place.

I tend to be interested in hot topics that have large scale implications. Yet that conversation about the "little things" has really stayed on my mind. It's just a "little thing" to bring a pot of soup to a sick person. But if you've ever been the recipient of such kindness then you know how that can be a "big thing."

I don't know what will happen to our list of "hot topics." What I do know is that there are a lot of them. Given the persistent gridlock at many levels in our society, it is hard to not give up.

It's hard to keep dreaming. Even harder to "dream big."

But that's okay.

Some of the best things in our nation were started by people who were asked to do a "little thing" and said "yes."

Rev. Phyllis J. Leopold is the Executive Director of The Association of Religious Communities (ARC), in Danbury, CT.  She can be reached at: 203-792-9450 ext. 102.



Chaplan Shazeeda Khan
Chap. Shazeeda Khan

FORUM ON FAITH

Facing the test of the worldly life.

by Chaplan Shazeeda Khan

Published: Saturday, January 3, 2015

Danbury News Times

Scholar Ibn Taimiya said, "The complete recognition of God and having the proper love for Him cannot exist in the heart without having an overriding effect in outward deeds."

Trusting that all of God's decisions are beneficial to us as a source of spiritual elevation -- Ibn Taimiya says that strengthens us in navigating worldly challenges, sets our moral compass, and contributes to unprejudiced actions and reactions.

Prophet Mohammad (with peace) said: "Wondrous are the believers' affairs. There's good in all their affairs. When something pleasing happens, they express gratefulness, and that's good for them; and when something displeasing happens, they express endurance, and that's good for them."

The Prophet Ayoub/Job (with peace) -- who transcended his worldly conditions, whether in comforts or hardships -- taught us how to have integrity with our Lord. He exemplified just conduct. His ability to detach himself from eagerness and love for this world and finding balance, where the world is in the hand but not in the heart, was key in reaching such closeness to his Lord.

That's the challenge for Muslims -- to live in this world without its adornments becoming the end goal. In a sermon, the Prophet Muhammad said: "Don't curse this worldly life. It's a vehicle for the believer through which he can do good..."

It's possible that we may be defined by others, or even by ourselves, through our possessions or accomplishments. However, such a definition is superficial, based on perception which may not be grounded in reality of who we really are.

Prophet Ayoub was defined on that superficial level by his community, but that wasn't his reality. Quran: "Truly! We found him (Ayoub) patient. How excellent a worshipper! Verily, he was often in repentance to Us."

Commentary follows: Satan overheard a group of angels discussing Ayoub as "The best creature on Earth today, a man of noble character who displays great patience and always remembers his Generous Lord. He's an excellent model for worshippers. In return, his Lord has blessed him with long life and abundant riches, yet he never became arrogant or selfish; he feeds and clothes the poor and buys slaves to set them free. He makes those who receive his charity feel as if they are favoring him, so kind and gentle is he."

Annoyed by this, Satan concluded that Ayoub was an excellent worshipper only because God had given him so much. To prove Ayoub's sincerity, God tried Ayoub by taking away everything -- including all his wealth, his children, and his health.

After enduring this test for seven years, Ayoub's wife's frustration had reached its limits, but Ayoub's response to her was: "I'm ashamed to call on my Lord to remove the hardships, for I haven't suffered longer than the years of good health and plenty that I enjoyed." He admonished her for being tempted by Satan and told her to leave.

Ayoub, after seeing his last blessing leave, finally turned to God in supplication: "'Verily, distress has seized me, and You are the Most Merciful of all those who show mercy,' God answered his call, and removed his distresses." (Quran).

There are many takeaways from Prophet Ayoub's life: his privileges didn't lead him to any type of arrogance or injustice but rather to gratefulness, humility, generosity, and kindness. Acknowledging the station of his Lord, Ayoub didn't blame Him or question His decisions about the conditions he faced; when God tested him with prosperity, he was grateful, and when God tested him tribulations, he was patient and sought mercy.

