ARC Forum on Faith - 2014
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FORUM ON FAITH
Welcomed by God through service to each other.
by Alexa Iadarola
Published: Saturday, September 13, 2014
Danbury News Times
I am a young person of faith, a faith molded by my experiences. To some, the concepts of unwavering faith in God and a progressive, modern lifestyle are paradoxical. They go together about as well as honey and vinegar.
Without a doubt, growing up in an era of social liberalism has had a significant impact on my faith. Some believe that the eclecticism of today's social, moral and religious spectrum makes it more difficult for today's youth to find their faith.
However, I have found that it is because of such variance in belief that I have become so steadfast in my own, a seemingly obvious revelation that has taken me 17 years to discover. I think I am blessed to live in a community filled with different perspectives, religions and understandings.
Every year, the Congregational Church of New Fairfield relentlessly raises funds in order to send the Senior High Youth Group and many dedicated adults on the Appalachia Service Project for one summer week in the rolling hills of central Appalachia. ASP is a ministry held very close to the hearts of our leaders and many of our youth. It has also played a significant role in my journey to faith.
The Appalachia Service Project describes itself as "a relationship-building ministry with construction on the side." It is a program dedicated not only to eradicating substandard housing for individuals living in Appalachia, but to instilling hope and service in homeowners and volunteers.
For many in our congregation, ASP is an excellent way to share our faith in God. It is a way to give back to our community, get a new perspective and regain humility.
This year was no different as our convoy of white vans made the precarious trek to Fayette County, W.Va., in early July. Even so, despite being a veteran on the voyage of service, I was utterly unprepared for the spiritual epiphany that awaited me in Appalachia.
A huge part of my faith revolves around the concept of acceptance. Our church is a congregation of the United Church of Christ, which has this slogan: "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."
I had always interpreted that to mean "It's OK if you made mistakes. We are all human. Come love God with us. God works wonders." I am thankful it means more than that.
There is more to acceptance than helping people overcome mistakes they've made. Acceptance also involves embracing the ideas of others. It means celebrating life and humanity, no matter your beliefs.
Many of the volunteers our church sent to West Virginia were not members of our church. Some didn't even attend church. Not once. But they still felt the need to spend an entire week of vacation time installing a tin roof for a complete stranger.
I believe we perform service to others for God's glorification, not for our own. Still, to some volunteers, it wasn't about any of that. It was about helping people in need because it was the right thing to do. They believe it is simply our responsibility as members of the human race.
Does that make their service any less important? Not at all.
As a young person of faith, my understanding of God has evolved, shifted and matured. I have learned that no matter your faith or beliefs, we are all made to serve. I discovered that empathy comes pre-installed.
Our church leaders do not force us to love, to thank, to appreciate, or to act. They aren't hypnotists who trick us into doing good deeds by threatening us with eternal damnation. I believe that God made humanity to care and to act.
ASP's 2014 theme, "Apostello: Life on Purpose," is taken from the Greek word apostello, to be "sent." Jesus speaks of being sent out into service for others in the Gospel of John: "as the Father has sent me, I am sending you" (John 20:21).
But I believe our call to service is deeper than that. It is one of the few concepts that dominate nearly all religions and faiths. Even individuals who choose not to follow any faith at all recognize the importance of human responsibility.
I believe God welcomes us not only into the church, but welcomes us to the human race so that we may love, appreciate, and rejoice. It is through service that we are all welcomed by God.
Alexa Iadarola, of the Congregational Church of New Fairfield, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FORUM ON FAITH
Churchgoers want more youths in their ranks.
by Jane Moran
Published: Saturday, September 6, 2014
Danbury News Times
In moments of weakness, I am prone to complaining about a certain question that I am asked almost every time I meet a new person in a religious context: "Why are you in church?"
The wording may vary, but the basic query -- and the surprised tone in which it is stated -- remains the same.
Many of my fellow UConn students who grew up in the so-called "mainline" Protestant churches -- Congregational (like me) or Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, etc. -- seem to think there's something rather shocking about me attending church regularly at my age, and I am far too prone to growing defensive about it.
The truth is, though, I understand what it is that makes them ask those questions.
Yes, I went off to college and lived in a dormitory where being awake before 10 on a Sunday morning was treated as a sign of mental instability.
Yes, I grew up with the reality of the "dying church" in an America where so many newscasters and essayists tell us in confident tones that religion is on the way out. That doesn't mean hearing that doesn't bother me.
When something has shaped your life in the profound and powerful way that the church has shaped mine, you develop a vested interest. I -- like so many Christians of other generations -- look on half-empty churches with sorrow. It hurts me when I hear that such-and-such a church no longer has enough young people to form a Confirmation class.
I know plenty of people my own age whose lives are more than full without organized religion. But I also know I could never be one of them.
My experience of growing up -- fraught with all the mundane trials of adolescence -- would have been harder without the church. Without the church, I would not be the person I am today.
Of course, I want the church to be there for future generations, just as it was for me. Of course, I understand what older Christians are really asking when they ask me why I'm in church.
"What can we do to make the church relevant to others your age who are NOT in church?"
In a way, though, I'm the least qualified person to answer that question -- because I'm there with them, in church.
I wish I had some sort of spectacular insight into what it is that's come between many young people and the church. Nothing would make me happier than to be able to dazzle everyone by answering that question once and for all.
Sometimes I approach the matter as I would a puzzle, and yet this isn't the morning crossword -- this is a broad sociological issue. No one could explain how to make church relevant to the young in a single pithy phrase.
Also, I don't want my conversation around this issue to portray me as a remarkable exception to some general rule about young people, nor do I want to imply that most of my non-religious peers are being fundamentally shallow and hard-wired to their iPhones.
In my admittedly brief life, I have known so many people -- people my own age -- who were kind and thoughtful, who were passionate about the future of this world we live in. I have learned so much about faith from classmates who never set foot in any church, synagogue or mosque.
That's what I really want to talk about when I'm asked about young people and the church. I want to talk about how the conversations I had in the lounge of my freshman year dorm building encouraged me to read theology.
Demographic trends and statistics aside, I have faith that the church will continue to be relevant to young people long into the future.
Young people, as much as anyone else, care about the big questions -- What is living? What does it mean to do it well? The church, whatever its condition, remains uniquely placed to foster a dialogue on those issues.
In the end, I think that's a cause for celebration, not for worry.
Jane Moran is a senior majoring in Classics at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. She grew up in Newtown and attended the Congregational Church of Brookfield. Having just completed a summer 2014 internship there and is exploring the possibility of a call to ordained ministry in the United Church of Christ. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Rev. Ophir De Barros
FORUM ON FAITH
Temples symbolize church of human heart.
by Rev. Ophir De Barros
Published: Saturday, August 30, 2014
Danbury News Times
No one would deny faith is a strong force inside human beings. The instinct toward religious behavior has been present in the history of humankind since early times.
Some think faith in the current stage of civilization has no more use -- that it doesn't make sense for modern people. Others value it as a precious treasure of our inner being, essential to mold human nature in a better way.
I was wondering about this as I was reading news from my country of origin, Brazil -- where this month a massive, beautiful faith monument has been inaugurated, the Temple of Solomon.
It was built as a replica of King Solomon's temple, as described in the Old Testament, but it is three times bigger. It is 578 feet long, 312 feet wide and 115 feet tall -- large enough to accommodate 10,000 people in its sanctuary.
This megachurch, with its attached museum, is now a landmark of Sao Paulo, the large industrial and financial center of Brazil. The New York Times dedicated a whole article to its awesome construction.
It serves as the world headquarters for the Universal Church of God, the neo-pentecostal denomination that owns the property. Even some critics who do not have a positive view of the denomination's methods and practices reported they were impressed with the temple's magnificent architectural design and urban landscaping.
How does our faith compel us to build these monuments? Why have so many great cathedrals and temples have been built over the centuries of religious history? And why do modern people still support religious buildings with their offerings and donations?
Houses of worship are some of the most under-utilized buildings in most cities, if we do the cost-benefit analysis. Most sanctuaries are only used a few hours a week. Expenses for utilities and maintenance are obviously higher in the largest structures, but they continue being built.
In everyday conversation, the word "church" is commonly understood as that distinctive building on the corner with the tall steeple.
However, many Christian texts teach that God's real temple is not something made by human hands, but is instead the human heart. The church is said to be human beings and God dwelling in them.
Does our human instinct toward faith call us to build these huge structures as symbols of our collectivist and communal existence? Can we understand more about what a culture values and believes by examining its buildings and monuments?
I expect the enormous size of this new temple is an expression of changing cultural and religious foundations in modern Brazil -- now the fifth largest economy in the world. The new Temple of Solomon in Sao Paulo points to the great evangelical awakening that Brazil is experiencing: Today 30 percent to 40 percent of Brazilians consider themselves Protestants, in a country that 50 years ago was predominately Roman Catholic. That statistic underscores the deep change in Brazil's religious landscape.
However, we might ask, why a temple of Solomon? Why a replica of the Old Testament temple, two times destroyed, so that nowadays only a wall remains in Jerusalem?
I think it might be because, for the new evangelicals of Brazil, the Bible is a central part of their faith. Most of the pastors in this tradition place a great emphasis on the Old Testament and support modern Israel as a fulfillment of messianic prophecy.
The Jewish community in Sao Paulo received the new temple very positively, saying it was an amazing idea. Apparently, no one before this had tried to rebuild a temple replica this size outside Jerusalem. It was an awesome, notable project, instantly catching worldwide attention for all the symbolism in it.
Still, my hope is that people do not see this new temple, or any building, as the center of their faith. I believe it would be better for the improvement of humanity if faith, our heart's precious innate feeling, built peace among nations and love between neighbors.
Majestic and huge houses of prayer are symbolic of the community of faith, but I believe they are worthless if there is no fellowship or true communal life among people.
The Rev. Ophir de Barros of the Brazilian Baptist Pastors Fellowship, North American Chapter, retired as pastor of All Nations Baptist Church in Danbury. He can be reached at 203-417-1401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rev. Joseph Krasinski
FORUM ON FAITH
"Women priests are a gift to the church.
by Rev. Joseph Krasinski
Published: Saturday, August 23, 2014
Danbury News Times
A number of years ago, in a different community where I served as a priest, I was able to lead a study on the then-popular book "The Shack" by William Young.
Rather than having it at my church, where some might feel uncomfortable, we held it at the local public library. There were, in fact, people from different beliefs present in that setting.
One woman whom I had never met before was being exceptionally critical of "the church," because women could not hold positions of authority. I explained to her that while that was true in some traditions, it was not true in the Episcopal Church.
In fact, we had a woman serving as what we call the "Presiding Bishop." This is the highest rank that any Episcopalian can attain and is looked on as "the head of the Church." (Since the Episcopal Church is much more of a democracy, having been organized by the same people who organized the United States of America, this is really a misnomer, but there is limited space here to explain that.)
This year the Episcopal Church celebrates the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first 11 women priests. Forty years is not a very long time when one considers that the United Church of Christ has been ordaining women for more than 160 years!
In the Episcopal Church, the wheels of progress move much more slowly due to its cumbersome polity (political structure).
The first ordination of women as priests happened "irregularly." (Until then, women were allowed to be ordained as deacons, but not priests or bishops.)
A group of bishops and 11 women decided that they could not wait yet another three years for a convention to approve the ordination of women. (They had already been denied over the preceding six years).
At the next convention, the canons (laws) were changed to allow full ordination to everyone and the first ordination was ruled "irregular but legal."
Before I went to seminary, I asked one of the 11 why they would take the risk. She told me that one of their number, the Rev. Jeannette Piccard, was already 79 years old and it appeared her health was failing.
It turns out that, after ordination, she went on to have seven years of active ministry.
Jeannette was a phenomenal person, and it was my privilege to know her. She served as a deacon in my New York City parish when I was young, but she was famous for being the first woman to enter the stratosphere.
Working alongside her inventor husband, Jean, she had been able to rise up 10.9 miles in a hot air balloon in a pressurized cabin. (Star Trek fans take note: Captain Jean-Luc Picard's name was not random!)
Having worked side by side for my entire ordained ministry with women priests, I know what a gift they are to the church. It is impossible to say how much I have learned about being a priest from my sisters.
As women, they look at scripture and life in the spirit from such a different angle than the one I was raised with as a man.
It is said that men are "wired" to compete, but women are wired to couple. If by couple, we mean to enter into a relationship with another, what better way to describe what we are supposed to be doing with our God -- entering into a loving relationship?
And what better way for a member of the clergy to lead than to help bring the people of God closer and closer to the very heart of God?
I cherish the gentle and loving relationships with my sister priests and bishops. I believe it was not by accident that the ancient Greeks named wisdom -- Sophia -- in the feminine. Would that the Episcopal Church had listened to the spirit of wisdom earlier!
I take this time to celebrate that day, 40 years ago, when the Episcopal Church finally heard the Holy Spirit calling us to honor all of God's children for their gifts and abilities.
Today Episcopal women can take their rightful place feeding the people of God from the holy altar and teaching from our pulpits. I pray that one day women throughout the world will be granted the same opportunities to lead and be treated with the same respect.
The Rev. Dr. Joseph A. Krasinski is the Rector of St. James' Episcopal Church on West Street in Danbury. Website: www.saintjamesdanbury.org.
FORUM ON FAITH
"Program provides holistic sexuality education.
by Darlene Anderson-Alexander
Published: Saturday, August 16, 2014
Danbury News Times
Every three years the Religious Education program at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury offers "Our Whole Lives" (OWL), a lifespan sexuality education curriculum co-developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ.
In 2014-15 academic year, we are proud to be offering this highly-anticipated program to three groups: fifth- and sixth-graders, seventh- to ninth-graders, and 10th to 12th-graders.
"Our Whole Lives" takes a holistic view of sexuality. It provides accurate, age-appropriate information while helping children and youth to clarify their values, build interpersonal skills, and understand the spiritual, emotional and social aspects of sexuality.
In our congregation, children and youth meet in age-specific covenantal groups led by highly committed volunteers who undergo a comprehensive training weekend led by UUA-certified trainers.
A sampling of topics includes: anatomy and physiology, gender identity and sexual orientation, communication, decision-making, sexual health, relationship-building, power and control, expressions of sexuality, and responsible behavior.
The curriculum itself contains no religious references or doctrines, but was created to reflect the justice-oriented focus of both of the founding denominations. However, each grade level of the curriculum has a companion book entitled "Sexuality and Our Faith," which provides activities and resources to ground the discussion in the religious contexts of each of these traditions.
The Unitarian Universalist companion books frame these topics within our UU "Seven Principles" -- those guiding ideals that everyone in our denomination has agreed to affirm and promote. We believe that four of these principles, in particular, call on us to offer comprehensive sexuality programming:
"The inherent worth and dignity of every person" suggests that we respect ourselves -- including our bodies -- and others.
"Justice, equity and compassion in human relations" calls on us to seek out healthy relationships and to work to eradicate injustices such as homophobia and stereotyping.
