My husband David and I are the proud grandparents of six wonderful grandchildren. Our youngest granddaughter was born seven years ago on December 21st. She wasn’t expected until mid-January, so her pre-Christmas arrival was a surprise to everyone. We received our first picture of that tiny, beautiful, newborn baby the next day. She was so tiny. And so vulnerable.
Her first photo arrived as I was writing my Christmas Eve sermon. I was immersed in the story of the Roman Emperor, Augustus and how that emperor’s story intersected with that of the child born in Bethlehem so long ago. Augustus also claimed to be the son of God. And in all of his actions, including the ones described in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 1-20 he’s much more interested in amassing power and wealth than he is in caring for the people around him.
I was struck at that moment, as I have been struck every year since then, of the amazing thing that God did on that first Christmas. One of the words given to the baby born on Christmas Day is Emmanuel. It means God-With-Us. Christians believe that God came among us, as one of us, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And when God came into the world, he didn’t come as a powerful emperor. Instead, he came as a vulnerable, newborn, human baby.
Imagine any newborn you’ve encountered. And now, compare that tiny vulnerable human with images of reliefs that depict imperial power in this temple, the Sebasteion in what was then Aphrodisias. If you click here, you can see various reliefs showing Roman emperors subjugating those Rome has conquered, including a woman personifying Britannia being dragged around by her hair!
For me, as a Christian, that is the true miracle of Christmas. When God came among us, as one of us, God did so in a way that was a sharp contrast to worldly power. God didn’t come as a powerful emperor. God didn’t come in a palace. God didn’t even come as an adult human. Nope! When God came among us as one of us God came as a vulnerable little baby, born to a poor family, in a town with some theological significance (Bethlehem was the city of David) but which wasn’t a booming metropolis.
Throughout scripture, God stands with those who are poor, hungry, oppressed, and vulnerable. And in case we missed it, God does the same thing when God comes among us as Emmanuel. That is something worth celebrating!
Blessings to all!
This blog post is the expressed opinion of its writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Tysons Interfaith or its members.
Well, it is the season, the season for Christmas music! Love them or hate them, these familiar tunes fill the air during this joyous time. One does not have to look hard to find them either; it seems that many of our local radio stations started playing these songs even before Thanksgiving! You hear of white Christmas’ and stars dancing across the sky, but my favorite nonchurch hymn is “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.” You know the tune, “Jolly old Saint Nicholas, lean your ear this way, don’t you tell a single soul what I’m going to say…” This song reminds us of the fun of Christmas – Santa Claus, gifts, and family. As pastors (at least in my tradition), we try to keep the two separate: Christmas in its true sense and the coming of Jesus the Christ child, and that of Santa Claus and his reindeer’s in the secular/ commercial sense. But believe it or not, there is a lot that we can learn from jolly old Saint Nick.
Now St. Nicholas was not always St. Nicholas. Born Nicholas of Bari in the early third century, he grew up in what is now modern-day Turkey. Raised in a Christian home, he was a person of devout faith in Christ. Nicholas lived out his faith in all that he did and held strong to it after losing his parents as a young man. Legend has it that rather than taking his inheritance and spending it on himself, he devoted his life to the poor and less fortunate in his community. Leaving small bags of coins on the doorsteps of those in need, Nicholas worked to ensure people, especially children had the necessities of life. One story tells of Nicholas caring for a family who was being forced to give their children into servanthood, but rather than seeing this family torn apart, Nicholas paid the debts that were owed. Again, leaving three small sacks of money over the course of three nights, one for each of the children, Nicholas ensured this family would remain together.
Nicholas went on to become Bishop of the Christian churches of Myra in Asia Minor and continued to do many great things for the good of God’s people. His reputation and example of selflessness for children and the poor lived on long after his death. So much so that he was canonized in the early fifteenth century, and his feast day is celebrated by many of the mainline denominations today. On this day, we are invited to place our stockings or shoes by the door in hopes of finding a few gold coins left there the next morning (chocolate ones, of course).
