ARC Forum on Faith - 2016
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Chaplain Shazeeda Khan
FORUM ON FAITH
Dispelling Fox News-fueled myths about Shariah.
by Chaplain Shazeeda Khan
Published: October 15, 2016
Danbury News Times
It's important that Shariah is understood because to say Shariah is incompatible with Western civilization is erroneous and dangerous.
Newt Gingrich commented to Sean Hannity, Fox News: "Let me be as blunt and direct as I can be. Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Shariah, they should be deported. Shariah is incompatible with Western civilization. Modern Muslims who have given up Shariah, glad to have them as citizens. Perfectly happy to have them next door."
The current Shariah was introduced in the 7th century as a progressive doctrine that is as relevant in our present-day context as it was at the time of its revelation. Reformation of corrupt cultural norms of racism and socio-economic inequities was implemented gradually in tandem with reformation of matters of faith to effectively legislate standards of justice, equality and human rights.
Shariah is commonly called Sharia Law and equated with the stoning of adulterers, oppression of women, and cutting the hands of thieves. Actually, Shariah means "law," but more than penal law, it is an entire framework of moral, ethical, theological, and legal teaching of Islam. It's a permanent, comprehensive, and holistic mode for living revealed by God in the Quran and exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims living in non-Muslim-majority countries are bound by the tenets of Islam to follow the law of the land, providing it does not obstruct religious rights. It was because of the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion that my parents chose to immigrate to the United States from Guyana, South America.
The main objective of the Shariah espouses compassion by guaranteeing basic human rights. These are unalienable rights endowed by the Creator, which guarantee that all people - regardless of gender, race, religion, and ethnicity - have the right of preservation of life, religion, wealth, family, intellect, and dignity.
The right to life means the protection of life and the right to means and opportunities to ensure health and well-being to lead purposeful lives.
The right to religion means the freedom to practice the religion of one's choice without compulsion or obstruction.
The right to preservation of wealth forbids all nefarious dealings such as theft, embezzlement, money laundering, breach of contracts, etc. Trade and commerce are encouraged to establish economically strong and stable societies.
The Shariah strives to protect the family structure, as it's the foundation of moral and stable societies. It demand that justice exist within the family - thus each member has inherent rights and responsibilities. Further, the Shariah outlaws oppression of any family member.
Among the teachings of Prophet Muhammad are these sayings:
The Shariah prohibits anything that will violate the sanctity of the family such as adultery.
The right to preservation of the intellect means each individual has the right to reach full intellectual capacity without impairment caused by intoxicants or corruption from vulgarity or lack of access to education.
The right to preservation of honor and dignity means no society is allowed to disenfranchise or cause harm to people because of their race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status.
Another aspect of Shariah is hudud - limits of permissible behavior and fixed punishment for transgressing those limits. They are five: retaliation, adultery, false accusations, highway robbery, and theft. The problem with hudud isn't their application but their misapplication in some Muslim-majority countries - that is, enforcing them without meeting the necessary proofs.
For instance, no one could be punished for adultery without four witnesses to the act, and if it were proven in a court of law. Hudud are, first and foremost, to serve as a deterrent, and secondly, they are there to protect the most vulnerable members of a society.
Professor Frank Griffel of Yale University points out that Shariah goes beyond what most Americans consider "legal discourse, for it extends to matters concerning proprieties of clothing, conduct between spouses, filial piety, behavior at funerals, and other questions that Westerners would treat not as legal, but as moral issues or mere etiquette."
Muslims will incorporate the Shariah to varying degrees: some will intertwine opposing customs and culture along with Shariah, some will, lacking knowledge, selectively apply Shariah - all which leads to a distorted perception of Shariah.
Whether for the purpose of examination or application, the Shariah must be approached in its entirety. Any attempt to fracture it into individual components will lead to erroneous conclusions and implementation.
Chaplain Shazeeda Khan is director of Islamic Education and Interfaith Liaison at Baitul Mukarram Masjid of Greater Danbury 339 Main St., Danbury, CT.
Rev. Whitney Altopp
FORUM ON FAITH
What the Bible teaches us about generosity.
by Rev. Whitney Altopp
Published: October 1, 2016
Danbury News Times
"Have we taught you to be generous?" I asked our children.
Quickly the response came, "No."
I looked at my husband with dismayed surprise. I pressed on with my second question.
"Have we modeled how to be generous?"
This answer came more slowly. Perhaps there was an innate and deep awareness that this answer would include some unspoken judgment on us, their parents. And they do love us. So how did they answer?
"Ummm-well. . . " After various random and isolated illustrations were shared by our children - when the conversation seemed over and the kids had left the room - I said to my husband, "We've got to do a crash course. Our son is going to college in a few months."
But how do you do a crash course in generosity?
The truth is, I don't think that one can teach a crash course in generosity. In other words, I don't think that generosity can be taught in a crash course. Generosity is something that is learned through practice, day in and day out.
Episcopalians follow a Common Lectionary in their Sunday daily readings. The Lectionary guides us into reading particular scripture each Sunday (Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel). We're currently reading a lot of the Gospel According to Luke.
This particular portion of the Gospel According to Luke has Jesus talking a lot about money. The biggest problem, as Jesus sees it, is that people are stingy with money. Knowing that money is a tool that can be put to use for something of value in return, we are tempted to apply this same equation when responding to someone in need.
We might see someone in need and instinctively ask, "What will my money do for them? What kind of change might be effected if I give my money to them?" The answer to that question might leave us frustrated and dissatisfied. Result? We might choose not to give.
Jesus teaches we need to give for the sake of giving, not because it will necessarily generate a particular result. His expectation that we give is intended to soften our hardened, innate proclivity to measure generosity against a particular outcome. "Was it worth it?" we ask ourselves.
Through stories like The Prodigal Son and the Widow's Mite, Jesus says, :Yes, it was worth it! It was worth it because of what is happening in you when you act generously, regardless of what happens to the recipient of your generosity."
A quick internet search reveals that some studies show that generosity can actually improve physical health, among other things. It seems that Jesus' teaching on money is a repeated attempt to help us let go and give into being in relationships with one another. Perhaps there are so many lessons included in the Gospels on the topic of money because we have so many excuses as to why we can't be generous.
Here is a glorious truth - we are shaped by the people that we're around. When we're around people who are generous, we become more generous ourselves. When we practice generosity, we experience the goodness of generosity. We actually benefit!
A prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (Feast Day, Oct. 4) states this very well: "Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen."
When I consider my husband and my teaching (or lack thereof) on generosity, my consolation and hope is that I believe that we've shown our kids throughout their lives that being the person that you want to be takes intentionality and practice. And being a part of a religious community can teach us many good practices, including generosity.
The Rev. Whitney Altopp, Rector. St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, 351 Main St, Ridgefield, CT 06877. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FORUM ON FAITH
Children's example led adults to explore area's many faiths.
by Beth Cox
Published: September 17, 2016
Danbury News Times
Peace Camp began in the summer of 2003.
That was the first year of a new interfaith program for kids, ages 9-12, created and designed by ARC, Danbury's Association of Religious Communities. The "camp" still continues and consists of a group of kids visiting a different center of faith every day for one week each summer.
ARC was looking for two children to represent each of the five hosting congregations. Our church, St. James' Episcopal Church, was one of the hosts; my son, who was 9 years old at the time, became one of approximately 10 kids in that pilot group.
That week, he discovered the spiritual practices of American Indians, and learned about the teachings of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, as well as our own faith, Christianity. In addition, each day they shared a snack and created a craft to take home, which helped to foster more open and casual conversations between them. Every day, my son would tell me about what he had learned, and show me his craft, which represented the "faith of the day."