"A free and responsible search for truth and meaning" encourages us all to listen to our minds and hearts and to create a safe, trusting space for all to be heard.
"The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all" leads us to valuing ourselves and others and to acting out our values in our everyday lives.
The most compelling reasons that I have heard for offering this program to our youth -- and for ensuring that my own children participate -- come from conversations with recent OWL alumni.
If you ask any UU young adults to name the most significant part of their religious upbringing, I can almost guarantee that OWL will be at the top of their list.
For instance, one 20-something in our congregation reported talking with the father of a young girl recently, and she was explaining OWL. She told him that OWL "creates intelligent people who make decisions based both on the heart and the mind" and expressed her wish to him that "everyone could have something akin to OWL at some point in their lives, because it teaches that you can approach situations with responsibility as well as openness."
Another one of our young adult congregants commented that when she meets someone else who has participated in OWL, she "knows instantly that (they) are on the same page in terms of relationship dynamics and the ability to respect other people as complex and vulnerable individuals."
She says she hopes to someday be trained as an OWL facilitator herself. Why?
She says she wants to help youth experience sexuality education that re-frames the typical public school health class emphasis from "do not do this" or "do not let this happen to you" to "this is how to create a space for positive relationships and good choices."
I certainly do not mean to suggest that youth who participate in OWL -- and especially those who do so in a Unitarian Universalist congregation -- are somehow immune to unfortunate circumstances or always make the best choices. Of course, that's not the case!
What I do hope is that, by ensuring the children and youth in my program are offered the opportunity to experience the OWL curriculum, I am engaging in the important work of belonging to the "village" which raises informed, free-thinking, justice-seeking, caring individuals. What important work that is.
Darlene Anderson-Alexander is Director of Religious Education at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury. She can be reached at email@example.com or (203) 798-1994.
Lisi Green Marcus
FORUM ON FAITH
Justice, as well charity, guide donations.
by Lisi Green Marcus
Published: Saturday, August 9, 2014
Danbury News Times
Tzedakah, the Hebrew word translated commonly in English to "charity," actually means righteousness, justice or fairness.
In Judaism, we are taught that charity begins at home and it is an act of justice and righteousness to give to the poor or those less fortunate than ourselves.
When I was a little girl, there was a Tzedakah box in our kitchen. My brother, sister and I saw my mother putting coins in the box. When asked who it was for, my mother would respond, "for people not as lucky as we are." This simple act and answer started a tradition of giving.
When my own children were younger, our coin box was filled regularly, and the money went to buy cereal for the St. James Daily Bread Food Pantry. My boys and I would count the coins and then go to the supermarket, where we would buy 10 to 12 boxes of cereal at a time and then deliver them to St. James.
As part of my sons' religious school experience at the United Jewish Center, when food was collected during the High Holy Days from the congregation, they helped load and unload the food from the truck that delivered it to St. James.
They made sandwiches for the guests who came to the Dorothy Day Hospitality House. They also collected books for a local nonprofit organization to help start a library.
The act of charity, also called social justice, is something so simple, yet vital, and in Jewish tradition, a requirement, a duty for one to observe.
There is a passage in Leviticus (19: 9-11) that suggests to farmers when they harvest the field, they should not reap all the way to the corners. Vineyards should be picked bare and fallen fruit should be left on the ground for the poor and the stranger.
This simple act is the beginning of taking care of our neighbors and learning the act of Tzedakah.
Another side of Tzedakah is as Jews we are taught to be compassionate. We also have a moral obligation to help others and to advocate for those who cannot help themselves -- children, the elderly, the poor, the disenfranchised, the sick, the disabled and the "stranger among us."
The idea of a social welfare system appears in Hebrew scripture, and Jews have followed this code for thousands of years.
At the United Jewish Center, we have a Social Action Committee and the Robert N. Levine Social Action Fund. We support a variety of causes, including local, national and international, both Jewish and non-Jewish. We make donations from this fund throughout the year.
We also provide volunteers for the Dorothy Day Hospitality House, St. James food pantry and the overflow housing shelter, as well as having our religious school students collect items to donate to area children throughout the year.
Additionally, we have a Caring Committee that makes sure our own congregants get phone calls and visits when they are ill or alone.
Moses Maimonides, a 12th-century philosopher, determined there are eight degrees of Tzedakah:
What the synagogue and my mother taught me about Tzedakah has had a positive impression on my life. It influenced me both in my youth and as an adult. It continues to affect my family values and how I choose to donate my time and resources.
As a volunteer and part-time staff member of the Association of Religious Communities, I believe there's a connection between ARC's mission and the tradition of Tzedakah.
The mission promotes interfaith cooperation to alleviate the causes of violence, suffering and hatred, while advancing peace, justice and human dignity.
I believe in Tzedakah and I admire other religions that teach similar values to foster righteousness, social justice and help for those who cannot help themselves.
I believe practicing a principle of faith like Tzedakah is essential to a life well-lived.
Lisi Green Marcus is a member of the United Jewish Center in Danbury. She can be reached at 203-938-2814 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rev. Mark Nordskog
FORUM ON FAITH
Tragedy: Why doesn't God prevent it?
by Rev. Mark Nordskog
Published: Saturday, July 26, 2014
Danbury News Times
Why does God allow bad things to happen? This question is often raised when personal tragedy hits close to home, and you don't have to look far to see tragedy in our world.
We regularly hear about shootings in the news. Innocent people are dying because of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere. People die regularly as a result of poverty and starvation.
And then there are the tragedies of everyday life, such as premature death due to illness and accidents, or suffering from long-term disability.
One thing is clear: Good and bad permeate every aspect of our lives. We are subject to good and bad circumstances in life, some of which we have little or no control over. Even though most of us want to be good people, we sometimes make bad choices that hurt others and ourselves.
Even microscopically, a battle between good and bad is waged each day in our bodies. Bad bacteria seek to destroy us, and our good white blood cells attack the bacteria that could do us harm.
Where is God in all of this? Why does God allow tragedy? Why doesn't God intervene to prevent it? Why did God create the world to be this way? These are difficult questions that have been around for centuries.
Most attempts to explain this narrow down to two different ways of looking at God.
One way is to see God as all powerful and in control of everything that happens. When God is seen from this perspective, it is difficult to explain why God allows tragedy, because he is perceived as one who has the power to prevent it.
The other way of looking at God sees God as one who participates with us in the struggle between good and evil, but lacks the power to prevent bad things from happening. From this perspective, God is good but looks weak.
Some people believe that personal tragedy is God's way of punishing people. I do not believe either Scripture or life experience supports this. Tragedy befalls good people as well as bad, people of faith as well as those who do not believe.
If we want to understand tragedy, I believe we need to try to look at it from God's perspective. We tend to look at life from the limitations of the world we know. We lack an eternal perspective.
Christians believe that God created human beings to be in relationship with him, that God loves us, and that he wants our love in return.
True love requires choice, and God gives us the choice to respond to his love by loving him, ignoring him, rejecting him. God wants us to be in relationship with him, in this life and the next.
God's intentions are always good, but he gives us (and others) the freedom to make choices.
For example, God's will is that human beings have the intelligence and the creativity to be able to make an automobile. If we all agreed to travel no more than 10 miles per hour, it would be a rare occurrence that anyone would die in a car accident.
However, because God has given people the freedom to make cars that go over 100 miles per hour, there exists the possibility that someone may choose to drive that fast, lose control of the vehicle, and injure or kill himself or others.
If God were to actively intervene in our world to prevent everything bad that could happen, we would lose the freedom of choice that he wants for us, including the freedom to respond to his love.
Does God intervene in people's lives to help them? Christians believe that God does. But that does not mean we will always be protected from the consequences of the harmful decisions that we or others make.
God does not promise that he will always protect us from pain, but he does promise to be there to help us through it.
Looking at some tragedy as an undesirable consequence of the freedom that God gives us doesn't answer all of the questions that can be raised.
Ultimately, God asks us to trust him, to believe that he loves us, to believe that he works for good, and to believe that there is a purpose for the way he has made us and our world, even though we cannot fully understand his purposes from our limited perspective.
The Rev. Mark Nordskog, Senior Pastor at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, 119 Junction Road, P.O. Box 5184, Brookfield, CT 06804. He can be reached at 203-775-9070 or email@example.com.
Rev. Laura Westby
FORUM ON FAITH
Wrestling with civic values, religious belief.
by Rev. Laura Westby
Published: Saturday, July 19, 2014
Danbury News Times
As a pastor, I am sometimes asked whether a person's religion should influence their actions as a citizen.
Aren't matters of church and state supposed to be separate? How does the freedom of religion guaranteed in our Bill of Rights enter into the discussion?
And what should a person of faith do when a matter of public policy violates a matter of religious belief?
These are among the questions people in my denomination, the United Church of Christ, have been wrestling with -- especially in light of recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court.
The history of the UCC and predecessor denominations is full of examples of faithful involvement in civic life. The Congregational churches established by the Pilgrims and other spiritual reformers laid the groundwork for the founding of almost every town in our state.
From their earliest days, our congregations employed democratic principles -- each church is self-governing and calls its own ministers.
Taking a public stand against injustice has been an integral part of our history. Our Congregational ancestors were among the first tea party patriots whose protest sparked our country's first act of civil disobedience.
In 1700, the Rev. Samuel Sewall wrote the first anti-slavery tract. We ordained the first African-American pastor in 1785, the first female pastor in 1853 and the first openly gay pastor in 1972.
When Southern television stations imposed a news blackout on the growing civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. asked the UCC for help. UCC national staff organized churches and won a federal court ruling that the airwaves are public, not private property.
Members of the United Church of Christ, and many other faith communities, take seriously Jesus' example of faithful involvement in civic life. Jesus ministered to individuals in need, but he also worked to change the structures that caused or deepened those needs.
He challenged religious and political leaders to use their power justly. He modeled a way of life in community that stood in stark contrast to the corrupt and self-serving lifestyle of many of those in power.
When asked whether a person of faith should pay taxes, Jesus demonstrated his ability to both unsettle and challenge. He said "Give to Caesar (whose image was on the coin used to pay the tax) what belongs to Caesar. Give to God what belongs to God."
It seems on the face of it to answer the question, recognizing that we may, in fact, owe the rulers of this world some things -- like taxes.
On the other hand, it is hard to imagine Jesus saying anything other than that everything belongs to God, so we should avoid pledging allegiance to anything material or temporary.
Our modern separation of church and state -- which the words "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Give to God what belongs to God" are often employed to support -- is just that, modern.
The idea of two separate areas of life would be foreign to Jesus and people of his time. It was not clear even to our forbearers, who sought for a time to make Congregationalism the state religion and who were required to petition the Connecticut General Assembly for permission to establish a church.
We have been, and will continue to be, a church that strives to balance religious freedom and civic engagement, holding them in dynamic tension when need be.
What is more difficult is how to manage situations in which two or more of our cherished beliefs come into conflict. The recent decision to allow some for-profit entities to opt out of portions of the Affordable Care Act on religious grounds is, I believe, one such example.
What do we do when the freedom of religious expression of one group puts the well-being of another, often less powerful, group at risk?
Universal health care and reproductive rights are among the important causes the UCC has championed, especially with regard to the way those issues impact the poor and the marginalized.
How will we continue to advocate for these important values AND uphold the fundamental right to practice our religion without undue burden being placed upon us by our government?
The answer to this question is far from simple. I am grateful to be part of a faith tradition that supports wrestling with these questions. I am proud to be part of a tradition that urges us to engage in civic life while at the same time offering us ultimate allegiance to God alone.
I am glad that the UCC makes room for the continuing inspiration of the still-speaking God.
The Rev. Laura Westby is interim minister at First Congregational Church of Bethel, 46 Main St., Bethel, CT 06801. She can be reached at 203-743-1877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
FORUM ON FAITH
Forgiving as you want to be forgiven.
by Polly Castor
Published: Saturday, July 12, 2014
Danbury News Times
Throughout my life, I have had many opportunities to forgive people. My indispensable go-to approach in these situations is to follow Jesus' example on the cross when he magnanimously said, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do."
I have found that this stance is enormously helpful whenever I am the brunt of someone's inconceivable and hurtful actions. Forgiving in this way can be relatively easy to do since it clearly doesn't condone wrongful action -- it still holds a place for the other person to do better. And I have found that using this simple and genuine way to let go of the situation lessens the impact on my own life as well.
Even though I can readily forgive others, I still find it very hard to forgive myself. Some say I am carte blanche forgiven because Jesus died on the cross, but he also commanded one woman (caught in adultery) that she "Go and sin no more." Even so, if I've done something wrong, regretted it, and reformed my behavior in such a way to no longer do it, I wonder why I still have a hard time forgiving myself?
What if I am still feeling the effects of a sin, mistake, or stupid decision I made long ago? The phrase in the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," has held a clue for me. Am I forgiving in the way that I want to be forgiven? Well, yes, partly.
I'd like to be forgiven on the basis that I must not have known what I was doing; that is certainly better than no forgiveness at all. It makes sense that if I had known how to be better, I would have been better. But if I really think about it, I want more than that.
I want to be forgiven to the extent that my erroneous actions have absolutely no lasting negative effect -- on myself or on others. So how do I forgive others in a way that revises, expunges, erases, and nullifies any hint of wrongdoing? If that's what I want to receive, then I believe that's what I must do.
And here is where my new thinking kicks in, which I'm trying to grow into. Ponder this: Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven is not some far off, exalted, power-washed place, but it is, in his words, "at hand." Jesus also says God's Kingdom is within us.
If that is the case, it follows that no matter what you or someone else did that needs to be forgiven, it never even happened in the Kingdom of Heaven.
I am convinced that in the Kingdom of Heaven, we are all innocent, upright, unfettered and free, with a clean slate in every breath. I'm trying to own the fact that this is true from God's perspective right now, regardless of whether we think we deserve it.
I'm trying to see, acknowledge, and embrace this special reality as the only truth about others, since that's what I hope for in return. If we are living out from this Kingdom of Omnipotent Good within ourselves, we no longer fear sin or are mesmerized into doing its bidding.
I believe that if we can perceive and uphold that Kingdom as present and supreme -- even though it is excruciatingly difficult to do so -- we will be blessed. If God's mercy is ever-present, it is clear to me that no bad effect can remain from any error that has been rooted out, corrected, and forgiven to its very core.
As a Christian Science practitioner, I might say that I have been having "resurrection thoughts" lately, because taking this approach to forgiveness has been bringing me new life. The Kingdom of Heaven is a new world to reside in right now, and I've just begun this exciting and transformational adventure!
Polly Castor is a Christian Science Practitioner and a member of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, 260 Main Street, Ridgefield, CT. 06877. She can be reached at: PollyCastor@gmail.com or at 203-572-5515.
Rev. Leo McIlrath
FORUM ON FAITH
"The heavens are telling the glory of God..." Psalm 19:1.
by Rev. Leo McIlrath
Published: Saturday, July 5, 2014
Danbury News Times
A journey down the highway of life brings to the fore a bit of creation, in all of its glory. You've heard the saying: "Stop and smell the flowers." Yet, daily, we pass by so many glimpses of God's creation without pausing, even for a moment.