During this holiday season, St. Nicholas offers us the perfect example of how to enter this festive time. No matter our faith tradition – rather than simply marking the days off the calendar, waiting for Christmas to finally come. Jolly old Saint Nick reminds us to actively wait by caring for all God’s people in need.
This blog post is the expressed opinion of its writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Tysons Interfaith or its members.
Chanukah, or Hanukah or any of 14 other ways to spell it (because they are all transliterations from the Hebrew), is a Jewish winter holiday. This is intentionally very vague, because there is so much more to explain.
First, what Chanukah is not. It is not the Jewish Christmas. Although it became widely celebrated in the late 1800’s due to its proximity to Christmas, this holiday is really a minor holiday, coming from the Book of Maccabees which didn’t make it to the Jewish Bible (Tanakh). The Book of Maccabees is one of the 14 books in the Apocrypha, from the Greek word meaning “hidden”. Scholars are still arguing about why it was left out, two possible reasons were that it was too new (written near the end of the 2nd century BCE), another that it wasn’t politically correct; fearing the alienation of the Romans with a story of the Jews who fought and beat another ruling power. And, that is what the holiday is all about. The Maccabees fought the Seleucids for freedom of religion, and won.
To celebrate the victory, the Jews went to rededicate the temple in Jerusalem which had been taken over by the Seleucids and defiled. The anniversary of this rededication is how the date for the Chanukah celebration was determined. Chanukah is always on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which is on a different calendar system than the one we use. This means that the actual date for the beginning of Chanukah on the Gregorian calendar changes every year and can be as early as November 28th, as it is this year, or be as late as December 25th, which will happen in 2024.
Another name for Chanukah is the Festival of Lights. The story is that when the temple was finally cleansed, they found only enough oil to last one night, but by a miracle, it lasted for eight, and that is the reason for eight days of Chanukah.
Like all holidays and festivals, traditions abound and they can be different in different parts of the world. Fairly universal are the following: lighting the Menorah (officially called a Hanukiah), starting with one candle the first night, lighting two the second night, etc.; eating foods that have been fried in oil such as potato latkes here, jelly donuts in Israel; giving gifts, traditionally gelt, the German and Yiddish word for money; and playing a game with a four-sided spinning top called a dreidel.
The lighting of the menorah in public goes back to the beginning of the holiday itself. The sages instructed that the menorah be lit at the entrance to one’s home to publicize the miracle.
Chanukah was first celebrated in the White House by President Truman in 1951 when Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion presented him with a Hanukiah. It has been celebrated by every president since then. In modern times, lighting of the public menorahs started in 1974 in Philadelphia at the foot of the Liberty Bell. The largest Hanukiah in the world is in Grand Army Plaza in New York City. It is 32 feet tall and weighs 4000 pounds.
This blog post is the expressed opinion of its writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Tysons Interfaith or its members.
Today, we Sikhs celebrate two holy occasions. One is Diwali, the festival of light. Diwali translates as “row of lights.” In the darkest time of year, people celebrate life and love and the beginning of the Hindu New Year, with many forms of light: candles, fireworks, oil lamps, and electric lights. It’s a time of rejoicing in the midst of darkness. People gather together in joy and share many types of sweets. The Hindus honor Lakshmi, the goddess of blessings and prosperity.
At this time, we Sikhs also celebrate “Bandi Chor Diwas,” the day the Guru freed many people from prison.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in India, there were ten successive Sikh Gurus, each of which was a pure channel of God’s love and wisdom. They all taught people how to live righteous lives of devotion, service and joy – to live in God-consciousness. Today, I’d like to share with you a story about Guru Hargobind Ji, the sixth Sikh Guru.
Guru Hargobind Ji was willingly imprisoned for a year, joining 52 princes who had been previously imprisoned for refusing to pay taxes to the emperor. Devoted Sikhs came there daily, and sang holy songs as they walked around the fortress where the Guru was imprisoned. After negotiations, in 1619, the emperor agreed to let the Guru go free. But the Guru refused to leave unless he could take the other prisoners with him. The emperor didn’t want to release the other prisoners, so he set what he thought was an insurmountable condition. The Guru could take out as many prisoners as could hold on to the hem of his robe. So, the Guru had a cloak made with fifty-two trailing panels. Each of the other prisoners held on to the end of one of the panels, and they all were released. The poor old emperor had to accept it. The Guru exemplified putting others before ourselves, and we can live by his example.
