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Rev. Leo McIlrath
Rev. Leo McIlrath


New Year is a time for substantial changes.

by Rev. Leo McIlrath

Published: Saturday, December 31, 2011

Danbury News Times

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!" is a memorable song that is so full of wonder.

Many of us truly plan to make new year resolutions that have some substance to them. I am not referring to this type of resolution: " Dear God: help me to increase my bank account and to flatten my tummy. You kind of got it mixed up last year."

This is the time when we truly resolve to make changes that will affect our body, mind and spirit -- proper diet, more exercise, feeding hungry people, sheltering the homeless, shoveling an elderly person's sidewalk, assuring people they are not alone, etc. Being a prophet is an admirable, though often risky, vocation.

In 2012, while continuing these socially active ministries, I invite you to consider some of the mystical ways we might change our lives. I believe if we address some of these life-changing disciplines, many socially prophetic activities will naturally (and supernaturally) follow.

The Rev. Matthew Fox was the keynote speaker for our Federation of Christian Ministries' National Conference, and I was much impressed by his book "Original Blessing" (versus original sin).

I think New Year's Day 2012 is an appropriate time to share some of these thoughts with you, for healthy change involves a "breaking through."

"Creation spirituality" is a systematic theology that calls for radical change -- an ancient way of living, made currently more popular by Fox. It is neither new age nor old shoe.

It believes it takes the best of the 11th- and 12th-century mystics, particularly those of the Rhineland region in Europe, and with a strong biblical foundation offers an orderly catechesis that calls one to holiness and wholeness.

Fox emphasizes Jesus' command to love thy neighbor, but he extends the concept to every segment of creation, including the earth, air, water and all of their inhabitants, both animate and inanimate.

Fox focuses on overcoming the ego-centric for the eco-centric, much like Francis of Assisi did in his "Canticle of the Sun."

Fox praises the Native Americans and other peoples of the world who have not lost sight of the belief that all creation manifests the glory of God. (Psalms 19, 148, et al.)

Fox suggests that we live each first day (new year?) as if it were our last day on Earth, for God is always "in the beginning" (Gen. 1:1; Jn. 1:1.).

He says God's first act is always "com-passion" (the result when all conjoin their individual passions to continue the birthing process of creation -- nourishing, maintaining, and literally saving the planet). He terms this process "expanding our hearts."

In a second book, "Wrestling with the Prophets," Fox offers 10 suggestions to put heart expansion into practice. I merely summarize them here:

1. Take courage and combat fear by reflecting on ancestors who dared to die for us.

2. Breathe slowly, taking in God's ruah-spirit, the one breath of the universe.

3. Drink in nature's awe (the tiniest particles) each day, expanding the heart, mind and joy of the cosmos.

4. Meditate on the pain around us -- visiting hospitals and nursing homes and being sensitive to others' losses.

5. Read the mystics and befriend them: Hildegard of Bingen, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich and Thomas Aquinas -- all with the right brain, i.e., the heart. We should let them draw the mystic out of us.

6. Through art -- not merely producing and selling a product, but creating rituals, paintings, storytelling, dreams and meditation -- experience the communion of saints, our very brothers and sisters, children of the One God.

7. Maintain a sense of humor, seeing the irony of things.

8. Just do it! We need no one's permission nor approval but God's. Take the first step of faith to initiate our prophetic and mystical lifestyle.

9. Expand our notion of God, which is always too small. God is more loving, compassionate, patient, forgiving, colorful, powerful and knowing than we can ever imagine.

10. Utilize base communities, including faith groups, work places, home prayer and study groups, clubs and organizations, expanding their goals and environment with a mystical cosmos concern component.

Have a happy and blessed new year!

The Rev. Leo E. McIlrath is ecumenical chaplain for the Lutheran Home of Southbury. He can be reached at

Rev. Ivan Pitts
Rev. Ivan Pitts


Living out the spirit of advent.

by Rev. Ivan Pitts

Published: Saturday, December 24, 2011

Danbury News Times

"But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24).

Amos lived in a time of great prosperity and great decadence, and he warned the faithful not to forget the basic justice that God demands of all people who would call him Lord.

The prophetic words of Amos ring as loud today as they did several centuries ago. These words remind us of our faithful and timeless call to work and fight for social justice.

This call toward the labor of social justice is not a narrow or optional endeavor for the faithful. The call for justice goes far beyond one or two "hot button" issues like abortion and stem cell research. It calls to all the faithful and encompasses a myriad of moral and ethical issues and concerns that are often overlooked by the masses.

The task of justice speaks to the very essence of what God has called the faithful to do in their daily lives (Micah 6:8). God is a lover of justice and those who serve the Lord must speak truth to power.

The response to this call goes beyond discussion and theological reflection; it challenges the faithful to build a society where all are guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This mandate grows out of our understanding of the Exodus experience, the biblical teachings on social betterment and Jesus' concern for those who have been marginalized and devalued by society. The faith community has a moral obligation to free people from the despair of powerlessness and hopelessness.

In recent decades, we have been reminded that justice was preached by prophets who were scandalized by the suffering of widows and orphans forced to live in slums.

I am not suggesting that the work of justice is nonexistent in the community of faith. I am, however, suggesting that it has been significantly hindered by several factors.

•. In tough economic times the voice of the Prophet has been muffled by the call for profit. Financial constraints change priorities and too often negatively impact social justice services.

•. A narrow understanding of justice has prevented us from viewing it from a holistic perspective (Luke 4:18-19). The church must see justice in a broader sense and not limited to a couple of politically fashionable issues.

• Sometimes communities of faith get caught up in the trap of looking out for our own. This kind of attitude can be very dangerous because it can exclude individuals and groups who don't fit our mode.

Communities of faith are called to be beacons of hope and a voice of encouragement to the oppressed while, at the same time, challenging the status quo. Our call cannot be hindered because of the aforementioned challenges. The faith community must seek divine guidance and divine resources to meet the divine call of social justice.

In our community there are several examples of how, in spite of current challenges, faith communities are coming together to have social impact. One such example is Pathways Academy.

Pathways Academy is a middle school for at-risk males that inspires students to live according to their divine and social capabilities. Its mission statement is "to transform the lives of at-risk boys in the Danbury community, bringing a real sense of hope and a quality, Christ-centered education, providing them with a safe and loving environment that promotes cognitive, spiritual and emotional growth for each boy."

This program is unique, in the sense that it was birthed from collaborative efforts of local communities of faith. We discovered not only are we stronger together, but that we are better together when we are doing God's work for those in need.

The community of faith can continue to make a tremendous impact if we are willing to work together and let nothing deter us from living out our call.

The Rev. Ivan Pitts is pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Danbury and president of the NAACP Danbury chapter.

Rev. Angelo S. Arrando
Rev. Angelo Arrando


Keeping Christ in Christmas?

by Rev. Angelo Arrando

Published: Saturday, December 17, 2011

Danbury News Times

"Silver bells, silver bells, it's Christmas time in the city..." Christmas is here! Christmas is a big deal for us Christians.

And, yup! It's that time of the year again: "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas." And the pundits once again take their places in opposing corners of the ring.

Some would have us believe that there is a war being waged to take Christ out of Christmas and so the "Keep Christ is Christmas" onslaught is here once again. But I have to ask: "Who is waging this war to keep Christ out of Christmas?"

Champions of public créches, live Nativity scenes, community Christmas trees, proper greetings and salutations in the marketplace stand firm that Dec. 25 is still a religious holiday -- not a violation of separation of church and state. They tell us that Christmas has been sanitized in schools and public squares, in malls and parades where Santa's OK, but Jesus Christ is not. "Jingle Bells" rocks, but forget about "Silent Night."

Some people are vocal and vehement about this. I cannot help but wonder what it is they are really trying to say.

Is simply allowing a créche, or Christmas tree or a Merry Christmas keeping Christ in Christmas? Perhaps in their minds this constitutes keeping Christ in Christmas. I would venture to say, "Not!"

Do you know who I believe is waging a war on Christmas, waging a war of keeping Christ out of Christmas? It's not the people greeting you with "Happy Holidays" or the ones who object to public créches and Christmas hymns. I believe the ones waging a war on Christmas are Christians who think greed and discrimination are Christian values.

For two millennia Christian society has made human history a divided highway marked by time, the time recorded before Jesus and the time after marked by his coming. I cannot but wonder if often the rhetoric was and is louder than the actions lived by that marking. This marking of time can easily lead itself into being a barrier, separating people.

Is Christmas only about something we Christians believe occurred two millennium ago? In Christmas, Christians believe that in the person of Jesus, God comes in the image and likeness of humanity. God takes on human flesh. For us, Jesus truly and literally is Emmanuel: God with us.

The early Christians struggled to better understand this wonder. The Christians of the first 200 years rejected the notion that Jesus came only looking like a human but really was not. They rejected the notion that God was play acting in Jesus' humanity. They held firm to their belief that through Jesus' coming all humanity is held in ultimate esteem and worth by God.

With the coming of Jesus, I believe, God definitively placed human beings above systems, above institutions, above flags and nations. I believe that in Jesus, God placed us in the care of one another.

Simply put, Jesus is religion made simple.

People always come first. Not some people in some place but all people in every place. Now, for me, that is keeping Christ in Christmas.

Because of that first Christmas, I don't believe we can run, duck, hide or avoid the fact that for now and for evermore humanity has been touched by a moment in human history when God in Jesus put us in the care of one another.

In Jesus, God asks us to do the same. As a clergy person I know that most Christians know well the words that Jesus spoke. But I wonder as well why it is that we ignore almost everything Jesus asked us to do. For Christians it is unthinkable to have a world without Jesus, yet too many of us go on as though he never existed.

If we truly believe in God coming in flesh, Christian energies must move away from fear of the world to care and concern for one another, making others needs our own. This indeed would be the wonder of Christmas.

If that truly became the reality, we would not have to worry about anyone taking Christ out of Christmas. Our celebration of the coming of Jesus would be in our everyday actions, in our everyday words, in our everyday lives and the world would know what it is we believe and what it is we are about.

Personally I am not offended if someone wishes me a "happy holiday." I simply smile and say, "Thank you and the same to you." Does that make me any less of a Christian? The simple truth is that nothing can keep Christ out of Christmas if Christians embody Christ's teachings.

It's not Macy's or Old Navy's or Nordstrom's responsibility to help me or anyone else find Christ in Christmas. If someone truly wants to find Christ in Christmas, simply go to a homeless shelter, a domestic abuse shelter or a place of worship. Or simply read the Bible or pray. Simply live your life as though Christ does make a difference.

But right now it's Christmastime and silver bells are indeed ringing. Christians need to help keep Christ in Christmas by living out the meaning of Christmas. If we do that, and did that year round, there wouldn't be any outcry about keeping Christ in Christmas.

Mother Teresa said, "It is Christmas every time you let God love others through you, it is Christmas every time you smile at your brother and offer him your hand."

The reality is that no one can take Christ out of Christmas if Christians live the mystery of God's love, for all.

The Rev. Angelo S. Arrando is pastor of St. Gregory the Great R.C. Church in Danbury and president of the ARC Board of Directors.

Jo Gabriele
Jo Gabriele


Seeking the face of Christ in every person.

by Jo Gabriele

Published: Saturday, December 10, 2011

Danbury News Times

As a Roman Catholic, I was raised to believe that upon death, my soul will receive judgment from God. This final judgment will end my human history and begin a new and better heaven and earth ruled by God.

The basis of this judgment belief can be found and is most easily depicted in the Gospel of Matthew, which details acts of mercy which are to be performed even to people considered "the least of Christ's brothers." In Matthew 25: 34-36 it states, "Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

To Roman Catholics, these acts are also known as Corporal Works of Mercy. Growing up, I was aware of my responsibility to help my neighbor. But it was not until later in life that I became more keenly aware of my responsibilities to "the least of Christ's brothers."

While I have always been a person of deep-rooted faith, I have not always been a "practicing Catholic." In the early '90s, I recommitted myself to my faith and started my transformation. My parish introduced me to my first volunteer opportunity, where I was paired with an elderly disabled man and once a week we got together and shared a meal at his home.

After a few years, I relocated to Danbury and continued volunteering as a Friendly Visitor, a program which paired me with a homebound elderly person who I visited for one hour per week. It was a good start, but my passion to achieve a purpose-driven life only came after a life-threatening illness.

During my recovery, I met with a priest and we talked at length about my responsibilities as a Catholic. His parting message to me was, "You must strive to see the face of Christ in every person you see."

Shortly after that meeting I made the decision to leave my 34-year corporate career and devote the rest of my time volunteering or working for organizations in service to the community.

I reflect back on that 34-year period and see it as a gift where I was allowed to spend the first part of my life doing what I had to do in order to spend the rest of it doing what I choose to do.

Over the past 16 years as a member of the Danbury community, I have volunteered and worked with a number of area agencies. For the past seven months I have been on the staff of the Association of Religious Communities (ARC), an organization that has been in existence for more than 30 years. The executive director, the Rev. Phyllis J. Leopold, is a Methodist minister.

ARC's Board of Directors is an interfaith community composed of clergy and lay people associated with congregations representing many lines of thinking and a diversity of religious organizations: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and Unitarian/Universalist.

When I first interviewed for the job and asked what populations ARC served, I learned the agency offered five programs that benefit the troubled and the poorest of the poor in our community: the homeless and low-income renters, refugees and immigrants; individuals with anger management issues or those who have been convicted of violent behavior; and people in need of financial assistance for basic needs, such as fresh food and heating oil.

My experiences have enriched my life more than I could have imagined.

I've learned that sometimes we have to look beyond the anguish on the face in front of us in order to reach the spirit that lives within.

I've learned that in order to recognize the face of hunger and feed it, we need to put biases aside.

I've learned that instead of condemning behavior, we must treat it for the sake of enriching families.

And finally, I've learned that sometimes you just need to look at life through the eyes of a child who does not see race, religion or nationality, but only sees another child who wants to play.

My journey with the Corporal Works of Mercy remains an important part of my faith. While I may not see the face of Christ in every person, I have learned to see my brothers and sisters through different eyes, including both my "neighbors" and now also "the least."

Jo Gabriele is a staff assistant at ARC Program and a member of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Danbury. She can be reached at:

Rabbi Jon Haddon
Rabbi Jon Haddon


Praying for peace for all.

by Rabbi Jon Haddon

Published: Saturday, December 3, 2011

Danbury News Times

As we approach the holy days and holidays such as of Chanukah, Christmas and the New Year, I believe a great and profound resolution for our entire community would be to search our hearts and souls, and vow to rid ourselves of the scourge of anti-Semitism, and all hatred, not just aimed toward Jews, but toward all of those in our community who are in need of love, support and understanding. That includes our immigrants, newcomers to our community, and those of all races, religions, and orientations.

This is the main reason that I am so proud to be a member of ARC, the Association of Religious Communities, that does so much in our community to foster kindness, compassion and understanding.

I also have been very fortunate to have been invited to Danbury's Christian Men's Group and a number of churches, to speak about Israel and to speak about anti-Semitism. I believe we are fortunate to be living in this city, where we as Jews have so many allies and friends who join together in fighting the scourge of anti-Semitism and hatred expressed toward any and all minorities. But I wonder if other minorities are so fortunate.

During this past week, I took another look at a wonderful, albeit sobering, book which I had read several years ago, "The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Anti-Semitism." It was written by Edward Flannery, a Roman Catholic priest, and studies some 23 centuries of worldwide anti-Semitism.

I think the fact that it was written by a brilliant and compassionate Catholic priest in itself is commendable, due to the many aspects of historic anti-Semitism prevalent within some areas of the Church itself. While many might see some of the writings as self-incriminating, others might see a refreshing honesty and a wish to heal the relationship between Christian and Jew, both of whom share a common foundation in their faith.

At the outset, the author claims that the vast majority of even well-educated Christians have been relatively ignorant of what has happened to the Jews throughout history and the culpable involvement of many facets of the Church. Apart from a few recent publications, there is little about anti-Semitism in Christian history books or social studies. The author states that, by comparison, the Jews themselves are largely and acutely aware of their painful history and physical and verbal attacks in the present.

In relation to the Holocaust, which is commendably covered in itself, Flannery illustrates the sympathies for the Nazi regime and the `Final Solution' expressed by prominent Arab personages such as the close confident of Adolf Hitler, Haj Amir El Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (an uncle to the late PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, whose family name was al-Husseini.).

With reference to the modern day Middle East, Flannery covers what he calls the overt expression and practice of Arab anti-Semitism. He proceeds to describe how Arab propaganda, already so hostile to the existence of the State of Israel, has widened its focus to further include the Jewish people and their religion.

The Christmas/Hanukkah season is the time of lights and enlightenment. Reading the book brought back memories of when I was a little boy and learned the Latin phrase, "Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis," which translates "and on earth peace to people of good will."

That is my personal and profound prayer for our entire community; it's enough of anti-Semitism, and it is enough of hatred leveled to any and all of our residents.

I believe in "terra," "pax," peace for us all.

Rabbi Jon Haddon is a rabbi emeritus of Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield, and is on the board of Association of Religious Communities in Danbury.

Rev. Leo McIlrath
Rev. Leo McIlrath


Giving thanks, graced by forgiveness.

by Rev. Leo McIlrath

Published: Saturday, November 26, 2011

Danbury News Times

As little children in the primary grades of school, we colored Thanksgiving pictures of people eating outdoors, seated at a large table, both Pilgrims and Indians. Warm and nostalgic, the setting was ideal.

Ideal, but not quite real -- these truly native Americans were in for a rude awakening, for genocide would follow.

In the 1500s when Europeans would arrive, there were 80 million inhabitants of the Americas. Fifty years later, there were only 10 million. In Mexico, alone, the population dropped from 25 million to 1 million.

This is a vivid example of the manner in which people of faith have sometimes "missed the mark." Our Jewish friends call that sin and so must all of us who worship God.

Therefore while Thanksgiving is for Giving Thanks, it is also an occasion to ask forgiveness for not respecting all of God's creation.

One of the great gifts of the Americas is that in spite of 500 years of oppression and colonialism, we are still graced with the wisdom of the native peoples of this land.

This spirit was captured by the many people who participated in the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service at New Hope Baptist Church on Monday evening, sponsored by the Association of Religious Communities (ARC) and which included Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, Jews, B'hais, Jains, Unitarians/Universalists and Christians, both Protestants and Catholics.

As the theme of the ceremony was titled, they sought to "Build a Bridge of Love to all of God's Creation."

At the service, I could not help but focus in on the "Canticle of the Sun," penned long ago by the little "poverello," Francis of Assisi, who was in love with every aspect of God's creation. To paraphrase:

"We praise you, Lord, for all your creatures, especially for Brother Sun, who is the day through whom you give us light.

And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor, of you Most High, he bears your likeness.

We thank you, Lord, for Sister Moon and the Stars, in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.

We praise you, Lord, for Brothers Wind and Air, fair and stormy, all weather's moods, by which you cherish all that you have made.

We thank you, Lord, for Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and pure.

We praise you, Lord, for Brother Fire, through whom you light the night.

He is beautiful, playful, robust, and strong.

We thank you, Lord, for Sister Earth, who sustains us with her fruits, colored flowers, and herbs.

We praise you, Lord, for those who pardon, for love of you bears sickness and trial.

Blessed are those who endure in peace, by you Most High, they will be crowned.

We thank you, Lord, for Sister Death, from whom no one living can escape.

Blessed are those that She finds doing your will.

We praise and bless you, Lord, and give you thanks, and serve you in all humility."

A Happy and Blessed Thanksgiving to all!

The Rev. Leo E. McIlrath is ecumenical chaplain for the Lutheran Home of Southbury. He can be reached at 203-270-0581 or

Polly Castor
Polly Castor


Gratitude for good brings more good.

by Polly Castor

Published: Saturday, November 18, 2011

Danbury News Times

As a Christian Scientist, I start my day with a specific type of prayer. There are many euphemisms for this: Some call it a "spiritual bath," while others call it "daily identification work."

These terms describe the time fairly well, when I once again immerse myself in spiritual truth, cleansing myself from the noise, static and impositions of the world. I reacquaint myself all over again with God and God's attributes, laws and promises. I re-examine what that means for me as God's image and likeness, and resolve to go forth into my day with an honest heart to do God's will as best I can.

