Learning from other traditions

My husband was raised Jewish and celebrated his bar mitzvah when he was 14. Although he no longer attends weekly services, the holidays of his youth still echo in his heart. Therefore, in our home, amidst all the Advent candles and early Christmas preparations, we also celebrate Hanukkah.

This was a learning curve for me.When we were first married, I was eager to learn my beloved’s traditions. We started out by buying children’s books to enhance my education about the basics of this beautiful celebration. Just weeks after our wedding, we went to a Hanukkah festival at a nearby synagogue and purchased our first menorah together. Twenty-seven years later, we continue to share the stories and traditions with our adult children.

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On each of the eight nights, we light candles and recall the ancient miracle of a meager amount of oil that continued to burn brightly as it reflected the faith of the believers. We ponder the significance of God overcoming terrifying circumstances and the ability of a small group of dedicated people to stand up for their beliefs. We celebrate God’s faithfulness and take hope from the growing light shining in the darkness.

We enjoy latkes with applesauce and cherish a bit of family time as we spin the dreidel and play games.  Hanukkah is not the most important Jewish holiday, but its light-hearted joy offers vital reminders about standing up against evil and trusting in God.  

It turns out, of course, that it doesn’t have to be my tradition in order to have something to teach me. It doesn’t have to be my heritage in order to reveal more about the God I love.  While celebrating a holiday that is not my own, I have experienced what a wise (Jewish) professor of mine identified as “holy appreciation.” That is, I have the ability to appreciate the holy practices of others and when I do, I can learn about values that we both share.

We are not all meant to be alike.We are not called to all worship the same way. We can, however, learn with and from one another. And then everyone will be stronger.

For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mind, if we

each are free to light our own flame, together we can banish some

of the darkness in the world.

  • Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The March – my experience

My bad feet survived.

My spirit soared.

It was thrilling to gather on the Mall, looking at our Capitol, surrounded by a vast sea of humanity of every age, color, and description.  I was filled with gratitude for our country which allows and guarantees the right to peaceful assembly.

The March was peaceful and it was powerful.

I never got close to the stage.  I couldn’t hear any of the speakers. But I didn’t need inspirational speeches to tell me about the need. I could hear that in the voices of those who surrounded me. Men and women, gay, straight, and trans.

Young and old.

Experienced marchers and novices.

All joined together to sing and chant their belief that all people are created equal and deserve to be treated with dignity.

I read their message in their signs – some poignant, some angry, many humorous – but all advocating human rights for all of God’s people.

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What was the point?  The point was to stand together.

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These days it is possible to communicate and cooperate across the globe on-line and through social media. But sometimes we need to get out of our homes – and our comfort zones – and come together.

Sometimes we need to stand shoulder to shoulder, side by side, with one another.

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I came back inspired and energized.

I came back realizing I am not alone in my concern about healthcare, the environment, the LGBT community, immigrants, and people of color.

I came back wanting to help save our planet from thoughtless abuse.

I came back determined to work hard on behalf of those who have no voice or are afraid.

I came back encouraged.

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I won’t give up.

And when I need to, I will march again.

Even in this circumstance, give thanks

Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless God’s name.   Psalm 100

“Come you thankful people come,” we sing annually on Thanksgiving Sunday as we gaze at the cornucopia lovingly crafted by our favorite 90-something year old member. Overflowing with fruits and vegetables native to New England, she reminds us this horn-shaped symbol of plenty is “A living symbol of God’ abundant blessings.”

“Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving,” the Psalmist directs us. Admittedly, it is easier to approach those heavenly courts with praise when the sun is shining and all is right in our world.  But what about the other times?

Paul can sound like a grating nag when he urges, “Give thanks in all circumstances,” (1 Thessalonians 5:13). How would you like us to do that, Paul, when our spirits are nearly broken by circumstances that weigh down our souls?

Corrie ten Boon’s memory of leading forbidden worship in a World War II concentration camp might shed some light for us. Almost crushed by the effort of offering praise amidst wretched, flea-infested, frigid surroundings, they worshiped God.  Always fearful of discovery and punishment, they lifted whispered prayers of thanksgiving not only for the beloved community in that unholy place but also for the hardships they helped each other bear.  Months passed as their cherished worship continued uninterrupted by the usually brutal guards, offering encouragement to their battered spirits. Decades later, Corrie encountered a former prison guard who admitted he had never ventured into her barrack because he feared the overwhelming flea infestation. God was indeed in that place, utilizing every means to bless those worshipers.

We give thanks in all circumstances, not for them. Giving thanks for every good thing is easy. Giving thanks while staring down hatred, injustice, poverty or sadness may strain our faithfulness. Discerning God’s love while receiving cancer treatments, caring for a critically ill loved one or agonizing over a wayward child may challenge our belief.

Giving thanks is the beginning of trust. When we dare to pray, “Thank you God for being with me in this circumstance,” we may discover God’s strength and blessing when we need it most.

