Thursday, January 3, 2013


Recently, I was invited to a party to celebrate Hanukkah, the Jewish Feast of Lights or Feast of Dedication. I knew a little about Hanukkah. Gifts are exchanged and contributions made to the poor. On the first evening, one candle is lighted in a special eight-branched candelabrum called a menorah or hanukkiyah. Beginning on the second night, one candle is added every night until the total reaches eight on the last night. The candles are lighted by a separate candle called a shamash. 

The invitation said we'd retell the Hanukkah story, so I wanted to review its history.  The two books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha tell the story of Hanukkah. In 165 B.C., after a three-year struggle led by Judah Maccabee, the Jews in Judea defeated the Syrian tyrant Antiochus IV. They held festivals in the Temple in Jerusalem, and dedicated it to God.  When the Jews cleaned the Temple of Syrian idols, they found only one small cruse of oil with which to light their holy lamps. But miraculously, the cruse provided them with oil for eight days.  Hanukkah celebrates this miracle of the oil, and the miracle of defeating the Syrians against great odds.  

The invitation I received also mentioned that we might play the dreidel game, with the four-sided spinning top. I wanted to investigate that too. In an article which begins, "On Hanukkah we recognize the miracle of nature," Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum at begins to explain the part the dreidel plays in the celebration by writing, "A miracle is a break from the natural routine." Some believe that God’s hand guides everything in the world. Often, though we are so distracted by our routine that we don't notice. He says, “"Nature"” is really nothing more than the breathtaking beauty and symmetry of God’s Creation becoming routine."  

OK. A miracle breaks the routine. The break draws our attention to God’s control over all areas of life – even the natural. "...Hanukkah reflects the lull in the war [against the Syrian Antiochus IV], when the Jews had a chance to stop and consider the Divine assistance rendered during their lop-sided battles – something they had not appreciated in the midst of war." Ah! Another miracle -- Divine assistance.  

Next, Nisenbaum explains that the four Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, heh, and shin, representing the words nes gadol haya sham, “A great miracle happened there,” are written on the sides of the dreidel, one on each side. Then he continues, "While the dreidel spins, the letters disappear in a blur and are visible only when coming to a stop. The dreidel represents how we – immersed in the dizzying hustle-bustle of daily routine – cannot see the miracles regularly happening all around. Only when we stop to reflect are our eyes opened to the miracles that were there the whole time." You can find the "rules" for game played with the dreidel at 

 Each of our Abrahamic traditions has its own miracles which we celebrate. I invite you -- I urge you -- to stop often during this New Year and look for those miracles which are always around you.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


We're entering the Christmas season, the time when we'll be hearing and offering wishes for "Peace on earth" and good will toward all people -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, and many others. The cards we send one another will convey those messages, and the hymns we sing will also include those words. Even the gift tags on those packages under the tree will often repeat them.

I send you wishes of peace and good will. To them, I add this advice from Mahatma Ghandi: "You must be the change you want to see in the world."

I think Ghandi meant that we must "walk the talk." Once we put the two ideas together, we find we've made a formidable challenge for ourselves: If I wish for peace on earth, how must I "be" to advance that cause? If I wish you good will, how must I act that toward you and all people? How would you do it? Isn't this what Jesus did?

And this is not just about peace with our nearest friends. It's about all the people in the world. If we want to see "peace on earth," peace in the whole world, how must we behave? What must we do? For some of us (like me, I confess), the question is also, "What must we not do?"

Much of what we do in our day-to-day lives we do competitively. We try for the best parking place, the best office location, the best seats in the sanctuary... The rub comes when we lose these little competitions -- how do we treat the winners? Do we respond peacefully, with good will, and showing respect? Or do we respond angrily, or aggressively?

Scale it up. We lose the "perfect" job to another candidate, or worse, we lose the job we've had for a while. Or, we lose a spouse or significant other to another person. Or, we lose our home to the bad economy.... Do we react to the loss peacefully? Do we react with good will toward those whom we blame for the loss?

Bigger still. We lose a child, or a friend, or a fellow citizen, or many fellow citizens in a war or a far-away attack. Do we/Can we react peacefully, with good will? Or do we make war instead?

Jesus taught about this dilemma in Matthew 5 (and 6 and 7): "Blessed are the peacemakers...Blessed are the merciful...Everyone who is angry with [someone] shall be liable to judgment..." Clearly, it is desired that we be makers of peace, purveyors of mercy, free of anger.