This is a precious time of uplift, regeneration, and comfort, when my perspective is refreshed, refocused, and rededicated.

Then, in the evening, right before bed, I have another custom.

I think back on my day, noticing all those places -- large and subtle, important and miniscule -- where I can see God's influence. With gratitude, I shine a spotlight on all the good that transpired and completely release anything that was unlike good, or God.

By making a point of observing and being attentive to whatever is good in my life, I amplify it and carry it forward to build upon. The more I specifically acknowledge God's presence, the more I experience God's impact and power.

Each evening there is so much to be thankful for. This quiet practice of bringing in each day's bountiful harvest is a joyful one.

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, valued gratitude so much that she instituted Wednesday testimony meetings in Christian Science churches as a weekly, public time of thanksgiving akin to my daily, private one.

These testimony meetings are a highlight of my week. It is wonderful to hear how challenges were overcome, healings occurred, blessings were showered, provision appeared, guidance was given, the lost was found and love was felt. Our church family thrives on getting together every week in this oasis of good news--a sweet refuge in a world that blasts us constantly with suggestions otherwise.

I have learned that the more I focus on and notice the good that is present, the more good I experience.

It is not hard to find things to be critical about, or to condemn; it is easy to complain or make unflattering comparisons. If we spend our time and energy finding flaws, we will be training ourselves to spot more reasons to be unhappy. To the contrary, Christian Science has shown me that there is always good going on. There is ever at hand something to be grateful for.

Concentrating on this not only makes me happier, but more confident in God's omnipotence. By regularly paying attention, I have come to truly understand that God's infinite good is available every moment for everyone. This, in turn, makes me more compassionate and increases my ability to contribute effectively to whatever problems are as yet unresolved.

Eddy also established a Thanksgiving service. Yes, Christian Scientists in other countries all around the world celebrate what we think of as strictly an American holiday. This is because our American founder felt Thanksgiving was so infused with spiritual import that people everywhere could use that boost.

In our Thanksgiving services, there are readings from the Bible and the Christian Science textbook, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," by Eddy. We sing hymns of gratitude, of which there are many in our hymnal. The United States presidential or gubernatorial Thanksgiving proclamation is also read.

But the majority of the service is people from the congregation and community spontaneously sharing what they are grateful for in their own lives.

This sharing at the Thanksgiving service is like a yearlong version of that end-of-the-day practice I described, where each of us looks back over the whole year and claims the overarching highlights of good, giving public gratitude for them and launching the next year on that basis of appreciation and awe.

I am glad that my life is punctuated by persistent gratitude. As Eddy would say, I am held "forever in the rhythmic round of unfolding bliss, as a living witness to and perpetual idea of inexhaustible good."

Polly Castor is a Christian Science practitioner at First Church of Christ, Scientist, Ridgefield. She can be reached at:

Rev. Laura Westby
Rev. Laura Westby


Many need water and everyone can help.

by Rev. Laura Westby

Published: Saturday, November 12, 2011

Danbury News Times

If you have driven past the First Congregational Church of Danbury lately, you have probably seen the huge sign on our front lawn announcing our "11 Wells by 11/11/11" challenge.

This fall, the United Church of Christ has launched Mission: 1, a national effort to engage local UCC churches in fighting hunger.

During the first 11 days of November, UCC churches aim to collect a million items of healthy food, raise $111,111 for hunger relief programs and $111,111 for East African famine relief, and write 11,111 letters to our nation's leaders in support of food justice programs.

Most importantly, our UCC motto and Jesus' prayer "that they may all be one" will become a focused, concerted mission emphasis across the whole United Church of Christ.

We will educate ourselves and one another about food-related policy issues through sermons, seminars and conversations. We also will advocate on behalf of hungry people at home and around the world; to raise money for hunger-action purposes; and to share bread -- and tuna and peanut butter and vegetables and cereal -- with our neighbors in need.

A visitor to the United Church's website,, will quickly realize the UCC is impassioned to change the world, one life at a time.

In addition to Mission: 1, we have developed resources to support, educate and advocate for people with disabilities, the environment, economic justice, health care, media justice, racial equality and refugee ministries.

All of these ministries, and many others, are based in the belief that all people are an integral part of God's family, equally valuable and equally worthy of care. We pray for a day when the human family will truly be one community and so we are committed to working together for the well-being of all.

The power outages following Tropical Storm Irene left many of us without easy access to water for several days. As we lugged water from our neighbors' homes, our offices and our pools, we imagined what it would be like to haul all the water we needed to wash, flush and drink every single day. This is a reality for millions of people around the world, many of them women and children. Often they must carry their water for miles.

And, all too often, the water is contaminated. In fact, the lack of clean, accessible water is one of the primary causes of hunger and disease. We have learned that the remedy is simple and inexpensive.

For $1,000, relief organizations are able to provide a well and training in how to maintain a safe drinking supply for an entire village.

And so First Church members decided our participation in the national Mission: 1 program would be to try to raise enough money for 11 wells. And because raising $11,000 is a very big goal for a small congregation, we decided to invite our neighbors to join us in the challenge.

We've asked our friends and co-workers to donate. We've put the invitation to participate on our website,, and posted it on a very big sign on our front lawn.

Water is one of the most basic of human needs. For a few days last week, many of us were reminded of this as we experienced the hardship faced every day by those without easy access to water.

As members of the United Church of Christ, we are mindful of Jesus' teaching that faith is a way of life that is informed by a spirit of service. And so, with our friends across the UCC, we have joined Mission: 1.

Since the storm set us all back a bit, we're giving ourselves an additional week to reach our goal.

It's not too late to participate. Working as one, our community can be a blessing to another community -- or maybe even 11 of them.

The Rev. Laura Westby is pastor of First Congregational Church of Danbury.
Learn more at

Don Lavallee
Don Lavallee


Universal Spirituality.

by Don Lavallee

Published: Saturday, November 5, 2011

Danbury News Times

There can be no spiritual growth apart from service to humanity, ones fellow human.

Spirituality is the persistent, tireless application of the inner personal will directed toward performing those activities in the personal life that assists in the accomplishment God's Plan for us, for humanity.

It is my belief that down through the millennia on this planet that this has always been the primary goal of human organizations we call religions i.e., to present to their people the underlying essence of the ongoing need to assist and to serve their God. Though they are known by many names and practiced by many people throughout the world their purpose is now, and always has been, undeviating the same.

I do not believe that spiritual growth is attained simply by going to services, listening to lectures or sermons or reading sacred scripture although these are helpful. I believe it is advanced through the personal internal realization of past humanity verses the present state of humanity and where humanity should go from here and how we can help. Our help can be small acts of compassionate service, creating a "peaceable home" or larger contributions through the sciences, government or the arts.

It is through religion's secondary purpose that the primary purpose is accomplished, i.e., through the intelligent (not only emotional) presentation of the religion's beliefs and teachings to its people and the persistent attempt to guide them to living a more loving and compassionate life so that they understand that spiritual growth and service to humanity must proceed concurrently.

To state it differently: there can be no spiritual growth apart from service to humanity; to ones fellow human.

I believe God's Plan is the creator's will energizing creation (evolution being the continuation of creation) and driving forth evolution to fulfil His purpose. How we as self-conscious, free willed, spiritually developed humans assist in this great Work is up to each person individually.

As we grow in our spiritually active service we will begin to comprehend, consciously, the reality and beauty of this Plan and as that realization is cultivated, expanded and matured we will find ourselves, consciously or not, part of a large developing group of individuals who share the same spiritual perception.

This group of self conscious, spiritual people of similar intellectual comprehension is not of any one religion or belief, but is made up of people from all walks of life, all ages, colors and from every country without exception. They may not know each other and more than likely they do not, except they will recognize each other by their service, their compassion and their fruitful universal works.

Even though every religion has a person or persons in its past that it reveres, this group has no such person. The consciousness that impresses this group of people to aspire to a greater spirituality is their soul or spirit.

That soul impress brings clearer to their minds the dream of brotherhood, of fellowship, of world cooperation and of a peace based on right human relations while visualizing a universal faith.

As described by Alice A. Bailey in Problems of Humanity, this newly forming group of spiritually based people "vision a new and vital world religion, a universal faith which will have its roots in the past, but which will make clear the new dawning beauty and coming vital revelation."

Just as the great religious leaders of the past brought to humanity a spiritual revelation befit for the people of their time and setting the stage for the next, so I believe there will always be another revelation to guide humanity in its search for communion with God. The next revelation, I believe, will not be impressed upon the consciousness of humanity by an individual, but by the spiritual force of this group now forming the New World Religion of the future. This revelation will be revealed through the force of their continuous spiritual acts of service under the guidance of their souls or spirit.

There will be no need in this New World Religion for a religious hierarchy, for buildings of worship, for ceremonies or ceremonial dress--all the teachings by the now religious organizations for the benefit of their people will, in this new group, be superseded by direct impress by the individual's soul or spirit, who is all knowing and all loving.

I believe this change in the religions of the world through this group of spiritually endowed individuals will be over a long period of time in which existing religions will continue to function and serve their people.

Don Lavallee is an Association of Religious Communities' volunteer and web master. He can be reached at

Shawn Sweeney
Shawn Sweeney


Unitarians recognize relationship with natural world.

by Shawn Sweeney

Published: Saturday, October 29, 2011

Danbury News Times

At this time of the year, as brilliant gold ushers in the change of seasons and green begins to fade from the landscape, in our church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury, being green continues to be on our mind, and it remains on the agenda even as the cold winter months draw upon us.

In our faith, we are guided by seven principles adopted by Unitarian Universalist communities around the world. Among these principles is one -- "to promote and instill respect for the interdependent web of all life of which we are a part" -- that especially draws our attention to being green, and the mutuality that human beings share with the natural world and all the creatures who live in it.

Drawing on a rich tradition of connectedness to nature, guided by the wisdom of famous thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among many others, this principle calls Unitarian Universalists to have respect for the environment, as well as take action to protect it.

In practice, we recognize this principle in many ways. As a church, led by the Rev. Barbara Fast, who has a special interest in sustainability, we have spent a number of Sunday services talking about the sacredness of nature, how we are a part of it, and our need to protect it.

In our Earth Day service this year, Rev. Barbara gave a sermon on the spiritual nature of water and the state of water on Earth, and led a special meditation where each of us offered a commitment to take one action to conserve water for 40 days.

As an organization, we have established a Green Team, which has spent the last several years identifying ways the congregation can promote sustainable actions among our members. A few of the more prominent ones include:

Co-founding the downtown Danbury community garden.

Establishing a relationship with a local farmer to offer membership in a community-supported agriculture program.

Beginning to compost or recycle all waste from activities on site at UUCD.

Small group ministries have also offered ways for the congregation to gather, recognize and explore their interests in nature, sustainability and the environment.

Over the course of the last year, I have personally led the Joy of Food group. Studying issues related to food, we gather monthly to both cook and eat a sustainably sourced, organic and vegetarian meal together.

These gatherings have allowed us to deepen our joy in eating food, our understanding of how food is cultivated, and where and who it comes from.

As a self-described "foodie," it has been amazing to me how spiritual this kind of ministry can be. We share a meal together, bless it with our good intentions, and honor its role in enriching our bodies, while at the same time honoring those who made it available to us, and the earth that provided the nutrients to make it.

Other recent programs have included Chalice Circles that studied the writings of Thoreau as a spiritual guide and a blessing of the animals in honor of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

On the horizon, continuing efforts to recognize our relationship with the natural world and what we can do to protect it, the Danbury congregation will gather individuals and groups from around the Fairfield County for a special program called "Awakening the Dreamer" on Nov. 12.

This program, with a bold vision to "bring forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on Earth," is offered both as a program for our community, as well as the wider Danbury and Fairfield County area.

And so, as we continue into the colder part of the year, the colors of summer continue to wane, and the seasons change, our congregation recognizes that this is all a part of nature, that we are all a part of nature, that nature enriches us every day, and that we must dedicate ourselves to protecting it, not for ourselves but for the generations to come.

Shawn Sweeney is vice president of the Board of Trustees, Growth Advisory Ministry, in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury, 24 Clapboard Ridge Road. He can be reached at:

Rev. Mel Kawakami
Rev. Mel Kawakami


UMCOR shows faith in action.

by Rev. Mel Kawakami

Published: Saturday, October 22, 2011

Danbury News Times

Imagine traveling the bucoluc mountains of the Catskills. Beautiful green mountains, now kissed with the first blush of autumnal reds. Coming through Stony Cove, you will recognize the Hunter Mountain Ski areas.

But disturbing signs begin to appear: the scoured banks of the Schoharie Creek, once clear and silver, now a muddy rust brown; a "road closed" sign; a graveyard filled with ruined cars and trucks; and a debris pile two stories high.

Around the next bend, you suddenly arrive in hell. Prattsville, N.Y., a sleepy roadside town, is in ruins. Homes are washed off their foundations. Businesses are gone. The United Methodist Church on one end of the road and the Dutch Reformed Church at the other end are empty and stripped down to the studs.

You see the once-beautiful Victorian home leaning at an unnatural angle and sunk into a mud pool, the home next door haunted by domestic cats, the old one-room school house floated off its foundations, and the mobile home park across the street from the creek, now scoured off the landscape.

It is impossible to capture the scope or the smell. Yet in the midst of this disaster, FEMA and the Red Cross are there. So are the faith communities: the Salvation Army, the Mennonite Disaster Response teams, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

Once a year, UMCOR receives a general offering from all of our 34,000 congregations and 8 million members in the United States. This funds the agency for the year and allows 100 percent of disaster donations to go to the disaster sites.

UMCOR also coordinated Early Response Teams and Volunteers in Mission to help churches and residents deal with the disaster. Prattsvville and Lexington, N.Y., are a part of our annual conference, which stretches from the Catskills to Manhattan and the western half of Connecticut. So this disaster happened, so to speak, in our own backyard.

That is what brought me to Prattsville. The Rev. Elliot Oakes, pastor of the Prattsville and Lexington Churches, witnessed the water's quick rise and the flooding of both his churches and his parsonage. From his second-story Fellowship Hall, he watched a neighbor's house float off its foundations and move toward his church. A tiny hillock stopped the house from a larger disaster. Pastor Oaks saw his car and his camper float off downstream, their carcasses among those I had driven by.

I was there as a part of an Early Response Team to help clear out two homes. Millie was 86 years old, and wondered what she would do with her century-old home. She had no flood insurance, and her homeowner's policy did not cover rising water. She got pennies on the dollar for her ruined furniture. Millie will stay with family until we can return in the spring.

Like our Mennonite sisters in their caps and long dresses next door, Methodist crews were stripping walls to the studs, pulling out mud soaked rugs, pulling up floors, and spraying a bleach solution to kill the mold. In the midst of what once appeared hopeless, now kindled the light of Christ. Helping hands witnessed God's love: a statement of possibility made in the middle of a disaster site.

We were not alone in helping. The Lexington United Methodist Church had already been stripped down to the studs. When we arrived at lunchtime after a full morning's work, there was a crew from the Bronx washing down the pews, hoping that the century-old seats could be saved.

Some were bleaching the studs. Others were cleaning out the basement, where the recent rains invaded once again. And the women and men of Lexington, whose Kitchen and Fellowship Hall were above the waterline, were there to feed us and told us stories of survival and hope. So we were served as we served.

In Lexington and Prattsville, we bear witness to a church beyond walls; we see God's caring in action through the hands of His people. From a Connecticut suburb to a disaster site in the Catskills, here is a small band of concerned Christians helping fellow Christians.

This happens wherever need is responded to by the faithful: from the Dorothy Day Hospitality House in Danbury, to Faith Food Pantry in Sandy Hook, to ARC or Furcy in Haiti, this work is our faith in action.

The Rev. Mel Kawakami is senior pastor of Newtown United Methodist Church, 92 Church Hill Road, Newtown, CT 06482, and can be reached at


Pivotal pericopes provide strength and hope for each day.

by Rev. Dr. Sheldon Smith

Published: Saturday, October 15, 2011

Danbury News Times

Christian faith formation traditionally finds its origin in Bible stories. The first story I remember was Moses in the bulrushes. It spoke to me of a mother's love. Such stories provide a foundation of faith for young children.

As seasons pass and people mature, I believe we come to rely on portions of Scripture that continue to speak to us and uphold us spiritually, whether we are actually aware of it or not.

As I thought about the rites of the church, I realized in all the 41 years I have been conducting funerals and memorial services, the Twenty-Third Psalm has been the first thing mentioned whenever I asked what Scriptures the family would like to have read.

When I inquired further, I discovered that for some it was the image of the Lord as a shepherd. For others it was the green pastures or the still waters. And for some, it was walking through the valley of the shadow without fear.

Now, when I invite folks to join me as I read that psalm, I am pleased by the number of people who have it written on their hearts and are able to respond naturally.

I have seen a similar thing occurring with weddings. While wedding Scriptures tend to be a bit more varied, there is still one that is almost universally requested -- I Corinthians 13. This is thought to be the "love chapter," making it most appropriate for a wedding.

Again, when I ask for the underlying thoughts, some will point to a framed sign on my office table which reads, "Love is patient. Love is kind." Others find meaning in the affirmation that love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things. These are the sentiments that understandably are part of marriage.

The words and images found in the Twenty-Third Psalm and I Corinthians 13, are part of what I have come to conclude are pivotal pericopes. A pericope is described as a passage from the Bible. Pivotal pericopes are those phrases or short passages that hold meaning and speak to our spiritual lives at particular times.

In addition to the two already mentioned, I have three others that have been profound sources of either strength or delight in my life.

As a pastor I am often asked to pray with folks at critical times in life. It may be a moment of grief or loss, discernment or decision, or anxiety and fear. It is at this moment that the pericope of Matthew 6: 9-13 seems most appropriate.

We know it as the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father who art in heaven ..." Having gone through some surgeries a while back, I can attest to the comforting power of those words while facing surgery and during recovery.

Much of what we read and hear daily is about struggles and challenges. Indeed, they are real. But there are other moments as well; moments of delight and rejoicing.

For me, those moments are summed up in a pericope from Psalm 8, which speaks of the majesty of God in all the earth. Standing on the top of a mountain, watching eagles soar below, I have seen the majesty of God.

Each morning as I walk, I often notice deer or turkeys or a fox. Once in a while I even see a skunk, but I celebrate that majesty from a distance.

And, of course, there is the beautiful smile on the face of my new granddaughter. The majesty of God restores my soul and warms my heart.

My final pericope is actually twofold. It is based on the familiar text of Matthew 7:12 known as The Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

This provides a code of behavior based on the ethic of reciprocity. Several other religions have something similar in their Scriptures.

For Christians, a second step in the process of human interaction comes from a pericope associated with Maundy Thursday and spoken by Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper, "A new commandment I give you that you love one another, as I have loved you that you also love one another."

This raises the Golden Rule to a higher level of unselfishness based on a true caring for others without regard to oneself. While the other pericopes are heeded on an occasional basis, this is one I try to observe daily.

From Bible stories to pivotal pericopes, I believe faith is formed and provides the strength and hope for each day. While individuals may have differing pericopes to help guide their lives, they come from a common origin for Christians as we turn to the Bible as the source book of faith.

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon T. Smith is senior minister at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Bethel.

Ven. Ocean-of-Wisdom Sakya
Venerable Wisdom


The problem is civilization, not education.

by Ven. Ocean-of-Wisdom Sakya

Published: Saturday, October 8, 2011

Danbury News Times

Watching a recent television event called "Education Nation" brought to mind the thought of sharing some Buddhist perspectives on education. I often hear pronouncements of problems in education, but I believe a clarifying vision from both Buddhism and psychology notes these "problems" in education are actually problems in civilization.

Schools are chastised for a lack of student achievement. However, I believe sincere effort on the part of schools in not the reason for this condition, but rather the reasons come from civilization's notions, which often dismiss ideas such as humans are free beings and capable of choice, and dismiss the expertise of the professionals.

Parental involvement, poor school funding, and a host of other factors influence student learning. However, I believe our civilization skirts around these other issues and scapegoats the schools.

This is where I think the Buddhist and humanistic psychological perspective can help enlighten and establish the course of remedy.

The Buddha states a person studying anything can only achieve understanding if they apply Perfect Effort. The humanistic/Buddhist attitude states that people are unique individuals with their own skills and talents, strengths and weaknesses, and have free will, and thus can choose thier own developmental goals, and then apply their effort in that direction.