And may we pray, “Faithful God, may we remember the words of Meister Eckhart: If the only prayer I pray is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough. Thank you. Amen.”

More than a living corpse

“Whatever you do,” my wise New Testament professor lectured many years ago, “Don’t describe Easter as the resuscitation of a corpse.”  It was a startling statement.  We are, after all, talking about the fact that Jesus was dead and then alive again.

Easter is about that – and so much more.

If Easter was simply the annual celebration of a 2000 year old historical event it wouldn’t be very much. Who wants Easter to become of weary recounting of a long-ago occurrence?

Easter is not so much “ancient history” as it is “current events.” Easter is not only about what God did in the past, but about what God is doing right now.

  • When someone encounters hope in the midst of despair, that’s Easter.
  • When someone discerns some comfort even while dwelling in the shadow of death, that’s Easter.

Every time we encounter the absolute edge of our abilities and realize that we don’t have the strength to go on alone, we can pray Jesus’ prayer – not my will, but thine be done. Finding God in that place?  That’s Easter.

Easter happens when

  • We’ve come to “the end” – the end of a job, a relationship, our finances, our health – and then discover God is in that frightening, overwhelming place.
  • We have experienced loss or betrayal. When our spirits are as bleak as the night, when our phones are as silent as the grave, when it seems that all of our friends are sleeping or have disappeared. That’s when we should start looking for the promised light in the darkness.

Easter can be the over-the-top joy of trumpets and the Hallelujah chorus. The experience of hope and new life can fill our hearts until they are bursting with love.

Easter can also be a quiet encounter in a place of death and despair where we hear a whispered voice saying, “I know you. And I care.” Easter can be the pure, simple grace of discovering we are loved.

Amazingly, the Bible describes this life-changing, history-altering moment as a quiet one. The angels share this Good News with the women at the tomb. Just like when Jesus was born, these heavenly messengers are there to reassure, “Do not be afraid.” Just because nothing is as you imagined, simply because you are experiencing something you never dreamed possible – that is not a reason to be afraid.  There is joy to be shared. He is not dead, but alive.

The news gets passed along, one person at a time. Mary tells Peter.  Peter tells John. Jesus speaks a single word to Mary and her life is filled with hope.

When Jesus saw Mary by the tomb, there wasn’t an explosion of exuberant celebration – no parades of balloons and flowers. Jesus simply spoke her name, “Mary.” In that moment, God was saying, “I know where you are and what you are experiencing. I am with you.”  That’s Easter.

Coveting my neighbor’s religion

We know we are not supposed to covet – yearn to possess or have – other people’s belongings.  But what about coveting other people’s faith? Or their faith practices?

I have been a Congregationalist all my life, but I am inspired by the experiences and practices of other traditions and faiths.  I have to admit to a bit of “religious envy” when I think of observances not included in my own.

It isn’t that I want to convert to another faith.

I just want to learn from and maybe occasionally borrow some of the religious practices of others.

Here are some traditions that inspire me:

Namaste – when I go to my yoga practice, we begin and end by greeting one another and honoring the holy within.  We Christians have gotten away from recognizing the Christ, the divine, the Spirit that dwells in each one of us.  When we “pass the peace of Christ” on a Sunday morning, it is an attempt to share the holy with each other, but somehow it not as deeply satisfying as clasping my hands at my heart space, looking into another’s eyes to say “Namaste,” the holy in my greets the holy in you.

Crossing oneself. The Catholics do it. So do Episcopalians. It is a small gesture that somehow offers both a punctuation to prayer and a physical reminder of God’s presence. I find myself doing this at home sometimes when I yearn for a literal “hands on” expression of God’s presence.

Mezuzah – We have a mezuzah on our doorway, a small wooden box containing a tiny scroll with the Shema prayer: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.   Mezuzah

The mezuzah honors my husband’s Jewish upbringing but also reminds me that God’s presence goes with me as I enter into the world in the morning and arrive back home at night.  I  love the idea of praying as I go out and as I come in, that physical reminder that God goes with me

 Praying five times/day.  If you take the time to listen to the haunting and beautiful call to Muslim prayer  you will hear the words,

  • “God is the greatest,” sings the imman,
  • “I bear witness that there is no other deity beside God.”
  • “Make haste toward prayer.”

I love the idea of interrupting my busy day with the reminder of God’s presence and the invitation to pause and receive the refreshing Spirit of God.  It is too easy to allow an entire day – or even days – go by, filled with tasks and to-do lists, but not with the awareness of God.  If listening to a call to prayer from a minaret is not part of my Christian tradition, what method can I use to remind myself to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16)?

Shabbat at home – another powerful Jewish practice, bringing our faith into the home with prayers, lighting candles, songs, and sharing.  What a powerful way to share faith and to pass along traditions, values, and learning to our children.