He made new friends that week and enjoyed it so much that he continued to participate for the next two years. In the meantime, he convinced his sister to sign up for the camp when she turned 9. They were in the program together that year, and she continued to participate for the next two years.
As this wonderful and unique program continued to grow, I had conversations with other parents and discovered that I was not the only one who wished that a similar "camp" existed for the parents and other adults.
Peace Camp is an example of why we moved to Danbury, an area rich with diversity. I have always appreciated the variety of faiths represented and honored in our community. As I, along with my husband and other friends, continued to attend ARC's fundraisers and other events, the idea of a "peace camp for adults" kept nagging at me.
Two years ago, it suddenly occurred to me that the success of any new interfaith program would depend on the support and reach of an organization like ARC. By this time, I knew a few people on ARC's board of directors and when I mentioned a "peace camp" for adults to them, to my surprise they encouraged me to pursue the idea! So, I approached the Rev. P.J. Leopold, executive director of ARC. With the support of the board of directors, my husband, and a lot of help from P.J. and the staff at ARC, we launched the "Caravan of Faith." P.J. herself had a lot of faith and enthusiasm as I coordinated the details.
Last October, leaders from five faiths took turns hosting 16 adults for five weeks. We listened as the hosts taught us what peace meant to them; we also bonded with each other as we shared refreshments and assembled crafts. After each session, the group completed a short evaluation so that all of the constructive feedback would provide improvements for the next program.
What made this program special and memorable for the participants? We were in a judgment-free zone, where we were all able to express ourselves without feeling self-conscious. We shared our concerns and topical issues as we formed friendships. The culmination of the program was the interfaith Thanksgiving service, when we all sat together and celebrated our new connections.
ARC's board of directors, which had enthusiastically supported the program, gave it a nod for a second year. P.J. and I met to analyze the results of last year's evaluations to make improvements for this fall.
In a few weeks, a larger group will listen and learn from five hosts about their faiths and peace. Some hosts will be the same, and some will be new. Four of the same faiths will be represented again this year: Buddhism, Friends Meeting, Judaism, and Islam. The Hindu faith will be hosting for the first time.
While we learn from and bond with new and old friends, my hope is that despite our different beliefs, we appreciate our similarities. We can spread the news across our area and celebrate whomever we call God or however we name what is sacred in our lives.
Between our faiths and cultures, the more bridges we build, the more walls we knock down.
Beth Cox is a member of St. James Episcopal Church of Danbury and a volunteer with The Association of Religious Communities.
FORUM ON FAITH
Appalachia Service Project provides meaning for New Fairfield Church's youth.
by Audrey Finlay
Published: September 3, 2016
Danbury News Times
My church community is no exception to the trends that religious institutions in the United States face today. Attendance and funds are down, as well as the number of youth who consider themselves religious. The one thing that defies trends and expectations is our youth's continued commitment to serving others.
Each year, the Congregational Church of New Fairfield youth group participates in the Appalachia Service Project (ASP), which offers countless lessons to youth volunteers and adult leaders alike. In just five short days, we rediscover our humility, appreciation, generosity, and sometimes our faith.
I am endlessly impressed by ASP's influence. This year was my fourth mission trip, and I came in with assumptions: I knew what I was doing; this year would be easier than past years; and after the trip, I would be humbled for a few weeks, then return to my life and any problems with a fading dose of perspective. These assumptions would all prove wrong.
My week initially appeared pretty typical. I started Monday with flooring and frustration. I have always been too eager to do the physical work and neglect the vision of ASP - to be a relationship ministry with construction on the side.
In all my previous years, I never could erase the apparent divide between us volunteers and the people we serve. Unlike most people who have participated in ASP as much as I have, I never had an especially close connection with my work site's family. One year, my site was actually unoccupied and my crew never met a family member. Despite this, I have always found myself more connected with my community and the people of Appalachia throughout ASP.
This year, for the first time, my younger sister was a member of our mission trip to West Virginia. She contributed an unexpected perspective to me. I grew continually frustrated at the slow pace and setbacks of my work site, where it seemed that every time my crew achieved a flow in our activity, we were halted by an unanticipated challenge. What always brought me back to the nature of ASP was my sister.
Over my ASP trips, I have sometimes lost what ASP is all about. I focus on the impact of my construction work over my relationship-building with homeowners, my crew members, my ministry and the ASP staff. I am too intent on the physical progress of work sites and forget about what is happening within every individual and within our groups.
During my week, whenever I lost my sense of the purpose of ASP, I would look over to my sister and regain my focus. More often than not, I would look over and find her laughing and grinning in a circle of ever growing friends.
She and her friends would always be reaching out to new people from other groups and expanding their circle to include as many as could fit. They brought enthusiasm, humor and camaraderie to every aspect of ASP. Even during a power outage that persisted at our center for hours, they found a way to entertain themselves.
On ASP, every Friday is significant and heartbreaking. It is the last day at our work site with our family, as well as our last day in the center. We always spend our final evening the same way: with a circle where we share moments that had the most impact on us during the week.
That circle, in my opinion, is the single most remarkable aspect of ASP. After five short days, everyone could see the divides among youth, adult leaders, and staffers vanish. As we went around the circle, each participant would share a moment - ranging from the simple to the profound.
We would smile together, share nods, laugh in unison, and occasionally well up with tears. Inevitably, adult leaders would mention that no matter how many times they had been on an ASP trip before, they were always astounded and impressed by the youth and how they could bond together and grow independently in the span of our five-day trip. This year, while watching my sister experience the influence of ASP for the first time, I understood this.Even if the effects the Appalachia Service Project has on me fades over time, watching the changes it made on someone else - renewing compassion, humility, and generosity - has revived my dedication to serving others.
Audrey Finlay is a member of the Congregational Church of New Fairfield (United Church of Christ), 20 Gillotti Road, New Fairfield, CT 06812. She is a 2016 graduate of New Fairfield High School who will be starting at Mount Holyoke College this September. You can reach her at through the church at email@example.com or 203-746-2865.
Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith
FORUM ON FAITH
Loving thy neighbor means standing against racism.
by Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith
Published: July 16, 2016
Danbury News Times
Some 20 years ago, I served as chaplain for the Meriden Police Department. One of my favorite parts of the job was spending a shift with one of "my" officers, going wherever they went, and providing an extra set of eyes when we entered a situation.
Between calls, the officers often talked about the stresses that they faced both at home and on the job. I learned a lot in my time with the department, but one day will always stand out in my mind.
Officer Hector Cardona invited me to join him for a patrol, walking a beat the old-fashioned way. Not long before, the department had initiated a community policing program, with some officers leaving their vehicles behind in favor of wearing out shoe leather in some of the city's more troubled neighborhoods. Working at a walking pace, these cops established relationships with people in the areas they traveled.
As Hector and I made our rounds that day, we stopped to talk with the folks we passed. When we walked up to a group of young African-American men playing basketball, they stopped and came over to visit. Soon, Hector had laid his uniform hat on a nearby bench, and he and I joined the game for a few minutes before continuing along our way.
In that short space of time, I saw some of the finest police work I've ever witnessed as Hector set aside some of his authority to build a relationship with a group of inner-city teens, and as they grew in their trust for him.
This stands in sharp contrast to recent news. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile at the hands of police officers have led many to point to systemic racism in our society and to demand change, reminding us that black lives matter just as much as anyone else's. The murder of police officers Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa by a sniper at an otherwise peaceful protest in Dallas highlight how anger can turn to hatred.
This past Sunday, churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary read the parable of the Good Samaritan. In it, Jesus tells of a man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite, good religious people who his hearers would have expected to be the heroes of the story, pass by the wounded man. It is a distrusted foreigner who stops and helps the man, upending everyone's expectations.