Indeed the Buddhist perspective is that human birth is precious precisely because we have the capability of choice, something other beings lack. However, because of the emphasis on standard testing, the model in education has shifted from a humanistic/Buddhist model to a behavioral one.

The behavioral model, which is currently utilized in schools, states that human beings have no free will and a person's behavior is simply a result of stimuli presented by the environment. The behavioral model states that a student's success is only a result of the right stimulus being provided by the schools.

In this model, students are just big rats waiting for the right "food pellet" to be presented by the environment (the school) in order for learning to occur (test scores). In this model, if the "rat" has demonstrated learning, then the school is rewarded. This current model that children are little more than big rats is repugnant to me and dehumanizing.

Let's say I went to my doctor and she told me if I don't take my medicine, exercise regularly and change my diet, I will have a heart attack. Now imagine I don't change my behaviors, and I later suffer a heart attack.

Most people would find it ridiculous (I hope) if I said it was my doctor's fault and sued her. However, if a student doesn't study (take their medicine), do their homework (exercise regularly), or spends all their time on Facebook or playing Xbox rather than reading (change of diet), our civilization blames the schools when the student doesn't succeed.

There is a saying, "The Buddha will not carry you on his back," and Confucius echoes this with his quote, "The teacher can show you the door, but you must enter on your own."

Both quotes respect the right and responsibility of human beings to choose their direction and shape their destiny. A Buddhist cannot be enlightened by the Buddha, they can only be enlightened by their own efforts, and the humanistic perspective says the same for any personal or educational achievement.

I believe today's schools have the most highly educated and dedicated teaching force in the history of this nation but the decisions about education are made mostly by people who do not spend every day teaching students.

In Buddhism, if we are looking to improve something, we don't go to a politician or a businessperson. We go to monks and priests, because they are experts. As Confucius says, "If you do not hold the position, do not design its plan."

How many students and teachers have real decision-making power in education?

If civilization continues to dehumanize students by taking away their human right to be shapers of their own lives, and continues with the notion that only institutions, and not individuals, bear responsibility for success, and continues to eliminate experts from the decision-making process, then students will not reach their goals.

Therefore, from a Buddhist/humanistic perspective, there isn't a problem in education, there is a problem in civilization. I believe it is there that we can address our remedies.

Ven. Ocean-of-Wisdom Sakya is the abbot of Middle-Way Meditation Centers. He can be contacted at 860-355-7069 or

Mary Collins
Mary Collins


Nuturing the life-giving aspects of humanity in religious education.

by Mary Collins

Published: Saturday, October 1, 2011

Danbury News Times

Is a religious community important for children and youth, given all the competing activities they might do? The Search Institute® "an independent, nonprofit, nonsectarian organization committed to helping create healthy communities for every young person," has done research that concludes an affirming "Yes!"

They have created a list of "40 Developmental Assets" which describe the characteristics of children and youth who are caring, resilient, and able to make positive choices in their lives and away from risky or negative behaviors. On the list is "Religious Community" where the "child participates in age-appropriate religious activities and caring relationships that nurture her or his spiritual development."

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury is such a community committed to children, teens, parents, guardians, and caring adults of all stripes.

Our religious education is centered around: UU values, World Religions, Life Skills & Lived Values, Social Action, The Spiritual life. As our children's affirmation says: "We are Unitarian Universalists. We are people with open minds, loving hearts and helping hands."

Unitarian Universalists highlight and respect similarities and differences between people of faith. Our similarities help us empathize; our differences help us humbly re-examine what we think is true, in light of another interpretation or focus. Isn't it interesting that people around the world, and in all times, have encouraged each other with "rules to live by?"

We speak of the stories, ideas, religious rituals and celebrations from many faith traditions. This is something that parents who believe in God or not, or have been raised in differing faith traditions, churched or un-churched, often find welcoming and honoring.

We also clarify misconceptions: Muslims are not terrorists. Islam resonates with a large portion of the world's people and values love and respectful behavior, too! Pagans do not worship the devil. Paganism is an earth-centered spirituality, where one's thoughts and intentions can be manifested in the world. What you think, you become or create.

Life skills -- We offer practice in things like conflict resolution through role-playing, and critical thinking about what messages are sent through advertising and the media. We offer age appropriate curriculum that support parents in educating their children and youth about sexuality and positive relationship skills, based on healthy values.

Lived values - We explore the questions: How do you act kindly to your neighbor? How do you act when no one is looking? How do you spend your time, talents and treasure?

Social Action is a priority for UU's. All ages participate at a developmentally appropriate level. We agree that every person has dignity and worth (young or old, gay or straight, new immigrant or citizen) so we ask questions and find out how we can work to add to the fair and environmentally healthy world we wish to live in. As children and youth grow, they participate, vote, plan, and execute social action projects to raise funds and/or awareness of an issue important to them.

The Spiritual Life invites introspection and spiritual practice because connecting with something sacred, sharing our direct experience in an open faith community grows our capacity to find hope and support for the inevitable hard times.

We also believe it is important that children and youth find the words to express their beliefs. Can they say what they believe at this moment (knowing that it will likely change) as they mature and understand themselves and life at new levels?

Recently, we told a story from the Cherokee people, called "Two Wolves" where an elder was sharing with the grandchildren, "Sometimes I feel like there is a fight going on inside me, like two wolves."

One wolf represents fear, anger, resentment, lies, greed -- all things snarly and snap-jawed, and the other wolf represents courage, truth, sharing, empathy -- all things beautiful and loving. When one of the grandchildren asks, "Which one wins?" The elder replies "The one you feed."

In Unitarian Universalism Religious Education we, too, note all parts of humanity, and we strive to but feed and nurture the life-giving ones.

Mary Collins, Religious Education, Unitarian/Universalist Congregation of Danbury. She can be reached at: 203-789-1994

Rev. Cindy Maddox
Rev. Cindy Maddox


Communities of faith: Local and global, active and involved.

by Rev. Cindy Maddox

Published: Saturday, September 24, 2011

Danbury News Times

In religious circles, we use the term "communities of faith" when we want to refer to churches, synagogues, mosques, and other worshiping bodies. We use the phrase because it is inclusive--it can be applied to any of the above without giving one religion priority over the others.

I like it for this reason, but I also find myself occasionally referring to my own congregation as a community of faith. We are, first of all, a community--hat the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as "a unified body of individuals." What unites us is our common faith--our faith in God, our belief in a power higher than ourselves, and our commitment to living out our faith in the world today. We don't have the same politics; we're not all from the same socioeconomic level; we don't even all agree on theology. But we are united in our faith. We are a community of faith.

With this in mind, I suppose some people might find it strange that on one Sunday each year I encourage our people to be a community divided. On the first Sunday of October over half of our congregation skips church--always with the pastor's blessing and usually with the pastor, herself, along for the ride.

On the first Sunday of October we join with hundreds of others from the area in the Women Center's Annual 4k Walk. The posters and other materials from the Women's Center proudly state the title of the event: "A Community United Against Domestic Violence."

My church--my congregation, my faith community--is united in faith. But we are also members of a larger community--the community of Danbury, and a community of people united in the belief that we must take a stand against societal problems such as domestic violence. Our faith in God tells us that all people are created in the image of God and thus we should stand for the rights and well being of all people.

Therefore, one Sunday a year, our "Sunday best" clothes are jeans and sneakers as we walk around the WCSU campus, raising money and awareness. (Actually, if you've ever been to our church, you know that for many of us our "Sunday best" is often jeans and sneakers, but you get my point.)

While more than half of us are walking, the rest of the church gathers in the sanctuary for worship as usual. They pray for the people walking; they pray for those who are served by the Women's Center; they pray for the workers at the Center. And they sit and stand in witness to the fact that the church is a community of faith, which also means a community of action.

Ironically, the Sunday of the annual Women's Center walk is also the Sunday that the Christian church celebrates World Communion Sunday. Christians all over the world take communion on that day in the knowledge that they are in solidarity with other Christians around the world celebrating communion the same day. In some ways it bothers me that our church is not all together on that day to share in communion in one place. But this, too, is a symbol of why we do what we do. We may not share together in the bread and cup at the table in our sanctuary, but we are in solidarity with all who hunger and thirst.

Some people think that churches are isolated, insular organizations where people go to hide behind stained glass windows. Although I suppose some churches could be described that way, I don't know any of them. The faith communities I know are made up of people trying their best to live out their faith in the real world, trying to put into practice what they believe, trying to serve God by serving others.

If you don't believe me, try visiting an active church sometime soon. Or just look for me in my red King Street Church hat at the Walk. I might even have some bread and juice to share.

Rev. Cindy Maddox is the pastor of King Street United Church of Christ, 201 S. King St., Danbury, CT. She can be reached at: 203-748-0719 or by e-mail

Rev. Marilyn Anderson
Rev. Marilyn Anderson


There's somthing a little crazy about what I did last Saturday.

by Rev. Marilyn Anderson

Published: Saturday, September 17, 2011

Danbury News Times

It was the day before September 11 and I was bracing myself to write a sermon about the gospel where Jesus tells Peter about forgiving not only seven times but seventy-seven times. And this sermon was to be preached in light of the dreaded anniversary the next day. Thinking about that sermon and the expectations I had for it gave me a very heavy feeling, and I couldn't help but recall all the heavy feelings of September 11 ten years ago.

So what was the crazy thing I did on that heavy day? I went to the store and bought a bunch of plants - mums, pansies, flowering kale. Sure, they would be dying soon and maybe it was a silly investment of money and the time it took to plant it all. But it was also a statement of hope and faith, and an expression of the joy that proceeds from these virtues.

Martin Luther is famous for saying that "even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree." He was giving voice to the universal need of human beings to find hope in the growth of plants and greenery, birds and pets and even our children.

The hope we feel in the flourishing of living things is one strong thing that pulls us through the difficult times.

Along with faith and love, hope is one of the so-called theological virtues that were the centerpiece of the thought of Christian theological philosophers in the Middle Ages, including Thomas Aquinas. He and his contemporaries thought long and hard about the role of hope as a fruit of the grace of God given to all people. Hope is a necessary element in our lives on earth; it's superfluous in heaven. It's what keeps us going and helps us have a healthy long-term perspective when days are sad or even tragic.

Members of the Abrahamic faiths - Jews, Muslims, and Christians, hold the hope that there is more than earthly pain or disappointment.

We believe that God will continue to grow us in the next life, and that earthly wrongs will be set right on the Day of Judgment that will come at the end of things as we know them. Christians aver in the Nicene Creed that Jesus "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end." This is the essence of our hope and our faith. Things will be made right eventually. Everything will turn out all right and love will win over hate or fear.

During the time of the Black Death, the widespread and horrid outbreak of pandemic bubonic plague in Europe in the mid fourteenth century, there lived a woman who dedicated herself to the life of prayer and lived in a small cell attached to a parish church in Norwich, England. We are not sure of her name but we think it may have been Julian.

She famously wrote God's words that she heard in a series of visions given her when she was near death. In her writings Julian tells us that God assured her that "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Even in the time of the Black Death, when some 30 to 60 percent of Europe's population was wiped out, even as she lay near death herself, all shall be well. And her words have echoed down through the centuries and helped many to hold on. Her words are an unadulterated expression of hope.

I believe we can choose to live in hope and in faith, no matter our church or faith tradition.

It is a choice that is sometimes very difficult, but one that is nurtured by our belonging to a community of faith and cultivating trust in the promises of God as we have received them. We help each other grow in hope and we help each other cope with what life gives us. It is a communal endeavor.

So go and buy some flowers. Do something crazy like that.

Plant them with the hope that they will remind you of the good in the world and the promises of God - despite the fact that the days are growing shorter and cooler and there is not enough good news on the airwaves.

It gives voice to hope.

The Rev. Marilyn Anderson is the Rector of Christ Church Parish in Redding Ridge and can be contacted - 203 938-2872. Christ Church Parish, P.O. Box 54, Redding Ridge, CT 06876

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


Putting life to the best possible use on earth.

by Rev. Phyllis. J. Leopold

Published: Saturday, September 10, 2011

Danbury News Times

God did a lot of things in seven days. And what a difference a day makes!

One day everyone is outside enjoying sunshine. The next day the whole Eastern Seaboard is hunkered down waiting for Tropical Storm Irene.

Similarly, one fine Saturday in August everything was going great. Then I got a call from my mother regarding my wonderful stepdad, Joseph. Soon we were at the hospital.

As part of his healing, Joseph later stayed at a nursing home for rehab. Nurse Tom told me that he was enjoying getting to know Joseph. Evidently, one night Joseph told Tom that he helped design the "module that landed on the moon."

Tom mentioned to me that he works with a lot of people who have dementia. So he asked if Joseph's story about the moon landing was true or did Joseph made it up?

I was happy to say, "Joseph didn't imagine it, and yes, indeed, he did help design the lunar module."

I was also proud to tell the nurse that Joseph also "built the first synagogue in his hometown." I think that is very impressive, but Tom was more enthusiastic about the lunar module.

I doubt when Joseph was a young man he would have ever guessed he would help build the lunar module, or help build a synagogue, or that he and I would become family.

Looking into his eyes at the hospital, I was enriched by all the wonderful things that happen when you meet and get to know and love people you never expected you would.

Joseph and I have both experienced reluctance in venturing beyond our own religious communities and the joy of having done so.

We have both found it is not only folly but often dangerous to practice or preach Jesus, Judaism, Allah or any one godsend as "the one and only one way."

I am glad I was raised and remain in the United Methodist Church. I am glad I went to a college and divinity school with Christian affiliations. Through their influences, I learned something very important: who I am called to be.

And through people like my wonderful and Jewish stepfather Joseph, I have learned something equally important: who I am not called to be.

I am not called to use my religion against other people to cultivate shame, blame, burning of sacred texts, war, fear or hate.

I am not called to think that people outside of my brand of Christianity are misguided and evil temptations of Satan. Just the opposite, I take the words of Christ, my godsend, very seriously: to get outside of my own box and "love your neighbor."

After Joseph came home and Irene arrived, I ventured into town on the sixth day that I did not have electricity. I was amazed to see signs for "free water" and "free ice" outside a school gymnasium. Inside there was free shelter, and free showers.

Having been a little down and out, I felt lifted 100 feet in the air at the site of the water and so many volunteers of all ages. To me, that gymnasium was filled with unconditional love. It was one of the best large-scale outpourings of loving your neighbor I have seen in a long time.

So looking back on this summer: Joseph being in the hospital and nursing home and then damage done by Irene were sad and scary sights. They were larger-than-life reminders that life is short.

To me, they were also more signs that in the modern world life is too short to waste on only knowing or caring about people from one religion.

Some may think learning about "more religion" is too hard or even unchristian of me to suggest. But it is not.

Our world has been graced by many godsends who gave rise to different religious traditions. By whichever path, I believe it is all for the same purpose -- to love our neighbors.

It is not always easy. And it may not get us to the moon. But I believe it definitely puts life to the best possible use on Earth.

The Rev. Phyllis J. Leopold is executive director of the Association of Religious Communities (ARC) in Danbury. For more information, visit


Rev. Karen Karpow
Rev. Karen Karpow


United Methodists apply practical approach to divinity.

by Rev. Karen Karpow

Published: Saturday, September 3, 2011

Danbury News Times

As I write this, we've just had a really dramatic week. First an earthquake, and then a hurricane! (I am finally on a working computer, via several long extension cords.) What's going on here?

Maybe it's the End of Times! After all, it was predicted back in May - did you see the billboards? The economy is tanking, there are wars and rumors of wars, the very climate of the earth seems to be changing, and there's hardly anything worth watching on TV. Maybe The End is coming, and they just had the date wrong.

What should we do if that's the case? Well, if you're a United Methodist, like me, you do what you would do anyway.

Based on scripture, we do believe that Christ will come again, not as a Christmas baby lying in a manger, but as King of Everything. His arrival will usher in the Kingdom of God, the place and time where only the will of God is done. Some will enter the Kingdom, and some perhaps will not.

Methodists do not presume to know God's judgments. We do not say who's "in" and who's "out." The great apostle Paul wrote in a letter to the church in Rome in the first century: "Therefore you have no excuse whoever you are, when you judge others: for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself."

We focus our efforts on our own lives, our own choices, our own relationship with God, and let God worry about judging other people. We trust that God's love and grace are available to all - even people we don't like.

Jesus said that nobody, including himself, knows when this will happen - which always makes me a little suspicious of those who claim to know. Methodists have heard of the Rapture, the taking up of living believers into heaven just before the Judgment, but we don't spend much time or energy thinking about it. Instead, we try to respond to God's love right now, not worrying about suddenly driver-less cars, or depending on some glorious time in the future to make everything right.

We do not believe that natural disasters are a punishment for immorality. It makes so sense to us to think that God would send a category 5 hurricane to one city and a tropical storm to another, because the people in the second place are not as "bad" as the first.

We do not believe that a 5.8 magnitude earthquake proves people are 1,000 times better than those who live where a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hits - or that they are worse than people living in place without earthquakes.

We believe that nobody can be perfect enough to earn their way into heaven, but that we are all invited because God loves us all.

Does this mean that it doesn't matter what we do? If God loves everybody, no matter what, is it OK to be mean and rotten and selfish? We could just say we re sorry at the end, right? Well, maybe, but that misses the point. Once we begin to understand God's love for us and everyone, we believe our job is to share that love with others.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement back in the 1700s, called this "practical divinity." It's not a complicated concept - in fact, Wesley was much more a pastor than a theologian. His preaching and teaching were based in the things that help people grow closer to God, not in complex attempts to explain the Inexplicable.

So we practice the things that seem to help us connect with god - worship together, prayer time, reading and studying the Bible. We try not to cause harm to others, either directly or indirectly. We also try to do as much good for others as we can, whenever we can. We all have gifts and resources, and we try to use them to bless others.

As we Methodists see it, there is no better way to be ready for The End, whenever and whatever it turns out to be! And now that I've got this article done, and a working telephone, I'm going to check in with some more of our shut-ins and make sure they are OK after the storm.

The Rev. Karen Karpow is pastor of Danbury United Methodist Church, 5 Clapboard Ridge Road, Danbury, CT 06811. The church's website is, email is, and phone is 203-743-1503.

Shawn Sweeney
Shawn Sweeney


Unitarian Universalist are prepared to grow.

by Shawn Sweeney

Published: Saturday, August 27, 2011

Danbury News Times

Over the last two years at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury (UUCD), as we continue to settle on "the Ridge" (Clapboard Ridge Road), we have had a great focus on growing our membership and growing our church.

Our congregation has traditionally been led by either a very strong minister, a very strong lay leadership group, or some combination of the two.

As our eye is focused on increasing our presence in the Greater Danbury area, building relationships within the community and with other congregations, never before has a sense of sharing the leadership and ministry between our minister, the Rev. Barbara Fast, and our lay leadership been stronger.

With this sense has come a realization that everything we do in our congregation is some kind of ministry. We realize that it is not only the duty of our professional minister to provide for our congregation, but our shared duty to provide ministry to each other.

In this idea of shared ministry we view everything -- from leading Sunday worship, to religious education, to balancing "the books," to making sure the carpets are clean -- as a form of ministry.

Each of these activities serves the greater purpose of our spiritual community, serves each of our own spiritual journeys, and is thus a ministry.

As in many religious communities, we rely on our members to support our church through their financial contributions. Yes, that is a kind of ministry, too, but beyond financial contributions, each of us has to give of our talents as well to be a vital and vibrant community.

With the idea of shared ministry, we are given the opportunity to genuinely identify our gifts, and how we can best contribute them to the needs of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury.

As a lay minister, for example, I have greatly appreciated giving my talents in business management and public relations to our congregation.

Essential to the success of our other ministries and the success of our mission as a church, these gifts have been well used and have certainly helped me realize my role as a minister among many others at UUCD.

With our growth, the needs of the members and therefore the needs of the church have become more complex, and the need for greater member involvement becomes all the more important.

It is at this time that sharing ministry, giving members genuine ways they can give of their talents and gifts, will help meet these new needs and expand the capacity of the congregation to receive new members.

Further in support to congregational growth, I believe the concept of shared ministry helps bring professional ministers and lay ministers together in common vision for the future of the congregation.