Not only do we miss the chance to smell flowers along the path, but we miss beauty surrounding us. Are you conscious of the variety of trees, plants, shrubs or flowers along your daily treks? What if we could fully notice the summer's green, the winter's white, and the fall's magnificent paintbrush of colors?
Most of the time, I suspect we fail to hear the birds and other wildlife rustling about. And what about feeling the gentle breeze - God's finest form of air conditioning - or noticing the brilliance of our own human form? I love to walk slowly with the awareness of the movement of my very own legs and feet.
Just stop for a moment and think of creation: all of the elements on the Periodic Table. What if we were to revisit that table from Chemistry 101, not for the purpose of passing a test; rather, to appreciate creation in all its varied forms?
So many elements are essential to our very lives and the life of our planet: oxygen, nitrogen, helium.
Were you aware that there are hundreds of species of birds and other animals? A game that we like to play with residents of the Lutheran Home is to list a category such as birds or fish, and then, to ask participants to name as many as they can. Together, in a group, the list goes on and on.
Have you ever wondered about the highest or lowest regions of our earth? Does your imagination have room to picture Mount Everest and its surrounding environs, the upper portion of our entire planet? And what about those deep pits in the Near East, near Saudi Arabia, or even here in the States at Death Valley?
Don't you wonder about such natural spectacles and how they came to be? Even if we do not get to see them personally, we can be armchair travelers and cover the world - our world.
Do you enjoy getting your hands a bit soiled with the rich humus of the earth? We are related, as we remember the word "humans" derives from the word "humus." And from Genesis, we remember the Bible"s creation stories tell us Adam was made from the moist clay of the first garden. From the same stuff that grows all the plants, flowers, vegetables . . .
And at the top of creation, in case you need a reminder, is you. If you want to experience and appreciate God's rich variety in creation, simply look at yourself, your neighbor and every other human being.
As one of the greatest boxers of all time was wont to often say: "I'm (You're) the Greatest!" Yes, God made you and "saw that you were good." To appreciate creation might not even require us to go outside. We can look at one another and give thanks for the diversity of our personalities, gifts, talents, characteristics, etc., as manifested throughout the many seasons of our lives. Over the course of a lifetime, we grow in wisdom, age and grace.
I encourage you to live fully within God's creation. Take time, today, to slow down and notice the beauty of your world. Let your neighbor know how important he/she is in God's eyes and in yours.
Such is creation spirituality. I believe that Holiness, my friends, is truly wholeness - we do need one another, and the rest of the natural world that God has made.
The Rev. Leo McIlrath, Chaplain of The Lutheran Home of Southbury. He can be reached at: 203-270-0581 or Lionofjudah56@gmail.com.
Chaplain Shazeeda Khan
FORUM ON FAITH
Change your inner self for the better.
by Chaplain Shazeeda Khan
Published: Saturday, June 28, 2014
Danbury News Times
"God wouldn't change the good condition of a people until they change their inner selves." Quran
To me, this promise of my faith is incredibly comforting. It helps me face the challenges of Ramadan, which begins for Muslims around the world today. For most of us, this means we embark on a month of sunrise-to-sunset fasting.
Firstly, it reminds us that God has blessed us. Islam teaches that God created us as virtuous beings, with innate intelligence -- plus we are surrounded with God's wisdom, guidance, grace and mercy.
Secondly, God promises blessings until or unless we exhibit unrepentant disobedience and ingratitude.
Islam guides us in a state of growth, of constant change -- from sinning to repentance. We believe it is not in our human nature to remain static. We are to move from that which displeases God to that which pleases him, from what God likes to what he loves.
As Muslims we believe God has revealed through his prophets and his books all that we need to live a meaningful life. Islam helps us understand what angers God and what pleases him. Thus, the commands and prohibitions of Islam provide the basis of justice -- both for ourselves and for those around us.
Muslims are also taught that humankind was created for the purpose of worship. Because of his love for his creation, the Creator, through his infinite wisdom, instilled in humanity an instinct for submission. Therefore, we believe we'll be controlled by that which we worship -- it will shape our way of living.
Islam teaches us that if our object of worship isn't God, it will be something else -- money, status, power, etc. God warns us in the Quran, "Don't let your (lower) desires become your god." If we do, these impulses will become the foundation of our morality and usually lead to injustice and corruption.
Every pillar of Islam is fundamental to being a Muslim. The pillars are forms of worship but also tools for spiritual training. In fact, they are keys for change in our inner selves.
As Muslims, we are warned against treating the pillars as mere rituals or overlooking them entirely. To do so would mean we might miss opportunities to foster a relationship with our Lord -- the Provider, Sustainer, Nurturer.
Islam teaches that a relationship with God is crucial to our success in navigating the complex choices of this world. We believe that on the day of judgment, only those who fostered a relationship with him will earn his mercy and enter paradise.
As we embark on the duty of fasting today, we try to be mindful of its purpose: "O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you so that you may gain piety." -- Quran
While the injunctions of daily fasting require physical restraint -- not eating, nor quenching thirst, nor having intimate relations with a spouse -- they also require us to restrain ourselves from moral vices such as backbiting, gossiping, etc.
Fasting also develops the spiritual self by calling us to exert self-control -- to overcome selfishness, greed, laziness, etc.
Since of all our Islamic pillars fasting is uniquely private, I believe it is best able to help us achieve that elusive experience of God-consciousness -- that keen sense that God is aware of everything we do. This pillar also intensifies most all the other pillars of Islam.
The struggle of restraining ourselves from what is normally permissible, and the willingness to make this sacrifice, confirms our belief in the one God, the foundational pillar. And so it is with our daily prayers, as well as the opportunity Ramadan affords to multiply blessings during this month by becoming more charitable.
Prophet Muhammad (with peace) supplicated to God to save him from cowardliness and laziness -- two characteristics that are associated with many sins. In other words, I believe that often it isn't a lack of belief that leads us to commit sins, but rather a lack of courage or unwillingness to work hard.
It takes courage to be attentive of the limits set by God and to go against what everyone else is doing.
I pray Ramadan will change me -- not only temporarily, this month, but will bring permanent spiritual change. Therefore, I fortify my inner self by approaching Ramadan with vigor, clarity of vision and sincere recommitment -- with a resolve to grow closer to our Creator.
Chaplain Shazeeda Khan is the Director of Islamic Education at Baitul Mukarram Masjid of Greater Danbury. 339 Main Street, Danbury, CT 06810. She can be reached at: 203-628-680 or email@example.com.
Fr. Luke Mihaly
FORUM ON FAITH
God leads the way to his Kingdom.
by Fr. Luke Mihaly
Published: Saturday, June 21, 2014
Danbury News Times
There is a saying among members of my family they brought with them from the Carpathian Mountains: "Old age is not all that fun." And the response is, "Youth is not eternal." As I grow older, I am beginning to learn the truth of this saying for myself.
As a priest, I have seen it in the lives of my parishioners. I have greeted children with prayer at their birth and baptized them. I have married those in the prime of life.I have shared many hours with the elderly. I have held the hands of those who have slipped from this life, and I have had the privilege of burying them. As a priest, there is a special grace that comes when ministering to those of your flock through all stages of life.
Yes, I have cried. Yes, in some instances I have asked for the support of other priests to help me. But knowing about something and experiencing it are two different things.
I know the struggles of families who are caring for elderly parents or grandparents. I have seen it: the love, the emotional, physical and psychological exhaustion of those who are the primary caregivers. Theirs is a sacrifice of love.
As our Lord told us, "Greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his life for another." (John 15:13) And this is exactly what those family caregivers are doing. They are sacrificing their lives in a very real way, so that the final days and final years of their loved ones may be filled with respect, love and dignity.
This is why I have such great respect for those who care for our elderly and infirm, especially those who bear the brunt of the day-to-day care. Few know the anguish of a family in crisis with an elderly or very ill family member.
For each family, the work of caregivers is a little different. Our elderly parents are individuals who should be cared for as such. They are unique people with lives and loves, joys and sorrows -- stories that need to be told and remembered.
And for most who give care, whether at home or not, there is hidden guilt when we wonder what more could have been done. So why am I writing this? Right now, I am caring for my dad who is 80 years old.
Daily activities that he was able to do before with no thought, he can no longer take for granted. I have seen my brother lovingly and patiently help my father brush his teeth and comb his hair. We have both struggled to put socks on his swollen feet.
In his old age, my father is teaching me patience -- to wait upon the grace of God, and to see love and triumph in the little things of this life. And while I may have known this through the lives of my parishioners, it is now my turn to actually experience it.
We live in a culture that provides us with a lot of information. Never before in human history has so much knowledge been available to so many people. We need only go online, and we will have more data at our fingertips than most of us know what to do with.
But this is no match for experience. As someone once remarked, there is a big difference between reading about a tornado and having one rip the roof off your house. Do not mistake knowledge for wisdom.
My comfort in this difficult time -- and the comfort for my parishioners -- comes in the Christian faith. We understand Jesus Christ as someone who not only knows what it is to be human, but someone who has himself experienced our pain, our suffering, and even our death.
But beyond death, because of his Resurrection and Ascension into heaven, he has given the gift of new life to all those who believe and know him. God loves us so much that he became one of us, so that what he is by nature we can become by grace.
This is comfort for my father -- to know God has sanctified every aspect of life because he himself has lived and experienced it. And by so doing, he himself has blazed that trail to the Kingdom of God, not by pointing the way, but by leading the way.
Fr. Luke Mihaly is the pastor of the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church located at 74 Joes Hill Road, Danbury, CT 06811. He can be reached at 203-748-0671
Deacon Peter Kuhn
FORUM ON FAITH
Reflecting on the mystery of the Trinity.
by Deacon Peter Kuhn
Published: Saturday, June 14, 2014
Danbury News Times
Tomorrow, on June 15 this year, we Roman Catholics -- and many other churches in the Christian tradition -- will celebrate the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity.
Every first Sunday after Pentecost we lift up what it means as Christians to hold a Trinitarian faith -- our belief in one God, eternally existing in three divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
First a word of caution: in Catholic seminaries, men studying for ordination to the priesthood -- or like myself, preparing to lead the church as lay deacons -- often referred to this great feast as "Heretic Sunday."
Why? No other topic could get you into doctrinal trouble faster than a sermon on the holy trinity!
Our Jewish or Muslim friends might say that the very idea of a Trinitarian God amounts to a heretical departure from monotheism. The church teaches that it is not. Let me begin to explain by sharing some history.
Understanding how the Trinity came about is a whole lot easier than understanding the doctrine itself. In the Gospels, Jesus often is referred to as "the Son of God," and he makes numerous references to "my Father" or "the Father."
Further, in the lengthy teaching that Jesus gives to His apostles at the Last Supper, he says, "The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name -- He will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you." (John 14:24)
And after His resurrection, Jesus instructed his disciples to "Go out and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19)
Despite these promises and assurances from Jesus himself, it took the church some 300 years to clarify its Trinitarian faith, both to deepen its own understanding of the faith and to defend it against the errors that were deforming it.
The Council of Nicea in 325 affirmed both the divinity of Christ and the mystery of the Trinity.
Yes, the Trinity is a mystery. And aren't we all accustomed to having a fair number of mysteries in our lives, things we don't understand, things that confuse or confound us? Yet we believe them -- have faith in them -- nonetheless.
We will never fully and completely understand the mystery of the Trinity, not in this life, anyway. Still, through prayer, study and reflection we can come to a degree of understanding, however incomplete or limited.
So here are a few thoughts of my own on the subject of the Trinity -- thoughts that are decidedly incomplete (and which may or may not represent the views of the management).
The starting point is this: God is love. That's what God is; that's what God does. Perfectly and eternally.
It's not the I-love-pizza kind of love and not the erotic kind of love that so permeates modern society. Nor is it brotherly love or familial love.
Rather, God's love is agape love (pronounced ah-GAH-pay) -- a Greek word for the self-emptying, self-sacrificing love best illustrated in Jesus' own life, death, resurrection and teaching.
By definition, agape love requires two persons -- a lover and a beloved. A giver and a receiver. In the Trinity, the Father perfectly and eternally pours out His love upon the Son ... and the Son perfectly and eternally receives the Father's love and returns it to Him fully.
As for us, here's the best part: from this perfect, eternal, self-emptying sharing of love between Father and Son proceeds the Holy Spirit, our source of God's perfect love -- that which we often call "grace."
In terms of our understanding of the Trinity, the best analogy may be found in the human family, at least in the ideal family-- the husband and wife each empty/sacrifice themselves out of love for the other.
From this mutual surrendering proceeds a child who is the living manifestation of his or her parents' love and who forms with them a human trinity: one family made up of three persons, each a lover and a beloved of the other two.
So there you have it: Holy Trinity 101. It isn't so hard, now, is it?
OK, it's hard. And yes, in the end, belief in the Holy Trinity requires faith. But so do all of the truly good things in life. So keep praying. Keep studying. Keep reflecting. And have a happy Trinity Sunday.
Deacon Peter Kuhn serves at the St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, 163 Whisconier Road, Brookfield, CT 06804. He can be reached at: 203-775-1035 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rev. Allysa De Wolf
FORUM ON FAITH
Pentecost: seasonal for some, daily for others.
by Rev. Allysa De Wolf
Published: Saturday, June 7, 2014
Danbury News Times
Tomorrow is a special day for me: Pentecost. Also, tomorrow I will be ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ.
I hoped and prayed for an ordination on Pentecost, which falls on June 8 this year, because anyone who knows me knows that I'm not just any UCC-er. I am a self-proclaimed Pentecostal UCC-er.
I was born and raised in the Assemblies of God branch of Pentecostalism, but I left this denomination sometime in my teens and discovered the UCC later on.
Even though I don't worship in a Pentecostal church anymore, I still claim this rich history and tradition as my own. So it just seems right to be ordained on Pentecost.
Pentecost, from the Greek word meaning "50," falls 50 days (seven weeks) after Easter. It is the celebration of the Holy Spirit coming "like tongues of fire" on the disciples as they were gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost, or Shavuot.
To many Christians, the Holy Spirit is the spiritual manifestation of God that lives within and among us.
Ironically, Pentecostals do not celebrate Pentecost as a Holy Day or liturgical season. Pentecostals celebrate Pentecost every Sunday. In fact, every day is considered an opportunity to encounter the Spirit.
I was taught from a young age that all the miracles in the Bible could still be done today because of the Spirit. It was exhilarating as a young child to think that God through the Holy Spirit was still working, and I could have my very own little Pentecost through the power of prayer. As I got older I realized that not everyone thought this way.
Being a Pentecostal has never been easy. Growing up in southern California, close to the place Pentecostalism began (the Azusa Revivals near Los Angeles), being a charismatic wasn't too unusual.