Jesus ends his parable with a question, "Who was neighbor to this man?" When the answer comes back to him, "It was the one who showed him mercy," Jesus simply responds, "Go and do likewise."
In my religious tradition, The United Church of Christ, we place a strong emphasis on trying to show mercy and we're always on the lookout for neighbors, even those we haven't met before. At this particular moment, that means standing with people of color, sharing in sorrow and outrage when lives are snuffed out by those who have sworn to protect and serve our communities. It means calling for accountability from police departments and insisting on policies and procedures that seek to address racism and to prevent it from turning deadly.
At the same time, we celebrate the police officers who honorably perform their duties, enforcing laws and keeping us safe. We mourn those killed in Dallas and we declare that blue lives matter too. Standing in solidarity with people of color in no way turns us against the police.
A few weeks ago, following the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, members of my congregation gathered with the interfaith community of Danbury for a service remembering the slain. Standing with sisters and brothers from so many religious traditions, we read the long list of names, many of them lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender siblings, many from the Latinx community.
When the service was over and the diverse group gathered on the steps, many people took out their cell phones to take photos with neighbors they had just met, posing in front of a large rainbow flag. Two police officers were there, too, keeping us safe, and offering to take photos for groups. After all, it was the neighborly thing to do.
The Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith, Pastor, King Street United Church of Christ, 201 South King Street, Danbury, CT. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 203-748-0719.
Shaikh Usman Akhtar
FORUM ON FAITH
Muhammad Ali a role model for American Muslims.
by Shaikh Usman Akhtar
Published: July 2, 2016
Danbury News Times
For many of us, the news of Muhammad Ali's death led to countless hours in front of our laptops and phones watching endless clips of his life.
It was amazing how every clip and interview was more amazing to me than the last, and how his brilliance and smile brought continuous joy and laughter. Learning more about his life and legacy after he passed away brought tears down my cheeks just knowing such a great human being once walked amongst us.
As someone born in the late 1980s, I don't remember Muhammad Ali primarily as a boxer, but as a humanitarian, and advocate of peace. By the late 1980s, Ali was already finished with boxing and had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
Growing up as a Muslim in America, I always looked for Muslim role models with whom I could identify. I often felt like an outsider and desperately searched for relevance, or anyone who validated my faith and beliefs. For me, Ali was one of my heroes.
Of course, we are all aware of his reputation and eminence in the ring, but I think his biggest impact on the world was outside of the ring. In today's turbulent times, where bigotry and racism against minorities are rampant, we have so much to learn from his life and legacy.
Ali gave voice and power to the downtrodden. He taught us that all ethnic groups are beautiful, as he spoke up for minorities. His determination and courage empowered people throughout the world.
Of all of the amazing qualities Ali possessed, the quality of unifying love stood out to me the most. His loving relationships with people of other faiths highlighted the true teachings of Islam. His friendship and bond with Billy Crystal and Howard Cosell were lessons for us all.
Ali was a loud-mouthed African-American Muslim boxer from Kentucky, and Cosell was a bold and brazen Jewish sports broadcaster and lawyer from Brooklyn. Who would have thought that these two would have such a caring and respectful friendship in such trying times?
At Ali's memorial service, Crystal told a story of a time Ali traveled all the way to Jerusalem to help raise money for a university there and to honor Crystal, his Jewish friend. This mutual respect inspires me to lift up Ali as a true champion of humanity.
It also reminded me of a story told of Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph of Islam - an incident that unfolded as he entered Jerusalem. It was time for prayer, so the Christians, as a gesture of goodwill, extended to him the invitation to pray in a church - but he refused. He didn't refuse out of disrespect, but out of fear that future Muslims might use that as an excuse to convert it into a mosque.
The caliph declared that churches would not be inhabited by Muslims - neither would they be destroyed. He assured Christians of their safety and freedom to practice their religion - as well as the safety of their houses of worship and other property, their holy objects and crosses.
It's unfortunate that we still live in a world full of hate and intolerance. The shootings in Orlando shocked and upset us all, and sometimes we don't know how to move forward. The way forward is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all Americans - regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
As an American Muslim, I strongly condemn the acts of violence carried out in Orlando and stand in solidarity with all Americans in mourning this tragedy. Islam does not condone the killing of any innocents. The actions of the shooter do not represent Islam.
It isn't Islam that makes Muslims terrorists. Statistically, the percentage of the world's 1.7 billion Muslims who engage in acts of terrorism is 0.01%.
We say to the extremists and those consumed by hatred, that we will not burn in your fire of hate. We will not allow you to define Islam nor create a wedge between us as Americans. We will not waver in our determination to treat everyone with equality and dignity. We will move forward and live together, loving all.
We have so much to learn from Muhammad Ali's life. Ali was a champion, an American, and a Muslim. Without him, I feel a little bit emptier on the inside. May God shower him with His mercy and grant us the ability to live and love like Ali. Ameen.
Shaikh Usman Akhtar is the Imam at the Islamic Society of Western Connecticut, Danbury Masjid in Danbury. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Rev. Stephen Tickner
FORUM ON FAITH
Learning to Pray.
by Rev. Stephen Tickner
Published: June 18, 2016
Danbury News Times
"Now I lay me down to sleep. . ."
This was the prayer of my childhood - a nightly prayer I would recite as my parents put me to bed.
This bedtime prayer consisted of three parts. First, I would recite the beginning verses of the bedtime prayer that so many know. Second, I would recite a memorized list of family members I was required to ask God to bless. The conclusion to my bedtime prayer would be an improvisational freestyle that could lead anywhere.
During this closing section of my prayer, I remember praying for Michael Jordan and thanking God for allowing him to make that famous shot over Craig Ehlo of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 1989 NBA Playoffs. I prayed for my beloved Oklahoma Sooners. And I prayed for upcoming intimidating events like the school spelling bee.
These evening bedtime prayers were precious moments for my family, and were where I learned how to pray.
In recent years, however, my prayer life has changed. Instead of solely dumping my thoughts, needs and cries to God, I have started to focus more on listening. I have shifted focus away from listing for God what I think I need and instead have put the focus on experiencing and listening to the presence of God in my life.
Two moments sparked this shift in my prayer life.
First, I started to preach. The responsibility of the act of preaching was intimidating. "Who am I to tell people how to believe?" I thought. I needed to stop doing all the talking during prayer and allow God to take me by the hand and guide me on this journey.
The second moment began over a decade earlier. In a previous life I was a stage actor, and in 2003 I traveled to Lenox, Mass., to participate in Shakespeare & Company's Summer intensive training program. During this program I learned that I am a kinesthetic learner, meaning I learn best when doing something physical.
For the past thirteen years I have lived in New York City. As anyone who has visited New York City knows, it is a walking city. My interest in prayer and meditation, coupled with this knowledge of how my mind operated, led me to discover the power of walking meditations.
I began to experiment. Everyday I would turn on the Donnie McClurkin station on Pandora, visualize the scripture I was given to preach upon, and just start walking. Twenty blocks, forty blocks, sixty - I would lose myself in the city and listen for God to guide me.
Eventually I began to move beyond just scripture and would begin my walk simply praying, "Speak to my heart," and let the spirit be my guide.
Thoughts, phrases and images would appear in my mind's eye as I walked, and I would allow my imagination to follow where they take me. I would treat these pearls of imagination like a French chef preparing a classic sauce - allowing them to simmer in my psyche and boil down to the delicious reduction of spiritual knowledge God was trying to show me.
I found walking prayer to be a powerful practice that that connected me intimately with the divine.
Mother Theresa once said, "Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at God's disposition, and listening to God's voice in the depth of our hearts."
One evening I was traveling with a friend who asked, "If you don't humble yourself to listen to God, how are you going to humble yourself to listen to anyone else?"