In his book "Moving On from Church Folly Lane," the Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. Robert T. Latham writes, "... when the laity and the ministerial leadership arrive at mutual visions, respect what each brings to the table, and work in partnership, all of the energy and resources expended combine in common focus and mutual empowerment."

When this is met, Latham continues, "through shared ministry, the synergistic power of this mission and ministry is maximized because members, ministers and staff are on board with the congregation's reason for being and view it as a property of the whole."

And so in service to growth, we bring our eyes toward giving our members genuine opportunities to "release their gifts" and share in the ministry of our congregation with our professional minister as well as the staff of UUCD.

We do so to help create the structure we will need to support expanded membership, as well as to bring us all together in a common vision for the future of our congregation and the future of having an effective presence in Danbury.

Shawn Sweeney is vice president of the Board of Trustees, Growth Advisory Ministry, in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury, 24 Clapboard Ridge Road. He can be reached at: or 440-315-4200

Penny M. Kessler
Penny M. Kessler


Music is a powerful part of worship service.

by Penny M. Kessler

Published: Saturday, August 20, 2011

Danbury News Times

I believe in the power of music to heal, to pray, to hear God's voice and to have God hear my voice. From childhood, music has affected me in ways that speaking or other art forms do not.

There is music that sends chills through my body, and every so often I have to pull my car over to the side of the road because I am uncontrollably sobbing while listening to something emanating from my car radio.

Many years ago my sniffling during the last few moments of "La Boheme" was the only thing audible in the pin-drop silence of the Metropolitan Opera House. In college I discovered the cure for a bad headache: put on Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and crank up the volume. Got a case of the blues? Blast the finale to Act I of either "Tosca" or "Il Trovatore." It never fails.

When I felt called to be a cantor, a Jewish clergy person committed to both Judaism and Jewish music, I had to follow. The music of Jewish prayer, biblical text and poetry was in my bones and my essence, and I learned quickly that liturgical and biblical texts are the foundation for all Jewish prayer music.

Know, interpret and appreciate the text, and the music will follow, so that even if someone who has come to pray and find God does not know the words, she will understand the meaning.

Meditative and contemplative music helps worshippers turn inward to find the quiet spark of God. Majestic music full of grandeur makes Jews sit up, take notice and contemplate the powerful glory of God. Music that leads to communal singing brings worshippers together in fellowship and harmony as will music that tugs on the collective memory of a community.

My challenge as a cantor is to musically plot out Sabbath and holy day worship services that provide all of those experiences.

Jewish prayer music encompasses everything from haunting ancient prayer and biblical text chants that were the forerunner of Gregorian chant and Western music, to contemporary Jewish music written just yesterday.

Through its different sounds and tonalities, Jewish worship music provides hints to daily and seasonal time. There is music for life cycle events, such as weddings, funerals and bar or bat mitzvah. There is music that heals and spiritually nourishes people who are ill, whether they will recover or are facing death.

In other words, Jewish music is a direct pipeline to the soul and from the soul to the larger Jewish community and then to God.

In the prayer book, "Gates of Prayer," we read that, "If our prayer were music only, we could surely sing our way into the world we want, into the heaven we desire. Each would put his own words to the melody; from every song would pour a hundred different prayers."

That is the essence of Jewish music.

Penny M. Kessler is the cantor at the United Jewish Center in Danbury. She can be reached at

Denis Bouffard
Denis Bouffard


Why remain a Catholic?

by Denis Bouffard

Published: Saturday, August 13, 2011

Danbury News Times

When I was a college student I asked myself "Why be Catholic?"

I was able to resolve that question years ago, but it is raised again. Considering scandals and certain policies within the church, it is a reasonable question to ask.

I can understand the many reasons some people have left the church. I may sympathize with some of them. However, I have not followed them.

I remain a practicing Catholic. The scandals and policies I find offensive are not enough to drive me away.

Why? First, I believe in what the gospels offer me. The teachings and examples of Jesus form the basis of my faith, as it does for people in other Christian denominations.

It is unfortunate that I perceive violations of the gospel message among fellow Catholics and our leaders. But I desire to live the gospels as I know them.

More significantly, I find the celebrations of the sacraments important to me. As a Catholic I enjoy all seven sacraments as celebrations of life dedicated in the virtue of love. The three sacraments of initiation were the beginnings of my desire to follow Jesus throughout my life.

The two healing and two vocational sacraments have been opportunities to grow in that life of Christ. Each has offered the opportunity to spiritually say, "Despite my weaknesses, I desire to grow in the love of Christ."

As a practicing Catholic, I regularly join the congregation in my parish to celebrate the Eucharist. I reject the frequent comments that "it's the same thing every week." I am not the same every week.

I live my life each day, at times not as spiritually sound as I should have. I enter the Eucharistic celebration as the person I have been, in my goodness and weakness. I have the opportunity to renew my understanding of the scriptures.

More importantly, I join in the offering of Jesus' life, death and resurrection along with my life to God. When I pray with the celebrant, and the congregation, "Through him and with him, and in him is to you all honor and glory..."

I spiritually raise my life to God and rededicate myself to the life Jesus offers. Hopefully I am bringing honor and glory to God in my daily life.

In addition to the celebrations of the sacraments and Eucharist, I remain a Catholic because of the many teachings I have received from the Church leadership. While I may not be happy with all the teachings and policies handed down by the hierarchy, I have found much to follow.

Pope John XXIII provided the impetus with his calling for renewal that resulted in the many documents and changes of the Second Vatican Council. More recently, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have offered spiritual and moral guidance in works referred to as encyclicals. Among the many, Pope John Paul gave us "The Gospel of Life" and "On Human Work." Pope Benedict has written "On Christian Love," "Saved by Hope" and "Charity in Truth."

Wonderful documents have been promulgated from the Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops have issued statements on war and peace, racism, labor, immigrants, economic life, etc. Significant is their document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," which highlights the central issues of human life, family life, social justice and global solidarity. This document helps me, and Catholics in general, to understand the rights and principles upon which they can be informed in supporting candidates at election times. They do not tell us who to vote for, but rather, how to "size up" a candidate.

Catholic social teaching centers on the rights and dignity of the person. When I tell people I am pro-life I do not intend to convey that I hold only a position regarding life in the womb. Rather I base my position on the rights and dignity of the person as described in the principles of Catholic social teaching.

These rights extend from the unborn to the poor, to the victims of war, to the criminal, and to every person, no matter what race, religion, ethnic or economic background they represent.

Yes, there are scandals and policies within the Catholic Church that have driven people away. These scandals and policies are indeed unfortunate. While I understand that there have been offensive scandals and policies throughout the history of the Church, I do not base my faith on these unfortunate events.

Whether a pope, bishop, priest, nun, or lay person has spoken or acted in violation of gospel teachings does not mean that there is something wrong with the Church. I know that they are human, as I am. I am ready to see through these and continue to be a practicing Catholic.

Denis Bouffard is a parishioner of St. Gregory the Great Church, 85 Great Plain Road, Danbury. He can be reached at:

Rabbi Nelley Altenburger
Rabbi Nelley Altenburger


Peace Camp offers a look at world's ills getting better.

by Rabbi Nelly Altenburber

Published: Saturday, August 6, 2011

Danbury News Times

With time, the practical lesson on coexistence learned at the ARC Interfath Peace Camp will surely germinate, helping us all to fix the brokenness of the world.

There are things that make you feel good. There are things that make you feel great. There are also things that make you feel honored.

Hosting the Association of Religious Communities' Interfaith Peace Camp makes you feel honored.

Why is that? It is hard to feel that you make a difference in this world. According to the Jewish tradition, we live in a broken world, a world that has needed tikkun (fixing) since its inception -- and will need fixing until the very end.

Brokenness pervades our very experience: diseases, tsunamis, poverty, school shootings, pain, the rat race and wars, to name but a few.

And now, when we have the possibility of being connected to all of the world, 24/7, it is impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the brokenness.

But Jews are not supposed to throw in the towel and call it quits.

"It is not your task to finish the job, but you are not free to give it up either," says Rabbi Tarfon, in the Pirkei Avot (in English, "Ethics of the Fathers"). So we labor and fight and argue and try to create a better world -- even if it feels like we are swimming against the current.

And now and then, our efforts are rewarded. We get a glimpse that the world is moving in the right direction. When Congregation B'nai Israel hosted ARC's Interfaith Peace Camp, it gave me such a glimpse.

It is easy to think that religions are bad. Terrible things have been and are still done in the name of one religion or another. Many political conflicts were and are fueled by religion, or by leaders who speak in the name of religion.

Differences become a rift that becomes a gorge that suddenly becomes a chasm, and those who are in truth very similar to us become the Feared Other.

When any religious leader decides to bridge these gaps and work for peaceful coexistence with leaders of other religions, he or she is swimming against the current of bigotry and hatred, of a simplistic view that divides the world as "us" against "them."

Such leaders exist, some of them because at a certain point in their lives they experienced an awakening.

Planting seed of peace fixes brokenness in the world.

I have a few colleagues from all religions that one day, just like that, woke up and understood they were doing a disservice to the world. They then began to try to fix the apparent chasm, and the pain it engenders.

But others exist because the seed of peace, the seed of understanding and compassion, the seed of the universal inside each particular religion, which was planted so long ago they didn't feel it germinate and grow.

It is instead an organic part of their being, something that was always there and now finds its way to the light. They have never seen the chasm, they only see the bridges.

When children attend ARC's Interfaith Peace Camp they visit mosques, synagogues, churches and monasteries. This makes an impact.

But when the child actually makes friends with another child -- and this child wears a hijab (the Muslim headgear) or a yarmulke (the Jewish headgear) or only wears dresses or never cuts his hair, the seed of peace is planted.

With time, the practical lesson on coexistence learned at the Interfaith Peace Camp will surely germinate, helping us all to fix the brokenness of the world. This fixing will be of an incredible purity: These children will have never seen the chasm, but they will make the bridges our world so sorely needs.

That is why we at Congregation B'nai Israel feel honored every time that ARC's Interfaith Peace Camp visits us. Here, publicly, I commend all from our community who came to help plan, prepare, cook and receive the campers and counselors from Interfaith Peace Camp.

You all swam -- among laughter and games, among words of peace and coexistence -- against the current of mistrust and fear. We all fixed the world on that day a little bit.

And we want to thank the Association of Religious Communities for the privilege of planting the seeds of peace in unsuspecting hearts. There is no greater fixing than that.

Rabbi Nelly Altenburger is rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Danbury. She can be reached at 203-792-6161.

Polly Castor
Polly Castor


Life lessons are everywhere, if you're watching.

by Polly Castor

Published: Saturday, July 30, 2011

Danbury News Times

How is your summer going? Aside from a few blistering days, we've had some great weather. I've been particularly enjoying bike riding this season.

One of the advantages of living a spiritual life is that you are alert to getting inspiration from anywhere at any time. Nothing is mundane when it is approached as a symbol of some larger lesson.

"Metaphysics resolves things into thoughts, and exchanges the objects of sense for the ideas of Soul." Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy wrote in her classic, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures."

I find this a joy to do. We are surrounded by metaphors. They are not only fun to discern, but also are enormously beneficial when applied to daily life. One of my most recent insights came while bike riding.

I love coasting downhill on my bike. I feel euphoric with the wind gusting in my face. Climbing hills is a necessary price I pay to acquire that magnificent downhill rush. I would just exhilarate on the downhill stretches as a welcome relief, and put off dealing with the bleak strain of those upcoming hills until they were upon me.

One day this summer while biking, it occurred to me that coasting at every opportunity was not mirroring the idea of working six days and resting on the Sabbath, as outlined in the Ten Commandments. I realized I should be only coasting one-seventh of the time. With that little thought, I started pedaling downhill.

Well, this tiny modification in behavior totally revolutionized my bike riding, and much more. When you pedal hard downhill, when it is easy to do, the momentum generated brings you much further up the next hill, requiring far less effort overall. Not only do you go faster, the whole time is much more enjoyable, because the work is more evenly distributed, and that dreaded, excruciating effort is rarely required.

"Pedaling downhill" was what I needed to be doing all summer in most of my activities, instead of looking at summertime as just one big, slow coast downhill.

If I work hard six days a week this summer, on those endless projects that never seem to get done, how much easier will it be during the fall and winter when things get busier and more demanding.

Often in relationships we coast when there are no challenges, not working on building those strong foundations that will serve us well when challenges arise. By consciously choosing to work on relationships when it is easy to do so, we no longer miss so many opportunities to grow together and share present joy. Then these relationships become a deeper source of strength for us to tap into in the future.

When creative people coast, they are not taking advantage of fresh possibilities that could help them achieve those surging breakthroughs they hope for. When they are not being forced to produce, that is the time for them to try something different. This will eventually yield the uncommon results they desire.

This idea of pedaling downhill also had obvious carry-over into my spiritual practice. We often pray harder when facing immediate challenges, and then fall into a coasting mode between crisis points. When I coast on my previous spiritual understanding, I am much more sluggish at responding to sudden, urgent needs. The energy it takes to gear back up loses precious time.

Instead, I've been trying out my "pedaling downhill"" metaphor by praying harder when life is easy. It feels indulgent to focus on God when there is no pressing requirement to do so. However, I'm finding that it's much more effective, since by doing this, I am more prepared and connected when a need does come along. This way, I've got the inspiration, clarity, and momentum already generated to tackle whatever problems arise, with a greater sense of dominion. Overall, this approach is a lot more enjoyable and takes much less effort.

There are lots of things we can do when the going is easy that will reduce our stress at some time in the near future. I encourage you to try pedaling downhill in life, if you don't already. Pedaling downhill, your potential will burst through in ways beyond what you thought possible. You'll make quicker, more effortless progress. You will find that what was formerly arduous, will be accomplished like a breeze.

Yes, there are life lessons to be had everywhere. Even out on a summer bike ride.

Polly Castor is a Christian Science practitioner at First Church of Christ, Scientist, Ridgefield. She can be reached at:

Rev. Joseph Krasinski
Rev. Joseph Krasinski


Freedom is a way of life which everyone deserves.

by Rev. Joseph Krasinski

Published: Saturday, July 23, 2011

Danbury News Times

In the Episcopal Church, it is usually the director of music who chooses the hymns for a Sunday service.

The clergy have veto power or they can make "suggestions," which is a polite way of saying that a particular hymn will be sung.

Music is so very important in the life of many congregations, no matter what the religious belief.

Having worked in a nursing home for many years, I have seen people who can no longer remember their children's names be able to sing one of the old hymns by heart, word for word.

Music does seem to express our innermost feeling and emotions so much better than prose.

On Sunday, July 3, our organist chose "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." In the 27 years I have been senior pastor of a congregation, I have never allowed this hymn to be sung in a worship service.

I have nothing against the hymn per se. It's actually quite beautiful. The tune was written around 1856 by William Steffe and was originally called "Canaan's Happy Shore."

The original lyrics to the song were titled "John Brown's Body," after the famous abolitionist from Torrington.

It was used as a marching song during the Civil War by Company K of the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. Julia Ward Howe was watching the company march near Washington, D.C. and her companion suggested she write different words to the tune.

That night, Howe said, we woke up as if in a dream and in dim light wrote down the words to this now-famous hymn.

A hymn whose inspiration came from people fighting for the freedom of an oppressed minority stirs up deep pride within me.

While we were certainly not the first country to abolish slavery, we were not the last. It inspires me that men and women were willing to die so that others could exercise their God-given rights. What could be wrong with that?

Why would I not allow this hymn not be sung in my congregations? As Julia Ward Howe was able to take a military marching song and turn it into a hymn extolling the freedom of all, another person took the hymn and used it as a rallying cry to oppress another group of people.

In a courtroom in Florida to opposed an equal rights ordinance, Anita Bryant asked that the words to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" be placed in the court transcript, and she proceeded to sing the hymn.

(As an aside, I have often wondered if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had asked to sing the words to the hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the so-called African American national hymn, at one of his trials if the court would have been so generous of spirit,)

To this day I cannot imagine how anyone can reverse the power and inspiration of this hymn. The end of the last verse says:

As He (Jesus) died to make men holy,

Let us live to make all free,

While God is marching on."

OK, I allowed "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to be sung in church on the fourth of July weekend. Maybe I'm getting soft in my old age! Or maybe I'm tired of the oppressors of this world thinking they have the last word.

I thank God that I live in a country where freedom is a founding principle. I pray to God daily for the brave men and women who fought for the rights I now enjoy.

I morn with the families of men and women who this very day have given their lives so others may enjoy the freedoms we all deserve as creatures of God.

In all of the ugly political rhetoric we are hearing from politicians and "talking heads," in the fear mongering that is taking place as a form of "free speech," I never forget that our nation is based on the principle that all have the right to life, liberty and happiness.

Freedom is not just a vague notion, it is a way of life that everyone deserves.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph A. Krasinski is rector of St. James' Episcopal Church in Danbury. The parish website is

Rev. Charles Hambrick-Stowe
Rev Hambrick-Stowe


A repaired church allows repairing of souls.

by Rev. Charles Hambrick-Stowe

Published: Saturday, July 9, 2011

Danbury News Times

"Why are you spending all that money restoring your old church building?" someone asked me recently. "Wouldn't it be better to devote the money to mission work to help the poor?

It's a good question.

Another person, who drives by the church every day on her way to work, had a different comment. "I love to see your historic building being treated with such respect. It's encouraging to me because it's the sign of a vital congregation."

The tower of First Congregational church of Ridgefield has been enveloped with scaffolding for almost a year now.

The building was erected in 1888, and while the sanctuary has been remodeled several times in the last 123 years, the stone exterior always seemed perfectly solid. The relatively minor job of repointing the mortar between the stones of the bell tower expanded, however, into a major restoration project.

Workers discovered the cement holding the granite outside walls and the fieldstone interior walls together has turned completely to sand. You could grab the edges of any stone and wiggle it around.

As work progressed, other problems were uncovered.

Since the church does not have a hefty endowment to pay for such things, every aspect of the project came under intense scrutiny by church leaders. Should we repair the tower as cheaply or as expertly as possibly? Comments like those quoted above could be heard in meetings.

The church decided to restore the tower thoroughly.. There are several reasons why.

First, next year is the 300th anniversary of the congregation in Ridgefield. Restoration of the tower fits into the broader goal of modernizing gathering spaces and making the building site as a place of welcome.

A tercentennial only comes around once. It's an occasion that demands our best.

The building is a substantial gift from previous generations. The present structure is actually the church's third house of worship. The first two meetinghouses were constructed of wood in classic New England style, each lasting about 80 years.

But the granite neo-Romanesque church we now worship in was built to endure a lot longer. In the end, it only seemed right to restore it properly. We felt we owed that to those who came before us, and that we have a responsibility to pass on the building in excellent condition to future generations.

The building is architecturally significant. An architect who is working with the church on another project calls it one of the town's most important buildings from that perspective.

A congregation exists not for itself alone but to serve more broadly, so good propertly maintenance is a sign of commitment to the wider community.

Because of its location at an intersection that marks the southern entrance to downtown Ridgefield, the building makes a strong spiritual statement.

New exterior signs with the words "Gathered in 1712" under the name of the church proclaim to passersby that the congregation goes back in history to the founding of the town, and that faith still plays a role in civic life.

For those who worship here, there is an even more basic reason. This is a place where generations have come into the presence of God. The Bible calls us to "worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness" (Psalms 29:2 and 96:9).

Certainly, people of faith can pray outdoors in nature, in homes, at work or wherever we find ourselves. And there are many newer and dynamic congregations that worship and minister without owning property.

Still, consecrated houses of worship help us to focus our spiritual lives. Money spent on maintaining them may be understood as similar to the "costly ointment" that a women poured on Jesus' head near the end of his life (Mark 14:39).

So the scaffolding has remained on the tower all these months as workers have done their best to secure the building's structural integrity for the next century.

Of course, Christianity is about far more than property maintenance. It is about God's mission the world. The church is not a building; it's a people who gather to worship, learn, share fellowship and together in the name of Christ.

A large sign strapped to the scaffolding about halfway up reads: "Open Durinng Restoration."

The building was in need of repair, but so are people who discover that the cement holding their life together has turned to sand.

What happens inside the church building is the restoration of souls, healing of the human spirit and energizing of believers for service on the world.