What I quickly realized when I moved to the East Coast for college was that not only is Pentecostalism gravely misunderstood by most people, especially Christians, but it also gets grouped with other traditions that look similar but are not the same.
Being Pentecostal is not the same as being Evangelical, for example. This was confusing when I was seeking a worship community.
I would visit a church where praise music and preaching was familiar, and I might notice a few Biblical traditions I understood, but I would always get a little bit of a rude awakening when I "outed" myself as a Pentecostal.
I remember vividly during my college years being cornered by a worship leader seconds before I was about to speak to a group of Christians. I had been asked to talk about an important aspect of my faith tradition. I had chosen to talk about spiritual gifts.
As he realized I would be speaking from a Pentecostal point of view, he began to hurl questions at me. "What exactly are you going to talk about? You need to tell me everything you're going to say."
I was dumbfounded -- my very character as a Christian questioned by someone who already knew me! Suddenly, who I was as an individual didn't matter; what mattered were his stereotypes.
Many Pentecostal stereotypes, I began to understand, involve people flailing on the ground or being knocked over by a loud preacher's healing hands. There are videos and documentaries of Pentecostals speaking in tongues.
Historically, Pentecostals have been portrayed as uneducated or illiterate, emotionally driven, and sometimes emotionally unstable.
So why would I still claim this as a part of my identity? Why would I choose to get ordained on Pentecost?
The day I was challenged by that pastor in college was a huge moment for me. I not only felt his prejudice, but I also felt a deeper connection with my faith.
I began to appreciate the faith of my childhood -- especially the reason why Pentecostals don't celebrate Pentecost. If the Holy Spirit is already here, working and moving among us, we are empowered to do God's work in the world.
Pentecostals do believe that the spirit allows people to speak in other languages and heal the sick, but they also believe that the Spirit gives out other gifts, such as teaching, leadership, kindness and compassion.
Ultimately for me, the Spirit gives me the courage I need to stand up for love and justice, to seek peace and friendship -- and isn't that what being an ordained minister is all about?
Allysa De Wolf is the Associate Pastor of the Newtown Congregational Church at 14 West Street, Newtown, CT 06470.
Cantor Penny Kessler
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Shavuot celebrates community.
by Cantor Penny Kessler
Published: Saturday, May 31, 2014
Danbury News Times
In the year 1313 BCE, I stood at Sinai and received Torah. In fact, there is a Jewish tenet, "We all stood at Sinai." Every Jew, past, present and future, stood and continues to stand at Sinai to receive Torah.
This week, Jews will celebrate Shavuot, "weeks" in Hebrew (in calendars, it's also called Pentecost). It is celebrated 50 days (seven weeks plus one day) after Passover.
Shavuot began as an agricultural festival and commemorates God giving -- and the Jewish people receiving -- Torah on Mount Sinai.
Because most people are not very familiar with Shavuot, I want to teach the three Jewish values inherent in Shavuot: learning, community and welcoming.
Shavuot is a personal and communal moment of receiving and accepting God's Revelation. In the synagogue we will read Aseret Ha-Dibrot, God's 10 statements, also known as the Ten Commandments.
We stand when those verses are chanted, reenacting our standing at Sinai. Hopefully, we will be moved and stirred to say, as we did at the original moment, "We will act on them, and we will listen."
Shavuot acknowledges that the contract and covenant that God and the Jews entered into was delivered in 70 languages, and every Jew understood in his/her own way.
We learn from the Torah that the law is deliberately not remote and difficult to understand. Since the start, Jews have been interpreting Torah with succeeding generations discovering relevance for their own times.
Shavuot is a particularly intellectual holiday, celebrating the power of learning and interpreting holy words. In many synagogues, Shavuot is the time to celebrate Confirmation, where students who have completed the high school programs in synagogues affirm and confirm their Jewish identities.
It's a deeply personal, spiritual holiday where we have the chance to renew our commitment to God, Torah and the Jewish people.
Shavuot doesn't have any home centered experiences. It's not like the other two major festivals, Sukkot (building temporary dwellings) or Passover (reenacting the Exodus from Egypt through the seder and matzah). We don't build replicas of Sinai in our backyards.
That said, of course, there are unique foods for Shavuot, specifically dairy (like cheesecake and blintzes, the Jewish version of crepes).
Why Shavuot and dairy? Remember that Shavuot began as a Biblical agricultural festival, so we acknowledge the time that dairy animals were able to produce so many milk products.
Also, Torah and the land of Israel are referred to as "flowing with milk and honey." Rabbis teach that the first four Hebrew letters of the Biblical verse that proscribes the sacrificial Shavuot meal spell out the Hebrew phrase that means "from milk."
Theologically, meat that was prepared before the Revelation was suddenly discovered to have been prepared in a non-kosher way and inappropriate for eating post-Sinai; it was discarded in favor of dairy products.
Finally, since the Torah is an instrument of peace, eating meat that must be killed, especially when celebrating receiving Torah, is equally inappropriate.
Finally, Shavuot celebrates a unique member of the Jewish world. The convert, the person who has chosen Judaism, also stood at Sinai.
On Shavuot, we read the story of the paradigm of Jewish conversion, a Biblical woman named Ruth, a Moabite woman who marries into an Israelite family. Ruth was an ancestor of King David, one of the most powerful Jewish figures, who in turn will be the ancestor of the Messiah.
From an agricultural perspective, the story of Ruth reinforces the value of making sure that poor people deserve to harvest and receive food with personal dignity. Ruth and her family are Biblical recipients of that value.
Even more powerful, we note that Ruth, the Moabite woman who is not a Jew, throws in her lot and her life to be with her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, stating in very stark words, "Your people shall be my people and your God my God."
The connection of Ruth to Shavuot is pretty clear. Like the Jewish people on Shavuot, Ruth announced her willingness to accept God's covenant. And the moment she made that pronouncement, she, too, could say without hesitation that she stood at Sinai.
Celebrating the spiritual and religious transformation of a convert to Judaism is powerfully symbolic of my first statement. I stood and stand at Sinai, and so did every Jew, whether born into or converting to Judaism, past, present and future. This Shavuot, I celebrate learning, community and welcoming.
Penny M. Kessler is a cantor in the United Jewish Center, 141 Deer Hill Ave., Danbury, CT. She can be reached at: 203-748-3355 or email@example.com .
Rev. Jack Perkins Davidson
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1797 treaty makes religious stand clear.
by Rev. Jack Perkins Davidson
Published: Saturday, May 24, 2014
Danbury News Times
"As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion -- as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of (Islam)."
Did you read that quote? If not, go back and read it, because it's important.
This is a line from the Treaty of Tripoli. It was written in 1797 by a local legend.
If you know the name Joel Barlow, it's probably because Redding and Easton's high school is named after this hometown hero.
Ambassador Barlow grew up in my church, the First Church of Christ, Congregational, in Redding. Our longest-serving minister, the Rev. Nathaniel Bartlett, was responsible for Barlow's entire education, even tutoring young Barlow one-on-one through his high school years, encouraging him to pursue a college degree.
When the Revolutionary War interrupted his college career, Barlow put his education to good use, serving as a chaplain in the U.S. military. When 1797 rolled around, Barlow put his Christian upbringing to good use again, writing "America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion."
I would argue that it was not in spite of his faith, but because of his faith that he held this enlightened vision of an interfaith America.
Maybe once a month I see a politician or a pundit on TV proclaiming, "Our Founding Fathers made America to be a Christian nation!"
Sometimes they'll throw in a little extra, "These Muslim terrorists don't belong here!"
It's amazing to me that this is even a question in people's minds. This debate was settled more than 200 years ago when Barlow wrote this treaty, a treaty that was unanimously approved by the Senate. A treaty that was signed by President Adams, the second President of the United States: "America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion."
Our founding fathers were pretty clear about their views on religious freedom.
This is why I'm proud to be a minister in Redding. When the media paints a false picture of religions at war, we paint a picture of peaceful pluralism.
When politicians tell a false history of a Christian nation, we tell our kids about a more diverse America. When televangelists preach sermons of exclusion, we preach a more open-minded kind of faith.
We preach about John 18:33-37, when Jesus said, "My Kingdom is not from this world." Christ didn't come to be king of America; Christ came to be king of our hearts. Christ didn't come to expand political boundaries; Christ came to subvert political boundaries.
And this is why I am proud to be a minister in the United Church of Christ. Our denomination has continued to uphold Joel Barlow's legacy through the years.
In 1989, our denomination passed a resolution calling for its constituents to learn more about Islam with "open hearts and minds" in order to correct "a history of intolerance, vilification and hostility."
In 2010, our denomination's leaders were vocal opponents to the rash of Qur'an burning events, calling it both anti-Muslim and anti-Christian.
We get some pushback every time we make a stand like this. While some tell us that as Christians we are inherently in competition with other religious traditions, we believe it is our duty as Christians to stand with and for people of all faiths.
Barlow received a similarly negative reaction to his writing the Treaty of Tripoli. Some said he was the prime example of everything that was wrong with society -- that he was no longer a Christian.
But I would argue that being open to other religions transforms us into better Christians.
In the summer of 2007, an unknown assailant drove by a mosque in Maine and threw a decapitated pig's head inside. When the mosque held a rally to restore its sense of security and sanctity, a group of us from a nearby Christian camp took the day off from work to show them our support.
I believe openness to the beliefs of others puts our own faith in a new light. It expands our understanding of God. It teaches us new ways to love our neighbor. It transforms us into better Christians.
Did you read that quote? Did you read the Treaty of Tripoli? If not, go back and read it, because it's important.
The Rev. Jack Perkins Davidson, of First Church of Christ, Congregational, UCC, 25 Cross Highway in Redding. He can be reached at 203-938-2004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rev. George O'Neill
FORUM ON FAITH
Clergy unite by common faith -- churches could, too.
by Rev. George O'Neill
Published: Saturday, May 17, 2014
Danbury News Times
When I was growing up I was blessed to have two friends who were twins, Jim and Jeff Scott. As far back as we can remember, we were best friends. We did everything together.
I used to love to be invited over to their home for meals, because Mrs. Scott always allowed us to have milk with our meals, whereas my mother would not.
My mother was of the "school of nutrition" that milk would fill us up before we could finish our meal. Mrs. Scott, on the other hand, felt as though the nutrition in the glass of milk was an integral part of the meal.
They were two loving mothers endeavoring to achieve the common goal of nutrition, each from a different perspective.
And so we are as Christians -- all churches share a common faith, but in religious practice each denomination does things a little differently.
It saddens me that Christianity is so fractured today. We all bring a certain amount of culpability for this disunity to the table, which is a shame when you consider that most Christians have much more in common than what divides us.
Yet I say "fractured" and not "broken."
I believe healing is possible. We can be encouraged that, even in the time of Jesus, there were times when Jesus even had difficulty achieving consensus among his closest followers, those we call "apostles."
Thus, it was Jesus' final prayer to the Father on the last night of his life (in John 17:20-21) that all who would be his disciples would be one, as he and the Father are one.
Jesus and his apostles came together around a table to share a meal together, and we still do that here in Brookfield.
Ever since I came to Brookfield as pastor of St. Joseph Church about six years ago, I have been meeting monthly for lunch with the Brookfield Ecumenical Clergy -- rotating the location among our churches.
Brookfield was quite a change for me from the previous 10 years, which I spent in Bridgeport. There were many new and exciting blessings and challenges.
In addition to my responsibilities to the parish and our school, I found another incredible blessing. I was welcomed into this long-standing organization for faith leaders in our community.
At first, I must admit, I was a bit apprehensive about my responsibility as a representative of Roman Catholicism in this ecumenical group.
Some of my experiences in other groups had been somewhat stressful -- as if we were playing for different teams and competing against one another. However, my experience in Brookfield was just the opposite. I was welcomed and accepted immediately as one of the team.
It was not long before I learned that our mission was collaborative -- we take advantage of opportunities throughout the year to gather as a larger community of faith in Brookfield, such as our Thanksgiving Eve service (which has been held every year since 1896), our Christmas Caroling Concert in December, and our "cross walk" through the center of town on Good Friday.
Each month, as we eat together, we share the wonderful experiences we have had in our churches since our last meeting. As we share our commitment to the risen Jesus Christ and celebrate our common faith, we often are able to break down some of the barriers of ignorance and misinformation that have divided us.
I wonder if we are fulfilling the prayer of our Savior that we may be one, as he and the Father are one?
Through the years, good times, prayer and laughter have helped us become good friends in addition to ministers of the message of Jesus Christ.
Over time, my love and respect for these men and women have grown in leaps and bounds. I have learned so much from my colleagues.
Why does it matter if one group of local Christians can learn to get along? What if we -- like my mom and Mrs. Scott -- can acknowledge and accept our different approaches to "spiritual nutrition" and still celebrate and affirm how much we have in common?
If the Brookfield Ecumenical Clergy and other grass-roots faith groups in our area can begin to dispel some of the prejudice and ignorance of years past and commit to uniting in the much greater body of faith that we share, that long-ago prayer of Jesus, "that they may all be one," may be answered.
The Rev. George F. O'Neill is pastor of St. Joseph Church in Brookfield. He can be reached at 203-209-4908 or email@example.com.
Rev. Pat Kriss
FORUM ON FAITH
Congregational church expresses God's joy.
by Rev. Pat Kriss
Published: Saturday, May 10, 2014
Danbury News Times
If I were to the mention the word "Puritan" or "Pilgrim" to you, is the first mental image you get some kind of visual cliche from an old Thanksgiving card -- joyless, straight-laced individuals dressed all in black, with buckled hats, clutching their muskets? And are they going into one of New England's historic Congregational meetinghouses, preparing to sit through a mind-numbing three-hour church service?
If so, you might have wondered as you've wandered past lovely Connecticut town greens if those ancient white churches labeled "Congregational" are still that way.
My church here in Danbury, First Congregational Church (United Church of Christ), is a downtown landmark, with its gleaming, exuberant white-and-gold tower that was just repainted last year. Looking at that, you probably wouldn't connect our building with anything puritanical or prudish. And you know? You'd be right.
First Congregational Church of Danbury, just across from City Hall, is anything but prudish. Our beautiful tower is a symbol of what's going on inside, both with the building and the people who care for it. You see, everything old is new again.
We believe that what's going on inside the building and the people is joy. We're joyful because we're old -- the oldest church congregation in Danbury, first gathered in 1696. We're also joyful because we're new.
We believe we've found new ways to bring God's love to growing numbers of children and families -- through trips that connect nature with its Creator and its kids, and through Sunday morning Bible magic that helps youngsters see Scripture for the first time in a way that makes sense for them -- and injects some fun.
Congregationalists are "back to basics" kinds of Christians -- evoking those first-century communities of believers where just listening to the word of God was at the center of their worship. We believe that hearing God doesn't require a hierarchy of bishops to tell people how to do it -- that every believer can feel the presence of the Spirit lighting up one's heart.
We believe it's the people in a church who help create the community of believers, who are on an equal footing with their minister, who is their teacher. The power of decisions rests in the people. Congregationalists believe that God is involved in every aspect of life, that God is not somewhere way "out there," but "in here," among human beings.