There were big celebrations on the Guru’s release, which happened at the same time as Diwali. Those light – filled celebrations continue annually today. Guru Hargobind Ji became known as Bandi Chor – the releaser of prisoners. The special holiday is called Bandi Chor Diwas – the day of Bandi Chor. We Sikhs celebrate Guru Hargobind Ji’s love for all, and the inspiring example he gave us all of making sure everyone is cared for, not just ourselves. He put others’ well-being before his own. May we all live in harmony with his divine example!
So, it’s a fantastic gift from God that we are able to combine two holy events into one uplifting celebration. We join others of Hindu faith, and those who celebrate the ancient tradition of Diwali, and also honor and celebrate the glory of Guru Hargobind Ji, the liberator. A very happy and reaffirming time, indeed! May you all experience the light, love, and joy of this auspicious time of year. You are always welcome to join us at Raj Khalsa Gurdwara, in Sterling, VA. God bless you all with love, light, and prosperity!
Reading an account of a dialog between a pagan clergyman and a pastor from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (‘We’re all interconnected’: Pagan, Christian clergy urge interfaith understanding (religionnews.com)) reminded me of some reflections on “Pentecostal Theology,” particularly as it applies to churches like the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, one of the largest in the world.
In his article, “The Contribution of David Yonggi Cho to a Contextual Theology in Korea” (Journal of Pentecostal Theology, 12.1, 2003), Allan Anderson rejects both liberal and conservative critiques of the church’s founding pastor, who recently passed away (Korean pastor David Yonggi Cho, founder of one of the world’s largest churches, has died (religionnews.com). These critics use either the American “prosperity gospel” or what some call “indigenization” to explain the growth of Cho’s church and Pentecostalism more generally outside of Europe and North America and assume that the Christian message is the same in all cultural contexts.
Even as Pastor Cho criticized the Buddhism of his youth – he had particularly harsh words for Zen – he also talked about a “fourth dimension” akin to the miraculous “healing” powers of Korean shamanism, Buddhism, yoga, and Japanese religions like Soka Gakkai. Cho also talked about an “evil spirit world” that he placed “under the power and authority of almighty God,” a view that enraged many non-Korea evangelicals. While Cho clearly distinguished Christian revelation from the traditional Asian religious view, his “experience of this Asian religious spirituality and its element of the miraculous” can be seen as the basis of a theology in which visions and dreams act as language, drawing the nascent believer in to what he called a process of “incubation” or “pregnancy” as a foundation to faith.
To develop his view of prosperity and the gospel, Anderson avers that Cho did not borrow from the North American “health and wealth” preachers. Rather, he relied on his personal experience of South Korean poverty and inequality, still depicted in movies like the Academy Award-wining “Parasite” and the new Netflix hit series, “Squid Game.” Cho preaches that prosperity “as an end in itself is evil, for God blesses his people only so that they may meet the needs of the poor and the needy.” And Cho criticizes western churches for becoming too secularized, particularly in their obsession with entertainment.
This is all pretty much foreign to many Americans, even people like me who have had extensive experience in Korea and China. But the great Christian philosopher, St. Anselm of Canterbury (aka “The Second Augustine”) noted that while unbelievers strive to understand because they do not believe and believers strive to understand because they do believe, both have the same object. For Anselm, faith plays the part of experience and precedes all reflection and discussion concerning “religious things.”
The conversation between the pagan and the pastor is scheduled to be repeated at the upcoming Parliament of the World’s Religions (October 16-18), which will be held virtually for the first time since it initially convened at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago 2021 VIRTUAL | Parliament of the World’s Religions (parliamentofreligions.org) In the worlds of the pagan preacher, it’s a matter of being “interconnected” and “inseparable.” For “regardless of a difference of one God or many gods, we are still — at least to us theists — children of the divine, be it a single parent or a divine family that kind of watches over you.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly declaration “International Day of Peace.” The purpose of the International Day of Peace was and still remains, to strengthen the ideals of peace around the world.