Muslims understand that this worldly life is the testing phase, and we aren't promised a rose garden here. Quran: "We'll test you with something of fear, hunger, loss of wealth, lives and fruits, but give good tidings to those who patiently persevere when disaster strikes them, saying, `Indeed we belong to God, and indeed to Him is our return.' They are the ones to whom descend blessings from their Lord and mercy; it's those who are the guided."

When tested with ease or hardships, Muslims are commanded to actions and reactions that are thoughtful and measured -- reflecting a sense of justice and integrity. Brutality, oppression, or disenfranchisement aren't actions pleasing to God. Living in a false reality is no excuse for injustice, as God has provided us with adequate information to know reality -- as well as laws and examples of how to live within the boundaries decreed.

Chaplain Shazeeda Khan is the Director of Islamic Education, Baitul Mukarram Masjid of Greater Danbury, 339 Main Street, Danbury, CT 06810. She can be reached: shazeedak@charter.net.



Shaikh Usman Akhtar
Shaikh Usman Akhtar

FORUM ON FAITH

Love and mutual respect will unite all.

by Shaikh Usman Akhtar

Published: Saturday, December 27, 2014

Danbury News Times

At times, growing up as a Muslim child in Connecticut seemed very awkward, and when Christmas came along it was very confusing to say the least. As Muslims, our family didn't celebrate Christmas, but who doesn`t love the holiday atmosphere? The Christmas tunes, the snow, the lights and, oh, the hot chocolate on a snowy day after a neighborhood snowball fight.

As we grew older, we were taught to love and believe in Jesus (peace be upon him) as a prophet of Islam. That made me feel better about loving the holiday atmosphere even though we didn't celebrate it as Muslims. But somehow as a child, believing in Jesus as a prophet of Islam didn`t make sense to me. I would think to myself, isn`t Jesus the prophet of their religion and Muhammad ours?

Like for some of us, religions played out in my head like sports teams and a big rivalry. For me, it was like when the Red Sox play the Yankees or when the Patriots play the Jets. I thought of it like Prophet Jesus being captain of the Christian team, Prophet Moses captain of the Jewish team, and Prophet Muhammad captain of the Islam team.

Just when I thought I had it figured out, my league of religions and prophets came tumbling down. I was taught that as Muslims we dearly loved Jesus, Moses, Abraham and all of the prophets, and was taught to believe in all of the prophets as prophets of Islam. Talk about a blockbuster acquisition, not even a trade.

The holy text of Islam, the Quran, makes mention of Prophet Jesus 25 times and of Mother Mary 34 times. Allah honors Mary and declares her nobility and says, "O Maryam, Allah has chosen you and purified you -- and chosen you above the women of all nations." As I drive by churches nearing Christmas time, I see statues of Mother Mary, and it reminds me of her grace and piety, which Allah mentions in the Quran.

The Prophet Moses is also mentioned in the Quran a whopping 136 times, Prophet Abraham 69 times, Prophet Adam 25 times, Prophet Noah 43 times and the list goes on. The Quran contains references of stories and events also found in the Bible and Torah including the stories of Joseph, Jacob, John, Adam and Eve, and many more.

There is a special love in the tradition of Islam for the prophets. They were divinely guided human beings that set out to enlighten the world and to extinguish the darkest of evils. As children we were taught to say an Arabic phrase after mentioning any of the Prophets names, out of honor and reverence for them. The phrase is translated into English as "May peace be upon them."

Overall, 25 prophets are mentioned in the sacred text of Islam. Their mission was to help and guide those who had lost their way. Their mission was of love and spirituality. Their mission was to help those in darkness and bring them into the light. They taught forgiveness and how to be humble and compassionate. It is through their lives we try to learn how to navigate through these trying times of ignorance and oppression.

We yearn for a spiritual calm, a love and mutual respect that the prophets taught and lived with. The prophets showed us the way to eternal happiness and mutual respect through their love and devotion to God. Pope Francis's recent visit to Turkey, a Muslim majority country, encouraged that love and mutual respect.

At this year`s Danbury Interfaith Thanksgiving service, the Association of Religious Communities (ARC) emphasized that atmosphere of love and mutual respect. Hearing the different calls to prayer echo in the prayer hall of the First Congregational Church of Danbury reminded me of the couplets of the famous Persian poet, Hafez Shirazi, when he said, "I am in love with every Church, Mosque, and Temple, And any kind of shrine, Because I know it is there, So people can say the different names of the Divine."