This meditative practice of walking prayer, placing myself in the hands of God and listening for God's voice in the depths of my heart, has changed the way I experience the world and other people. I have not only become a better listener but I have also become much better at experiencing God in my everyday life.
I initially learned to pray in my childhood bed with my parents tucking me in as I recited what I knew. They were the prayers of an eager and innocent child.
It took exploring what I did not know and opening myself to God's voice in the depth of my heart that has led me to maturing as an eager and maybe not-so-innocent adult.
Rev. Stephen Tickner, Central Christian Church of Danbury. Affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) & American Baptist Church, 71 West Street, Danbury, CT 06810. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. or 917-628-5131.
FORUM ON FAITH
Finding each person's unique brand of specialness.
by Polly Castor
Published: June 4, 2016
Danbury News Times
I believe unequivocally that "All men are created equal." My father used to quip, "Yeah, and some are more equal than others," but that always infuriated me. In my spiritual journey, I have learned that while all people are definitely equal, each one is unique, too.
I think everyone is completely special, even though no one is more special than anyone else, and that each one of us is equally the apple of God's eye. Nothing taught me this more than parenting.
We have three kids, all equally wonderful, but very different, each with their own unique constitutions and separate needs. The only way I found to navigate the ponderous responsibility of rearing them was through cultivated prayer and discernment. It is overwhelmingly difficult to handle it all correctly, and I'm not sure anyone ever fully has.
Making a zillion little decisions on your kids' behalf on a daily basis, all you can do is what feels nearest right. Like a sailboat that is slightly off course much of the time, you tack this way and that, catching the wind in your sails the best you can, trusting that eventually you will arrive safely to an acceptable outcome.
Take our son, for example. Many times we were at a loss to know how best to serve this brilliant, sensitive, sometimes difficult child.
Most of the time it was a joyous journey filled with boundless learning, creativity, appreciation, and smiles. But at times he behaved badly and so did we. At whatever stage, we prayed about it, and followed each glimmer of inspiration as we felt led.
In kindergarten, he spent the year gazing out the window, leaving his phonics worksheets blank. Starting in first grade we homeschooled him, and did so all the way through high school, which was a colossal choice, fueled by prayer.
I turned to God for guidance, accepting God as our son's true divine parent. We learned that instead of escalating a situation by behaving badly when he did, we needed to just love him through it, and try to keep our equanimity.
In an effort to encourage him to challenge himself and embrace his opportunities, one day I told him how bright he was. He told me I shouldn't say that. A teenager then, he wanted to fit in.
But I was a steward to his considerable capabilities and sought to shepherd that along. I never dreamed he would think I was saying he was special and other people weren't. I just wanted our son to own his own brand of specialness.
I wish everyone would know, treasure, and maximize their genuine uniqueness in the face of our mutual equality. I believe each of us has all of God's magnificent qualities and attributes within us, but that they are combined and integrated in a way that makes us essentially who we are individually, separate from anyone else. I believe that God needs each one of us, just as we really are, and that each of us is terribly important, like a number that if missing, would collapse all of mathematics.
More discernment went into finding a good college fit for our son. Through prayer he ended up at an excellent school that was just the right place for him. It was a delight to see him thrive there more than ever before.
But unlike his sisters, who stay better in touch, we don't hear from him much. More like a medieval knight, who strikes out alone into the world, he has craved distance from us as he finds his way.
So it also became part of my prayer journey as a parent to release him and be okay with this, and not be a cloying mother demanding time and attention. Instead of grieving that there is not more, I am simply thankful for what is, and leave it at that.
Last week he graduated from Swarthmore College with a double degree in engineering and political science, awarded with high honors. I couldn't be more proud.
His job prospects are glowing. He is socially conscious, intellectually curious, a creative innovator, and using his expanding abilities for good in the world. He has found that delicate balance between his unique specialness and being universally equal. I am so grateful for this good outcome.
Meanwhile, my parental prayer will quietly continue . . .
Polly Castor is a Christian Science Practitioner and member of First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Ridgefield, CT. She can be reached at PollyCastor@gmail.com.
Rabbi Ari Rosenberg
FORUM ON FAITH
Bible does not mention ban on gay relationships.
by Rabbi Ari Rosenberg
Published: May 21, 2016
Danbury News Times
One of the most controversial civil rights issues to face America this year is being played out on the battleground between what some would describe as the human rights of the LGBT community and what others would depict as an imposition upon their religious freedom. It might come as a surprise to learn what the Bible actually has to say on the subject and how it has been interpreted by Jewish scholars.
Although there are 613 commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures, there are only two verses that come anywhere close to the subject: Leviticus 18:22, and 20:13. It may be worth asking whether these two verses ought to be any more obligatory than any other.
Just a few verses away, Leviticus 19:19 prohibits planting two types of plants in the same garden. Most people have no objection to planting tomatoes and cucumbers together in their garden. If it is acceptable to disregard Leviticus 19:19, then why would it not be acceptable to disregard Leviticus 18:22?
Perhaps greater weight should be put on Leviticus 20:13, because it is a capital crime ("they shall surely be put to death"). However, we might want to consider whether we really want to enforce every capital crime we find in the Bible. If so, then we are going to have to put to death every snarky teenager (Leviticus 20:9) and every adulterer (Leviticus 20:10).
If it is acceptable to disregard Leviticus 20:9 and 20:10, then why would it not be acceptable to disregard Leviticus 20:13? And now we come to the difficulty of discerning what, in fact, is actually being prohibited by Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Certainly, a euphemism obfuscates the meaning of the actual prohibition, unless we are to regard these commandments as literally prohibiting the act of "sleep".
If one were to interpret this verb as portraying consensual relations, it would be difficult to account for the fact that the same Hebrew verb is used in the following verse to describe bestiality (Leviticus 18:23). More likely, the word is a genteelism for sexual abuse, as it is illustrated in the context of the Rape of Dina, where the same verb is used (Genesis 34).
In the Hebrew, moreover, the preposition plainly presents something done "to" someone, as opposed to something done "with" someone, in a consensual manner. Any translation of Leviticus 18:22 or 20:13 that describes anything other than abusive behavior is fallacious. Likewise, any attempt to describe anything in the Bible as clearly condemning consensual, committed, loving relationships is equally erroneous.
This is not a modern progressive radical interpretation of the Bible. There quite simply is not one single reference in the entire Bible prohibiting gay relationships, or even gay marriage. Furthermore, not one of the traditional Jewish medieval commentators explicitly forbid such a thing. The Talmud, in fact, goes to great lengths to discuss virtually every conceivable interpretation of every commandment, and there is not a single decree against love between two people who happen to be of the same gender.
Unfortunately, the Christian Scriptures shed little more light on the subject than the Hebrew Scriptures. Romans 1:26-27 speaks of "lustful passion" and "shameful acts," but these verses are merely descriptive, rather than proscriptive. Romans 14:1 prohibits passing judgment upon others. That proscriptive rule might lead us to believe that, from a Christian perspective, judgment and punishment should be left to God.
It is highly ironic that the political debate regarding the rights of the LGBT community is so steeped in the language of religious freedom. The reality is that the matter has virtually nothing to do with religion.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are probably the most misquoted and misunderstood verses in the Bible. Taking these verses out of context obscures the fact that the abomination described in the original Hebrew is some sort of sexual assault. None of the rabbis in the Talmud and Medieval commentaries interpreted these verses to prohibit loving consensual relationships between people, nor did they interpret them to permit judging and discriminating against good people engaging in harmless behavior.