The Rev. Charles Hambrick-Stowe, of the First Congregational Church of Ridgefield, can be reached at:


Polly Castor
Polly Castor


Some turn to God in prayer as first resort.

by Polly Castor

Published: Saturday, June 25, 2011

Danbury News Times

Often people think of Christian Scientists as "those people who do not go to doctors." While this is frequently the case, there is no church mandate to that effect, and there is no censure toward anyone using medical means.

I usually explain that the difference between our approach and the more conventional one this way: We turn to God in prayer as our first resort. Instead of using prayer as a last resort, like it is for so many people.

When this prayerful treatment of a problem is handled in the effective manner taught in Christian Science, very often there is an immediate remedy and seeking medical help becomes unnecessary.

Christian Scientists have great respect for the motives of doctors. My own dad was a doctor, and I honor his life's work as a healer so much that I also pursued a career in healing, as a Christian Scientist practitioner. Occasionally, I an asked how this came about and what his reaction to this was.

In college, where I met my first Christian Scientist, I was an atheist until I was surprised by having my first major physical healing, merely by this person facilitating me to consider the possibility of God's reality in a way I had not thought about before. That result got my attention!

I then visited a group of Christian Scientists on campus and found among those attending some people I was already friends with. They were planning to host a Christian Science lecture on campus, which sounded interesting, and I wanted to attend.

But I had a conflict with the date of the lecture, having already made arrangements to celebrate my dad's birthday that evening.

I asked God what I should do and never having prayed before was dumbfounded when I got an answer. I really had not expected that.

I knew it was not my idea, and I did not like the idea at all. The answer was to go out to dinner with my parents as planned and then bring them to the lecture.

Very much a novice at the prayer stuff, I felt if I was not obedient to this clear leading I might never get another answer. I invited my parents, and they were gracious about attending.

At the lecture I had reason to be uncomfortable again. My dad was an esteemed authority on arthritis and my mother had issues with her hearing.

The lecturer shared three Christian Science heaings during her talk: two were about overcoming arthritis and one was about regaining lost hearing. I was sweating bullets! What could my parents be thinking?

I was stunned by my dad's first comment when the lecture was over. He said, "Well, I have to hand it to you, Polly - your attitude toward healing is 80 or 90 percent of the healing process."

To this amazing statement I promptly quipped, "Then why are you spending your life on the 10 percent?

As I left the room, I got my first copy of the Christian Science textbook "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" by Mary Baker Eddy, which explained this radically new way of thinking, as well as its practical outcome.

In the now intervening decades, my dad has witnessed many Christian Science healings in our family. Once he even asked for my "good thoughts" and saw an immediate medically authenticated permanent remission - we'd call it a healing - that he could not explain.

And all these years I have continued to be supportive of his (or anyone's) medical choices.

The two approaches, the spiritual and the medical, are radically different, since they are based on completely different premises. As opposites, they are both most powerful unmixed.

We have a choice about what will be our first or our last resort when facing any challenge. What we believe will be the most effective for us will be, and that is what we should do.

Polly Castor is a Christian Science practitioner at First Church of Christ, Scientist, Ridgefield. She can be reached at:

Rev. Leo McIlrath
Rev. Leo McIlrath


Theistic evolution shows science and religion are both the language of God.

by Rev. Leo McIlrath

Published: Saturday, June 18, 2011

Danbury News Times

Televangelist Joel Osteen began a recent program with the story of a child asking her parents where she came from.

Mother: "From God who created you on the sixth day, as in the Book of Genesis".

Little Girl : "But Daddy said I came from monkeys."

Mother: "Well, that was his side of the family. Our side came through creation."

While quite humorous, the evangelist reveals, at best, a partial truth. Some people see a conflict between Creationism and Creation as if there is an unbridgeable gap between atheistic and theistic evolution. The terms we sometimes use can be quite misleading.

I am a Christian who disagrees with two popular theories about the beginning of life in the universe, materialistic evolution (without God) and Creationism (a God made in man's image).

I find each misleading, both biblically and scientifically. I think that many adherents to these conflicting philosophical views -- atheistic scientists and biblical fundamentalists -- though having the best of intentions, totally miss the mark.

Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Genome Project, formerly an avowed atheist, became inspired by T.S. Lewis' book, "Mere Christianity," and made a 180-degree turn toward faith in God. His book, "The Language of God," about DNA, sees no conflict between belief in God as creator and the science of evolution, as long as we are speaking of Theistic Evolution (TE).

To quote Dr. Collins: "There are many subtle variants of TE, but a typical version rests upon the following premises:

"1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.

"2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.

"3. While the precise mechanism for the origin of life on Earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.

"4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.

"5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes. (Sorry, Joel!)

6. But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history."

If one accepts these six premises -- and I do -- a logically consistent synthesis emerges, entirely compatible 1) with everything that science teaches us about the natural world and 2) with the great monotheistic religions of the world.

Scientists -- biologists, chemists, geneticists, physicists, etc. -- who are also serious believers are very much at home with theistic evolution.

This view is espoused by many Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Christians of all persuasions, and people who inspired my own personal thinking in this matter: Pere Teilhard de Chardin ("The Phenomenon of Man" and "The Divine Milieu,") astronomer Galileo Gallilei, C.S. Lewis, Dr. Francis Collins, as well as the Dalai Lama and recent bishops of Rome.

Scientist Stephen Hawking speaks to a godless approach in the genesis of the universe, giving no personal acknowledgement to the cause behind the effect or a mover propelling the motion.

Hawking has few equals in answering the "what" questions of physical matter, but his empirical science lacks the needed wisdom to solve the "why" queries.

These defer to people of faith -- through God-centered spirituality, sacred scripture, theology and its handmaid, philosophy.

One theory put forward by certain adherents of theism is that of Intelligent Design (ID), based on earlier scientific arguments pointing out the statistical improbability of the origins of life.

Its major focus is on the perceived failings of evolutionary theories to account for life's subsequent complexity.

Admittedly, this theory was originally quite attractive to me, mistakenly equivocating Intelligent Design with one of the arguments posited by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1279) in his famous "Quinque Viae" (Five Ways) to prove the existence of God.

Having majored in philosophy during the undergraduate portion of my seminary training, I was quite familiar with Aquinas' "Uncaused Cause," and "Unmoved Mover."

Soon, however, I realized that ID exhibited a number of theological and scientific flaws, thus discrediting it both in the mainstream scientific community and in the faith-belief community.

Unfortunately, this column is space-limited, so I encourage interested readers to add Dr. Collin's book to your reading. This scientist truly inspires!

The Rev. Leo E. McIlrath is ecumenical chaplain for the Lutheran Home of Southbury. He can be reached at 203-270-0581 or

Rev. Mel Kawakami
Rev. Mel Kawakami


Disasters bring a 'faith tsunami'.

by Rev. Mel Kawakami

Published: Saturday, June 11, 2011

Danbury News Times

As an American of Japanese descent, I watched in horror with most of you the frightening earth quakes, the devastating tsunami, and the ongoing terror of a nuclear disaster.

Adding to the horror was the recognition that these folks looked like me and my family. The older woman weeping over the wreckage could have my grandmother: the young child in the emergency shelter could be a cousin. Forget all the pastoral training and my years of church, one of my first gut-churning responses to these scenes was: "What are you doing, God?"

Whether it is a natural disaster or a frightening diagnosis, a threat of divorce or the loss of a job, a child in distress or a home flooded out, it seems natural enough to wonder why; does God care for us? Where is God when we need God.

Very quickly and surely, I began to see the spirit of a living God arising allover the world, as people of faith and people with no faith were mobilized by that most basic instinct - to help those in need. The hearts of men and women worldwide are filled with a God friendly impulse that reaches out to those who are suffering. Hearts are broken, prayers are offered, help is volunteered, pocketbooks are opened.

When we encounter difficulties such as this enormous disaster, I believe it is best not to consult with theologians or philosophers, but with poets. So I turn to the Psalmist: "Blessed are those who have regard for the weak, for the Lord delivers them in times of trouble". (41:1)

The point is that in this present disaster, I see that our hands become the hands of God, our feet the feet of God, our words the words of God.

As the Rev. Stan Purdum, a writer and Methodist minister put it, "This is a time to urge the church to be the church, and remember that when Jesus told us to love our neighbor, he had a really big neighborhood in mind."

And returning to myself, I can begin to see that the church is being the church. Many denominations are gearing up to provide relief and aid to the suffering. All of this for a country that has a Christian population of only 1 percent.

In other words, we are responding to the tsunami with a faith tsunami of our own. A tidal wave of love and compassion that will sweep across the ocean, to thousands upon thousands affected by this disaster.

I am soberly reminded that in our own communities, there are similar disasters that occur every day. As I write, there are early response teams from the United Methodist Church, New York Annual Conference, preparing to assist the churches in North Carolina after the devastating tornadoes.

People all around us are shaken by earthquakes, swept out to sea, hit by tsunamis they did not see coming. They are floundering emotionally, spiritually and financially. Their lives have been broken. Their relationships are in tatters. They are looking for help. They are looking for love.

And I am proud to be part of the church being a church. All those times when I am tempted to ask, "What are you doing God?". I look and see women and men of goodwill responding, and I hear God reply to my question with: "And what are you doing, Mel?"

The Rev. Mel Kawakami is senior pastor of Newtown United Methodist Church, 92 Church Hill Road, Newtown, CT 06482, and can be reached at

Rabbi Jon Haddon
Rabbi Jon Haddon


Stories show what unites us and evokes compassion for differences.

by Rabbi Jon Haddon

Published: Saturday, June 4, 2011

Danbury News Times

There is a wonderful story that goes like this: A U.S. Navy cruiser anchored off the Mississippi coast for a week's shore leave. The first evening, the ship's captain received the following note from the wife of a wealthy plantation owner:

"Dear Captain, Thursday will be my daughter Melinda's Debutante Ball. I would like you to send four well-mannered, handsome, unmarried officers in their formal dress uniforms to attend the dance.

"They should arrive promptly at 8 p.m. prepared for an evening of polite Southern conversation. They should be excellent dancers, as they will be the escorts of lovely refined young ladies. One last point: No Jews, please."

Sending a written message by his own yeoman, the captain replied: "Madam, thank you for your invitation. In order to present the widest possible knowledge base for polite conversation, I am sending four of my best and most prized officers.

"One is a lieutenant commander and a graduate of Annapolis with an additional master's degree from MIT in fluid technologies and ship design.

"The second is a lieutenant, one of our helicopter pilots and a graduate of Northwestern University in Chicago, with a B.S. in aeronautical engineering. His master's degree and Ph.D. in aeronautical and mechanical engineering are from Texas Tech University, and he is also an astronaut candidate.

"The third officer is also a lieutenant, with degrees in both computer systems and information technology from SMU, and he is awaiting notification on his doctoral dissertation from Cal Tech.

"Finally, the fourth officer, also a lieutenant commander, is our ship's doctor, with an undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia and his medical degree is from the University of North Carolina. We are very proud of him, as he is also a senior fellow in trauma surgery at Bethesda."

Upon receiving this letter, Melinda's mother was quite excited and looked forward to Thursday with pleasure. Her daughter would be escorted by four handsome naval officers without peer (and the other women in her social circle would be insanely jealous).

At precisely 8 p.m. on Thursday, Melinda's mother heard a polite rap at the door, which she opened to find, in full dress uniform, four handsome, smiling black officers.

Her mouth fell open, but pulling herself together she stammered, "There must be some mistake."

"No, Madam," said the first officer. "Capt. Joshua Goldberg never makes mistakes."

I hope a story like this can help all of us become more tolerant. Stories involve us in the life of the Other.

By engaging our natural abilities to hear and tell stories, we begin to understand the other. We begin to learn where we fit in another's story and where we might find some commonality.

Stories are about relationships. Inclusive, they illustrate that there is more uniting us than dividing us. Stories evoke compassion for those of us who are different.

Different stories can be generated from the same set of facts. If we learn to communicate our positions through our stories and life experiences, we just may see someone else's point of view.

Imagine this: With storytelling and regular potluck dinners, we could get to know our neighbors here in Danbury.

I realize that it's unlikely that we can eliminate bias entirely. Yet once only free men could vote; women could not get a bank loan without having a cosignatory, or sit on a jury; blacks and whites couldn't intermarry or drink from the same water fountain; gays couldn't serve in the military. Prejudice against Jews has been monumental, and there is considerable prejudice toward Muslims as well. But, as Bob Dylan sang, "The times they are a changin'."

Why can't a Muslim kid or a Jewish kid grow up to be president one day? The best we can do is become aware of our own leanings so we can better accommodate differences, encourage human decency and create the freedom that will allow each of us to become who we truly are. These efforts must take place both in formal and informal settings in courtrooms, classrooms, the workplace, and on the playground -- all the places where we learn to be tolerant.

Rabbi Jon Haddon is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield and a member of the Association of Religious Communities board of directors.

Rev. Vicky Fleming
Rev. Vicky Fleming


Living as Christ taught motivates Christian generosity.

by Rev. Vicky Fleming

Published: Saturday, May 28, 2011

Danbury News Times

In the days immediately following the terrible tornadoes in the southern part of the United States, I notified my congregation that there would be a special offering on the following Sunday for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Administration expenses of this committee are paid out of apportionments (amounts of money from each local United Methodist Church which when pooled together add up to significant amounts), and so when money is raised to aid in a specific project or disaster, the entire amount raised is immediately available for the particular project or disaster for which it is given.

As I sat writing my check for this special offering, I realized that we had just had a disaster relief offering only a few weeks prior. This was to aid the people of Japan after the terrible earthquake and tsunami. And yet I knew the folks would share what they had, even though we are living in difficult economic times and unemployment is impacting my congregation in the same way it is impacting our country.

I got to thinking about what it is that impels us to try and help others when there is a sudden or terrible need. Is there something in our DNA? Is it the environment in which we are raised? Is it our religious upbringing?

Matthew 25.31
"When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the glorious throne. 32Before him will be gathered all the nations, 33and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you clothed me, I saw sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' 37Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?' 40And the King will answer them. "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me."
An ARC Snippet of Interest

In the 25th chapter of Matthew, beginning at verse 31, Jesus describes the judgment of the nations at the end of time. He tells how everyone will be separated into sheep or goats. The sheep will be those who have assisted those in need because of their love for Jesus, and the goats will be those who turned their backs and walked away.

This is one of the passages that Christians rely on to support their belief that we need to treat our neighbors as we ourselves would wish to be treated, what has come to be called the Golden Rule.

But if we give based only on a sense of fear of judgment, are we really giving in a spirit of generosity and sharing? I don't think so. I believe that Christian teachings about how we should be modeling God's love as shown to us in Jesus is what is guiding us.

Most major religions have some kind of doctrine about assisting others in times of need. Jewish laws and traditions concerning treatment of the poor, widows, orphans, and others in need, grew directly from Biblical commands. And the roots of Christianity are deep in Judaism, for this was Jesus' upbringing and he frequently referred to those Scriptures.

For Muslims, the Quran urges generosity to the needy without boasting about what one has given. Safwan ibn Salim related that the Prophet Muhammad said: Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah's cause.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and an ordained Anglican priest, gave us a tool which he felt was a necessary aid to guiding how we formed our beliefs about God and what effect that had on how we lived out what we believed. Albert C. Outler, now deceased, a professor of historical theology at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, named it the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

Wesley explained that we are to rely on Scripture to instruct us in how to live in a manner pleasing to God. Therefore, we are to study the Bible regularly and carefully, as this is the primary source of our knowledge. It is pretty standard throughout Christianity to accept Scripture as foundational for our faith, even though we don't always agree on interpretation.

But Wesley also taught that most people have "God moments," an experience of God working in their lives, that is sometimes but not always recognized. These may occur when we are engaging in an activity that expresses our faith, when someone we love is healed of cancer or other dreadful disease, or when something we see in nature moves us in our inner being and we find ourselves giving thanks for the goodness of God. Wesley believed these experiences should influence our Christian living.

Likewise, our ability to reason is a gift given to us by God and we are to use it, but not in isolation as the only influence in our decision making. And lastly, the traditions of the church universal, the history of the development of the early church on down through the centuries to what is relevant for living in today's multi-cultural world.

Methodism teaches that these four components, in conjunction, can guide us to living out Jesus' call to love God and love one another. And one another includes everyone.

The Rev. Vicky Fleming, pastor of Bethel United Methodist Church, can be reached at 203-743-6835.

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer
Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer


Balance the benefits of techology with downtime.

by Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer

Published: Saturday, May 21, 2011

Danbury News Times

When Apple introduced the first iPad, the Wall Street Journal wrote: "Last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it."

The iPad has been a big hit, with its ability to do email, watch movies, surf the Web, listen to music, look at pictures and read books. And I want one. Every time a new piece of amazing technology is released, I think about heading straight to the store and picking up the new LED HD TV, or iPhone or iPad. It is only the reality of budgetary constraints that keep me from filling our house with new gadgets.

While I am a big supporter of technology, it is also important for us to be able to disconnect and to unplug from our modern world. If we spend all of our time on email, on our cell phones and on the Web, we may miss precious opportunities in the real world.

One of the problems with modern life is the ability to be able to work 24 hours a day. With a smartphone, we are always able to check email, take phone calls and deal with work issues. While this certainly increases our productivity, it also makes it harder for us to take a break from the stresses of our jobs.

When I go on vacation, I do not check email. I have discovered that simply taking a break from my in-box is enough to make my time away relaxing.

We all benefit from finding ways to disconnect from work on a regular basis. Of course, this is what the Sabbath is all about, a day to leave behind the stresses of the office and rest. The essence of the Sabbath comes from the Bible, where we read: "On the seventh day God rested and was refreshed." Taking time on the Sabbath to pray, to walk, to enjoy a leisurely meal, these are the things that provide us with renewal and strength to face the week ahead.

A second reason to disconnect from technology is to allow us to reconnect to family and friends. Sharing a meal together is perhaps the most important opportunity for families to be together. Yet our technology makes it possible for a family to be sitting around a table and yet not notice one another. I see it in restaurants where kids are texting or playing games and not speaking to their parents. Or at home when a family watches television during dinner. We are all so busy, and we have so little time to spend with our loved ones. Yet it is easy to squander the moments that have the greatest potential for family bonding.

One final benefit of unplugging from technology is the opportunity to reconnect to yourself. Each one of us has activities that allow us to escape the everyday. We go to the gym, we go for a long walk, we pray, or we spend time outdoors. It is often easier to reflect on our lives when we are alone. It was no accident that Moses first met God while alone on the mountain, standing before a burning bush.

Technology is surely a good thing, but like anything else, it must be used in moderation. Our task is not to throw away the computer or destroy the TV, not that this would ever happen anyway. Rather, we just need to remember to turn off technology on a regular basis. I may still end up with an iPad, but I'll also try to remember to use that little black button in the upper corner that says "off."

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer is the spiritual leader of Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield, and author of the blog The Fly Fishing Rabbi,

Rev. Karen Karpow
Rev. Karen Karpow


United Methodists wrestle with social issues.

by Rev. Karen Karpow

Published: Saturday, May 14, 2011

Danbury News Times

"What does the church think about ... ?" This is a question that I am often asked, especially by teenagers and people new to the United Methodist Church.

Methodists have a distinctive way of thinking together about these things. Our official statements on social issues only emerge every four years, when our General Conference meets.

This gathering of Methodists from around the world wrestles mightily with the issues of peace, poverty and human rights, including abortion, capital punishment and the treatment of homosexuals.

As do many other denominations, we divide along conservative/progressive lines, largely predictable by geography.

The official statements reflect the votes of the majority, and the margins are sometimes extremely narrow. However, in all these discussions we try to remember that those who disagree with us are also God's beloved children.

Agreement with the official positions on social issues is not a requirement for membership in the church -- which is a good thing, since I don't agree with all of them!

We are encouraged to work together to discover God's will in these things, although that is sometimes hard to remember when the disagreements become really heated.

Social issues have been a major concern of the Methodist movement all along, beginning in the 18th century with the fight against slavery. Unity did not prevail, as the church split between North and South in 1844, not merging again until 1938.

In 1908, however, the Methodist Church was the first Christian denomination to adopt a Social Creed. This was focused almost entirely on fair labor practices, such as a living wage, reasonable hours, and safe conditions for all workers.

In the 1920s, the Methodists were very active in the Temperance movement to abolish the use of alcohol in the United States. Though our position on this has softened a great deal, alcohol is still prohibited on Methodist property. (If you want wine at your wedding reception in a fellowship hall, you will have to look at another denomination.)

