Celebrating with our neighbors

Who doesn’t like a party? And the folks from the B’Nai Shalom synagogue had a wonderful reason to celebrate – it was the 100th anniversary of the founding of their congregation.

            People gathered from far and wide to enjoy good food and wonderful fellowship as the congregation reflected on its past and prepared for a bright future. With a tiny Jewish population in northeastern Connecticut, this congregation has a strong tradition of lay leadership. They rely on volunteers to lead worship and community outreach. They enjoy a strong “can-do” spirit which allows them to work and worship together. In recent years, a rabbi comes once per month to lead services, offer education, and encourage them in leading lives of faith.

            It was my pleasure to be a guest at the festivities and have the opportunity to offer greetings from my congregation to theirs. In this angry and contentious era, it is vital to remember that there is more that unites us than divides us. Together we can serve a God of love and hospitality as we reach out to God’s people as our neighbors.

            Rabbi Eliana Falk wrote this prayer for the occasion:

Dear God, we are thankful for Your gifts and blessings that help us…

  • To be grateful for the ability to learn and understand, and to grow in wisdom,
  • To respond to Your commandment to pursue justice and mercy.
  • To be ever more humble in our use of the gifts by which our planet sustains us.
  • To be strong as we assist all who are in exile, all who suffer oppression.
  • To be fortified through chesed and tzedakah – loving kindness and justice.
  • To bring healing and comfort to all who are infirm, cast off and alone
  • To be fearless forces for good in a troubled world
  • To embrace our tradition of peace and learning, healing and joy
  • To commit to one another – to all of us who are present – and to all who are not present –
  • Reinforcing the unbreakable bonds we share with one another and the Holy One of Blessing.
  • To acknowledge that all of our blessings are Your gifts, and that the hundreds and thousands of miracles that You offer to us each day are invitations to become awake to the mystery that is beyond our vision, yet understood by our souls.

And so to the congregation B’Nai Shalom, I say a hearty “Mazel tov!” and add my best wishes for many more years of worship and service.  May you go “from strength to strength.”

A burning hatred

Images of a burning mosque shocked me. The fact that it was in my own state – Connecticut – in a city near where I grew up – New Haven – made it even worse. Somehow I had categorized hate crimes as something that happened someplace else. I relegated them as events that occur “down South” or “out West” or in another country altogether. But here? In very civilized, very educated, very New England Connecticut?

As a pastor, I can imagine the heartache of a congregation whose sanctuary has been taken away. This beloved gathering place where prayers are lifted and fellowship is shared now lies in ruins. I cannot fathom how fearful these worshipers must be as they contemplate being the object of someone’s hatred.

It hurts my heart to visualize someone planning such violence. I cannot comprehend the logic behind it. How would that conversation go? “We’ll burn down the mosque and then…”  Then what? What will be accomplished? What message will be sent? What misguided notion of achievement will occur?

As I am writing this, reports are coming in about fires being set in Jewish institutions in Needham and Arlington Massachusetts. Another religious community attacked, another community hurt.

It should go without saying that anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic violence hurts all of society. This is bullying taken to an extreme; everyone suffers. One segment of our society cannot be allowed to terrorize another part.

In these divided times, when an “us vs. them” mentality is often encouraged, God’s people need to insist on a lifestyle of grace and inclusion. People of faith can speak up against messages of superiority and competition – we need to be bigger, better, stronger! – which diminish the value of others. We can refuse to take part in incivility and name-calling.

Instead, we can try to follow the example of Jesus who displayed an astounding willingness to reach across barriers, to seek out the lonely and lost, and to include the outcast. Jesus demonstrated a grace that included all of God’s people.

What if we started by asking one another questions and looking for opportunities to learn about one another? What if we said “yes” to one of the many invitations issued by our Muslim brothers and sisters during Ramadan to learn about Islam as they break their fast? Would we learn about God’s abundance and expand our understanding on worship and prayer?

In our area, our local synagogue will soon be celebrating their 100th anniversary as a congregation.  What if we joined to wish them well as they begin a second century of worship and caring?

The only way to combat hatred is with love. Hatred destroys, hatred separates people into warring factions, hatred hurts. Love unites, love has the power to bring people together, love heals. We cannot allow the loud, frightening voice of hatred drown out the life-giving power of love. Choose love. Choose compassion. Every day. Even the smallest gestures of compassion and caring can help break down the barriers that divide us. As the old song reminds us, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

To support the New Haven Muslim community as they rebuild, click here