On the contrary, everything in the Judeo-Christian value system seems to point to the Golden Rule in Leviticus 19:18, to "love your neighbor as yourself.' If religion teaches us nothing else, it is the fact that all people are created in the image of God, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, social status, wealth, gender or sexual orientation. I believe God just wants us to treat each other with respect and dignity.
Rev. Dr. Joseph Krasinski
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Busy lives require a Sabbath day of rest.
by Rev. Dr. Joseph Krasinski
Published: May 7, 2016
Danbury News Times
Recently I went on Amazon to look up a book entitled Crazy Busy. The problem was that I couldn't remember the author's name and there were no fewer than eight different books with the same or similar titles.
Without realizing it, what I was truly searching for was the latest phenomena of American culture. (The author I was looking for is actually Kevin DeYoung. Having read it, I do not necessarily recommend this book, however.)
A number of years ago, the subject talked about was the "age of anxiety" and how our anxieties are rising to the point of needing medication, as the use of anxiety medications was increasing dramatically in America. Now we are seeing a spate of books on "busyness," to the point of spellcheck accepting that as a word now - which it never did before.
Our schedules are filled to the brim in this day and age. There is so much to do that you cannot possibly fit everything in. If you are a parent with school-age children, it is even worse.
Added to this is the technology that allows many of us to bring our work not only home but where ever we happen to be. This has created a crushing weight on our schedules that does not allow us time to truly sit back and relax. We are frantic and overwhelmed.
For many of us this means that there is no idle time in which to be creative. There is only work, work, work.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is the whole concept of Sabbath. It is so important it is actually included in the 10 Commandments: "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy."
The Sabbath was a day of rest, a day when a person could actually stop from the busyness of life and just breathe. It is a time when we can actually tap into our creative sides and think and plan and refresh.
While many people like to "multitask," studies are now showing that you cannot effectively multitask - our minds simply cannot do it. Perhaps that's why our forebears put so much stock into Sabbath rest. It was not just a day to pray and spend time with God and family, but a day to refresh our minds.
The Jewish Sabbath day is Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, as proscribed by the Hebrew Scriptures. Christians observe the Sabbath every Sunday, to remember the Lord's day of Resurrection.
Many will remember a time when it was very difficult to buy even a quart of milk or a loaf of bread on a Sunday, let alone a pair of jeans, as all the stores were closed. Only very recently in Connecticut was a law passed to allow the purchase of liquor on Sundays. The so-called "Blue Laws" are slowly being stricken from the books.
And yet, studies are showing that being "crazy busy" without a time for Sabbath rest is not healthy for us. God knew what God was doing in insisting that we rest "on the seventh day," whichever day we decide that might be.
For those of us who work on Sundays - including clergy - we must set aside another day as our Sabbath, our day of rest. This keeps the spirit of the commandment.
Obviously, a part of the Sabbath was the worship of God. The day is considered "holy" and thus is sanctified by God. In turn, we participate in God's sanctification by setting aside time to give God the glory - in worship.
I believe God instituted Sabbath observance as a law for our benefit. Whatever our religious background, God wants us to be rested and refreshed. If at all possible, take time for your own Sabbath rest whenever you can find it.
The Rev. Dr. Joseph A. Krasinski is the Rector of St. James' Episcopal Church, 25 West St., Danbury. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 203-748-3561.
Rev. Jack Perkins Davidson
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Religion and science are complementary.
by Rev. Jack Perkins Davidson
Published: April 16, 2016
Danbury News Times
People will try to force you to pick a side. Religion or Science. Often treated as warring bodies, the wider culture has come to see the debate in extremes.
Personally, I reject the basic premise that Religion and Science are irreconcilable. I grew up in a denomination that sees Religion and Science as complimentary pursuits. That's why my denomination, the United Church of Christ, proudly counts Nobel Laureates Charles Townes and William Campbell amongst its members.
Charles Townes was a young faculty member at Columbia University in the 1950s. World War II was still in most people's recent memories, and still at some people's fingertips. Townes's lab was using radar equipment left over from World War II for their cutting edge experiments. They were trying to solve a significant physics problem to get molecules to activate in shorter wavelengths by using radiation.
Around the same time that Townes was working on his molecular problem, an Irish immigrant named William Campbell was just starting a decades-long career at the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research. Campbell and his partners were trying to solve a completely different kind of problem: figuring out how to use bacteria to kill parasites like roundworm.
While they were engaging in these experiments, they were going to church and hearing passages like, "You shall love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind." As I read the Gospel According to Matthew, I hear Jesus saying that this is the greatest commandment: to love God with our mind, not to turn it off, but to engage our faith with our brain.
I believe that Faith isn't belief despite doubt; Faith is belief informed and transformed by doubt. I believe God wants us to use our minds, our capacity for critical thinking, our desire to explore the world and find better answers that don't yet exist.
Campbell received his Nobel just last year for the invention of Ivermectin, a drug that kills off round worms and other parasites that cause river-blindness, which afflicts a third of the world's population.
Townes won his Nobel back in 1964. As he tells it, he was sitting on a park bench in 1957, and the idea just came to him. In a "Eureka!" moment he compares to divine revelation, he thought, "What if we add a resonating chamber?" And that's how Townes invented the maser, a precursor to the invention of the laser, which, in a strange twist of fate, is also used to cure blindness. It seems quite fitting that these two disciples of Christ, legends of science working on two very different problems, would both invent ways to heal the blind.
Through a faith-filled approach to science, these two scientists are literally performing biblical miracles in a modern world. Townes later wrote that the park bench revelation reminded him of the story of Moses stumbling upon God in the form of a burning bush in the wilderness.
Townes also won the Templeton Prize in 2005 for "progress toward research of discoveries about spiritual realities." The only other person to ever win both a Nobel and a Templeton is Mother Theresa.
I believe Religion and Science are a lot more alike than extremists on either side of the artificial spectrum would care to admit. I've seen both done right, and I've seen both done really wrong. It seems to me that both Religion and Science are at their best when viewed not as a static answer, but instead as a mindset of inquiry.
As I see it, it's less a question of having the right answer and more a question of having a language of exploration. It's less a question of contradiction and more a question of genre. I see Science as the user manual of the Universe and Religion as the poetry of Existence. Just different vocabularies for the same conversation.
One might be jazz and the other classical, but it's all music in the end. Often the best artists are the ones who know how to blend apparently conflicting genres with great care into one historic masterpiece of human expression.
I believe the key to being able to intertwine these disparate disciplines is to not view them as an explanation of what is but to see them as the pursuit of the world that could be, not answers to a question but experiments at making the world a better place.
The Rev. Jack Perkins Davidson, First Church of Christ, Congregational, UCC, Redding, CT. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rev. Jack perkins Davidson
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Time flies for rector - and everyone.
by Rev. Joseph Shepley
Published: April 2, 2016
Danbury News Times
"No one on their death bed ever wished they had spent more time at the office," it has been said. Life is about choices, and that includes how we choose to spend our time.
My family and I once visited a famed castle in England, a beautiful old structure with seemingly endless rooms. One in particular caught our attention, as on the wall was a clock in the shape of a bumblebee. Seeing our intrigued faces as we studied the unique time piece from hundreds of years ago, our tour guide offered, "Time flies. That is what the clock is meant to convey."
Twelve years ago, I experienced a headache that simply would not go away. Entering the emergency room, the staff took a series of X-rays. "Have you ever had a brain tumor before?" asked the technician as she led me to the next room for a spinal tap.
Speechless, I began to glance over my life, how quickly it had gone by, and how much more I had hoped to accomplish. I thought of my wife and children, and what their lives would look like without me. Had I fully put my affairs in order? What can I do with my remaining time?
Suddenly, face to face with the physician, he said, "Well, no brain tumor, but your spinal tap concerns me. I have good news and bad news: the bad news is that you have spinal meningitis; the good news is that it is viral, and not bacterial."