One of the greatest minds of Congregationalism was the 18th century's "New Light" minister, Jonathan Edwards. He described God's indwelling presence in the hearts of believers, illuminating each person with God's love and created beauty. This inner light fills the individual as the music, the scripture and the message come together inside.
Every faith community, regardless of denomination, has its symbols that point us toward God's presence. And at First Church, we have our own.
Our church tower is a symbol, with its pineapple-shaped finials, symbols of hospitality beckoning all inside. We have a tradition at our church of inviting anyone to arrange to honor the memory of a loved one or a special anniversary by lighting the tower to shine over Danbury in the evening. The homeless shelter in our basement is also a part of our tradition of hospitality to our wider community.
One of the oldest and most important symbols of our faith and connectedness as a community is our baptismal bowl, the Comfort Starr bowl, over which every person at First Church has been baptized since 1753. The bowl was a gift from Mr. Starr in 1753 after the tragic deaths of some of his children. On Mother's Day, Sunday, another little baby girl will be baptized over that sacred bowl. And so it remains a symbol of faith, renewal, and everlasting community.
Finally, something new -- the future. At the heart of every faith's journey toward God is a sense of profound mystery. God, Jonathan Edwards said, is meant to be deeply felt. Edwards particularly noted how young people were softened by their encounters with God.
Children love a mystery. For the last year we have chosen to use Christ-centered Bible magic's mystery most Sundays before church school to illustrate for our children the meaning and power of the Gospel -- a moment enjoyed as well by the "Big Kids" in the pews. At First Church, that's what we believe it's all about -- putting God's joy into the way life is lived.
Rev. Jennifer Whipple
FORUM ON FAITH
Youth mission trips engage our faith.
by Rev. Jennifer Whipple
Published: Saturday, May 3, 2014
Danbury News Times
"Hey, Pastor Jen, as human beings and people of faith, do we have an ethical and social responsibility to take care of others? ... That's the question I would like to ask the group during tomorrow night's devotion time if that's OK with you."
That question came from the mouth, brain and heart of a 17-year-old member of the senior high youth group at my church, the Congregational Church of Brookfield, when we were on a mission trip making home repairs in West Virginia last summer.
It was a moment that filled my heart with such joy that it seemed the skies opened and the angels began to sing!
Moments like those, when people actively engage their faith with the questions of everyday living and want to challenge others to join them, make me love how the Christian faith calls us outside of our church walls to be about the work of mission in the world.
I grew up with parents who were youth group leaders at the Congregational Church of Naugatuck, so I began going on youth mission trips long before I was a teenager.
Since childhood I have cherished these opportunities to be immersed in another culture -- whether in the United States or another country -- to engage my faith, to move outside my comfort zone, and to learn from others and different ways of life.
Today, it is a highlight of my call as associate pastor at Congregational Church of Brookfield to help connect our men's and women's mission teams, as well as our children and youth, with mission opportunities locally, nationally and internationally.
At our local church as well as in our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, we have a long history of great adventures in mission work.
The UCC could be said to have begun when "separatist" Pilgrims set out from Holland (having been severely persecuted in England) to find a new world where they could practice their faith without state control -- and from that foundation, our First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion were born.
Since then sharing God's love with others through word and deed has been a top priority of our churches. In fact, our Brookfield congregation has the distinction of having sent some of the first missionaries to Hawaii in the early 1800s.
On this fateful "youth mission trip," about a dozen people (almost all of them under 30) set off in October 1819 on a voyage of nearly six months -- sailing to the South Pacific's Sandwich Islands around the bottom of South America.
Our church strives today to continue this bold outreach with open hands, hearts and minds.
We are nearly always engaged in some kind of local mission, as well as longer mission trips to places like New Orleans, Boston, South Dakota, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
The vision statement of our church is "Make Jesus Your Mentor: Pray Share Welcome." In that spirit we follow the example of Jesus -- ministering to and with people from all different places and different walks of life.
Jesus never hesitated to sit down and break bread with people who were vastly different from himself. He was eager to share his experiences and to hear their stories.
I have found it is an amazing gift to be invited into someone's home -- whether it is a city shelter, a trailer on a remote mountainside, or a hurricane-ravaged suburban house -- and to share what God has given us, as well as to receive the stories and experience that are freely offered by those we serve and from whom we learn.
On every mission trip I think about the questions asked, the reflection that takes place, the examples set by people of all ages -- and I can't thank God enough for the opportunity to see his love in action.
If we are open to what we experience, I also realize what a gift we receive when we learn more than we can ever imagine about individuals, communities, social issues, our own faith and faith that often looks very different from ours.
We are stretched and challenged to give more than we knew we had to give, and we are blessed to receive far more than we ever suspected we needed.
Rev. Jennifer Whipple is the Associate Pastor of the Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC) located at 160 Whisconier Road, Brookfield, CT 06804. She can be reached at 203-775-1259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rev. Amanda L. Warner
FORUM ON FAITH
Church's children welcome at communion.
by Rev. Amanda L. Warner
Published: Saturday, April 26, 2014
Danbury News Times
At my church, Prince of Peace Lutheran in Brookfield, we do not have "first communion" the way that many other churches have first communion.
We do not have a period of instruction that leads up to a day when a group of children finally receive their first communion.
Instead, at our church, any Sunday could be a first communion for some child, or even an adult, in our congregation.
For some, the day of their baptism is also the day of their first communion. For others, it happens around the time they start reaching for the bread and the cup.
For still others, it happens after a period of more formal instruction.
One child, around a year old, had his first communion the day when he watched me distribute the host to his mother and then calmly took it out of her hand and ate it.
Just as calmly I said to him, "The body of Christ, given for you. Welcome to the Lord's table." I then proceeded to commune his slightly surprised mother again.
Many of the children in our congregation will never remember a time when they were not communing members of the church.
For those new to our congregation or outside our congregation -- even some other Lutherans -- this seems like a strange way to conduct things, with infants and toddlers taking communion, and first communions happening any Sunday.
There is concern that the children will not take communion seriously enough or will not understand what is happening when they take communion.
There is concern that a sacrament of the church will be reduced to snack time.
I truly understand and share that concern. The sacrament of the altar needs to be honored. Its integrity as a holy mystery needs to be maintained.
But when we allow children, with their capacity for belief and wonder, to participate in the sacrament, I believe that the sacrament is honored and that its mystery and holiness is faithfully tended by the youngest among us.
One Sunday, during a children's sermon, I asked the gathered children, "Have you ever seen Jesus?"
I do not remember what answer I was expecting, but I remember getting one I did not foresee.
A 5-year-old who had had no formal instruction in the meaning of communion pointed to the altar and said, "We see Jesus when we take communion."
We take many opportunities to teach children about communion at Prince of Peace. One of them is a communion event held every other year, during which children bake the communion bread for use at a worship service, participate in skits that tell Bible stories about communion, learn about the meaning of communion from one of the pastors, and tour the sacristy and the altar with one of our altar guild members.
Most of the children who participate in the communion event have been receiving communion for many years. Some, though, will receive their first communion the day after the communion event and will also present the communion bread that they made with their classmates at the altar for use at communion.
More important than the exact date, age or way in which they receive their first communion are all of the communions that come after it -- all of the times when they gather at the Lord's table with their church community.
When they commune, they participate in a meal that transcends time and space -- it is a meal during which we Lutherans believe Christ is present and we are joined with the faithful all over the world and with the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us into God's heavenly kingdom.
From its Latin roots, the word "communion" means "a sharing" or "with unity." With that meaning, it is ironic that communion is something about which various Christian denominations are known to be divided.
Different churches teach different things about what communion means, different churches have different rules about who is allowed to receive communion and at what age, and different churches distribute communion in different ways.
But in that moment we receive communion -- in whatever way our church practices, whether it is our first communion or our 700th -- I believe we receive it as little children, fed by a loving hand.
The Rev. Amanda L. Warner is the Associate Pastor of the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. P.O. Box 5184, Brookfield, CT 06804. She can be reached at: 203-775-9070 and email@example.com.
Fr. Angelo Arrando
FORUM ON FAITH
We can faithfully follow the path Jesus set.
by Rev. Angelo S. Arrando
Published: Saturday, April 19, 2014
Danbury News Times
Tomorrow, on Easter Sunday, Christians around the world will again celebrate our core central belief -- the resurrection of Jesus.
Having just come through remembrance of Holy Thursday (the last meal of Jesus) and Good Friday (his crucifixion), our sadness is overcome with Easter joy.
This last week leading up to Easter, the one Christians call Holy Week, can be a challenge for many.
I have heard rhetoric from TV evangelists fanning the fires of anti-Semitism with the circumstances of Jesus' death, missing the point entirely. In my experience, not all who claim to follow Jesus are faithful to him and to his teachings.
I believe that uninformed rhetoric is not only misleading, but dangerous. Non-Christians must wonder at the role of this so-called Prince of Peace when his followers so often preach hate. I believe hatred has no place within Christianity.
Over the centuries, horrific things have been done in the name of Jesus, presumed to be with his blessing. History shows how often Jesus has been turned into a weapon of mass destruction. Misguided rhetoric encouraged horrific things against Jews over the centuries.
In an apparent anti-Semitic hate crime just last weekend, a gunman took the life of three innocent people at Jewish centers in Overland Park, Kan.
It makes no sense. How do so many Christians seemingly forget that Jesus was a Jew? Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a Jew. His father, Joseph, was a Jew. The disciples were Jews. Jesus never stopped being a Jew.
It took my church, the Roman Catholic Church, 20 centuries before absolving Jews of complicity in the death of Jesus. When absolution finally came, by Pope Paul VI in October 1965, it was a significant, though long-overdue, moment.
Looking back, non-Christians must call into question why anyone would want to be a follower of this Jesus. Could Jesus be really as judgmental as many Christians make him sound? So condemning? So hateful?
That's why I believe it's so important to remember that not all Christians speak for Christianity, nor for Christ. How do non-Christians come to know about Jesus other than witnessing the words and actions of Jesus' followers?
I believe that knowing Jesus challenges Christians to live and walk in his footsteps and embody his teachings. That is our true Easter challenge, I think -- the resurrection of Jesus calls his followers to be life-givers, embodying Jesus by caring for the very least in our midst.
How Jesus resounds in us then becomes the barometer of our understanding of Jesus. Christianity teaches that Jesus lives in us; we abide in him. Christians remember and believe that Jesus became what we are so we might become what he is.
As Christians, we are called to find our compass in Jesus. When asked who we are and what life means to us, it is to Jesus that we point. It is his kind of life we would love to live.
Like us, Jesus had to ask himself every day, "How shall I live today?" Like us, who Jesus was and who he ultimately became was worked out in the personal center of his own soul.
Like us, without grandeur, beset by setbacks and through drab, dull, wet, cold ordinary days, Jesus played the hand that life dealt him. Jesus made do with what life gave him. Jesus endured what life did to him.
Like our own lives, the life of Jesus took the form of a story. When his human life was over, his story was shaped by the decision he made to live the life he lived. Jesus pointed us down a road we humans now can take.
What Jesus was, he asked us to become. What Jesus did, he asked us to do. He was the love he asked us to live. He was the humility he asked us to imitate. He was the poverty he asked us to practice.
Jesus walked us through. Jesus showed us how. I believe what Jesus did is doable. I believe it is our turn to do it now. I believe this is what Jesus means when he says to each of us, "Come, follow me."
My prayer is that Easter joy and Resurrection hope can keep us focused on the good news of God's unending love for all of humanity -- Jew and Gentile alike.
The Rev. Angelo S. Arrando is pastor of St. Gregory the Great Church, 85 Great Plain Road, Danbury. He can be reached at 203-797-0222 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi David Lipper
FORUM ON FAITH
Exodus illustrates strength of faith weathers storms.
by Rabbi David A. Lipper
Published: Saturday, April 12, 2014
Danbury News Times
In Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," he references a story of a lance fashioned from wood that was "storm strengthened on a windy height." It came from a tree standing lone and solitary on a deserted mountain, battered and beaten by the winds' fury. The roots held fast; their grasp triumphed over every condition that sought to uproot them.
I believe this is an important parable for the Exodus narrative, which Jews remember every Passover. Storms rise, vent their fury over our lives and leave for certain their tell-tale scars. But they also can leave behind an impenetrable strength born in the crucible of life -- sometimes unimaginable strength, like the faith of our ancestors, which carries us through the storm.
Storms are a natural component of life on this planet. Whether we, like Tennyson, can fashion a lance from the storms of our life depends on the quality of our spiritual resources and the faith stories and practices that we are able to muster to our aid.
I find the spirit of the Passover Exodus narrative in the poetry of William Henley a as well. As a child he caught tuberculosis and had a foot amputated. He seemed to struggle under the weight of the storms that pounded him. He wrote:
I find the spirit of the Passover narrative in Beethoven and Bach, both deaf, and in the arthritis-ravaged Chopin. As in the Exodus, person after person, beaten and battered by physical struggles, raised their sails in order to find calmer waters.
They transformed their lives into shields against the storms that surrounded them. They were gifted with a unique spark of life that built faith and hope when all seemed lost. They proved that the human spirit holds a remarkable luminescence, powerful enough to melt away the darkness and defeat the storms of life.
This is the essence of the Exodus narrative. It is focused on the desire of individuals, and then a people, to be pulled from a bondage that has held them captive towards a freedom that will allow them to be the "masters of their fate," as Henley wrote.
As Moses was drawn out of the water, so too Jews today, as we celebrate Passover, share stories of how we ourselves are drawn out of our bondage. At the time of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, bondage was a literal and physical struggle against oppression. But we recognize a spiritual component to that bondage as well.
The Jewish people know well the pain of history and the struggles through time of people in lands near and far. We have journeyed through oppression and exile, time and again overcoming the forces that would have destroyed us.
The great Jewish poet and philosopher Martin Buber felt that we must, in order to thrive in the world of faith and defeat the storms that rage, focus our efforts on creating an intimacy with God. That it was through our relationship with God, in the most personal and profound way, that humanity could find the path to true living and sacred redemption.
Similarly, for me, the essence of the Exodus narrative is that redemption is found not by fleeing from one's bondage, but by facing it in sacred partnership -- where strength can be found to survive all bondage. I believe redemption is possible only when relationship to the Divine is primary in our lives.
To me, deliverance from our own bondage moments hangs on the relationship we have built with God in our lives. The market may rise and fall, oppression may once again rear its ugly head, bondages may come -- but the Jewish tradition teaches that there is always a sunrise after darkness. For people of Jewish faith, the key to seeing that sunrise is our faith in the divine relationship that guides and sustains us in both good times and bad.
So like Lord Tennyson's tree, alone and exposed on a rocky crag, the Exodus narrative is central to Passover and to the Jewish faith because of its timeless illustration of people standing most days battered by forces all around. Resolute we stand because the roots of our "tree of life" reach deep into the soil and create for us a stable and firm foundation of faith -- faith that endures.