The prophets worked their way through trials and tribulation with knowledge and wisdom, and knowledge and wisdom will lead us to God's guidance and eternal bliss. So we strive for love and mutual respect through knowledge and understanding like the prophets before us did, and we ask the Lord of his endless mercy and blessing.

Shaikh Usman Akhtar is the Imam at the Islamic Society of Western Connecticut-Danbury Masjid in Danbury. He can be reached at akhtar119@gmail.com.



Msgr. Robert Weiss
Msgr. Robert Weiss

FORUM ON FAITH

The joy that sustains us comes at Christmas.

by Monsignor Robert Weiss

Published: Saturday, December 20, 2014

Danbury News Times

Recently I visited a small retail shop whose Christmas logo was "WRAP YOURSELF IN JOY." It featured cashmere throws and scarves, the highest thread-count of cotton linens, exquisite jewelry, and all the "must have" latest gadgets.

For some reason, I was taken by what the retailer was suggesting. All of these items would bring joy?

In reality, the gifts money can buy might bring some happiness, but certainly not joy as we understand it as Christians. Our faith teaches that joy is not found in things -- it is found in the hearts of people who strive to live in God's way, people who share the "Good News" of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ with the world.

Christianity teaches that true joy is found when we are at peace with ourselves; it is then our relationships with God and with one another are transformed. Joy goes beyond a smile, although smiles result from joy.

Joy goes beyond a feeling of momentary delight to a place of real contentment. Joy carries us out of grief and sadness and sustains us in hope. It becomes part of the fiber of our being, which guides us in the way of authentic living. Joy itself is the gift.

So how do we find the joy we need in living?

In the two years since the Sandy Hook tragedy that changed our lives forever, we have had to work to find sources of joy that can sustain us and help us heal. Every day we hear more and more about violence that lives among us, and as the news reflects so much hate and evil in the world, it should be no surprise that the human spirit struggles to hold on to hope.

We listen and hopefully learn, but how do we effect change so that every life can be protected and valued? I believe it has to come from hearts where light refuses to be diminished by darkness.

During this Advent-Christmas season, Christians proclaim once again, "a child is born." In many nativity scenes, the baby Jesus lays in his manger with his arms extended. I appreciate the simplicity of this image: a child opening his heart to us. It foreshadows the crucifix, where again his arms are extended and his heart and his whole life are given to us.

So for me, Christ is the model of pure joy. From infancy to adulthood, from innocence to terrifying suffering, from death to life, his every action comes from a heart of joy that can lift us out of doubts, fears and uncertainties and assure us of peace and hope. Christianity teaches that we can choose to embrace that heart of Christ, take it as our own.

So many continue to ask me how our Newtown community is doing. It is a question that expresses concern, but one that is most difficult to answer. Grief and loss take each of us to a different place.

The fear and anxiety created by threats reminds us that safety is an everyday concern and puts us in a constant state of vigilance. Hearts remain broken, loss is overwhelming, tears still flow easily and the events of that one day in December seem to overshadow all that we do.

But our church, we have a faith that guides us. We know we have a God who cares for us, a community that has come together for support, and a world of others who still ask about us. We know we are not alone.

And we work to find joy, authentic joy that carries us through each day. Perhaps it sounds contradictory that we speak of joy amid so much brokenness, as contradictory as Christ willing to come again this Christmas to a world that seems to reject his teachings and love.

But he does come, and with the very joy that we need. He wraps us in that joy. He assures us that we are never alone. He guides us to healing. He sustains us in hope.

He helps us open our arms to others as he opened his arms to us, so that we can bring the joy that is truly his into the world. We soon see that true joy is not simply a momentary feeling but rather a lifestyle framed for us by Christ -- who brings us true peace not just at Christmas but every day of life.

Monsignor Robert Weiss, Pastor,Saint Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Parish Newtown, CT 06470. He can be reached at 203-426-1014 or parishsecretary@strosechurch.com.


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