But if we look at some of our (my) usual behaviors, we find that we're not really making peace but confrontation, and unhappiness. We're not showing mercy but perhaps contempt. And we might often be angry. In other words, we're not being "blessed."

And I'm including here our behaviors as we support or oppose public policies by our involvement in the public discourse; and as we support or avoid certain companies and industries by our investments in them and purchases from them. Are these behaviors of ours also bringing peace and good will to the world, or are they bringing something else?

So if we really mean what we say in those wishes for peace and good will, let's each try to change our individual and societal behaviors to be that way -- peaceful, and merciful, and of good will toward all people. Merry Christmas now and all year long!


I've just read Amy Domini's book, SOCIALLY RESONSIBLE INVESTING: Making a Difference and Making Money. (Chicago: Dearborn Trade, 2001) As I understand it, investing in a socially responsible way means earning an acceptable return on our money, without hurting other people or damaging our environment.

Within the faith-based world, socially responsible investing (SRI) dates back more than 200 years, with Quaker immigrants arguing against investing in war and the Methodists managing their money using what is known in modern investment lingo as “social screens.”" Sure enough, Domini begins her discussion of the history of SRI referring to John Wesley's 50th sermon, "The Use of Money," based in Luke 16:9. My Methodist friends frequently remind me of one part of that sermon: "Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can." 

But I hadn't heard from them about the limits Wesley placed on how to make those gains. Wesley said:

"We cannot, if we love everyone as ourselves, hurt anyone in his substance. We cannot devour the increase of his lands, and perhaps the lands and houses themselves, by gaming, by overgrown [sic] bills ... or by requiring or taking such interest as even the laws of our country forbid. We cannot, consistent with brotherly love, sell our goods below the market price; we cannot study to ruin our neighbour's trade, in order to advance our own; much less can we entice away or receive any of his servants or workmen whom he has need of.

"Neither may we gain by hurting our neighbour in his body. Therefore we may not sell anything which tends to impair health.

"[Nor should we can gain by] hurting our neighbour in his soul by ministering either directly or indirectly, to his unchastity, or intemperance, which certainly none can do, who has any fear of God, or any real desire of pleasing Him. You can read the entire sermon here.

In Islam, similar principles apply, allowing only ethical investing, and moral purchasing. For example, "Investing in businesses that provide goods or services considered contrary to Islamic principles is ... sinful and prohibited." These are not acceptable: Transactions exclude those involving alcohol, pork, gambling, etc. or businesses that produce media such as gossip columns or pornography. See

About gambling: Shariah law prohibits contracts which depend on uncertain future events or other speculative transactions. Both concepts involve excessive risk and are supposed to foster uncertainty and fraudulent behavior. One of the world's leading experts on Islamic finance, Sheikh Hussain Hassan, argues the whole crisis in Western banking could have been avoided if these basic sharia principles had been followed. He said: "$600 trillion were wasted on options, futures and derivatives, all gambling. Sharia prohibited these kind of risks 14 centuries back."

"Within the Jewish community," writes Tamar Snyder, "many investors are re-examining their investment portfolios with an eye toward not only financial gains but also social impact." Snyder reminds us that, "One of every $9 under professional financial management in the United States is involved now in socially responsible investing — investments that take into consideration not just the financial but also the social and environmental consequences of investments."

I urge us all to review our investments, to assure that they reflect the faith we profess. I believe we can earn fair returns on our capital while protecting our neighbors (world-wide), developing our communities, and caring for our environments.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Last time, I asked, "How should we behave toward our fellow human beings who are less fortunate than we?" I want to explore a related question this month. How do we become "ethical"? Where do we learn ethical behavior? Who or what teaches us respect for the other person?

The Abrahamic traditions benefit from a long and rich history of values development. Most of us recognize the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, and Deuteronomy 5) given to Moses as a main basis for how we should relate to God and to one another.

I have a long-standing interest in the substance of the book of Proverbs, because it represents (for me) the distillation of our common sense about how our behaviors affect our lives and those around us. I remember hearing bits of the Book of Proverbs quoted in my home when I was growing up. Perhaps you do too. So I credit that Book as one source of my own training toward "right behavior."