Still trying to comprehend such bewildering bedside manner among the staff as I readjusted my emotional footing, I asked, "And if it was bacterial?" "You would soon be dead," he replied. As a priest, having ministered to others in similar positions over the years, to be on the other side in this moment would render me forever changed in dealing with life and death.
This wasn't my first experience with the frailty and all-to-often shortness of life. As a first responder on September 11th, 2001, I had only worn a painter's mask that was handed to me, which began to melt as I stood upon the burning beams in search of survivors. I went through about a dozen masks that evening and into the next day.
Breathing in pulverized concrete, ash, fiberglass, and other toxins, I literally took in the brevity of time, and was ill for months afterward. Later, I was determined to recover and live life abundantly - as never before.
Yet that day in the doctor's office with meningitis, there I was yet again, facing down my mortality in a new way. I had to admit that I had, despite my best intentions, gotten much too busy once again. Those resolutions, made while standing on the smoldering pile of Ground Zero, had slipped away.
As a Christian, my faith holds that God specializes in new starts and redeems all things, even time, and we participate in this mystery as we awaken spiritually. In considering the concept of new beginnings as a divine promise, we have a role to play.
For instance, we might ask ourselves: Have we been putting off a letter we need to write, or a phone call we need to make, to reach out to someone? Are there face-to-face appointments we need to make to let others know that they matter to us? Have we taken the time needed to show people we love them unconditionally?
Mending fences, burying the hatchet, letting bygones be bygones, taking a step toward forgiveness - whatever we want to call it - is to honor time. Initiating reconciliation with another is one of the most challenging and rewarding risks we can take.
As the ancient philosopher, Heraclitus, quipped, "No one stands in the same river twice" - meaning time can neither be stopped, nor brought back. Life is ever-changing and swiftly passing us by, but we can choose how we respond to its direction in our lives.
I"d like to say that I now have a flawless appreciation for time, but I don't. I still get too busy. But I do laugh more. I don't take myself quite as seriously, and I'm quite certain that life isn't all about me.
And, now and then, stopping long enough to join hands with others on a common spiritual journey, beholding together the fluttering image of time, we share that hallowed flow of endless possibilities, which I believe is what life is all about in the end.
The Rev. Joseph Shepley is Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 174 Whisconier Road, Brookfield. The church's phone number is 203-775-9587. His e-mail is email@example.com,
Deacon Peter Kuhn
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Oils bring blessings and enpowerment.
by Deacon Peter Kuhn
Published: March 19, 2016
Danbury News Times
The practice of anointing with oil may go back as far as recorded history. One source I consulted noted that the custom originated with ancient shepherds who would pour oil on the heads of their sheep to make the wool slippery. This was to prevent lice and other insects from burrowing into the sheep's ears which potentially could prove fatal.
Over the centuries, anointing with oil became symbolic of protection or healing. Soldiers and gladiators would anoint themselves with oil to strengthen and protect themselves before combat.If they were injured, their wounds would be treated with oil to speed healing.
Over time, anointings also became associated with blessing and empowerment. In scripture, Moses anointed Aaron as head of the priestly Levite class. Samuel anointed the youthful David to succeed Saul as king of Israel.
Jesus is said to have been "anointed" - albeit not with oil but by the Holy Spirit - at His baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. The Gospels report that the Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove and the voice of God the Father was heard announcing, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him."
The Catholic Encyclopedia's article on holy oils begins with the statement: "Oil is a product of great utility, the symbolic significance of which harmonizes with its natural uses. It serves to sweeten, to strengthen, to render supple; and the Church employs it for these purposes in its rites."
In the Roman Catholic tradition, three oils are used in conjunction in the administration of four of the seven sacraments. They are the Oil of Catechumens (or Oil of Baptism), Oil of the Sick, and Sacred Chrism. Olive oil is used as the base for all three oils; balsam or incense is added to the Sacred Chrism to impart a particularly aromatic fragrance.
The three oils are blessed by a bishop each year during Holy Week. In our local Diocese of Bridgeport, which includes all of Fairfield County, Bishop Frank Caggiano will bless the oils at the Chrism Mass on Wednesday of Holy Week (March 23 this year).
Following the Mass, small quantities of each of the oils are distributed to all of the parishes in the diocese, where they will be stored in a recess in the wall of the church called an ambry. At that time, oils remaining in the ambry from the previous year are either burned or buried.
The Oil of Catechumens is used during the Sacrament of Baptism - either of infants or adults - and symbolizes strengthening against the evil in the world. Likewise, in the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, the Oil of the Sick is used to bring strength, comfort and support to those who are ill.
Sacred Chrism also is used in the Sacrament of Baptism. In addition, it is used to seal candidates in the Sacrament of Confirmation, to anoint the hands of priests and the heads of bishops at their ordination, and in the dedication of churches and altars. This oil carries with it a sense of blessing; that is the people or objects are consecrated and made holy.
In the conclusion of the prayer of blessing of the Chrism, the bishop says, in part, :To you, O Lord, we pray that through the power of your grace, this mingling of fragrances and oil may become for us a sacrament of your blessing. Pour forth in abundance the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon our brothers and sisters when they receive anointing; and adorn the places and things to be signed with the holy Oils with the splendor of holiness."
As a group, the oils are referred to as "sacramentals," which means they are tangibly representative of the grace that God bestows on the person receiving the sacrament.
As a Roman Catholic deacon, I administer the Oil of Baptism and the Sacred Chrism when I celebrate with new parents the Baptism of their children. It is a great honor - and more than a little humbling - to be serving as Christ's minister in initiating the children into what we pray will be a life of holiness and witness to our faith.
Deacon Peter Kuhn serves at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Brookfield, CT. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org, Phone: 203-775-1035
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Women have history to celebrate this month.
by Karlene Lombardo
Published: March 5, 2016
Danbury News Times
Celebrate! This women's history month is a perfect time to celebrate and honor the women of faith who are in our lives or part of our history. Some of these women we may continue to see almost daily, while others perhaps influenced us long ago in a passing moment.
Many women we never knew have paved the way to provide the daily privileges we take for granted.Their devotion, courage, love and guidance may inspire us and become part of the foundation of our strength of character. What a blessing they are to us.
When I was a child, I attended church regularly with my paternal grandparents. The members of the congregation became their family and in turn mine. Papa was usually the last one out of the church taking time to share a greeting or a story with just about everyone.
After church I stood at my grandmother's side as groups of women gathered to chat. The pastor's wife, Mildred Hess, was the imposing leader of the Ladies' Society. They used this visiting time to plan suppers, teas and visits from the missionaries.
Especially during the summer months, our church hosted many missionary stays. They came to share their stories and raise needed funds from the pulpit. These ladies shared a common purpose, and they sponsored these missionaries in any manner that they could.
Often my grandmother would correspond with these missionaries, and when she saved up a little money, she would send it to them. She influenced me with her quiet strength and caring devotion to others. She always made time for me just as she did for many others.
Throughout history, women of faith have banded together for study, support and sometimes to champion a cause. In 1869, a group of Christian women in Boston decided to form the Women's Foreign Missionary Society.
Dues were set at one dollar per year "that membership might be within the means of every woman in the church." Two cents and a prayer became the standard, although larger donations were always welcome.
The purpose of this benevolent society was to unite the women of the Methodist Church and raise funds to send out women educators and missionaries. The first two were Dr. Clara Swain and Isabella Thoburn. These two women, from Boston, were missionaries in India.
Miss Thoburn began a school in Lucknow. This school eventually expanded to include the Isabella Thoburn College, the first women's college in Asia. Dr. Swain began her medical work, resulting in the establishment of the first women's hospital in Asia.