In 2001, September 21st was set as the annual day of commemoration – not only as a time to discuss how to promote and maintain peace among all peoples but most remarkably, as an annual 24-hour period of global ceasefire and non-violence for groups in active combat. https://www.un.org/en/observances/international-day-peace
The International Day of Peace reminds us of our commonalities. Regardless of where we come from or what languages we speak, we are more alike than we are different. Honoring those commonalities makes peace possible. Life is better in a world where peace exists. We draw on the wisdom and experience of the peacemakers and peacekeepers to learn how we can individually and collectively be catalysts for peace – how we can manifest a world that works for everyone, everywhere. Nations and communities around the world struggle with poverty and disease, severely limited access to education and healthcare, particularly in areas where violence is common.
There is something here much bigger than our day-to-day routines. We have the opportunity to transform the world so that our loved ones can live in sustainable peace. To achieve this we are called to step outside our comfort zones. Until we are willing to soften our own perspectives so we can catch a glimpse of someone else’s experience, peace will remain beyond our reach.
Peace is possible. The impact of each small act is immense. Imagine: If we were all simply kind and respectful of one another, how different life would be. We can all contribute to the worldwide culture of peace through generosity of spirit, prayer, advocacy, education and ensuring access to clean water and health resources. Every small effort makes a difference.
Throughout history, dating back to the Peace of God (989 AD) and Truce of God (1027 AD) we see movements that arose from the desire to curb violence by limiting the days and times nobility could practice violence. Most societies have lived in peace most of the time. Today, we are much less likely to die in war than our parents or grandparents. Since the establishment of the United Nations and the creation of the Charter of the United Nations, governments are obligated not to use force against others unless they are acting in self-defense or have been authorized by the UN Security Council to proceed.
Centers for Spiritual Living selected United Nations International Day of Peace in 2016, to conduct a ceremony at the Home Office in Golden, Colorado, to dedicate a Peace Pole and to formally recognize the Collective Meditation for Peace Initiative as an integral and essential element of our organization. The Heart of Peace Initiative coordinates weekly online Collective Peace Meditations and numerous events throughout the year.
At a Centers for Spiritual Living event in 2016, Rev. Dr. Kenn Gordon reminded everyone that every day must be dedicated to peace – that the consciousness of humanity must be uplifted to abiding in and as peace moment by moment. As he said, a Peace Pole is a material replica of the intention that has brought it into form, just as the actions we take demonstrate Spirit’s call to do our part to manifest a world that works for everyone. World peace is a product of what is in the hearts of individuals. To achieve world peace, we must begin with the individual. In order for us to experience and express peace, we must first reveal that peace from within us – to remove all obstacles to the free flow of peace and love.
Religious Science has always been a powerful presence for peace, a core attribute of our philosophy of Oneness. As Dr. Ernest Holmes explained in Spiritual Awareness, “When we become conscious of our existence as an idea in the Mind of God, we shall find that we are walking in pathways of peace; that something within us acts like a magnet to attract that which belongs to itself. This something is Love, the supreme impulsion of the universe.”
Today more than any other time in history, peace relies on the commitment to not only achieve equality, but to secure equity for all persons – to fulfill our vision of a world that works for everyone, everywhere.
The Jewish High Holidays begin with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah the evening of Monday, September 6th and end with Yom Kippur at sundown Thursday, September 16th. The High Holidays are a time when many Jews make their strongest identification with Judaism, with their congregation, and with the Jewish people.
These ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as the “Days of Repentance.” The holidays are celebrated in accord with the lunar-solar cycle. Consequently, on the Gregorian calendar the dates move annually. You might hear Jews describe this year’s High Holidays as “early.”
Rosh Hashanah literally means in Hebrew, “the head of the year.” The Erev (Eve) Rosh Hashanah service Sunday evening sets the stage to welcome the Jewish new year of 5782. It is also when the “Book of Life” is opened and is left open during the days of repentance. Jews are encouraged to identify things they have done wrong, might have done better, and to express sorrow for them, expressing sorrow to those affected. Hence the name “the Days of Repentance.” At the dramatic concluding Yom Kippur service, the Book of Life is symbolically closed for another year.