Rabbi David A. Lipper, DD, Interim Rabbi - Temple B'nai Chaim, Georgetown, Connecticut.
Rev. Joseph Shelpey
FORUM ON FAITH
Clergy stitch together humanity's life events.
by Rev. Joseph Shepley
Published: Saturday, April 5, 2014
Danbury News Times
This inevitable question in the average social encounter is especially interesting for the clergy. Once, while not in uniform, rather than simply offering the usual cocktail party conversation stopper of "priest," I responded reflectively, "Hatching, matching, dispatching."
With a quizzical look, my conversation partner replied, "So, you're in mass marketing"?
"Well, yes, in a manner of speaking," said I.
"Packaging and distribution?" he continued.
"That's one way to look at it," I nodded. Then I came clean. "I am an Episcopal priest."
As I suspected, he was at a loss for words, but then found his footing: "So what exactly do you do between Sundays since you don't have to work?"
We clergy are a contradiction to the world.
The work of a pastor brings together diverse patches of the human experience, creating a deeply textured tapestry forming the people of God.
We don't choose our parishioners; rather, God chooses us for our church family. Our common life is ever stretching under inexorable change, both inside our own perspectives and in the surrounding diversity of faces we call "the church."
We baptize new life, officiate at marriages hinging on blissful hope, and stand on the precipice blessing souls embarking for the other side. And then there is all that lies in between.
The poignancy of life's endings especially tests the mettle of clergy. Coming alongside a person facing the mystery of death, we preside over the fabric of our divine connections as they undergo a tear.
Sometimes this is quite sudden, while at other times the rending of mortality's garment is gradual, with time to reflect and prepare for the journey ahead.
Being a pastor can be a heartbreaking venture, leaving us a bit frayed. As pastors, we engage the division between this life and the next by proclaiming an eternal seamlessness, withstanding all visible separations of body, mind and spirit through the promises of God.
Balanced by the sheer joy that comes with the daily touching of eternity, to oversee and commend to God person after person, year after year, can nevertheless take its toll. Loss is very sad, and we pastors experience more than most, even in all of the hope we declare.
Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. We are in good company when we weep as well.
Christ-centered wellness -- an integrated, healthy and balanced approach to life, with plenty of laughter -- seems to me essential if we are to joyfully fulfill our vocation witnessing to Christ's resurrection power over death.
As the Spirit works through us, I hope we clergy can become healing, reconciling stitchwork in the fabric of life. And we could not be who we are without so many good lay people framing God's work in us.
God ultimately does the work of holding us all together as the church -- as a sign of wholeness within a fragmented existence for far too many in our community and beyond.
A recent exchange occurred in an elevator as I rode to the 26th floor in a Manhattan office building, and a young woman nervously looked at my collar: "Did someone die?"
"No," I chuckled, "I'm just here for lunch."
"Oh, that's good," she exhaled with relief, then changing gears asked, "Is the lunch up there any good?"
Taken from the sublime to the mundane on a daily basis, "boring" is not in our lexicon. We are entrusted with what I believe is the world's most privileged calling, each day bringing its own adventure in a world still trying to understand us.
The Rev. Joseph Shepley, Rector, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Brookfield, CT 06804. He can be reached at: 203-775-9587
Rev. Dennis Mason
FORUM ON FAITH
Walking the stations as Lenten preparation.
by Rev. Dennis J. Mason
Published: Saturday, March 29, 2014
Danbury News Times
During the season of Lent, the Catholic tradition, like other Christian traditions, has certain customs and practices.
From the Bible, we learn to fast, pray and practice works of charity.
In our liturgical life, worship takes on a tone of penance -- with muted colors, sparse decoration, and musical pieces in plaintive minor keys.
Also, from our devotional tradition, Catholics participate in a Lenten form of prayer called Stations of the Cross.
Along the side walls of most Catholic churches you'll find fourteen artistic representations of Jesus' long walk to his crucifixion called "the Stations." They are sometimes sculptures, sometimes mosaics, sometimes paintings.
The Stations present various events along the road to the cross, up to Calvary, such as Jesus being condemned by Pilate or his meeting with women from Jerusalem who wept to witness his suffering.
During Lent, usually on Fridays, Roman Catholics in our community and around the world will meditate and pray about those events -- walking the Stations of the Cross as a devotional practice.
For Catholics, the liturgy is the source and the high point of all prayer and worship. All the Catholic devotions outside of the liturgy (for instance, the rosary or benediction) are drawn from the liturgy and are meant to lead back to the liturgy.
The devotion of the Stations of the Cross is drawn from the Solemn Liturgy of the Lord's Passion and Death on Good Friday. Praying the Stations during Lent is meant to prepare participants to enter into that Good Friday liturgy.
The Stations of the Cross began early in the Christian era when pilgrims travelled to Jerusalem and prayerfully walked the path which Jesus took up to Calvary, stopping along the way to remember specific events of the first Good Friday.
When pilgrims returned home, they told their families and friends about their experience of walking in the footsteps of Jesus.
Eventually those who were unable to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem wanted to share the experience in some way.
Artists began to depict the scenes of Jesus' journey to the cross. Spiritual leaders began to write prayers and musicians to compose songs to match the events depicted.
The most popular hymn used at the Stations is more than 700 years old and tells of the sorrow which Jesus' mother, Mary, felt at seeing her son so cruelly treated.
With time, the devotion became universal in the Catholic Church. When Catholics pray the Stations, they are on a spiritual journey, symbolically accompanying Jesus through his suffering and death.
Sometimes Stations are also set up outdoors. Imitating the pilgrims in Jerusalem, people walk the path of Jesus either on the grounds or inside their home churches, just by moving from one Station to another.
The word "station" comes from a Latin word that means a stopping place. Praying this devotion, participants move from Station to Station, stopping at each one to meditate, pray and sing about the Lord's suffering and death.
As they journey through the Stations, participants adore and thank Jesus for accepting death so that they might have new life in God.
In the Stations, participants also connect their life stories with Jesus' story. They see that Jesus was no stranger to the tenderness and terror, gentleness and disregard, pain and consolation which they themselves know at times in their own lives.
Thus, their faith as Christians that the Son of God really did become one of them can be deepened and strengthened.
By praying the Stations, participants have an opportunity to take their life's journey and unite it with Jesus. They are invited to find hope in his hurt, challenge in his forgiving heart, inspiration in his acceptance and gratitude for his gift of himself.
For me, the Stations help me recognize that I am not alone on the journey. They help me prepare to offer prayers and work, joys and sufferings to God the Father with Jesus at the Solemn Liturgy of the Lord's Passion and Death on Good Friday.
The Rev. Dennis J. Mason, OFM Conv., is pastor of Sacred Heart Church, 46 Stone St. in Danbury. He can be reached at 203-748-9029 or email@example.com.
Rev. Kimberly Bosley
FORUM ON FAITH
Lent is a time of preparation.
by Rev. Kimberly Bosley
Published: Saturday, March 22, 2014
Danbury News Times
On March 5, Christians all over the Western world went to services to have their foreheads marked with a cross made from ash.
Ash symbolizes our mortality ("ashes to ashes, dust to dust"), and receiving the sign of the cross indicates our understanding of the need for repentance.
Ash Wednesday traditionally marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a 40-day period leading up to Easter (not including Sundays).
Christians understand Lent to be a season of spiritual preparation.
The word Lent comes from the old English word "Lenten," meaning spring -- not only a reference to the season before Easter, but also an invitation to a kind of "springtime for the soul."
Why 40 days? Lenten observance began in the 7th century, and it is thought the early church had several other 40-day (or 40-year) periods in mind when it established Lent as 40 days long.
For example, Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness learning to trust God. The prophet Elijah spent 40 days in the wilderness before hearing the still, small voice of God on the same mountain where Moses spent 40 days listening to God give the law.
In the New Testament, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness -- a period of testing and preparation between his baptism and his ministry. And so the choice of a 40-day period has some Biblical significance as an appropriate amount of time to prepare.
How do modern Christians prepare spiritually during Lent? There is no "one size fits all" for Lenten practices, and indeed there are denominational differences. I can only speak for practices I have seen United Methodists observe.
Some United Methodist Christians understand the 40-day period as a time to observe traditional spiritual disciplines such as fasting, praying and meditating on the word of God.
Commonly, individual churches offer programs for their members to enhance their time of preparation. The goal of these programs is to give church members an opportunity to deepen their spiritual connection with God.
This could be accomplished through a sermon series, enhanced worship experiences and opportunities for small group participation.
At Danbury United Methodist Church, for instance, we are offering a sermon series, "Following in the Footsteps of Jesus," to enhance members' understanding of the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, a foundational event at the heart of Christianity.
At our church, even the children get into the act.
Their programs are aimed at helping them to understand that Lent is a quieter time of getting ready for the joyful celebration of Easter.
To help experience this in a concrete way, during a recent children's sermon youngsters collected the word "alleluia" written on pieces of paper throughout the sanctuary and put them in a box that will not be opened until Easter.
Adults in our church also get the opportunity to talk more intimately about their faith and to learn with others, which is the goal of our small groups. This Lent we are offering a seven-week study on "The Final Words from the Cross" by United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton.
Its goal is to help Christians understand the significance of each of the phrases Jesus Christ was said to have proclaimed from the cross just before his death.
After dinner, group members watch a video on one of the final words or phrases, delve into Bible study, discuss group questions and conclude with prayer time.
This group time enhances each individual's experience of making Lent a time for spiritual introspection.
Here are some reasons group members said they were drawn to participate in a Lenten study class:
"It is very important to me to focus on what Jesus has sacrificed for us. I think about it a lot, especially at this time of year. I don't want to take it for granted."
"During Lent, I give up something as a personal sacrifice. I am choosing to give up some of my personal time to learn more about the Bible and the kind of life Jesus wants us to live."
"Lent encapsulates a basic tenant of the Christian religion. Without the crucifixion, there would no Christianity."
"Easter is so central to our faith that it's important to get ready for it."
The public is invited to join us for dinner and Bible study every Thursday beginning at 6 p.m. in our fellowship hall.
Rev. Kimberly Bosley is the Pastor, Danbury United Methodist Church, 5 Clapboard Ridge Rd.
Danbury, CT 06811. She can be reached at: 203-743-1503 or Email at:
Rabbi Jon Haddon
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Purim is Every Day for Jews.
by Rabbi Jon Haddon
Published: Saturday, March 15, 2014
Danbury News Times
Jews celebrate Purim this year on Sunday -- a holiday that centers around the biblical book of Esther and Esther's remarkable story.
But the message of Purim is really a way of reading all of Jewish history and> one that I believe is relevant for our own day, as well as perhaps for people of other faiths.
For one thing, Purim teaches the importance of treating women equally to men.
Esther, a beauty queen married to the King of Persia, finds herself in a position to learn of a plot to exterminate the Jews, her people. And with the help of God, she finds >the courage to speak up and save herself and her nation.
It is remarkable that, in a world of patriarchal domination, this book about salvation coming from a woman has remained a perennial favorite among Jews everywhere.
Little boys and girls grow up knowing about a powerful woman who intervened to save the Jews. Without Esther's calm, her intelligence, and her articulate and dramatic words, her people would not have survived.
Esther's example is one that empowers women to be all that they can be, to realize that gender is not a limitation or a destiny.
Esther liberates both men and women to be who they are as individuals and to take responsibility for their actions, their people, and the world around them.
A second lesson to emerge from the Megillah -- the scroll of the Book of Esther, which is read on the festival of Purim -- is the imperative of Jews to fight for their own defense.
Evil people -- the spiritual heirs of Haman, the villain of the story -- are often willing to scapegoat Jews and blame them for everything, from inflation to communism to war.
Israel is the only country in the world whose enemies want to get rid of it and its civilians entirely, rather than simply disputing a territorial claim or a particular policy. The irrational and obsessive nature of anti-Semitism is as true now as in the days of Haman.
In the book of Esther, the Persian King Ahasuerus shows us that for evil to triumph the only thing good people have to do is nothing.
The king was not a wicked man, not a fervent anti-Semite. But he allowed himself to be manipulated by Haman, and the results were devastating.
Yet what brought Haman down was the resolve of one brave Jewish woman to speak up for her people. And so Jews today speak up actively for what is in our own interests -- for a vital and democratic state of Israel, and for the freedom and safety of the world's Jews, including those in the United States.
Synagogues place a high value on Jewish education for this reason -- and Purim, lifting up the story of Esther each year, is a part of the story.
The twofold lesson most Jews take from this is that we make an effort to establish permanent dialogue with other peoples, educating them about the reality of Jewish living and Jewish people so that the Hamans of the world will not have an audience.
Additionally, we are always on guard, trying never to allow ourselves to be in the role of dupes to bigotry, whether against a race, a gender, a religion or a sexual orientation.
Jews have a special interest to oppose any form of hatred, persecution or discrimination.
For instance, even as I write this column, the situation in Ukraine has the attention of the world's Jews. Rioting and anarchy is rampant -- in a country steeped with a history of anti-Semitism and hatred for Jews.
Recently in Ukraine, there have been reports of attacks on Jewish people, vandalism of Jewish schools and synagogues firebombed.
And so this Purim, Jewish communities around the world are paying close attention to the news coming out of Ukraine, and we are praying especially for the Jews who live there.
I believe the lessons of Purim are relevant today: the equality of men and women, the need to oppose anti-Semitism, to support Jewish interests, and to reach out to all humanity to transcend hatred.
For Jews, Purim continues on every day of our existence.
Rabbi Jon Haddon is Rabbi Emeritus of the Temple Shearith Israel, Ridgefield, CT and a member of the ARC Board of Directors. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rev. Matt Crebbin
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Stories of strength and struggle form church's history.
by Rev. Matt Crebbin
Published: Saturday, March 8, 2014
Danbury News Times
This year Newtown Congregational Church (UCC) is celebrating its 300th anniversary. Like most United Church of Christ communities in New England, our congregation traces its roots back to the earliest settlers of this region. Our congregation was the first faith community of Newtown, as local folks gathered in 1714 to build a church in the newly incorporated town.
We are proud of our rich heritage and also excited about the next 300 years! Our tradition believes that every generation is called to make the historic Christian faith its own in faith and practice. With three centuries of history, our church is filled with stories of strength and struggle, hope and healing, foolishness and faithfulness. In honor of this anniversary year, I offer a story that took place 49 years ago this month.
In March 1965, our newly called senior minister, the Rev. Alastair Sellars, had been serving the Newtown Congregational Church only a few months. During that time Rev. Sellars had been meeting monthly with fellow Newtown clergy and had discussed the issue of voting rights for Southern blacks and the demonstrations taking place in Selma, Ala. (In March 1965, Civil Rights supporters who tried to march from Selma to Montgomery were met with violence by local and state police.)
Newtown Clergy reached out to leaders of the Selma movement asking how they might be able to help. "Can you come down?" was the response. So, Alastair, along with these other Newtown pastors -- Edward Cook of Trinity Episcopal Church, James Ilten of Christ the King Lutheran and Richard Losch of St. John's Episcopal Church -- joined the Selma demonstrators.