The season of Lent invites us to develop and deepen our spiritual practices by celebrating our own while also honoring others. I can learn from others even as I honor my own Christian tradition.

What spiritual practices will you incorporate into your life to remind yourself of God’s presence with you, every day?

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Thanksgiving Fest Reflections of Gratitude: Day 8

Come; let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.

 Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.   Psalm 95

Music has always been part of my life.  Pity my fourth grade teacher, who had to listen as our entire class learned to read music while blowing enthusiastically on our plastic recorders. My deep gratitude and admiration goes to countless saintly music teachers and directors who stood bravely in front of squirmy, energetic children and valiantly encouraged us to work as a group – listen to each other!  Together you can make beautiful sounds!

I did it all – junior choir at church, elementary mixed chorus, band (I played the flute!), girl’s glee club, and then on to high school marching band, select chorus, musical theater.  I have known the thrill of singing with a powerful chorus of over 100 voices and the joy of having my voice weave and flow with one or two others.

Music – it comes in so many forms and variations.  And it brings me great joy.

I give thanks for music.  Here is one of my favorite Thanksgiving hymns.

What are you thankful for today?

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Proactively Welcoming the LGBTQ+ Community into our Faith Communities

Jesus didn't reject people. Neither do we. United Church of Christ.
Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we. United Church of Christ.

On November 2, 2015 I led a workshop at Hartford Seminary entitled “Proactively Welcoming the LGBTQ+ Community into our Faith Communities.”  With about 20 people in attendance, we had energetic conversation about how to widen our welcome to include all of God’s people.  Below are some of the good ideas and resources that were collected during our time together:

DVD

Eric Elnes  Darkwood Brew   DVD about LGBT issues

www.darkwoodbrew.org

  • Fish out of water Vanderbilt University.  “A spirited documentary that explores the seven Bible passages notoriously used to condemn homosexuality and justify marriage discrimination.”
  • For the Bible tells me so. “A compassionate and insightful documentary about the contemporary face of an old conflict between Christian fundamentalists and gay and lesbian people.”  Among the interviewees is Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson.
  • Bridegroom. “On May 7th, 2011 a young man named Shane Bitney Crone tragically lost the love of his life, Tom, to an accident. Because they weren’t married or prepared for the unexpected, Shane lost all legal claim to Tom after he died.” Struggles of a same-sex couple living in California during Prop 8 (which banned same-sex marriage).
  • Out Late. This featurefilm looks at five individuals who made a decisive change later in life-to come out as lesbian, gay, or transgender, after the age of 55.
  • Milk. Depicts life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk.
  • Before Stonewall. The history of the gay and lesbian community before the Stonewall riots.
  • After Stonewall. Historical retrospective of the Gay Rights movement from the 1969 Stonewall riots.

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Websites:

Denominational resources:

Local resources:

  • Find a PFLAG meeting near you. Look at their  website
  • The Loft (Fairfield CT). Associate Pastor of First Church Congregational, the Reverend Jennifer Campbell and her colleague, Dr. Liane Nelson facilitate a youth group called The Loft for lgtbq teens (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) and their friends every Friday from 4-5:30 at The Community House of First Church, 148 Beach Road.   More information about   First Church Fairfield

If/when a congregation is feeling “stuck” – they don’t know how to revitalize their Open and Affirming welcome or perhaps haven’t even begun the conversation about formally declaring their welcome, that church needs to

  • Talk with other ONA churches
  • Listen to the stories of the LGBT community and remember why this welcome is so important

The feeling of being “stuck” is often related to fear – fear of losing members, fear of offending someone, fear of losing money or pledges.  Take the time to name the fear – by unmasking the fear we can take away some of its power.

Books

  • Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two by Allan Berube

Other:

Example of Morning Welcome in Worship; this can be crafted to fit any week and church season and can be adjusted to include a variety of descriptions:

Although the temperature may not feel like it, the spirit around town these days feels like Fall is here. Welcome to you if you have been away for the summer and now are coming back; we hope your summer had some Sabbath moments in it. Welcome to you if you are new to town, or just decided to visit us for the first time; we are glad you are here and look forward to getting to know you, and to you getting to know us. We actually mean it when we say everyone is welcome here, because we represent a wide variety of folk of different races and ethnicities, gender and sexual orientation, age and marital status. A few of us have lived in greater New Haven all our lives, but most of us are from somewhere else originally. Many of us live in New Haven now, but we also live in Hamden, North Haven, Cheshire, Cromwell, Bethany, Milford, Wallingford, Durham and East Haven! We vary from one another in sports teams we support, musical tastes, favorite movies or books. We also differ in theological views and in religious backgrounds or lack thereof. So we hope you will stick around after worship for some iced coffee and lemonade. Wherever you are on your life and faith journey, you are welcome here.

(written by the Rev. Dr. Rochelle Stackhouse, Church of the Redeemer, New Haven CT).

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Please share your ideas and resources in the comments!