In Reform Jewish Congregations, the Erev Rosh Hashanah service is following by a full day of worship, this year Tuesday, September 7th. In Conservative and Orthodox Jewish Congregations, there is an additional day of Rosh Hashanah observance on Wednesday, September 8th.
These services feature special prayers delivered in a special High Holiday “trope” or chants; melodies heard only this time of the year. The music is soaring, the prayers special, the sermons special, with much of the worship experience dating back centuries. The Rosh Hashanah services conclude with the blowing of the shofar, or ram’s horn. This signals that we have all come together as the Jewish people once more, it marks the beginning of a new year, and that this is the time to commit to doing better in the year ahead.
During this time Jews will set our plates of apples and honey, the apples representing our world and the honey the sweetness of the new year. This is also the only time of the year that one has round challahs rather that the traditional loaf for services and at home. Again, the round challah represents the globe and recognizes this time as the birthday of the world.
The days following this service and leading up to Yom Kippur are to be a period of introspection. It is to be a time for “teshuva,” or turning around, identifying how one can do better.
On Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, these commitments are entered into the figurative Book of Life. From Erev Yom Kippur (Eve of Yom Kippur) through the next day the worship experience is solemn and serious. If one’s health allows, it is traditional that Jews fast from the start of the Erev Yom Kippur service through sunset of Yom Kippur service. The holiday concludes with a Break the Fast meal, often with family and friends.
For those who have fulfilled the mitzvah, or commandment, to observe these holidays, one leaves with a renewed sense of purpose, of commitment, and of peace.
The traditional greeting to Jews during this High Holiday period is to wish one another a happy new year. In Hebrew this is, “Le Sha-nah To-vah.” It means literally, “Happy New Year.” One can also say, “Yom Tov,” happy holiday, and on Yom Kippur, wish one an easy fast.
May this year’s Days of Repentance be a time of sincere renewal, commitment, and peace for all. “Le Shanah Tova!”
A recent survey of religion in America provides some granularity when it comes to the so-called decline in religiosity in these United States. Survey: White Mainline Protestants Outnumber White Evangelicals
The data show that contrary to other research, the percentage of Americans identifying with formal denominations is on a rebound from a low in 2018. Is this good news? Well, there’s a lot to be said for maintaining a skeptical attitude about formal religion. And yet, at the same time, this modest (re)turning to organized religion may be a response to the spiritual void that “mass society” represents.
Philosopher, and deeply agnostic, Hannah Arendt, summed up “mass society” thus:
All of the features, however, that mass psychology has by now identified as typical of man in mass society: his abandonment (Verlassenheit—and this abandonment is neither isolation nor solitude), along with his utmost adaptability; his irritability and lack of support; his extraordinary capacity for consumption (if not gluttony), along with his utter inability to judge qualities or even to discern them; but most of all his egocentrism and the fatal alienation from the world that he mistakes for self-alienation (this, too, dates back to Rousseau)—all of this first manifested itself in “good society,” which does not have a mass character. The first people of the new mass society, one might say, constituted a mass to such a small degree (in a quantitative sense) that they were actually able to consider themselves an elite.
One could argue that, with a few exceptions in Northern Europe, Americans represent the elites of the world. We are enmeshed in the ills outlined in this dense paragraph from Arendt’s critique of mass society, and it is natural to crave for some sort of spiritual solace. Most of us in Tysons Interfaith would probably quibble with the word “solace,” because that seems like a psychological cop out. Our faith traditions emphasize the Platonic world view that ideals, like good and evil, are real.
I believe that the beauty of religious worship is its communality. Megachurches excepted, most worship takes place in an intimate setting where loving relationships can be forged between individuals of different backgrounds and tendencies. This is what I experience in my faith community and with my participation in Tysons Interfaith. If you want to read about communality in action, I recommend to you the life of Gordon Crosby, who bucked the trend of bigness and put social responsibility front and center in his theology. Rebel pastor Gordon Cosby left lasting mark on mainstream Christianity – The Washington Post.