Over the years, they continued to expand the society and support women missionaries in Asia and later Africa, and both of the institutions they started are still serving the people of India.
Today's organization of the United Methodist Women has grown from these humble beginnings to a membership of 800,000. Although they contribute to the ministry of the United Methodist Church, they are an independent entity and control their own governing boards, policymaking decisions, and funding.
We still feel called to give from our heart to ministries for women, children and youth. Our purpose has been expanded, but in the areas of faith, fellowship and commitment we are essentially the same. Along with service, we are called to stand up and speak out for the rights of others.
This year, the United Methodist Women of Danbury are celebrating 25 years as a Five Star Unit. This means that for a quarter of a century, we have faithfully given, through the New York Conference United Methodist Women, to five undesignated areas of giving, which means these donations have been used in those areas of mission where they are most needed.
Within our Danbury unit is the "Helping Hands Circle." We are especially thankful for the dedication of these ladies, who began their group in 1962. They continue to use their sewing, knitting, and crocheting skills to make items for charity.
I believe God calls us to be in mission. During Women's History Month, it seems appropriate to honor the generations of United Methodist Women who have sown the seeds of hope here and around the world. I am grateful for all those women who have clearly pointed the way for me.
I urge you to take the time to celebrate a woman who has helped you in your faith journey. Take her hand and say thank you. In fact she may decide to pull you in for a joyous hug. Celebrate!
Karlene Lombardo is the President of the United Methodist Women of Danbury. She can be reached at: email@example.com
Rev Mark Lingle
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Episcopal church opens doors to Muslim community.
by Rev Mark Lingle
Published: February 20, 2016
Danbury News Times
The Episcopal congregation that I serve has developed a wonderful relationship with the local Muslim community.
While we worship on Sunday mornings in an airy and simple sanctuary, their community fills the parish hall with educational opportunities and prayer in the afternoon. We have become so connected that recently I received a call from a woman inquiring about the time of the masjid's meeting. The initial query was unforgettable: "Is this the church that becomes a mosque?"
Given the recent tenor of the political process and the persistent undertow of fear informing attitudes of the "other" in general and Muslims in particular, the caller's question was refreshing.
Without a trace of irony, she expressed what so clearly could - and should - be a norm for us as religious communities. We need not be so parochial. We can be open to a variety of religious expressions and experiences.
Normally, such openness is often driven less by our living out of the core teachings of our tradition and more by the financial or situational necessities that impinge upon us. As mainline churches continue to lose membership, collaborations are developed across ecumenical lines. Why not extend our partnerships across religious lines as well?
I have found that willingness to engage with and learn from other traditions expands and deepens the practice of our own tradition. A wonderful example of this occurred last summer during the holy month of Ramadan.
The Muslim community invited us to a Saturday evening Iftahr meal where they would break the fast for that day. It was a wonderful experience.
In part, the evening was so delightful because of the delicious and varied dishes that were served. We were guests at a feast that embodied the true nature of hospitality at the center of our respective traditions. When you gather, you eat, and all are welcome.
I also found the diversity within this particular Muslim community compelling. Sunni, Shia, and Sufi from more than 13 countries are members of this masjid. They are truly the face of modern Islam.
They were so at ease with their differences. A Shia from Iran joked about the variety of expression between Middle Eastern Sunnis and Southeast Asian Sunnis. The easy exchange over dinner was such a contrast to the sound bites that often fill the news cycle of intolerance on all sides.
The variety within Islam expressed in this community made me consider in a new way my own parochialism within Christianity. While our church has good relationships with other congregations, and we work together on many issues in our community, I was pressed to think of what it would be like to pray together weekly with other churches.
Christianity, because of its relative cultural dominance in the United States, has often engaged with issues of practice and identity from a position of power and control. I believe this is why we do not have Roman Catholics and Episcopalians and Lutherans and Baptists and Congregationalists worshiping regularly together - why we seem quite content to remain segregated on Sundays.
And, yet, as our position in society continues to face diminution, it seems natural for us to consider engaging in more partnering and cooperation - as our Muslim brothers and sisters have done.
The difficulty, of course, is that such engagement forces us to deal with the idols of which we have made sacred cows. We tend to think our particular worship practice, our tradition, and, God forbid, our building needs to be preserved. When we respond in this way, I believe we have lost sight of what church is.
For me, church is not, ultimately, certain prayer practices or worship traditions, nor is it our facilities. Church is the community called by God to participate with God in the reconciliation and restoration of the world. Period.
This activity can take a variety of forms, and isn't found only in specific buildings or traditions. Indeed, in my experience, it is not so much that God comes to us when we worship in a specific way. Rather, I believe our work is to glimpse the myriad ways that God is already active in the world and to partner with that reality.
Christianity's history is long and varied. It finds itself in a new and different context in the 21st century. I know God will continue to work in our midst.
The question that we face is: Will we be open to see it? My Muslim neighbors already know this, and they had a hand in teaching it to me it as well.
The Rev. Mark Lingle, of Wooster School, Danbury and St. Francis Episcopal Church, Stamford, CT. He can be reached at 203-570-6226 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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Christian Science helps instill religious belief.
by Polly Castor
Published: February 6, 2016
Danbury News Times
I was an atheist until I learned about Christian Science. There were many versions of God I could not accept.
For instance, not only was the whole patriarch-in-the-clouds concept unacceptable to me, but I also rejected a theology that says innocent babies are sinners in need of saving. Why would a God create us able to do something and then condemn us for it? Capriciousness was not a quality of an exalted being that I could worship.
It was early February many years ago when I had a change of heart. I was challenged by friends not to focus just on what I didn't believe, but instead to dig deep and try to see what I actually could accept as God.
So I started probing, and asking myself questions: What was supreme? What was the creator of the universe? What was there before "all this?"
Since "this" seemed to be material, I reasoned that what came before had to be nonmaterial. And in order to be ultimate, it had to be infinite or we would have to define what came before that. From physics, I knew that something can't come from nothing. So what did I know that was infinite and nonmaterial?
Thinking about it, I realized that love is nonmaterial, and I could imagine a love that was bigger and purer than a limited Valentine's Day variety of human love. I started cherishing the idea of divine love as a concept of God that might actually be right and true.
I decided to peruse the works of comparative religions, gleaning bits that resonated with me, like threads of a tapestry that I could eventually weave into a whole. I read the Quran, the Bible, Buddhist teachings, and everything else I could get my hands on.
I found wonderfully helpful threads everywhere. It was a very different experience, humbly looking for what I could love and resonate with in these texts, instead of identifying things to disagree with and be condescending about.
But it was Christian Science that blew me away. I was gob-smacked, really. Instead of beautiful threads, I had found what seemed to me like whole cloth.
Christian Science explains God through seven synonyms or names for God (signified in the Christian Science tradition by capital letters): Life, Truth, Love, Mind, Soul, Spirit, Principle. Further, God is described as intelligent, infinite, all-powerful, ever-present, and good.
This expanded my feeble perception of an infinite and nonmaterial God. This I could accept. I was thrilled and wanted to learn more. I gobbled up the Christian Science textbook, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," by Mary Baker Eddy, pondering as I went, playing with interchanging those synonyms for God.
I loved thinking of God as my actual Life, as close as my next breath. Or of God as the all-powerfully intelligent divine Mind that was the creator of the universe, sustaining and maintaining all good. And who doesn't value truth?
As much as the word "God" had made me want to run from it based on all the baggage it carried, I could definitely embrace Truth, Life and Love, as my ultimate hope.
I was in Love. Literally. I lived, moved, and had my being in divine Love. I couldn't get away from it. It was always there for me and everyone. I realized divine Love had not only made me, but approved of me. I was supported and upheld, provided for and adored.