During their visit, Newtown clergy attempted to attend worship services at white Southern churches. They were told that they could enter but that their "friends" who were black could not. The faith leaders decided to worship on the sidewalk. In addition, during their stay in Selma, the Newtown clergy leaders provided spiritual and emotional support for the demonstrators who had gathered.
When they returned to Newtown, there were those within their congregations and the wider community who were critical of their trip. Some within our own church wondered if "we should keep this man in our pulpit." It is said that the chairman of Sellars' "Calling Committee," which had made the decision to call the new pastor to Newtown, had stopped participating in church affairs.
An editorial in a local paper wondered if these town faith leaders' time and energy would be better spent "tilling the local soil." The four clergy leaders met with members of their churches and the community at a gathering in Edmond Town Hall to share the story of their journey. Nearly all who gathered agreed with the goal and spirit of the trip -- in fact their meeting ended with the group singing together, "We Shall Overcome."
Long-time members tell me that they still remember that gathering. It continues to remind them that faith calls them to look beyond the internal interests of our church (as important as those may be) and care about what is happening in the world. This continues to be a bedrock principle for many of us within the United Church of Christ.
In response to the questions and interest raised by their journey to Selma, the four Newtown spiritual leaders wrote a joint statement about their reasons for the trip: "We went to Selma because we believe that the present crisis is a religious issue. The business of the church is not merely within four walls. Too often the church has stood by, indifferent towards social injustice and human suffering. We went to give encouragement to the people of Selma in their struggle for their God-given and Constitutional rights. We hold the nation to be morally responsible; for violence done to any man is violence done to all of us."
Our congregation continues to believe that the business of the church is not merely within its four walls. While we believe that faith is always deeply personal, it is never private. Like our faith ancestors of 300 and 49 years ago, we continue to discern how we are called by God to make the historic faith our own in this time and place.
For we believe that "God is Still Speaking," and there is "yet more light and truth to break forth" in the midst of our lives and in the midst of our world.
Rev. Matt Crebbin is the Senior Ministerat the Newtown Congregational Church, UCC.
14 West Street, Newtown, CT 06470.
He can be reached at: 203 426-9024 or email@example.com .
Ven. Ocean of Wisdom Sakya
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Transforming ignorance to wisdom.
by Ven. Ocean of Wisdom Sakya
Published: Saturday, March 1, 2014
Danbury News Times
Buddhism is about transforming ignorance into wisdom for ourselves and others.
The Buddha saw the world suffering and sought a way out of that suffering for all beings. The word often translated as "suffering" from the Pali texts is "dukkha," but I prefer the translation "stress."
The Buddha said life is full of stress, and if he had stopped there, Buddhism would be very pessimistic. However, the Buddha said if we eliminate the cause of stress, then stress itself will end.
So what causes stress? The main cause of stress is ignorance, or literally not knowing how the world actually is; we fail to experience things as they really are.
The true nature of existence is that all things are impermanent, and all things rely on other things for their existence; all things are interdependent.
Now we know intellectually that all things are impermanent -- we know our bodies won't be here in 100 years. Society as we view it will be gone in 100 years. Many physical things around us will be changed -- but we don't know this experientially.
As a human being, I am a result of many different causes and conditions that we call interdependence. My body was provided by my parents.
From my birth, the air, the water and the food I take in have been responsible for my existence. All the food I receive comes from the Earth and the labor of others.
For example, let's say I eat an apple. The apple consists of the wind, rain, sun and soil. If any of these things is not present, the apple ceases to come into being, and I cannot nourish myself.
Therefore, I should be very careful not to poison any of the things that become part of the apple, because I will, in turn, be poisoning myself. Buddhists recognize, as Native Peoples have, that whatever we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves.
Also, for me to have an apple, the farmer had to grow it. For that to happen, someone had to give birth to the farmer.
The apple needs to get from the orchard to the grocery store, and that requires a truck. This means someone had to have an idea of a truck with an engine and tires.
This means that someone had to harvest the rubber for the tires and the metal for the engine, and someone had to give birth to all those people who did the work.
If any of these elements are missing, then I don't get the apple. In fact, if I follow this logic, I can see that there isn't a single being since the beginning of time that in some way has not been involved in my having an apple right now.
For Buddhists, globalization is not a new idea -- it is a perennial reality.
So ignorance of impermanence and interdependence is what leads us to misunderstanding. We see things as divided and separate, where they are actually constantly co-producing each other.
Because of this divided mind, we start generating greed and aversion to all the things of the world, including other people, when in fact we are all interdependent.
We divide the world into likes and dislikes. We divide the world into nations, races, religions and even subcategories of religion. We forget the reality that underlies ourselves is also the reality of all others.
If we see deeply, we can see that all beings also experience stress, and all beings seek to be happy, regardless of category. Though categories have conventional utility, if reified they lead to misery.
Because of not knowing, we also tend to seek happiness in the attainment of fame or power, or through filling ourselves with TV, food, technology or various drugs.
And then we compete with each other over these things, rather than attempt to make each other happy. But none of these things can give lasting happiness.
So how do we cut through this ignorance? In Buddhism, we meditate. Meditation is the process that leads to an experiential understanding of impermanence and interdependence.
Experiential understanding is what we call wisdom, and when our wisdom is cultivated, ignorance about the nature of reality dissipates, and the resulting state is one of no stress, which we Buddhists call Nirvana.
Ven. Ocean-of-Wisdom Sakya is the Abbot of the Middle-Way Meditation Centers. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Living the slogan 'To care is to do'.
by Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Published: Saturday, February 22, 2014
Danbury News Times
When I was growing up in the Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro, N.C., we had an oft-repeated national UCC motto: "To believe is to care. To care is to do."
This slogan still rings true to many in my current church, the Congregational Church of Brookfield.
I laughed out loud last Sunday, when one small woman struggled through the church door, her arms brimming over with an extra-large bundle of bulk toilet paper. She could barely see over it, and she struggled to put it down before finding her seat in a pew.
This is why I love my church -- we are such practical Christians that we seek to love the people Jesus called us to love by making sure they all have well-stocked bathrooms.
To us, "believing in Jesus" means that we try very hard to live like Jesus, to follow in the way of Jesus -- loving others as he loved the world.
This means reaching out to help others with actual human hands, with real human touch -- we embody God's love with very practical gifts of food, shelter, clothing and, yes, even toilet paper.
Our people respond with genuine and astounding generosity every time our Church-in-Society Committee issues an appeal for help.
This month -- as February is "love" month, when we send Valentines to loved ones -- we began a "Feed the Love, Sustain the Soul" food drive to benefit our Brookfield Social Services Food Pantry.
The overflowing food pantry donations from the November-December "holiday season" have dwindled, but we know our neighbors still need our help.
In 2009 our church adopted a vision statement, "Make Jesus your Mentor: Pray, Share, Welcome.
Sharing -- our focus this year -- is the way our church tries to shine the light of the Gospel, "the good news of God's love," into the world.
We love, and we share with others, because we first were loved by God in Jesus Christ. Knowing God's love through the people who love us in our faith community makes us want to share more.
For this column, I asked a few of our church leaders to comment on why we share with others, and, boiled down, this is our "Top 10 Reasons We Share":
Our church is at the crossroads of Routes 25 and 133 in Brookfield. All are welcome to worship with us on Sunday, or to just stop by on a weekday and pick up a grocery bag to help us "Feed the Love, Sustain the Soul" in the way of Jesus.
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Holding Our Convictions Loosely.
by Rev. Garrett Mettler
Published: Saturday, February 15, 2014
Danbury News Times
Many years ago I received some unexpected advice about getting into a car accident. Not how to make one happen, but rather what to do if you see a collision coming. I was told that you want to loosen the muscles in your body right before impact so that you are as "plastic" as possible to absorb the shock.
Of course, our instincts are just the opposite. We brace ourselves against the blow by tensing up. But the combination of that rigidity meeting the sudden force of the crash amplify the injuries that result. Remember the saying about what happens when an unstoppable force meets and immovable object?
Just consider the implications of this advice when applied to another kind of collision - the conflict between groups of people holding differing religious beliefs. I have long been saddened by the history of religious divisions and wars.
The rigidity of tightly held convictions has caused a lot of damage when forced hard against those with differing beliefs. In spite of the hope of peace which is a recurrent theme offered by many religious belief systems, the temptation to try to impose the superiority of one faith over another has often proved too strong to resist, creating new suffering instead of alleviating it.
Similarly, religious believers have sometimes become so self-righteous in their own positions that they feel justified in using forceful coercion and even persecution of those who wouldn't "see the light" as they had. It is understandable then why I once saw a bumper sticker that read, "Please Jesus, save us from your followers."
But contrary to these destructive examples of heavy-handed religiosity, passions of faith that run deep and strong can be both persuasive and generous. This happens when the holders of such strong convictions choose to honor the intelligence and capacity for discernment in others above their own impulse to want to coerce the other into right belief.
Generosity in sharing a strongly held faith is a lot messier than the "hard sell" approach that seeks certainty and control. Imposing one single creed that "fits all" is lot simpler than committing to keeping relationships with those who believe and practice differently.
But the high price paid for that simplicity is the loss of opportunities to learn from differing beliefs - to see what effect they have on people's character and daily actions. Surrounding ourselves with others who think just as we do may be comfortable, but living in the midst of diversity offers greater opportunity for our own beliefs to be tested and honed.
A generous approach to sharing faith does not regard others as targets to be converted or prevailed upon but instead as people with dignity and free will deserving of our care and honor, even when they choose not to share our convictions.
I don't make that claim as a politically correct nod towards open-mindedness or in an attempt to be fashionably tolerant. Rather I take that position, along with the complexities and extra effort it requires, because it is how my tradition of Christianity has understood God's example of relationship with humanity.
God does not put the hard sell on us or attempt to manipulate us into a relationship of respect and love. Instead God reaches out with intention to bless and free us from our own self-centeredness and fears of one another. And then God let's go of control and honors our free will to either accept or reject that relationship.
The 2003 comedy "Bruce Almighty," starring Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman, captured well this aspect of Christian belief about the character of God. A scene toward the end depicts Carrey's character in an exasperated conversation with God played by Freeman. Despite being temporarily given all of God's powers, Carrey discovers that he can not compel the woman he loves to feel the same way about him. He exclaims to God, "How can you make someone love you without affecting free will?!?" And God answers back, "Welcome to my world."
That is a world where we hold our faith tenderly instead of tensely and let go of the need to try to control what others believe. It is a world where a lot of destructive collisions are avoided and many inspirational examples of healing and caring for others take their place. It is a world where I want to practice my own faith.
Reverend Garrett Mettler is chaplain, Wooster School, 91 Miry Brook Rd., Danbury, CT 06810. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Rev. Joseph Krasinski
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Helping others without changing who they are.
by Rev. Dr. Joseph Krasinski
Published: Saturday, February 8, 2014
Danbury News Times
Religious hostilities around the world have reached a six-year high, according to a Pew Research study released Jan. 14.
While "The Pew Research: Religion and Public Life Project" concentrated specifically on government restrictions of religious practices, it also looked at societal harassment and intimidation.
This is so disturbing to me -- that anyone would try to restrict or inhibit people from following their own "closer walk" with God, as the old hymn goes.
It saddens my heart to think of what we do to one another in the name of "religion." Notice I do not say in the name of "God," for I do not believe that the God of my understanding would ever tolerate intolerance.
The importance of being not just tolerant but encouraging to others in their path to God was clarified for me while I was doing my Masters of Divinity studies at General Theological Seminary in New York City.
General Seminary is the oldest and the only "official" seminary in the Episcopal Church. The vast majority of students were Episcopalians, but in my class we had two Armenian Orthodox students.
At first I found that rather strange. Why would the Armenian Orthodox Church send seminarians to an Episcopal seminary?
The Armenians explained to me why their denomination has close ties to Episcopalians. Their story not only made me exceptionally proud of my denomination but also opened for me windows of understanding that I would not otherwise have seen.
In the early 20th century, as World War I was beginning, the Ottoman Empire undertook what is called the Armenian Genocide, also called the "Great Crime."
The ruling government of the Ottoman Empire first arrested all the leaders and well-educated men of Armenian descent in 1915. They then slaughtered every able-bodied Armenian male.
Women, children, the elderly and the infirm were then deported -- many sent on death marches into the Syrian Desert.
Because of World War I, relief efforts from other countries were slow to arrive. The United States was trying to maintain a very strict "isolationist" policy.
When some nations did come to the rescue of the Armenians, it was woefully late. Some 1.5 million Armenians, Greeks, Jews and other ethnic minorities had been murdered by the Turks.
I learned much that is to be admired about the Armenian Orthodox Church from my Armenian colleagues in seminary, but the greatest source of pride in my own Episcopal Church came as I learned of our role in the story.
It turns out the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, from the start offered comfort and welcome to members of the Armenian Orthodox Church who survived their flight out of Turkey.
The Anglican Communion offered not only a voice of witness to the Armenian atrocities but also relocated refugees, many of whom were orphans.
The Episcopal Church in America made a concerted effort to assist those who needed asylum -- with places to stay, food, clothing and the basic necessities of life. They particularly worked with clergy in relocation and resettlement.
More importantly, the Episcopal Church offered a place in which the members of the Armenian Orthodox Church could worship.
As religion is so much a part of the culture of this beautiful people, the Episcopal Church insured that the Armenian Orthodox could continue with their own religious practice and traditions in the face of extermination.
In other words, instead of using the mission to rescue the Armenians as a way of evangelizing them, trying to make them into Episcopalians, we offered them home and shelter to continue to be who they were.
This cooperation continued until 2003, when there was a division between the churches over the issue of sexuality.
And now we read that religious hostilities around the world are increasing instead of decreasing. With the risk of being called a Pollyanna, I would have to ask the question: Why can't we all just get along?
Is competition for church members so drastic that we must physically and psychologically harass members of another faith?
There is so much that we can learn about the beauty and wonder of the Supreme Being -- drawing ever nearer to the Godhead as we know it -- if we can just be open to each other.
Rev. Joseph Krasinski is the pastor of St. James Episcopal Church, Danbury, CT and member of the ARC Board of Directors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: www.saintjamesdanbury.org.
Rev. Barbara Fast
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Civil rights pilgrimage is eye-opening.
by Rev. Barbara Fast
Published: Saturday, February 1, 2014
Danbury News Times
Henry David Thoreau - famed Transcendentalist Unitarian, Abolitionist and author of "Walden" - also wrote an essay called "Walking," where he called it "sauntering." This he derived from the French "sainte terre," or "holy land." A walk into a holy land can be a transformative pilgrimage.
I made a pilgrimage earlier this year to the Deep South. The Living Legacy Pilgrimage is a yearly trip sponsored by Unitarian Universalists who were part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and '60s.