Our third, and current, Social Creed was adopted in 2008. It proclaims our belief in the triune God ("Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer," or more traditionally "Father, Son and Holy Spirit").

We believe that all our gifts come from God, including the gifts of the natural world, community, family and sexuality, and that it is our duty to care for these gifts.

We commit ourselves to work for the rights and dignity of all persons, including the right to work in safety and for a living wage.

We dedicate ourselves to pursue peace and justice for all people, trusting that our work is part of God's work in the world. The entire creed can be found at

The words of the creed are beautiful and inspiring -- and not very specific. We are left to work out their application to the issues of daily and community life. One topic that has generated a lot of discussion in The News-Times recently is capital punishment.

It will probably not come as a huge surprise to readers that the United Methodist Church strongly opposes capital punishment, as do many Christian denominations. This position is rooted in our deep belief that God is the creator and redeemer of all humankind.

We understand the use of the death penalty to be an act of sheer retribution and vengeance, because there is absolutely no evidence the death penalty reduces violent crime of any sort.

In fact, we believe that the use of capital punishment increases the acceptance of revenge in our society -- giving a measure of official approval to a climate of violence.

I recognize that this is an unpopular view in many circles. There have recently been cases in Connecticut that have made me wish I could support capital punishment -- but I cannot.

Even when the evidence is overwhelming, when the accused has admitted guilt or even asked to be executed, when the crime is so repugnant I can scarcely bear to think about it, still I believe death should come in God's time and that the possibility of repentance and reconciliation remains -- no matter how remote that possibility seems.

Don't misunderstand: the United Methodist Church does not support the release of violent criminals into society. We consider life in prison without parole to be an appropriate punishment.

This position on capital punishment is just one example of our social principles, which animate the work of the United Methodist Church and its congregations. We welcome all people to come, think, worship and work with us.

The Rev. Karen Karpow is pastor of Danbury United Methodist Church, 5 Clapboard Ridge Road, Danbury, CT 06811.

The church's website is


Phone 203-743-1503.

Rev. Barbara Fast
Rev. Barbara Fast


Open minds, loving hearts and helping hands.

by Rev. Barbara Fast

Published: Saturday, May 7, 2011

Danbury News Times

On Sunday morning at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury, the children affirm "We are Unitarian Universalists. We are people with open minds, loving hearts and helping hands."

At newcomers' meetings folks often say how surprised they are to find Unitarian Universalism (UU). They did not know such a religion existed.

I smile because that was true in my life.

My husband and I were of different faith backgrounds. We wanted a community of faith where our family would feel welcome, feel like we belonged.

I remember when I was not sure what to expect when I first came to worship. I discovered deeply reverential duality to the shared time spent together.

In worship we honor the struggles of our daily lives, are challenged to overcome our fears and complaints, inspired to grow in courage and peace and called to live into a larger love.

Sometimes we use God language and often we do not. We know that there is a harvest of power and mystery when we gather together for that sacred hour.

There is usually a sermon, music, singing, personal sharing of joys and sorrows, and silent meditation or prayer.

Some Sundays there is a Bible Story, some a Buddhist parable or a poem for the season.

Some days there is a commentary on the state of the world, others a state of mind, or an invitation into some mindful meditation. We share both laughter and tears.

Our children worship with us for part of every Sunday service. They hear a story, bring up a food offering for a local food pantry and then go to their Religious Education classes.

UU's do not have a creed, but we do have a tradition of strong values.

We celebrate the importance of reason and the discoveries of science when reflecting on the important religious concepts. We learn from our experience.

We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the miracle of creation and our human responsibility to value and care for the earth because we are part of its "interdependent web."

We study to discern wisdom from the world's great religious traditions.

Unitarian Universalism is rooted within Judeo-Christian traditions and values.

We grew, took shape and shaped America's founding democratic values in the 18th and 19th centuries and its literary and spiritual richness with transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau, Julia Ward Howe and Margaret Fuller.

We continue to be active in the civic life of this nation, affirming the civil rights of all human beings.

It is fair to say that UUs are more concerned with what happens after we are born than what happens after we die.

As a result, we tend to be people with enthusiasm for the discussion of and engagement with important issues of the day, whether civic or religious.

Many of us might say we are more spiritual than religious. Some of us believe in God, some do not and some wonder.

We do strive to live in grateful and responsible ways: Grateful that we have been blessed with the gift of life and responsible to strive to live lives worthy of the gift.

In the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury community, we celebrate the great passages of life when we dedicate our young children, welcome our youth into the community at their Coming of Age, and send forth our high school graduates at their Bridging ceremony.

I officiate at weddings, renewals of vows and memorial services.

We believe more than ever, when so many people are more isolated, that supportive community can make the difference in a life.

I often say, theology emerges out of autobiography. From our first breath to our last, our experience is the great teacher.

Here at UUCD, whether someone volunteers to share the ministry by teaching religious education, or listening well over a cup of coffee, sharing a meal at a pot luck or serving at the Dorothy Day center, organizing a fellowship event or knitting a healing shawl, our mission is to inspire each other to be more grateful for and more generous with our gifts in order to better serve the needs of our neighbors and the larger world and enlarge our own lives.

Our joy is where a person discovers where their great love finds its life in service to a greater need.

My family found our spiritual home. I think our children's Sunday morning affirmation may express it best:

We are Unitarian Universalists. We are people with open minds, loving hearts and helping hands.

The Rev. Barbara Fast of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury can be reached at 203-798-1994.

 Rev. Leo E. McIlrath
Rev. Leo E. McIlrath


'Unity in Diversity' provides information about other faiths.

by Rev. Leo McIlrath

Published: Saturday, April 30, 2011

Danbury News Times

Over the past eight to 10 years, along with some very dedicated volunteers, I had the pleasant experience of presenting "Unity in Diversity," a cable television program over two local networks (Charter and Comcast), reaching out to 17 towns. It features interviews with leaders and representatives of local faith communities.

The original idea for the program came while hosting an earlier cable program for the Department of Elderly Services, City of Danbury, called "Seniority," based on all aspects of aging (health, housing, legal services, finances, counseling and leisure-time activities).

After taping 40-plus programs, Gerald Davis, who was then Danbury town historian, and I focused the buildings that housed faith communities in Danbury and the different congregations that utilized them over the years.

As the facilities changed hands, so too did the design of the buildings. Many of the faith communities, though classified under the umbrella of the Christian tradition, celebrate quite dissimilar services and need equally different building styles and furnishings to fill them.

Consider, for example, the Second Congregational Church on West Street (as viewed in Bailey's "History of Danbury"), which later became Immanuel Lutheran Church, and even more recently was acquired by Lighthouse Ministries.

Another example of diversity was seen in the former Assembly of God edifice on Deer Hill Avenue, which was purchased by the Portuguese Roman Catholic Church.

Gerald Davis and I thus set the stage for a new program called "Unity in Diversity." As the producer and host of the program, my goal is to promote religious, spiritual and cultural understanding to help people appreciate others even when their respective traditions and customs appear quite foreign.

Pastors, rabbis, theologians, religious leaders and/or representatives of various faiths openly discuss their foundational beliefs and the key people involved in their roots and expansion.

We look, then, at the signs and symbols, structures and furnishings that identify their physical places of worship and the use of music and other media in their services.

Finally, we consider their outreach into the local communities and any focus each might have on foreign missions.

Among the guests who have thus far participated in the program are people from Christian churches, including Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox congregations; Jewish rabbis; a Buddhist monk; and representatives of Islam and Hinduism, Bahai and Unitarianism.

In addition, a number of other religious group participants, social service agencies and a host of joint ecumenical and interfaith programs have been featured.

Other programs have highlighted Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, Roman and Ecumenical Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Christian Scientists, Quakers (Friends), Seventh-Day Adventists, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Maronite Catholics, Unitarian/Universalists, Churches of Christ and Christ Disciples, and a large array of non-denominational Christians.

In addition, chaplains at hospice, nursing homes and hospitals, and leaders of faith-based services such as Dorothy Day House, the Shelter of the Cross, Kevin's Community Center and the United Way of Northern Fairfield County, would each tell his/her story.

The program was, and continues to be, sponsored by the Association of Religious Communities in the Greater Danbury Area. Discussions about the respective communities, as well as the personal journeys of those interviewed, give viewers an opportunity to better understand different faith traditions in a non-threatening way.

The purpose of the program from its very inception was meant to be a teaching tool for both ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.

Through this ministry, I hope viewers can better appreciate their brothers and sisters from other faiths as they are fulfilled within their very own.

The Rev. Leo E. McIlrath is ecumenical chaplain for the Lutheran Home of Southbury. He can be reached at 203-270-0581 or


Rev. Ophir DeBarros
Rev. Ophir Debarros


Hemisphere impacts religious symbolism.

by Rev. Ophir Debarros

Published: Saturday, April 23, 2011

Danbury News Times

Easter is always a special spiritual time of the year. People become more interested in faith, and churches see an increase in attendance. This is not so much true in my tradition, and I would like to explain why.

First of all, we are mostly Brazilians and Spanish-speaking people, and our countries are in the opposite half of the globe. Now is autumn there (I cannot use the word "fall," because in Brazil there are no falling leaves) and winter is coming.

All the resurrection symbolism nature has in the Northern Hemisphere when spring comes -- the renewal of the perennial plants and the blossoming of flowers -- doesn't happen this time of year below the Equator's line.

All the joys of summertime and vacations pass away and people are back to school and work. Days become increasingly shorter and nights longer.

The spiritual message celebrating life doesn't fit in this environmental landscape. It was only when I moved to the United States 13 years ago, that I realized the powerful link and meaning between spring and the proclamation of Jesus victory over death, the essential Easter message.

A similar disconnected event is Christmas in the austral hemisphere. I remember questioning my dad why we had to prepare our living room with a plastic Christmas tree and put pieces of cotton to imitate snow with the thermometer showing 100 degrees!

Can you imagine what it is to celebrate Christmas at this temperature?

It also happens that we are not used to the liturgical year calendar most Christian denominations and churches practice. The church prepares a calendar with the events and weekly services, but generally it doesn't follow a sequential liturgical year.

For us, to remember and celebrate the death and resurrection of our savior Jesus Christ only in a certain time of the year is to shrink the faith to compartmentalized areas of the heart.

These central events of the Christian faith have to be observed every day, every week, every month and every season. If we rejoice every moment because Jesus is alive, there is no need for a special yearly commemoration.

Another reason for a lesser emphasis in an Easter celebration is the symbolism of the Lord's Supper as we practice it. Every month, usually on the first Sunday, people gather around the table of Communion to eat bread and drink wine as a similar memorial for the Easter events in Jesus' story.

We use resurrection songs in the praise time, preach about the meaning of the cross and Calvary, and thus we celebrate life and victory.

People love this service very much. Sometimes we bring together our three different language congregations -- Portuguese, Spanish and English, with the multi-ethnic and cultural diversity of the congregants -- to celebrate our faith with baptisms and the Lord's Supper. It is like a little Easter service every month!

The practical implication for the believer is that our tradition looks at faith as an everyday concern, not something to be remembered only at big festivals.

Most people are used to being religious at certain moments and events in the year, or perhaps only on Sundays or when they are born, marry and die.

In our tradition, every congregant learns that faith deals not only with the fundamental issues, but also with common and ordinary questions of life.

Abundant life as depicted in the symbol of resurrection must be a daily reality, not detached from our ultimate concerns.

Discipleship is a practice we try to live on an everyday basis, and the whole idea is the new being as expressed in the role model of Jesus as savior and master.

Of course, we will have an Easter service tomorrow. This week children brought bunnies and eggs home from school, chocolate is being displayed in the markets, and everyone feels and breathes the paschal ambience.

It is Easter! People greet each other and are happy because of the spirit of the season.

There are neither special fasting procedures nor food recommendations and people do business, but everyone feels a different atmosphere. We use this motivation to convey one more time this basic tenet of our faith.

I believe every opportunity should be used to proclaim the gospel. This is a fundamental item of the faith that I believe deserves to be professed with joy and courage at any time.

The Rev. Ophir DeBarros is senior pastor of All Nations Baptist Church in Danbury. He can be reached at



Palm Sunday symbols herald arrival of Prince of Peace in Jerusalem.

by Rev. Dr. Sheldon T. Smith

Published: Saturday, April 16, 2011

Danbury News Times

"It is a time to pause and reflect on the matters of life and faith.

I love a parade. That is one of the images that runs through my mind when I think of Palm Sunday.

Christian churches will celebrate Palm Sunday tomorrow. This Holy Day marks the beginning of Holy Week commemorating the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.

Like most holidays, the symbols we use help us to better understand and appreciate the meaning. The scriptures tell us that Jesus arrived on a donkey.

Historically, the donkey was considered to be an animal of peace as opposed to a horse, which was an animal of war. To arrive on a donkey would be symbolic of peaceful intentions.

This was seen as the fulfillment of the words of the Prophet Zechariah: "Rejoice greatly, Fair Zion; raise a shout, Fair Jerusalem! Lo, your king is coming to you. He is victorious, triumphant, yet humble, riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

Liturgically, many churches have a procession with children waving palm branches. The procession begins with a Blessing of the Palms. We are told that on the first Palm Sunday, people not only waved the palms in celebration but also placed them on the road along with their cloaks as a salute to the one who arrived in victory. Today we might liken this to a red carpet.

Traditionally, palms were saved to be burned the following year as the source of ashes used in Ash Wednesday services. This provides a connection to the penitential nature of Lent on a yearly cycle.

I learned recently that not all churches celebrate Palm Sunday with palms. In some areas where palms are not available, pussy willows serve nicely.

While most parades have musical units that help to inspire the feelings of the participants, the Palm Sunday processional is associated with a single word that was shouted by the crowd -- Hosanna! Its meaning is suggestive of an exclamation of praise to God and a fervent cry for divine help.

I am reminded of the verse in Jean-Baptiste Faure's beautiful anthem "The Palms" which declares, "Join all and sing, His name declare. Let every voice resound with acclamation. Hosanna! Praised be the Lord. Bless Him who cometh to bring us salvation."

Those words speak of the paradoxical nature of Palm Sunday. Along with the Palm Sunday scriptures, the readings in many churches are based on the Passion of Christ.

The mood changes as the events in the last days of Jesus' life are remembered and parishioners reflect on the suffering that ultimately leads to the cross. During this week, he taught, preached, presided over the Passover meal, stood trial and was condemned to death.

For Christians there is a tension between Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. On the one hand the palms represent a symbol of life, while on the other hand the cross symbolizes death.

It is a time to pause and reflect on the matters of life and faith. The world today is not all that different from the world of that first Palm Sunday. Oppression is still rampant. Physical and spiritual hunger causes deep pain.

Where is the peace? Where is the justice? Where is the love? Where is the hope?

For Christians, the one who rides on the donkey comes as the Prince of Peace, to free all persons with a message of love and justice, instructing us to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

For Christians, the hope is in the light of Easter dawn, an empty tomb and the promise of resurrection.

But that's next week's story. For now, I'll wave my palm branch or pussy willow and join those who have come to praise the one riding on a donkey in peace. Hosanna!

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon T. Smith is senior minister of the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Bethel.

Rev. Angelo S. Arrando
Rev. Angelo Arrando


Christians called to reconnect with Jesus during Lent.

by Rev. Angelo Arrando

Published: Saturday, April 9, 2011

Danbury News Times

"By their fruits you shall know them!"    Matthew 7.16

Christians find themselves in the midst of yet another Lent. Lent is a Christian mainstay. But Lent can mean many things to many people.

Many see Lent as a time of sacrifice and self denial in preparation for the most holy of all Christian holy days -- Easter. But, I believe, most importantly, Lent is the time to be reconnected to Jesus.

Non-Christians look to us Christians to understand what Jesus is about. The reality is simple: Our actions speak louder than our words.

To simply say that Jesus is Lord is far too simplistic. To honor Him with our lips and not with our hearts and lives is, in fact, a denial of who we Christians say he is.

History all too clearly witnesses the separation of paying lip service to who we say he is and to what it is he stands for. Over the centuries, horrific things have been done in his name, presumably with his blessing, by those who profess to believe in him. Jesus has been turned into a weapon of mass destruction, time and time again.

Non-Christians must stand in wonderment at the role of this so-called Jesus, Prince of Peace. Non-Christians must call into question why anyone would want to be a follower of this Jesus.

Can Jesus really be so judgmental? So condemning? So hateful? How do non-Christians come to know about Jesus, other than witnessing the actions of Jesus' followers?

The simple truth is -- not all who claim to follow Jesus are authentic to him and to his teachings. Jesus simply reminded his followers that only through their love will others come to know they are his disciples.

The simple test to our faith is to look at our lives and to ask the most basic of all questions -- does my life, do my actions, bear witness to what my words say about my faith in who Jesus is?

The truth is that we don't always get it right.

We are sinners and all too often fail in our endeavors and hopes and aspirations. But our faith confirms that even in our brokenness we are loved and that we must learn to love God with our entire being and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This challenge is straight out of the Hebrew Scriptures affirmed by Jesus himself. That is the simple litmus test.

In all honesty, I do not know this Jesus who has been usurped by institutions and dominions over the centuries and even in our own time. Of one thing I am certain. Jesus would not want himself to be turned into a weapon of mass destruction -- a weapon that isolates, maims and deems anyone worthless.

I am certain that Jesus would reject his name to be used as a means of hatred toward Jews, Muslims, atheists, gays or for that matter, anyone. And yet many Christians and churches engage Jesus to be on their side, thus supporting their bigotry and hatred, and thereby justifying the unjustifiable.

People come to know the precepts of a faith experience through the actions of the practitioners. For the most part, I believe Christians truly struggle to emulate the teachings of Jesus, but the ones who speak the loudest and attract headlines are those who can do the most damage.

Actions indeed speak louder than words, but in this case the Word must speak loudly. In reading the Gospels, no one knows Jesus without also knowing that Jesus was the one who offered love to everyone.

Jesus had friends in low places. Jesus ate and drank with the worst of them. The God-wide heart of Jesus embraced them all. He was constantly chided over who he hung out with or sat at table with. Jesus privileged those who struggle from below. Jesus, neither condemning nor isolating, was at home with the sorriest of souls.

Jesus saw no bad in anyone except the self-righteous who seemed to condemn others so easily.

The love that pumped through the heart of Jesus was God-force, the uncompromising love of human beings. Jesus personified the best of the human race. And in his own manner, Jesus asks his followers to re-evaluate how we value human beings.

We have no need to ask what God in Jesus asks his followers to care about. Jesus' daily practice put the spotlight on the priority of every single person. He beckons his followers to do nothing less.

How sad it is that those who should know better have done so much damage in his name. Hanging upon the cross, the gospels tell us, Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing."

I cannot imagine Jesus not offering that same forgiveness to even those who refuse to forgive in his name.

The Rev. Angelo S. Arrando is pastor of St. Gregory the Great R.C. Church in Danbury and president of the ARC Board.

Rev. Laura Westby
Rev. Laura Westby


If 'love wins,' who goes to heaven?

by Rev. Laura Westby

Published: Saturday, April 2, 2011

Danbury News Times

The big buzz in Christian circles lately concerns a new book by Rob Bell, the pastor of a Christian megachurch in Grand Rapids, Mich.

In the book, Bell tackles the questions of heaven, hell and who gets sent there. His answers have shocked and angered some Christians and created an opening for conversation that will not easily be closed down. Bell summarizes his testimony in the title of the book: "Love Wins."

As a pastor, I'm often asked what I believe about these topics. Sometimes the question is born of a need for consolation following a death. What has happened to my loved one? Will I see her again?

Sometimes the question is designed to help the questioner fit me into a theological category. Am I one of those Christians who believe that only certain people are "eligible" or that there are certain words or actions that are the ticket into heaven?

The testimony of my faith community, the United Church of Christ, affirms that "God promises to all who trust in the gospel forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in that kingdom which has no end."

There is plenty of room in that affirmation for a range of beliefs, but frankly, we don't worry too much about the hereafter. We believe heaven and hell start right here on earth. We believe that Jesus came to inaugurate a new realm on earth and to be the signpost that embodied God's love, which is the constitution of that realm.