More than that, divine Love triumphs over hate, and ever-present Truth overcomes every error. Just as light banishes darkness, and darkness is just a claim of the absence of light, God - infinite good - can eliminate every contrary supposition. I can trust this God, who safeguards all good.
I learned to start my thought process with God instead of myself. Otherwise, it's all too easy to end up with fallible, manlike concepts of God. And I was learning that the best idea of God leads to a much better view of myself. I have found this very liberating and encouraging.
I'm so glad I asked myself those hard questions, and started looking for what I could accept instead of defending against what I didn't believe. I'm so glad I became a seeker, for I found the God who is Love itself.
Polly Castor is a Christian Science Practitioner and member of First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Ridgefield, CT. She can be reached at pollyCastor@gmail.com.
Rabbi Rachel Bearman
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Tu BiSh'vat celebrates world's beauty.
by Rabbi Rachel Bearman
Published: January 2, 2016
Danbury News Times
Did you know that the Hebrew calendar includes four Jewish new years?
According to the Mishnah, a rabbinic law code from the first centuries of the Common Era, the following days marked the beginning of specific "new years" and were celebrated or observed according to their purpose:
1. The 1st of the Hebrew month of Tishrei was the agricultural new year (this is the late summer-early fall date known as Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year).
2. The 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat was the New Year of Trees.
3. The 1st of the Hebrew month of Nisan was the New Year of Kings, the date used to count the number of years a king had reigned.
4. The 1st of the Hebrew month of Elul was the new year for tithing cattle and marked the beginning of the time when one of every ten cattle was offered as a sacrifice to God.
In ancient times, these special days established a yearly rhythm that governed the lives of the Jewish people. For contemporary Jews, many of the holidays and customs that revolved around agriculture or worship in the Temple have to be reinterpreted in order to feel relevant.
The ability of each generation to reinterpret (while remaining faithful to) ancient traditions has always been one of the great strengths of the Jewish tradition. It is because of this ability that contemporary Jewish communities can still find meaning in the rhythm of the Hebrew calendar. The schedule of our holidays allows us to both remember the lives of our ancestors as well as establish our own understandings of holy time.
The Hebrew calendar is primarily based on the lunar cycle, and each "day" begins at sundown and lasts until the following sundown. So it is that from sundown on January 24th to sundown on the 25th, Jewish communities will celebrate the holiday of Tu BiSh'vat, the New Year of the Trees. While it may seem odd to celebrate the New Year of the Trees in the middle of winter, in Israel, the holiday actually falls at the beginning of the spring season.
For Jewish communities, Tu BiSh'vat is the day to celebrate the beauty of our world and the renewal that comes with each new season. In Israel, Tu BiSh'vat is a tree-planting festival, a celebration that allows each person to participate in the creation of new agricultural life. All around the world, Jewish communities will celebrate this holiday by taking time to remember the sacred commitment that we have to care for and protect God's creation.
Another popular Tu BiSh'vat custom comes from the Jewish mystics of the 16th and 17th centuries who created a special ritual to help Jewish men and women celebrate the themes of the holiday. Because of its structural similarities to the Passover ritual, it has come to be known as a Tu BiSh'vat Seder.
Modern Jewish communities will often host a creative Tu BiSh'vat Seder, which could include up to 15 types of food associated with the land of Israel - for example: barley, dates, figs, grapes, pomegranates, olives, and wheat. The many delicious courses are often framed by passages from Jewish texts like the Torah, Talmud, and mystical writings.
No matter how we celebrate, for contemporary Jewish communities, the holiday of Tu BiSh'vat is an important reminder of both our responsibility to protect and cherish the world as well as the joy and gratitude that comes from taking the time to appreciate the change of the seasons.
Rabbi Rachel Bearman, Temple B'nai Chaim, 82 Portland Avenue, P.O. Box 305, Georgetown, CT 06829. 203-544-8695 RabbiBearman@TempleBnaiChaim.org.
Rev. Leo McIlrath
FORUM ON FAITH
Secular holidays, religious celebrations come together.
by Rev. Leo McIlrath
Published: January 16, 2016
Danbury News Times
Each year, while celebrating significant days of faith, hope, love and joy, people of different religious persuasions take part in a vast array of reverent acts that can include prayer, fasting, atonement and/or reflective meditation experiences.
Some religious holidays focus on the sacred, others lean more to the secular, while a host of such days appear to comingle the two of them. For instance, "Fat Tuesday" (better known to most by its New Orleans French name, Mardi Gras), is the celebration day preceding Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the great Christian season of repentance, Lent.
Hindus, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Bahai and a number of other faith communities have a variety of feast and fasting days - some with their sights set on the heavens or "Heaven" while others are quite down-to-earth. Some are based on the cycles of the moon, others on the sun, and still others on the movement of both the sun and the moon in their seasonal changes.
Each faith community (Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian) has its own calendar of events for the beginning of their own "new year" through the seasonal passages of time up to the very end of their respective years. There are also days that call for the lighting of candles - for instance, Hanukkah (Jews), Christmas/Epiphany (Christians), Diwali (Hindus) and Vesak Pujah (Buddhists).
Music is central to many religious communities, and it is provided in many styles, using many instruments - such as an organ, piano, harp, guitar, drums or flute, and sometimes even the sound of a full orchestra. In contrast, some faiths will limit their music to chanting or "a capella" arrangements, featuring the human voice without instrumental accompaniment.
With all these customs, people often wonder to how to greet one another, especially during the December holiday season. I greeted people in the recently passed, eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, with "Happy Hanukkah!" and those of the Christian tradition, I wished a hearty "Merry Christmas!" while to others, I simply said "Happy Holiday!"
While such greetings are appropriate for holidays of celebration, all of us need to be better aware of the purpose of specific holy days within specific communities. For example, one wouldn't want to wish a Christian a "Happy Lent!" or a Jew a "Happy Yom Kippur!" or a Muslim a :Happy Ramadan!" as those are all intended to be somber seasons of introspection and repentance.
When in doubt, I consider it fitting to simply ask the person you are addressing what kind of holiday greeting they prefer. In my experience, most people, in a spirit of good will and gratitude for your interest, will tell you.
While some traditions celebrate a variety of seasonal feasts like Passover, Easter and Pentecost, for example, other faith communities believe it better to celebrate God's spirit on each and every day. Of course, there's no conflict for anyone who chooses to celebrate every day in a spirit of goodness and compassion and still highlight these gifts and fruits on specific designated dates within their faith community.
Hindus give us Durga Puja, which over several nights marks the victory of good over evil. The Bahai will focus on a special virtue (such as kindness, peace or fortitude) on each day of the year. Still, other religions honor certain holy people or saints on each day. For example, Butler's "Lives of the Saints" lists more than 1,200 Roman Catholics who are said to have lived exemplary lives and who are worthy of being revered.
When visiting another person's sacred space - a synagogue, church, mosque or temple - it is appropriate to enter into the spirit of that unique assembly. Some may be kneeling, bowing, genuflecting or lying prostrate on the floor. They may be blessing themselves, holding their faces in the palms of their hands, lighting candles or burning incense.
In some places of worship, you may witness the male members of a congregation placing a small circular cap over their heads, and in others, women may wear hats while the men remove theirs. Some sacred spaces are totally open, while others have chairs, pews and kneelers. Still, other peoples of the world choose to celebrate their spirituality out among the trees, the rivers and the mountains.
The message I would offer as we begin this new calendar year of 2016 is to choose your place and time to practice your faith, and respect all others. "Happy Every Moment!" to each and all of you and your loved ones.
Reverend Leo McIlrath, Ecumenical Chaplain, The Lutheran Home of Southbury. (203) 270-0581, email@example.com