I took a bus with 30 folks of different faiths, races, ages and sexual orientations through Alabama and Mississippi. We stopped to pay our respects at Civil Rights memorials in Birmingham, Marion, Selma, and Montgomery, Alabama and Meridian, Philadelphia, Jackson, Greenwood, Ruleville, and Oxford, Mississippi.
We visited places and met some of the veterans of the movement who worked tirelessly for equality - at times putting their lives, livelihoods, and families at risk. We were honored to hear their stories.
How appropriate to reflect on that pilgrimage today as it was on this day 54 years ago, February 1st 1960 four African Americans began the famous Woolworth Lunch Counter sit-ins that after 6 months of peaceful passive resistance successfully challenged the segregation of those public facilities.
I learned in painful detail of the many daily, often dangerous, indignities that were written into laws to enforce the second-class status of blacks - from stepping off of sidewalks and keeping your eyes down when a white person's path crossed with yours to not being able to try on shoes or clothing before buying them.
I learned about "sundown towns," not limited to the South, where if you were black, you had better be gone before sundown. One white person on our bus remembered when a black family had a flat tire while passing through in her childhood hometown. As they struggled to fix it, white folks gathered to watch without saying a word. They kept watch until the car was out of sight. It sounded terrifying.
We listened to folks who lived through the "Freedom Summer" of 1964 and had organized to register black voters. How family members were beaten in the night. On the front lawn of the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Philadelphia., Mississippi, there is a simple memorial to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner - the three young Civil Rights workers who were murdered that summer.
I spoke with a woman after Sunday worship at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham - where 50 years ago a bomb had killed four young girls. I asked if she had been in Birmingham at the time of the bombing. She smiled and nodded. She said that he had been a student, that she had been part of the children's marches. She leaned over and said, "Much has changed, but much needs to be done."
Throughout the journey, we were challenged to carry the work forward to our communities. We took time to reflect on how racism, hate and unequal opportunity and poverty influence our lives today.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a lot about the power of love. He decided that he was "sticking to love," because, he said, he'd seen "too much of hate."
This month, from January 17th through February 16th, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury is taking part in the "Standing on the Side of Love" campaign - which has a goal of "harnessing love's power to stop oppression." It is a time intended for daily reflection, shared discussion and actions that support the First Principle of Unitarian Universalism, that all people have worth and deserve to be treated with dignity. Said another way, we are all created in God's image. It is another kind of pilgrimage, to an inner "holy land."
On my recent pilgrimage, I learned an important verse of "This Little Light of Mine," a Civil Rights theme song: "This love that I have, the world didn't give it to me. This love that I have, the world didn't give it to me. This love that I have, the world didn't give it to me. The world didn't give it - and the world can't take it away."
These lyrics sum up a faith in the sustaining power of love that fed these courageous people and sustained them. It is a love that transcends religious differences, which every human being can celebrate!
The Rev. Barbara Fast is the minister for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury. She can be reached at 203-570-0447 or email@example.com.
Rabbi Jon addon
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by Rabbi Jon Haddon
Published: Saturday, January 25, 2014
Danbury News Times
On a busy Friday morning in January, a man at a subway station in Washington, D.C., began to play the violin. He played six pieces for about 45 minutes. About 1,100 people passed by, but only a 3-year-old and six adults stopped to listen for a few moments. Everyone else rushed by. At the end of the session, the musician had earned $32.
Here's what the commuters didn't know: The violinist was one of the most talented violin virtuosos in the entire world. Joshua Bell had played one of the most intricate pieces (by Paganini) ever composed on a violin worth $3.5 million. Several days earlier, Bell had played for an audience where the average ticket sold for $100. At the request of the Washington Post, Bell had agreed to be part of an experiment about perception and priorities. He would play exceptional music in a commonplace environment at a busy hour. The question was: Would people notice?
The results of the experiment suggest that no, most people would not. Blinded by the rigors of schedules and daily demands, people simply failed to see the beauty or hear the brilliance that resonated in the subway station on that busy Friday morning.
Which leads to another question: If people could miss such unmistakable talent right before their very eyes, what else are most of us missing in life? How much do we miss because we don't have the time or the willingness to see and hear what's around us?
Jews throughout the world are reading the Book of Exodus in the Torah at this season. In a portion read just a few weeks ago, Moses saw a bush that was on fire but not burning up. Thinking it was unusual, he decided to go over and see it. The Sages teach that Moses wasn't the first person to come across the illogical and supernatural sight of a bush on fire that didn't burn. But Moses was the first to take notice and check it out. As the verse tells us, it is only once the Lord saw Moses approach the bush that He communicated with Moses. Only then did Moses encounter God.
Life is busy and demanding. But if we get too engrossed with trivial things, we may fail to see the beauty around us and the godliness in our midst. Do we encounter the Lord on the way to work? Do we find God in a baby's laugh or in an older person's eyes? Do we see God in a common place and at a busy time? The truth is, we are surrounded by God and beauty all the time. The question is, do we notice it?
Let's take time this week to slow down and look around us, and there is so much to be seen in our very special city and state. Because when we take the time to notice God, perhaps God will take the time to notice us, too.
Rabbi Jon Haddon is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Shearith Israel and a member of the ARC Board of Directors.
Rev. Laura Westby
FORUM ON FAITH
Believe you are beloved of God.
by Rev. Laura Westby
Published: Saturday, January 18, 2014
Danbury News Times
One of my favorite Christmas carols is "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."
The name "Emmanuel" means "God with us," and the refrain of that hymn -- calling for the coming of "Emmanuel" -- expresses so well the yearning of human hearts for the presence of God.
Christians believe God not only shares humanity's passion to be in relationship, but went so far as to become human when previous divine attempts to establish the covenant God desired to have with humanity failed.
This assertion, that in Jesus God entered human history by becoming human, is not logical. It doesn't make sense. There have been numerous attempts throughout Christian history to explain how this could be so and resolve the questions this statement raises.
The Bible's stories about miraculous births and angel visits, shepherds and wisemen, were the first attempts to do so.
These stories may or may not be factual; the ancients had a different sense about the value of factual data than we do. But they do point to the truth we affirm -- that in ways that were mysterious, intimate and powerful, the infinite became incarnate.
Many people are familiar with the stories of Jesus' birth in the writings of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is from these gospels that the well-loved Christmas stories come.
There is another story about birth, however -- one that is just as miraculous. It is the account of John.
It would be extremely hard to base a Christmas pageant on John's gospel. His birth narrative is only two verses. Still, they make a bold claim -- that we are what Jesus was, children of God.
In other words, Christians believe that the gathered community of believers, what we sometimes call "the body of Christ," is one way God is present in the world now. The church, Christ's body, incarnates God, just as Jesus of Nazareth did so long ago.
Christians have a sometimes well-deserved reputation for considering the human body to be less valuable than the spirit.
At certain times in our history we have treated parts of the body as "dirty." We have valued male bodies more than female ones, and bodies of one race more highly than others.
John's assertion about the meaning of Jesus' birth gives a different message. The incarnation means that all people hold infinite worth in God's eyes, deserve love and respect, and will be used by God to care for God's beloved world.
Our circumstances, our experiences, our triumphs and our mistakes may describe us in part, but we are defined by the fact that we are beloved children of God.
This doesn't mean we don't make mistakes, hurt ourselves and one another, or act in ways that are counter to our belief. Sin and evil are part of the human experience.
Being God's beloved children also doesn't mean we don't have doubts.
Most of us have trouble believing we are beloved and that God wants us to be partners in caring for the world. The minute we hear the words of John, that OTHER voice chimes in, "You? What about your failed marriage?"
Or, "What about the time you let your parents down, or lost it with your kids? What about all the mistakes you've made? If God REALLY knew about what you're like."
The temptations of human life are real. It's true that we won't always live up to our identity as God's beloved.
But if the incarnation means anything, it means that our creator loved every person and everything in creation with such passion that love became human flesh. Now, "nothing can separate us from the love of God" (Romans 8:38).
I gave my congregation a challenge recently that I hope will help them live into their identity as God's beloved. Twice a day for one month, they are to look in the mirror and say the following: "I am God's beloved child, and God will use me to change the world."
It's my hope this will counter the all negative messages that their history, environment and society give them.
If we can believe God loves us and has proved it, then we can do what Jesus did -- be holy vessels through which the world can be blessed.
You are God's beloved as well. May the coming year bring you a fuller knowledge of love and a deeper sense of the way you, too, are an instrument of peace, healing and hope.
Rev. Laura Westby is the Interim Minister of the First Congregational Church of Bethel.
FORUM ON FAITH
Many chances for new beginnings.
by Polly Castor
Published: Saturday, January 11, 2014
Danbury News Times
I love January. I hunker down with sparkling fresh resolve, the past behind me, and my life stretching out ahead of me.
It is a cozy month when I'm not distracted by wanting to be outdoors so much, and instead make headway on my various indoor projects with fewer interruptions.
Unlike folks who feel dismal this time of year, I am buoyed with hope and expectant of progress.
Reflecting on this season of new beginnings, I'm realizing they are not just once a year, so we need never feel entrenched, trapped or waiting to start again.
January is a time of reinvigoration, but spring is as well, with all the new life spouting green and fragrantly floral.
Summer has its own sense of renewal, filled with lots of light and balmy breezes, recreation and revitalization.
Fall's freshness is tied to an academic calendar, launching different opportunities, and many feel it is the real beginning of the year.
But what about other fresh starts -- a new job, a new house, a new baby, friend, hobby, study or goal?
The Old Testament tells us in Lamentations that the Lord's mercies and compassions "are new every morning," which is a wonderful thing to behold.
In the New Testament, we are told in Ephesians to "be renewed in the spirit of your mind," which can happen at any time. It says we are to do this by putting off "the old man" and putting on "the new man."
Christian Scientists study the Bible thoroughly, not only to know the stories and the message, but also to thoughtfully discern what they mean for them individually during any given day or season.
For example, in my experience putting on "the new man" has meant different things to me at different times. Lately, the story about Lot's wife has had resonance for me.
As you may remember, the city of Sodom was a mess, making such routinely bad choices that God was planning to destroy it.
But first he sent angels to rescue Lot's innocent family and get them out of the place. They were told to escape for their lives and not look behind them.
Was Lot's wife so grateful for her special dispensation that she was careful to be precisely obedient? No, she looked back.
We can certainly understand the temptation. I don't think she even wrestled with herself about it. She was fleeing her home, never to return. It was a natural reflex to look back. What harm could one last look do? But in doing so, she became a pillar of salt.
Later in the New Testament, Jesus says, "No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God." It seems to me these are pretty strong messages about not looking back.
I think of the rearview mirror in the car. We use it mostly for backing up. To go forward, we need the largest part of our awareness looking out the windshield at where we are headed, concentrating on what we are about to do.
But is this how we usually live mentally and emotionally? How much baggage and garbage from the past gets our attention instead? Is it dragging our gaze back, mesmerizing us, immobilizing us and paralyzing us like Lot's wife?
In her typical no-nonsense approach, Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science church, writes in her book "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," "to remedy this, we must first turn our gaze in the right direction, and then walk that way."
I am trying resolutely to be both present and moving forward in this season of renewal, prayerfully endeavoring not to look back, regardless of whether it is with frustration or fondness.
I can't do anything about the past, but the present is full of glorious possibility that can be fulfilled if only I endeavor to connect with it.
I hear the Apostle Paul loud and clear as he states in Philippians, "Brethren, I count myself not to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."
By Polly Castor, Christian Science Practitioner and member of First Church of Christ, Scientist, Ridgefield. She can be reached at: PollyCastor@gmail.com.
Rev. Leo McIlrath
FORUM ON FAITH
On the Fence.
by Rev. Leo McIlrath
Published: Saturday, January 4, 2014
Danbury News Times
Dag Hammarskjold, the late United Nations Secretary General, offered the world a great number of wise sayings, one of which caught my eye on a pastor's desk in Raleigh, NC. It read "For all that has been, 'Thanks!' For all that will be, 'Yes!'" It is now "New Year 2014" and I believe this is a good time to say "Thanks!" for the past and "Yes!" to the future.
Alex Haley, author of the wonderful book, Roots, found himself becoming a bit proud of his many accomplishments A close friend sent Alex a picture of a turtle on a fence. Of course, everyone knows that a turtle cannot climb a fence. Ergo, the obvious question: "How did it get there?" Of course, someone else had helped.
Whenever Alex was tempted to excessive pride over his multiple life successes, he looked at the picture and realized that, whatever fame he had attained in life, was partly because of the considerable help given to him by other people - parents, family members, friends, co-workers, teachers, and the like. I believe all of us could have a picture of a turtle on a fence somewhere in our homes or in our workplace; that we could then look at and say "Thank You!" to at least one person who helped us become who we are. We may be surprised at how many we will find.
With a New Year now upon us, this is a good time to consider those people in our lifetime, thus far, who have helped us to be who we are today.
Personally, I thank our Triune God for all of his/her glorious creation, including ourselves. Also, I must be eternally grateful to my family. They did everything good for me, preparing me to live happily in this world, in body, mind and spirit. To each of them, I loudly say: THANK YOU!
And before our parents came our grandparents. Native Americans urge us to look back seven generations and express our gratitude for what they believed in and protected, including: clean air, fresh water, and God's sacred earth.
My list turtle-friends would include the following categories of people: parents and family; religious and prayer communities and their leaders; teachers, coaches, and mentors; classmates and school administrators; leaders of music and the arts; community and sports organizations; friends, employers and coworkers.
My "number one", deserving of my overall act of thanks-giving is from my Christian faith: our Triune God: Father-Son-Holy Spirit. All others take a distant second for me. As with the people of Israel, I am reminded of all the good that God had done in the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; in the life of Joseph; in the Exodus under Moses; through Joshua, Judges and Kings, especially King David; through the lives of the Prophets even up to John the Baptizer. And when I remember these people and their lives under God's guidance and protection, I can only be thankful for God's presence in my own life today.
In the new covenant, God's people are graced with the presence of "God-with-us," Emmanuel, in the person of Jesus. Christians practice gratitude for this gift in the Christmas season especially, but we lift up our thanksgiving for Christ's life, death and resurrection on other Sundays too when we gather for worship.
When Christians celebrate the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, we break bread and pour the cup as Jesus did on the last night of his life, and as he asked us to do, "in remembrance" of him, and with gratitude. The word "Eucharist" derives from the Greek "eucharistia," which literally translates as "thanksgiving." When Christians gather to worship, offering words of blessing and breaking bread together as the first disciples of Jesus once did, we continue to: give "thanks" to God on a regular basis.
I believe God's Holy Spirit also inspires us to give thanks for all those people who have affected our lives down to this very day.
Now, we look ahead to anticipate all those who will be there for us throughout 2014 and the years ahead.
For me and perhaps for you as well, the start of this new year is a great time to look into our lives and take the time to thank God for the many people who have given us a lift up onto our fence.
The Rev. Leo E. McIlrath, D. Min., is Ecumenical Chaplain at The Lutheran Home of Southbury. He can be reached at 203-270-0581 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.