“The zealously nurtured attitude of literal credulity towards the oriental treasure of thought is in this case a lesser danger, as in Zen there are fortunately none of those marvelously incomprehensible words, as in Indian cults. Neither does Zen play about with complicated Hatha-yoga techniques, which delude the physiologically thinking European with the false hope that the spirit can be obtained by sitting and by breathing. On the contrary, Zen demands intelligence and will-power, as do all the greater things which desire to become real.”
Thus, no less a thinker than Carl Jung ends his foreword to D.T. Suzuki’s essays on Zen, first published in Japan during the “1914 War.” The eminent psychologist takes more than twenty pages to dance around an explanation of what the Japanese call Satori, translated imperfectly as “enlightenment” in most “Western” treatises. If he can’t do it, with all the usual qualifications, then how can a hopelessly European male living on the outskirts of Tysons do so in the 21st century?
Well, let’s start with a classic Wu- or Mu-anecdote about the dog. A monk once asked: “Has a dog Buddhist nature, too?” The Master answered: “Wu,” which Jung explains is “obviously just what the dog himself [in my case, herself] would have said in answer to the question.” It usually comes out as “woof.”
Without “making any recommendation or offering any advice,” Jung says that when Westerners begin to talk about Zen, he considers it his “duty to show the European where our entrance lies to that ‘longest of all roads’ which leads to satori, and what difficulties strew that path, which has only been trodden by only a few of our great men [sic]—perhaps as a beacon on a high mountain shining out in the hazy future.” It “can neither be captured in with skillful formulae nor exorcized by means of scientific dogmas, for there is something of Destiny clinging to it—yes it is sometimes Destiny itself, as Faust and Zarathustra show all too clearly.” Well, it’s not so clear to me since I don’t really understand German.
He goes on to warn that these two great works “are only on the border-line of what is comprehensible to the European” and “one can scarcely expect a cultured public who have only just begun to hear about the dim world of the soul to be able to form any adequate conception of the spiritual state of a man [sic] who has fallen into the confusions of the individuation process, by which term I have designated the ‘becoming whole’ (Ganzewerdung).”“Preoccupation with the riddles of Zen may perhaps stiffen the spine of the faint-hearted European, or provide a pair of spectacles for his short-sightedness, so that from his ‘gloomy hole in the wall,’ he may enjoy at least a glimpse of the world of spiritual experience, which until now has been shrouded in mist.”
Well, I can tell you that early in the morning on the Jones Branch Extender by the Capital One building, there are indeed mists to contemplate. And there are plenty of dogs being walked about by happy denizens all around Tysons. So, woof. Or should I say, “Wu”….?
In December, when I started at Emmanuel Lutheran in Vienna as their associate pastor for evangelism and mission, I joined Tysons Interfaith right away. As someone entering my 10th year of ordained ministry, I have been part of a few ecumenical groups over the years, but this one is unique. As I attended our zoom meetings over the last year and participated in TI’s various discussions and forums, I’m so inspired by the work and passion that is happening in this group, despite the pandemic and its limitations.
At the end of July, I was finally able to meet some of the other members of Tysons interfaith in person, at Redeemer Lutheran in McLean to assemble “Welcome Bags” for new residents in Tysons. Our idea is to provide these bags to many of the major condominiums and apartment complexes in Tysons, to give away as new people move in. Inside each bag is a pen, magnet and lens cleaning cloth with the TI logo, a map of the community that includes a list of congregations in the surrounding area, a metro map, and a small package of tissues (because, pandemic!). We hope that new residents not only feel welcomed and connected to the community, but also learn that TI and these faith communities are ready resources. These bags will be going out in the next few weeks, to create a sense of connection and inclusion to the newcomers in our midst.
As someone still fairly new to NOVA, I’m so appreciative to have this group of passionate colleagues to work along with, and I am relieved that none of us are doing this alone. As a Christian and as a Lutheran, I believe that God is already present and at work in the community of Tysons, and God is continually inviting us alongside this work, as fellow participants. I’m thrilled to be along for the ride!