So we're more concerned with the here and now; with issues of peace-making, justice and care for others. We grieve the places that are hell on earth, and try to bring a little bit of heaven into those places. And we believe that by doing so, we are more fully in the channel of God's love ourselves.

That is not to say that many of us don't believe there is a heaven or hell. We do. But many of us are not willing to affirm the message that unless a person believes in Jesus, that person is doomed forever.

We are not willing to speak with certainty about a moment that no living person has ever witnessed.

At its core, Jesus' message is that God is love and love wins. How could the Christian gospel, a word that means "good news," be good if it condemns billions of people? And why would anyone worship such an arbitrary and thoughtless being?

And so we find it difficult to believe that a loving God sends someone who had never heard of Jesus into eternal torment; we refuse to believe that a just God would send someone like Gandhi or Anne Frank to hell.

If God is love, then perhaps what happens at the gateway between earthly and eternal life goes something like this:

We see our lives as God has and are confronted with the full measure of God's unconditional love for us, and then we are free to choose. We can accept or reject God's unconditional love.

Acceptance entails being completely remade so we are fully what God intended us to be.

Not everyone will choose it, and for them there is eternal separation from God. God's desire, I believe, is that no one will choose separation.

Someone asked Bell what happens if he is wrong. His answer went something like, if God really does condemn billions of people to hell, then we have a much bigger problem than what a pastor from Minnesota thinks.

If God really does punish anyone who hasn't said the right words or done the right thing or been part of the right group, then God is not so different from us humans.

I haven't read Bell's book yet, so I can't say whether I agree with everything he's written, although I do agree with his conclusion. Love wins.

The Rev. Laura Westby is pastor of First Congregational Church of Danbury and a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Religious Communi- ties.

Rabbi Nelley Altenburger
Rabbi Nelley Altenburger


Joy can be found in being in the right place at the right time.

by Rabbi Nelly Altenburber

Published: Saturday, March 26, 2011

Danbury News Times

Last Sunday there was joy in every synagogue -- we were celebrating the events of the Book of Esther. This holiday, called the Festival of Lots, or Purim, is the happiest of all Jewish holidays

In ancient Persia, a young Jewish woman named Esther becomes the wife of King Ahasuerus. Her uncle, Mordecai, won't bow to Haman, the king's prime minister, as everyone else in the court does.

Because of that, Haman convinces the king to order that all the Jews be killed. Mordecai tells Esther she must intervene. Risking her life, Esther reveals her identity to her husband and saves her people. As the joke goes, let's eat!

But the story conveys a deeper meaning. As Esther first balks at Mordecai's suggestion she go to the king, he tells her maybe it was for this one moment that she became queen.

And the truth is, we are faced with moments when we realize we are in the right place at the right time, we are a piece of a much larger plan, the depths of which we have no inkling.

A friend of mine became a rabbi many years ago. He received a call from someone who was not his congregant. The caller asked if he could please come to talk to her. She gave her address, and my friend promised he would visit as soon as possible.

Two weeks passed. He didn't forget, but was swamped with work. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, he realized he still hadn't gone to see the caller.

It was a freezing December night. His wife asked: "Can't you just put it off until tomorrow?" But he knew he had to go immediately.

As my friend pressed the doorbell, the door opened. A young man was obviously on his way out. He asked, "What can I do for you?" To which my friend answered, "I am Rabbi Blech, and I'm here to see Mrs. Cohen."

To my friend's surprise, the young man began to shake. After a few moments he said, "She is my mother. I'll tell her you're here."

They went inside and soon the three of them were sitting in the living room.

The young man seemed to have decided to stay and listen to their conversation. The mother said, "I didn't want to speak of this in front of my son but perhaps it's meant to be that I do so.

"I come from a religious Jewish home. My parents and grandparents loved Judaism and lived their lives in the Jewish tradition. But I fear it will come to an end in our family.

"Rabbi, my son is seeing a non-Jewish woman and seems to be seriously considering marrying out of the faith. And that would destroy me."

The son began to sob, and said, "I have a confession to make. For some time my fiancee has pushed me to marry her by converting to Christianity. Because I love her, I finally agreed, and tonight was supposed to be the fulfillment of her plan.

"I told her I would go to Christmas Mass with her and then meet the priest to arrange for my conversion. I knew it would be a crushing blow to my mother ... But I had made the decision and was prepared to go through with it.

"When I was leaving this evening I wasn't just leaving my house, I was leaving my family, my past, and every connection with the Jewish people.

"But I was surprised to see someone standing in my way. ... When you introduced yourself, I was dumbfounded. I haven't seen a rabbi since my bar mitzvah, and when I was about to throw away everything, a rabbi was blocking my way.

"This can't simply be a coincidence. It has to be a message. ... Maybe this is God's way of telling me not to do it."

At that moment, my friend realized he was just a messenger. He could have gone to see the mother anytime, but somehow God made sure he arrived precisely at the moment his presence would be viewed as a sign.

Many times in our lives we are put into situations that just "click." If we keep our eyes and hearts open, we can understand that a simple good deed can walk a long way, connecting us to the web that we call life and that some call the will of God.

Rabbi Nelly Altenburger is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Danbury, CT.

Shawn Sweeney
Shawn Sweeney

Susan Shaner
Susan Shaner


Growing a faith community more than numbers.

by Shawn Sweeney and Susan Shaner

Published: Saturday, March 19, 2011

Danbury News Times

As we struggle to manage our streets and roads with all the melted snow, with an occasional warmer day, and even some of the first plants beginning to pop out of the ground, we realize that spring is finally on its way!

As with many religious traditions, this means new life, rebirth and the growth of new things.

This is a perfect time of the year to reflect on our congregations, and how we, like spring, can bring new life and growth to our faith communities.

At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury, our Growth Team, a "think-tank" group of volunteers, has been reflecting and studying congregational growth for the last year. This article shares, in a nutshell, what we've concluded in our time and ministry together.

We engaged in a comprehensive process of reflecting on our history, our current social and religious contexts and societal challenges, and what we have to offer the world at this time. We designed a conceptual model that we are using for how we are thinking about and managing growth: Growing Within, Among and Beyond.

We realize that not only is it important to grow our faith, but it's our moral imperative to grow it. There are people who need our faith and don't know about us: what we stand for and act on in the community.

We came to fully embrace, however, that it's not just about growing our numbers and getting people through the door. Our faith is about growing and deepening our own spiritual identities, the relationships that nourish us and our actions to make the world a better place. If we do justice to these areas, then the outcome can't help but be growth in numbers.

Growing Within

Within each individual, we grow our faith by bringing our authentic selves to our practice and being open to all that our congregation or church has to offer. When we are fully present and when we breath in the wonderful gifts available to us, we grow. Parallel with this, when the congregation meets each individual where they are in their spiritual identity development, offering diverse ministries and programs for people at different places on their spiritual journeys, both the individuals themselves, and the congregation grow.

Growing Among

Among our congregation or church, we grow our faith by cultivating leaders who understand that all congregational practice is a ministry, and that we are responsible for helping each other deepen our individual and collective spiritualities. We grow among ourselves too, when we cherish the wonderful relationships we have with each other, take time to give care when it is needed, and humbly accept care when we ourselves need it.

Growing Beyond

Beyond our church or congregation, we grow our faith when we move our faith, imagination and vision to action. When we do work in the wider world, we are walking the walk, and living our values.

When we serve meals at the soup kitchen, or we take baby blanket donations to the free clinic, or plant a community garden, we help create a better, more humane world, one that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

This work, in turn, effects how we grow: Within and Among, further expanding our ever-widening circle.

And so, with springtime on its way, we find it appropriate to reflect on this work, and begin anew with greater vision of how we might grow our ministries and our congregations to meet the needs of our world. With celebrating five years in our new home on "the Ridge" and installing our newly settled minister in only a few weeks, we certainly have made great strides in recent history.

We are ready to embrace new goals and challenges for the future to grow our faith, within each individual, among ourselves and beyond into the wider world.

This Forum on Faith written by Shawn Sweeney and Susan Shaner of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury. Shawn Sweeney can be reached at:

Rev Joseph Krasinski
Rev. Joseph Krasinski


Ash Wednesday is a call to express contrition and receive forgiveness.

by Rev. Dr. Joseph A. Krasinski

Published: Saturday, March 12, 2011

Danbury News Times

This past Wednesday many Christians went to their place of worship and had ashes put on their forehead.

2011 is one of the rare years when western Christianity celebrates Easter on the same day as our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters do.

The reason we usually have different dates is very long and drawn out. If you are truly interested, check out the Internet for details.

Putting ashes on one's head has a very long biblical history and is usually associated with the wearing of sackcloth. Sackcloth is rough cloth, like burlap sacking.

Dressing in rough and spiky cloth and sitting in ashes (think Job's ash heap) were ancient symbolic ways of expressing sorrow, contrition and humiliation.

This sense of sackcloth and ashes found in the Hebrew scriptures carried over into the Christian scriptures and into the early Christian church. (If this is also true of the Koran, I apologize for not being as well versed in Islam's scriptures.)

In the very early church, the sacrament of Reconciliation of a Penitent, or confession, was not offered regularly.

If one committed a sin after being baptized, he could not come to Communion until completing appropriate penance and contrition.

Unbaptized persons and "sinners" had to leave the service before Communion.

As a sign of penance, the sinner would have to physically show his contrition by placing ashes on his head, as well as wearing sackcloth, through the period of Lent, which began 40 days before Easter (not counting Sundays, which are all considered "little Easters").

Thus, counting backward, we have what has come to be known as Ash Wednesday.

It was at the Great Vigil of Easter that baptisms took place and sinners could be reconciled and brought back into "communion" with the rest of the community.

The concept of publicly showing that we are repenting for grave sins is totally foreign to us.

We now have Appreciative Inquiry, in which we concentrate on the positive aspects of an organization or our own lives.

We don't need to be contrite since we can play the "blame game" -- it's not my fault, it's someone or something else's fault.

We do not take responsibility for our actions, because there's always someone else who's responsible for our shortcomings.

Finally, we have what I refer to as corporate guilt: Everyone else is doing it, so it must be all right. Again, no need to feel bad or sorry or contrite.

We don't like to talk about sin, especially our own.

But that is what Ash Wednesday points us to -- our own sinful nature.

And we cannot stop there. Most Christians believe in a God who is pure and offers unadulterated, unconditional love.

That means the symbolic ashes on our head get washed off by the love of God.

I recently noticed a bumper sticker that said "Separation of Church and Hate."

It took me aback.

There are different ways to interpret that saying, but I think the car owner is equating church with hate.

That deeply saddens my heart, for this person must have been truly hurt by "the church," so hurt he or she sees it as an institution of hatred and condemnation.

For this person, church is a place of eternal Ash Wednesdays, where no forgiveness can be felt.

What can I or any believer say to change that attitude in light of the recent Supreme Court decision that says a group of people, a church, has the right to go to the funerals of our fallen war heroes carrying signs of pure, unadulterated hate and evil?

We live in a great country that protects freedom of speech.

I am not an expert in Constitutional law or law of any kind, so I am not addressing the Supreme Court's decision.

What I am saying is that I do not believe a God of love is reflected in the words of that church.

I cannot believe that a God of love would in any way, means, shape or form say the words on the placards the Supreme Court has ruled are legal to carry.

Yes, on Ash Wednesday the church does ask the faithful to examine their consciences and reflect on the sins they have committed.

But then it assures us our sins are washed away -- that we are once again made clean and are in a right relationship with God.

The hatred, I don't believe. The love and forgiveness -- THAT I believe.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph A. Krasinski is rector of St. James' Episcopal Church in Danbury. The parish website is

Greg Griffin
Greg Griffin


United Church of Chirst is based on covenants, not hierarchy.

by Greg Griffin

Published: Saturday, March 5, 2011

Danbury News Times

My denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC), is not a hierarchy. Instead, the UCC and all its parts, and every UCC church, is based on agreements, or "covenants."

In this respect, the UCC is different from many other churches and denominations. Because the UCC is not a hierarchy, there is no pope or cardinal or bishop with authority over the UCC or its bodies or churches.

There is no central authority that sends ministers to or from churches. There is no central authority that determines a creed that governs the UCC or its churches. No central authority establishes a governing doctrine for the UCC, or makes decisions about questions of faith that are binding within the UCC or upon UCC churches.

Instead, each individual church, and each of the supporting bodies of the UCC (state and national) is a free-standing entity formed and self-governed by agreement among its members.

This "covenant" structure has its roots in 16th century Reformation England. At that time, the Puritans, who were seeking to "reform" the church, asked, "What is the proper relationship between God and humankind?" and "How should that relationship be reflected in the people gathered together under God, i.e., in the Church?"

Based on the Bible, the Puritans believed that God preferred to work with humankind through covenants. Puritan separatist William Robinson put it this way: "A company, consisting though of but two or three, separated from the world, and gathered into the name of Christ by a covenant, is a church, and so hath the whole power of Christ." The Puritans saw such a church as being in a continuum with the ancient covenant between Israel and God.

An express covenant (agreement) on the framework and mutual requirements of the relationship was required. Simply meeting together in the absence of a covenant did not constitute a "church." A covenant brought both freedom and responsibility: freedom from the imposition by any other entity or person of any rules or limits on the gathering or functioning of the church, and responsibility for undertaking church life in obedience to God.

Transplanted into the American colonies by the Puritans and Pilgrims, the covenanting church saw itself as a continuation of the reformation efforts begun in Europe.

Indeed, the Puritans arriving in the Arbella heard John Winthrop remind them that they had "entered into covenant" with God in which, if God "brings us in peace to the place we desire . . . (God) will expect strict performance" of the covenant by the people, failing which "the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us."

In America, as the churches developed, their forms of covenant became lengthier and more articulated, specifying the duties of the covenanting members to the church and each other, and sometimes adding creeds. In 1865, the Congregational churches came together in a National Council and set out basic principles of the Congregational movement. Those included (i) the local church (which "derives its power directly from Christ, and is not subject to any ecclesiastical government);" (ii) cooperation among churches in regional associations and conferences voluntarily created through covenants (for church discipline; ministerial quality, standing and licensure; and mutual help and enrichment) and (iii) principles relating to ministry, including equality with laity and equality among ministers (i.e., no bishops).

The concept of covenant continues to live at the heart of the UCC and its local churches, which are successors to the old Congregational churches. The founding documents of the UCC are expressed in covenantal terms, and together make up one large covenant. In preparing to restructure the UCC at the end of the last century, the restructuring committee noted that, "faithful structures are marked by covenantal life."

A major component of the restructuring was the creation of the four major units of the UCC as "Covenanted Ministries," each of which has its own executive minister, board of directors, budget, and corporate legal status -- and all of which are to interact with each other and the churches of the UCC on a covenantal basis.

Today, local UCC churches exist only by virtue of covenants, and congregations regularly undertake covenant relationships in worship services and in everyday coexistence: in joining with new members; in covenanting to love, support and care for newly baptized members; in commissioning mission teams; in ministering to each other in times of sickness, sadness, and joy; and in working through the burdens and costs of living together as Christian communities.

Greg Griffin is a seminary intern at First Congregational Church of Danbury. He can be reached at:


Rev. Charles Hambrick-Stowe
Rev Hambrick-Stowe


Freedom of religious choice in America poses challenges for believers.

by Rev. Charles Hambrick-Stowe

Published: Saturday, February 26, 2011

Danbury News Times

We Americans take pride in freedom and individualism. We get to choose just about everything; we don't like it when others make decisions for us. This extends, of course, to religion.

Ever since the 1700s, when religious pluralism began to emerge, churches have been voluntary associations of individuals. The religious marketplace has become increasingly crowded, complex, and competitive in recent decades. Even in communities where Christianity remains the most prevalent faith, people choose not only their denomination and local church, but, more radically, what religion to believe.

The religions of the world all thrive in America. Not only because of immigration, but because we are a nation of religious choosers. Even those who shun affiliation often still embrace some kind of religious practice like yoga. Atheism itself is a belief system. In a place like southwestern Connecticut, the religious options are vast.

For a growing number of Americans, a corollary of individual freedom of belief is that there is no such thing as objective or absolute truth. Some draw the conclusion that if everybody has the right to believe anything, it must be that all beliefs are equally valid -- or at least that it's uncivil to claim that my religious tradition represents the highest truth.

Such relativism poses a challenge to faiths like Christianity, Islam, and others that do indeed make absolute truth claims. Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) This certainly does not mean that God only loves Christians, nor does it necessarily imply that only Christians go to heaven (of course, some religions do not include belief in heaven). Still, the Christian faith teaches that what God accomplishes in Jesus Christ is of decisive, unique, and eternal importance.

In today's world, I believe people must learn how to personally hold fast to the absolute claims of their own faith while also respecting (and learning from) others who have different views. I believe we must vigorously affirm the right of all religious faiths to live side by side in the community.

Here's the rub: What if my tradition includes sharing my faith with others with the hope of converting them? For Christians, Muslims, and others, to give up that element of outreach would be to restrict something essential about their faith. The right to proselytize is deeply embedded in the American religious experience.

America has provided a model to the world for how it's possible for such a difficult project to succeed. A recent book by sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell describes this as "American Grace." It's a very hopeful description, in the words of the book's subtitle, of "How Religion Divides and Unites Us."

As an American Christian, of course I affirm our national culture of freedom and individualism. But the Bible gives a different slant on this matter of "choosing" and "belonging."

In his Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that we aren't really as free as we think we are. In fact, he says, sin and death exert control over us. Bottom line, we're not ultimately in charge of anything at all. Christianity teaches that God has a better plan, one that both respects our freedom (which is God's gift) and creates the possibility for love and joy to triumph freely in our lives.

Paul writes that, because you were a slave to sin and death, Christ died for our sins "so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God" (Romans 7:4). Jesus said to his disciples, the night before he was killed, "You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last" (John 15:16).

Christianity is an invitation to take with total seriousness the belief that God chooses and appoints us "to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last."

Christians believe that God calls us to use our freedom to live freely for others, to serve those in need, to pray and work for the common good. The Christian faith teaches us to make our lives an embodiment of the fact that we belong, not to ourselves, but to him who died for us.

Belonging to a Christian church, therefore, is more than just a choice a person freely makes as an individual. I believe it means knowing that we belong to one another, to Jesus Christ as our Lord, and to God for eternity.

The Rev. Charles Hambrick-Stowe, of the First Congregational Church of Ridgefield, can be reached at:


Penny M. Kessler
Penny M. Kessler


A time when thoughts turn to love - of various kings.

by Penny M. Kessler

Published: Saturday, February 19, 2011

Danbury News Times

Valentine's Day is among the American holidays that have long since lost their religious association.

It has become an artificial occasion celebrating a probably mythological and unrealistic version of love.

Since it's now behind us, this is a good time to consider a form of love not usually associated with greeting cards, chocolates, flowers, jewelry or sexy lingerie.

Real, mature love is as different from the infatuation called puppy love as it is from the lustful call of love at first sight.

Because feelings can be fleeting, mature love is more than just a feeling. It is a value that sustains itself for the long haul with commitment and compassion.

Unlike our modern vision of the heart as the seat of emotion, the Biblical heart was the center of intellect. And so love has a different -- and I think stronger -- value than the word that is so abused and overused today.

Love has everything to do with God: our and God's mutual relationship and our relationships with each other. The way we approach love is guided by those relationships, with God and holiness front and center.

Holiness is the spirituality of being unique. To make something holy or sacred means to raise it above the norm and out of the ordinary. Understanding God makes that holiness possible, and holiness is the essence of love.

Historically, Jews have explored the hidden meanings of the relationships of numbers and letters. In Hebrew, the numeric value of the Hebrew letters spelling out the oneness of God, echad, equal 13.

The numeric value of the Hebrew letters for the word for love, ahavah, also equal 13. God is unique; love is unique. God is separate from the ordinary, so is love.

There is the love that God has for us as a parent has for children, as shown through God's eternal covenant, structure and discipline.

God's love for us who are God's creations is so strong that even when the our enemies are suffering, God is heartbroken. God's love for us is so strong he is willing to give us the choice to do good or evil.

Since God loves us unconditionally, he is also willing to put up with our transgressions and mistakes. God's love is so strong that he doesn't demand or expect perfection. In fact, I think God expects we are going to make mistakes.

Our tradition teaches that God's love and forgiveness is always available, provided we return to God through acts of righteousness, prayer and repentance.