Part of the "Books of Truth" section of the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs provides a basis for the education of young Jews. Its influence reaches more broadly, too, as it forms part of the basis of the values of Christianity and Islam. This is where we can find much good advice about how to behave with others. For example, Proverbs 1:10 says, "My son, if sinful men entice you, do not give in to them." The succeeding verses talk about ambushing someone, and taking his material possessions. Murder and theft are prohibited in the Ten Commandments, and the prohibition is reinforced here.

The Qur'an teaches the same lesson. In 5:105, we read, "Believers, guard your own souls. The person who has gone astray cannot hurt you if you are rightly guided." In both these teachings, we're warned to avoid following the lure of others whose behaviors do not reflect the scriptures' instructions.

Our Abrahamic traditions also teach justice -- fair treatment of others. For example, the Qur'an teaches that we should deal justly with all other people, regardless of how we feel about them. At 5:8, we read, "Do not allow your hatred for other men to turn you away from justice. Deal justly; that is nearer to true piety." And at 4:135, we see that Muslims are instructed to seek justice even when it goes against themselves or those they love: "Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor..."

Perhaps one of the most straight-forward instructions to act justly tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christians accept Jesus' teaching of the "greatest commandment" in Matthew 22:36-40 as the most fundamental statement of what it means to act like a Christian.

Proverbs 11:24-25 teaches us how to love our neighbors, saying that generosity toward others will be a reward in itself: "One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." And the Qur'an emphasizes that point too, at 2:177: "The righteous man is he who ... gives away his wealth to his kinsfolk, to orphans, to the helpless, to the traveler in need and to beggars, and for the redemption of captives..."

Generosity, justice, and adhering to your sense of what's right -- these lessons are taught in all of our holy scriptures. It's up to us to learn our lessons, and to act accordingly.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


How should we behave toward our fellow human beings who are less fortunate than we? In particular, what do we learn from our religious traditions about being generous to the poorer people in our communities? I have italicized a few of the words below, to emphasize them.

Some of our early teachings are found in the Torah, for example, in Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 10: "If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. . . Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to." (HOLY BIBLE, New International Version)

Proverbs 19:17: "He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done." (HOLY BIBLE, New International Version)

In Acts 20:35, Paul teaches us, "You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ” (HOLY BIBLE, New International Version)

Qur'an 2:267-272: "Believers, give in alms of the wealth you have lawfully earned; not worthless things which you yourselves would but reluctantly accept. . . To give alms in public is good, but to give alms to the poor in private is better . . . Whatever alms you give shall rebound to your own advantage, provided you give them for the love of God. And whatever alms you give shall be paid back to you in full: you shall not be wronged." (NOBLE QUR'AN, translated by N.J. Dawood)

To whom should we give? The poor. Jesus told the rich young man to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. (Matthew 19:16-30, Luke 18:18-30, Mark 10:17-31) And how should we give? Qur'an 76:8-9: ". . . [servants of God], though they hold it dear, give sustenance to the poor man, the orphan, and the captive, saying, 'We feed you for God's sake only; we seek of you neither recompense nor thanks.' " (NOBLE QUR'AN, translated by N.J. Dawood)

From Deuteronomy 15:11, "There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land." (HOLY BIBLE, New International Version)

And from the Qur'an 4:36-37: "Be kind to parents, and the near kinsman, and to orphans, and to the needy, and to the neighbor who is of kin, and to the neighbor who is a stranger, and to the companion at your side, and to the traveler, and to [slaves] that your right hands own. Surely God loves not the proud and boastful such as are niggardly, and bid other men to be niggardly, and themselves conceal the bounty that God has given them." (NOBLE QUR'AN, translated by N.J. Dawood)

All of these Abrahamic scriptures teach us to give, cheerfully, to the poor, from our abundance; and God will bless us for sharing and giving.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


A friend recently told me about the book, SOULS IN TRANSITION, in which the authors, Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, suggest that students today are less skeptical about religion than in the past, but also less interested: “Liberal Protestantism’s core values –individualism, pluralism, emancipation, tolerance, free critical inquiry, and the authority of human experience—have come to so permeate broader American culture, that its own churches as organizations have difficulty surviving.”

Do those students -- less skeptical and less interested in religion -- represent the larger population? Are we all becoming less invested in those religious institutions? The decline in interest in the organizations seems real enough. "The United Methodist Church’s U.S. membership has continued to shrink, ... membership decline tracks with that of other mainline denominations since 1966." ( Similarly, "According to this year’s National Rabbinic Survey, declining involvement in Jewish activities was cited as the most pressing issue." (For more on this, see I think reformed Judaism in America shares liberal Protestantism’s values.

 Decline in membership among the mainline (liberal) churches implies that people spend less of their time, money, and energy on those religion-centered activities -- going to church (mosque/synagogue) or going on missions; supporting the church/mosque/synagogue's programs with their time and money; attending religion-affiliated schools and colleges; etc. Such decreases certainly threaten the continued strength of those institutions.

If liberal values are responsible for the declines of mainline Protestant church membership and involvement in Jewish activities in America, can those liberal organizations survive? How? Must they resort to preaching less tolerance and pluralism? Squelch free inquiry? In short, be less liberal?

Imagine what we'd have if our churches and synagogues did that. How would it be in our communities if our fellow citizens rejected pluralism, accepting only traditions exactly like theirs/ours? How would it be if we couldn't explore other beliefs, or try out new ways of worship, or allow different kinds of people into their/our church hierarchies? In fact, we do have some of those conditions now, here. People of one faith want to destroy the written holy scriptures of another faith, or deny them the ability to build their worship and service buildings in certain places, or refuse membership or leadership positions based on gender or gender-orientation. Some faiths claim that their ways are the only right ones; other ways are wrong, or worse.

Total church membership may not be declining. According to the WASHINGTON TIMES newspaper (, overall membership among the largest 25 denominations in the USA rose by about one half of one percent from 2009 to 2010. Also, the number of new mosques in the country is increasing very rapidly.

What does this all mean for the broader American culture if liberal Protestant and Jewish institutions decline and the remaining (presumably less liberal) ones grow? Who will teach those liberal values? Ultimately, will "liberal Protestantism’s" core values be lost?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


I saw this sign on an airport wall recently: THE WORD "FOREIGN" IS LOSING ITS MEANING. The sign advertized the latest long list of cities outside the USA to which this particular airline flies.

What does "foreign" mean in our global environment? An on-line dictionary gives twelve definitions. Did that airport sign mean to convey that the word "foreign" is losing all its twelve meanings? Let's consider just two of the definitions: "strange or unfamiliar," and "of another country or nation."

My granddaughter studied in Europe as an undergraduate student. After graduation, she lived in Korea, and now she plans to spend this summer in Europe again. She lived in places which, at first, she found "strange or unfamiliar," but to which she soon acclimated. That is, those places lost their strangeness and became familiar to her. It's as Nicole Frehsee reminds us in "Twain Tracks," published in Hemispheres Magazine, March 2012, page 23: Mark Twain wrote that, "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness."

Our world often gives us mixed messages. Unlike the airline's encouraging sign on the wall, traditional religious teachings may discourage "getting to know them." In the Old Testament (called by some the "Hebrew Bible" or "Jewish Bible") we find many references to "foreigners." For example, in the Torah, where many commandments are found, we read in Genesis 17, "Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, ... shall surely be circumcised." Could it be that foreign males might be changed from foreigners to people "like us" by the ritual of circumcision?

In still another example, the last two chapters of Ezra report how that prophet dealt with the great sin of "not [keeping] themselves separate from the neighboring peoples...We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us." It seems that God had commanded the Israelites not to "give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons."

In Luke 10: 33-37, Jesus, a Jew, tells the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, a member of the minority, someone who might have been considered a "foreigner" to the majority of Israelites. In fact, Jesus referred to Samaritans as foreigners (Luke 17:18). In Matthew 10: 5-6, Jesus sends out the 12 disciples saying, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." He seems to be saying, "Avoid those foreigners."

But in Genesis 23, Abraham negotiates with foreigners to buy a burial plot for Sarah. As a result, that place became less foreign for him and his family. The book of Ruth tells us how she, as a foreigner, earns acceptance and becomes part of King David's lineage.

As my granddaughter has done, both Abraham and Ruth got past the "strange and unfamiliar." It is true for me and for others I've known, and maybe for you too: As we come in contact with foreign people, practices, customs, beliefs and worship traditions previously unfamiliar to us, they feel no longer so strange or different, but increasingly comfortable. We come to "know" them. In that sense, the word "foreign" really can lose that part of its meaning. So maybe the airline with its sign, and Mark Twain, are right: Going there and meeting those who are strange, unfamiliar, or from another nation or country, can reduce our prejudice and narrow-mindedness.