And ultimately, God's love for us is eternal. His loving kindness lasts forever.

Our love for God is something we are taught to feel and act on with all our strength, might, heart, soul and mind.

We show God our love by accepting our part of the covenant, allowing God's structure to discipline our otherwise chaotic lives and remind us not to wander off after lust or infatuation with people or things.

We show God our love by working with him as partners in the continuing act of both creating and repairing the world.

Since we are created in God's image and are commanded to love each other the way we love ourselves, we show our love for God by finding the image of God in every person and reaching out in love.

We even find the image of God in ourselves, treating our bodies, minds, spirits and souls with a firm and gentle compassion and love.

And if God can lovingly forgive us when we make mistakes, our love for God teaches that we can forgive others when they ask.

And then there's the love that has sustained music and art for centuries: the love of two people for each other. The marriage of two people is an act of sacred holiness.

The Hebrew word for marriage is kiddushin, or holiness. During the ceremony, the partners declare their intention to separate themselves from the general community, promising him or herself to the other alone.

They are, in effect, creating a physical and spiritual image of God's love. As they grow old with each other, they recreate God's eternal love through good times and bad, with compassion, forgiveness and love.

"You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might." (Deut. 6:5).

Truly, all you need is love.

Penny M. Kessler is the cantor at the United Jewish Center in Danbury. She can be reached at

 Rev. Karen Judd
Rev. Karen Judd


Loving ourselves is the needed foundation for life.

by Rev. Karen S. Judd

Published: Saturday, February 12, 2011

Danbury News Times

When I facilitate workshops that focus on creating a better life, the topic of being loving to and with oneself inevitably is mentioned, and silence fills the room.

People's faces appear to be communicating a spectrum of thoughts that range from, "That makes sense" to, "That sounds heretical."

Then someone speaks, beginning with the question: "Isn't it selfish to be self-loving?" This is soon followed by the statement, "It is better to give than to receive."

Beneath these words lies the belief that being loving and giving to ourselves is wrong. Many of us have, and continue to, struggle with this concept.

The idea that it is better to give than to receive has its roots in both the Old and New Testaments, as we are instructed to give to God and others with a "joyful heart," and to give God our best in time, money, possessions and talents.

The belief that one should love others and give to others more than one's self is reinforced by the words of St. Francis of Assisi in "Lord Make Me An Instrument of Thy Peace."

It reads, "That I may not so much seek ... To be loved as to love - For it is in the giving we receive ..."

To give to the Divine and others with an authentic joyful heart, we need to love ourselves and know that we are lovable. Only then can we love another without conditions and give without greed and ulterior motives.

Without self-love as our foundation, our relationship with the Divine and others will be driven by a craving to get from others, because of our perceived lack.

What does it mean for us to love ourselves? It means we are respectful, kind, compassionate, forgiving, nurturing, honest, trusting and appreciative of ourselves.

It means we care for our bodies by eating and drinking healthy foods and beverages, exercising and massaging our bodies, getting plenty of rest and laughing each day.

To be self-loving means to care for our minds by continuing to learn new things, to practice a form of meditation that's a good fit for our personality, and to practice mindfulness.

By being mindful, we pay attention to our thoughts without judgment. We become aware of how our thoughts affect our behaviors, and then we can make conscious choices about what we will make things mean.

To be self-loving is to care for our spirits by participating in constructive activities that bring us joy, and to connect with the "Kingdom of Heaven that is within" through such methods as prayer, chanting, yoga, drumming, sacred dance, walking a labyrinth, and being in nature.

It is to intentionally nourish our souls by reading, listening to or watching material that inspires us to be our authentic selves, and that supports and reminds us about being loving with ourselves, the Divine and others.

Being aware of what it means to love all aspects of our being is a place to begin. The next step is to look, without self-judgment, at where we may need some teachers, therapists and/or spiritual mentors to help us with our le arning and transformation.

To give to the Divine and others with a joyful heart, we need to heal the part of our self that has been wounded.

We do this by allowing our thoughts and feelings to be shared and witnessed by another, in a safe and compassionate way, and by replacing fear-based thoughts and behaviors with love-based thoughts and behaviors.

Within the span of each day, we have moments to choose what we think, what we make things mean, how we will feel and how we will act.

The more aware, awake and conscious we are in those moments, the more we can give to ourselves and others with a joyful heart.

The Rev. Karen S. Judd, a licensed clinical social worker, is an interfaith minister in Bethel. She can be reached at:

Rev. Cindy Maddox
Rev. Cindy Maddox


Stories have the power to change people.

by Rev. Cindy Maddox

Published: Saturday, February 5, 2011

Danbury News Times

I believe the speaker was correct. It wasn't long ago that problems such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape went largely unreported and were rarely talked about in public.

Abuse thrives on silence and secrecy. When people find their voices, when people speak their truth, we as a society can begin to address the problems.

The speaker's comment also points to the power of story. Stories have the ability to draw us in, open our eyes, and even change our minds in ways that sheer argument alone cannot. Stories bring issues and ideas to life.

It is no wonder then that the sacred texts of most religions contain stories. Sometimes they are stories of our ancestors in the faith, and sometimes they are parables made up to illustrate a point.

Either way, most religions with which I am familiar have stories as part of their tradition and sacred text.

Stories not only inspire and challenge, they are also memorable. I may have trouble remembering exactly what Jesus said about feeding the hungry, but I will remember the story of how he multiplied a lunch of bread and fish to feed 5,000 people.

I may not remember all the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, but I will remember how Jesus welcomed the little children.

One of the things I find fascinating about the stories in the Bible is how differently they are considered by different Christians.

Some Christians believe every story in the Bible is historically and scientifically accurate, and to question that accuracy is at best the sign of a lack of faith, and at worst, blasphemy.

For these Christians, the Earth was created in seven days because the Bible says it was.

Other Christians believe most of the stories in the Bible are factual, but every single one doesn't have to be considered historically accurate.

Perhaps they were meant to be taken as parables, even if the Bible doesn't clearly say that. An example of such a story might be Jonah and the whale.

Still other Christians believe some of the stories are factual and some aren't, and in the end it really doesn't matter because what's important is the message rather than the facts.

In other words, the stories need not be factual to be true. Some churches in our denomination say, "We take the Bible seriously, not literally."

Regardless of how one approaches the stories in the Bible, those of us who claim the Bible as our sacred text value the stories and try to live by the lessons they teach.

When we read of Jesus feeding the hungry crowd, we are inspired to feed the hungry, too. When we read of Jesus welcoming those on the margins of his society, we are challenged to welcome the outcasts of our society, too.

The stories have the power to change us.

When we hear the stories of bullied teens or abused children or survivors of domestic violence, I hope they have the power to change us, too. Their stories may not be part of our Bible, but as a Christian I believe the people who tell those stories are children of God, created in the image of God.

Their stories are sacred because their lives are sacred. Therefore we need to be open to finding truth in their stories, just as we are open to the truth in our sacred stories.

Stories have the power to change us, but only if we listen.

The Rev. Cindy Maddox is pastor of King Street United Church of Christ, 201 South King St., Danbury. She can be reached at:

Denis Bouffard
Denis Bouffard


Solemnity, excitement in canonization of a saint.

by Denis Bouffard

Published: Saturday, January 29, 2011

Danbury News Times

Oct. 17, 2010, was a beautiful day in Rome. In front of St. Peter's Basilica about 150,000 people gathered to celebrate the lives of six outstanding people about to be canonized as saints.

These six were from different times and countries. My wife, daughter and I was present with friends and members of the Congregation of Holy Cross because Brother Andre Bessette, CSC, was to be proclaimed a saint.

The canonization was not only a solemn event. There was excitement in the air as each candidate's brief biography was introduced. Each group in the congregation erupted into cheers and waved their colorful neckerchiefs to signify their joy for the honor bestowed upon their saint.

Throughout the centuries the Catholic Church has designated certain people as saints. These individuals have been examples of living the faith. They are venerated for the virtues they practiced. Their lives, faith and devotion are held high as examples for others to follow.

Although many saints are not widely known, there are many easily recognized ones, such as St. Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Therese of the Little Flower.

The six canonized that October morning would be honored and venerated by members of their religious orders and people in the locations where they ministered. Among them was St. Mary MacKillop, the founder of a religious order and the first person from Australia to be canonized. It was interesting to have relatives of St. Andre and St. Mary MacKillop in our tour group.

The process for canonization is long and detailed. It usually begins five years after the person's death. The cause begins with the call for witnesses, verifying their holiness and leading to the title "Servant of God."

A thorough investigation of the candidate's life is conducted and, if approved, with at l least one miracle attributed to his intercession, he is given the designation "blessed."

If another miracle is attributed to the person, he or she may be canonized. The verification process is extensive and involves emphasis on the medical and scientific world.

One saint canonized Oct. 17 was Brother Andre (Alfred) Bessette. He was born in 1845 into an impoverished family. He was one of nine children and orphaned at a young age.

At the age of 12 he began to earn a living without any formal education. As a boy and young man he tried several trades, including a time working in Connecticut. He returned to Montreal, Canada, in 1867. A devout Catholic, Alfred had a deep devotion to St. Joseph. A priest friend directed him to the religious life in the Congregation of Holy Cross. Alfred entered the religious life in 1870, taking the name Brother Andre and dedicating himself to service and prayer. Having simple responsibilities as gatekeeper at College Notre-Dame in Montreal, he would inspire young people to live rewarding lives. He was approached by several who had illnesses or other problems.

Andre would counsel them to "go to Joseph." With many finding relief through Andre's counseling, many more came to him. He became known as a servant of the suffering, instrumental in healing both body and soul.

He asked to build a chapel in honor of St. Joseph for people to visit and pray. This eventually led to the construction of St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, a major basilica visited each year by thousands.

It is believed that miraculous cures have taken place there since construction began in 1927.

Brother Andre died in 1937. Considered at that time to be the "people's saint," a million people attended his funeral. Last October thousands from Canada, the United States and many other parts of the world attended his canonization.

His presence has been felt not only in North America but in Central and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Schools and other institutions have been named in his honor.

This servant of God has showed us by example how to lead a simple life of faith and service to others.

Knowing the life and work of St. Andre gives me and many others inspiration to serve the materially and spiritually poor in our community.

His example calls us to actively participate in the various volunteer programs available through our places of worship and community organizations.

Denis Bouffard is a parishioner of St. Gregory the Great Church, 85 Great Plain Road, Danbury. He can be reached at:

Margared Bouffard
Margaret Bouffard


Using King's example to inspire an Eucharistic life.

by Margaret Bouffard

Published: Saturday, January 22, 2011

Danbury News Times

As we celebrated the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. this past week, I found myself reflecting on how I might imitate his example. His faith gave him hope that our nation might one day become "a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."

What is it about the Christian faith we share that spurs me to work for equality and unity?

The ideals of unity and love for others that King preached and lived are the same core ideas of the Eucharist. Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is truly and fully present in the Eucharist. To express our recognition of Christ's presence in the Eucharist, we venerate the Eucharist, bow before receiving Communion, and treat it with care.

But Catholics believe that Christ is present in other ways in the world as well, including people. In this way, the Eucharist drives me to work for peace and justice.

I am reminded of a story told by a priest I know. Father Tim was working at a parish in a town where the disparity between the rich and the poor was great. Homeless people often slept in front of the church and milled about outside the doors seeking a safe place to spend their days.

On Sundays, the richer parishioners approached the church doors and completely ignored the people on the sidewalk. They stepped over them or brushed them aside while walking into Mass. They viewed these fellow citizens as bothersome and burdensome.

Father Tim observed the parishioners' behavior and it disturbed him. One week, in a homily, Father Tim pointed to the doors of the church and said to the parishioners, "Why are you so quick to pick up pieces of the Eucharist that fall to the floor during Communion, but you do not help the broken pieces of the Body of Christ out there?"

The homeless and the poor are parts of the Body of Christ that need love and attention and we should all strive to lift up these most vulnerable among us.

I imagine this was quite a wake-up call for Father Tim's parishioners, as it was for me when I first heard this story. The Eucharist calls us to continue the work of Christ in the world today, but this gets overlooked in the busyness of our lives.

Living a Eucharistic life is difficult, but it can be done in many ways, even in the midst of our busy lives. Instilling acceptance in our children, praying as a family for equality and, if we have time, volunteering at a soup kitchen or petitioning for immigrants' rights are some ways to build up the Body of Christ.

I did not understand this, though, until I spent a year volunteering at a hospitality center for the homeless in Phoenix.

Andre House provides daytime services, such as showers, clothing distribution, laundry services and dinner to the poor and homeless. As a Catholic institution, Andre House begins each work day with Mass in the parking lot. At the conclusion of Mass, the priest offers a final blessing and says to us, "Go now in peace to love and serve the Lord by serving one another."

And then we did. We walked about 10 feet and addressed the needs of people waiting in line for us to open our doors.

At Andre House, it was easy to make the connection between the Eucharist and serving others. Now, when I go to Mass in my local parish, I continue to hear that final command to serve the Lord, but it is difficult to live out. Andre House was my full-time job. The position was created to serve others.

In my life today, I have to make an intentional effort to live up to this final command at Mass. Living a Eucharistic life while being a full-time student, working part-time, and trying to balance life responsibilities makes it a challenge.

But the Body of Christ needs our efforts to create a "beautiful symphony of brotherhood." Regardless of our faith traditions and even in the busiest of times, we remain mindful of Martin Luther King Jr.'s hope.

Margaret Bouffard is a parishioner at St. Gregory the Great Roman Catholic Church in Danbury and is pursuing a Master of Divinity degree from the University of Notre Dame. She can be reached at:

Polly Castor
Polly Castor


Improve your motives to be all you can be.

by Polly Castor

Published: Saturday, January 15, 2011

Danbury News Times

As we enjoy the clean slate of a fresh new year, this is the month many of us ask ourselves: What is stopping us from being all we can be?

Christian Science teaches that operating from the basis of the human mind limits your experience. Contrariwise, when God governs every action, being the best you can be is inevitable.

Action is important. Existence itself is indelibly linked with action, just like a sentence must have both a noun and a verb. We are not whole unless we are doing something.

However, we believe it is just as inappropriate to be preoccupied with busy activity and ignore the essence of our being as it is to languish in the profound meaning of existence while doing nothing.

Finding a balance between doing and being is imperative to happiness, fulfillment and effectiveness.

Our motives also matter tremendously. Motives are our reasons for taking action, and they must be examined if we wish to make better choices.

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, has a lot to say about motives in her book "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures":

"The purpose and motive to live aright can be gained now. This point won, you have started as you should ... and nothing but wrong intention can hinder your advancement. Working and praying with true motives, your Father will open the way.

"Unselfish ambition, noble life-motives, and purity -- these constituents of thought, mingling, constitute individually and collectively true happiness, strength and permanence.

"Right motives give pinions to thought, and strength and freedom to speech and action." (Pinions are wings for soaring; they release us from feeling bogged down or stuck.)

So what are "true," "noble," or "right" motives?

Christian Science has taught me that they are motives that align with God instead of my own limited human perspective.

Any action that results in unhappiness or discord stems from our human, mortal mind, which claims separation from God, the divine mind.

Eddy explains, "If action proceeds from the divine mind, action is harmonious. If it comes from erring mortal mind, it is discordant and ends in sin, sickness, death. Those two opposite sources never mingle in fount or stream.

The perfect mind sends forth perfection, for God is mind. Imperfect mortal mind sends forth its own resemblances, of which the wise man said, `All is vanity.'"

I can see now that many of my efforts over the years have added up to "vanity" (a Bible code word for nothing! zilch! nada! -- or, at best, meaninglessness.)

This includes lots of New Year's resolutions comprising what I thought I wanted, what I thought I needed, or changes I thought I would make.

That approach left me empty-handed until I started asking what God desired me to do at any given time.

Now that I've accepted God as responsible for my progress and destiny, I am finally getting somewhere.

This gives me a wider sphere of action than I could have imagined for myself. And it becomes a project of joyous, humble obedience instead of grueling self-determination.

As a Christian Scientist, I believe it all starts with realizing that each of us individually expresses God as his creation.

We are not creating ourselves. We are not self-made. God already made every one of us, complete.

I believe we are all designed to fully manifest God's glory, which includes taking initiative each step of the way as we are led by God. I have found this approach never leaves anyone empty-handed or disappointed.

For my part, I look forward to seizing this year as a day-by-day, moment-by-moment adventure of discerning and implementing God's will for me.

In 2011, may you, too, reap the benefits of improved, uplifted motives, as well as experience the satisfaction of discovering and demonstrating all you are meant to be.

Polly Castor is a Christian Science practitioner at First Church of Christ, Scientist, Ridgefield. She can be reached at:

 Rev. Leo E. McIlrath
Rev. Leo E. McIlrath


Bless others with kindness in the new year.

by Rev. Leo E. McIlrath

Published: Saturday, January 1, 2011

Danbury News Times

A happy and blessed New Year 2011! May we extend this greeting to so many others through the loving acts of kindness proposed in this column.

The sacred scriptures reveal to people of every age in the Christian tradition a two-fold commandment that I believe serves as the basis of all rightful living:

"Love the Lord, your God, with all of your heart, mind and strength ... and love your neighbor as yourself."

At a quick glance, we come to realize that the first part is often fulfilled by addressing the second. Jesus succinctly validates this point when he tells us in Matthew 25, that as often and however we reach out to anyone in a loving manner, serving our neighbor's needs, so too do we serve the Lord, Emmanuel.

And as Matthew's is one of the two gospel witnesses of Jesus' infancy narratives, this Christmas/New Year season seems an appropriate time to dwell on these thoughts.

The week before Christmas, News-Times editor Art Cummings wrote an inspirational piece: "Reach out and touch someone's life with act of kindness."

Hopefully, his column did just that as he listed a variety of "mitzvahs" -- kind acts that people of any age might do for another. Briefly, they encompassed: contribute to your favorite charities, smile and say hello to neighbors, shovel/plow the driveway of an elderly or infirm acquaintance, carry groceries for someone struggling, buy some food for a needy friend, give a ride to a neighbor, or give a coat, a hat or a pair of gloves to someone with tattered clothes.

Cummings offered several additional ideas for serving others, and I am sure you ave even more. As former director of Danbury's Department of Elderly Services, I had the pleasure of working alongside some wonderful people who did their own "mitzvahs."

Among them was Blanche Masi, who had previously worked for our Community Outreach program to connect home-bound people with basic services (food, shelter, fuel assistance, renter's rebate, transportation and social/spiritual activities.) Later on, she initiated a "telephone reassurance" program, calling those confined to their home.

Should anyone reading this column like to build on Art Cummings' meaningful list of services that one might perform to help fulfill the "great commandment," please send them to my e-mail and I will make sure the list is published in a later Forum on Faith column or post it for others to read.

Hopefully, children of all ages who are moved to reach out to others will move into adulthood as "keepers of their brothers and sisters."

Such is the good news that is truly out there in our world. Unfortunately, there are countless others who would rather opt for the bad news and to remain in the realm of childish activity.

This nostalgic song of our youth says it well:

"Toyland, Toyland, Little girl and boy land,

While you dwell within it, You are ever happy then.

Childhood's joyland, Mystic, merry Toyland!

Once you pass its borders, You can never return again."

Bittersweet, isn't it? It reflects the warmth of our early days, but life went on and we grew up. But not everyone did. Some chose to abuse power, as did several leaders of nations, the corporate world, faith communities and political hacks throughout our very own country and state.

They clung to their toys, both religious and secular, and they utilized said toys like greedy little girls and boys -- to power their way, in a childish manner, over the "anawim" -- the weak, the poor and the innocent children around them.

Psychologists would say people attempting to return to toy land are stuck in childhood and not yet ready to move to the next level of maturity.

St. Paul in his letter to the Romans had this to say, and I would suggest that it still makes lots of sense:

"When I was a child, I spoke like a child; I acted like a child. But when I became a grown man, I put away the things of a child."

In other words, it was time to stop being childish and begin to take on the childlike attitude of a follower of the Christ whose birthday we Christians now celebrate.

Toyland! Joyland! Make this Christmas season a time full of wonder time for girls and boys of all ages.

A blessed Christmas season and a happy, holy New Year!

The Rev. Leo E. McIlrath is ecumenical chaplain at the Lutheran Home of Southbury. He can be reached at 203-270-0581 or e-mail to: