Thursday, December 15, 2011

Palestinian family afflicted, yet committed to peace

Published: Saturday, December 10, 2011

SINCE 1916, a vineyard on a fertile hilltop southwest of Bethlehem has been the home of the Nassars, a Palestinian Christian family.

On this 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I am thinking of Daoud and Daher Nassar, brothers who carry on their grandfather’s legacy. In the face of daunting challenges, the Nassars are exemplars of dignity and faith. Painted on a stone at the vineyard’s entrance gate is a greeting — in Arabic, Hebrew and English — that says it all: We refuse to be enemies.

The West Bank vineyard is surrounded by Israeli settlements atop encircling

hills. Despite papers documenting their ownership, the family has spent the past 20 years and more than $150,000 in courts defending their claim to the acreage. Israel continues to contest their claim.

All the while, the Nassars have faced intimidation and isolation. Electricity and public water have been cut off. The government has denied permits for new construction and repeatedly has threatened to demolish the modest existing structures.

Settlers have uprooted or cut down hundreds of the Nassars’ olive trees. With guns in hand, some settlers have come to the vineyard and said, “God gave us this land and that’s why it is ours, not yours.” The access road has been blocked by huge boulders and rubble.

I met Daoud and Daher Nassar last month during a trip. The night before my visit, Israeli soldiers bulldozed yet more boulders to refresh the barricade. These brothers impress me as living icons of St. Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken.” (2 Cor. 4:8)

But they refuse to be enemies and are committed to love without borders or barricades. When settlers appear with guns, the Nassars tell them to leave their guns outside the fence and invite them into the vineyard. For every olive tree that settlers cut down, the Nassars plant 10 seedlings donated to them by European Jews for a Just Peace.

When removed from the power grid, they turned to a diesel generator, solar panels and, soon, a wind turbine. Lacking public water, they have built composting toilets and several cisterns. Their goal is self-sufficiency. Prohibited from building up, they dig down, living in caves the family lived in during the early decades and, now, in newer ones.

The Nassars’ wisdom is expressed through the name they have chosen for the peace and justice institute they have started at the vineyard: Tent of Nations. They envision all respecting the rights of all, sharing bounty and at peace and unafraid.

“Any day you want to, come here,” Daher Nassar said before I left. “This place is open for all people. This is your place. You are welcome.”

May we all learn to practice such all-embracing hospitality.

The Rev. Allie Perry is the worship coordinator of Shalom United Church of Christ, New Haven, and a member of the steering committee of Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice. Write to her in care of the Register, 40 Sargent Drive, New Haven 06511. Email:

Catholics change liturgy, but words still inadequate in expressing faith

Published: Saturday, December 03, 2011

LAST weekend, Roman Catholic congregations in the English speaking parts of the world began using the revised text of the third edition of the Roman Missal. It altered in significant ways the words Catholics use at their celebration of the Eucharist.

Announcements from church leaders and teachers went to great lengths to emphasize that Mass, the core of Catholic worship and practice, remained what it has been from the earliest days of the church. Nonetheless, the impact of the changes was very evident.

Many found themselves referring to books and cards to guide them in prayer. Familiar routines often gave way to clumsy transitions and awkward silences. Like most changes, some people were enthusiastic about them, others were much less so.

The prevailing attitude in the congregation where I worship seemed to be a kind of bemused acceptance and an edifying “we can do this” spirit. There seems little doubt that after a brief period the changes will become more and more familiar and the transitions and silences will smooth themselves out.

Beginning to use a new ritual book in any religious tradition raises important questions about the language people use in worship and prayer. Liturgy, the many ways that believers publicly and privately give voice to their efforts to approach the mysterious reality that guides their lives, is an essential element in spiritual practice and self-understanding.

Scholars often point out the word “liturgy” has origins in the Greek word for work. Liturgy represents part of the work of being a person of faith. It is our effort to put ourselves in the right relationship with that which we worship so that we can better serve our world and one another.

People of faith must recognize the limitations of even the finest liturgies and most eloquent prayers. Language has given rise to the eloquent longings for meaning and significance that are to be found in the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible’s Psalms and the Gospels. Even here, people of faith come to know the limits of what we can say and write about the object of our worship.

Our expressions of faith will always be inadequate to describe the source of all we know and love, that which provides our lives with significance, that which calls us to serve others. There comes a point when silence becomes the most eloquent expression of our faith.

Martin J. O’Connor is the Oscar Schindler humanities professor at the University of New Haven and parish deacon at St. Bernadette Parish in New Haven. Write to him at the University of New Haven, 300 Boston Post Road, West Haven 06516. Email:

Revive the religious aspect of Thanksgiving

Published: Saturday, November 26, 2011

THANKSGIVING Day 2011 is now a matter of history. Memories replace the anticipation of a sumptuous meal and the gathering of family members and friends.

Regularly scheduled television programming returns after the continuous stream of football games and floats from the Macy’s parade come to an end.

Black Friday is over, too, for those who wanted to start their Christmas shopping early. In response, I staged my own protest. Getting up early in the morning — this year some stores opened at midnight — to find the best sale was a temptation easy to resist. More importantly, I was and continue to be unwilling to make such a quick transition from the day explicitly devoted to giving thanks. This message is so easy to get lost.

Sarah Josepha Hale held a similar view more than 140 years ago. Knowing that celebrations were held across the country at various times of the year, she attempted unsuccessfully to convince six presidents to establish a nationally recognized holiday.

Not defeated, she wrote to President Abraham Lincoln. He embraced the idea and selected the last Thursday in November for that purpose. His first proclamation in 1863 included some of the following words:

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of almighty God.”

Thanksgiving Day was changed in 1941 to be observed on the fourth Thursday in November. Since then, every president has offered similar proclamations. It is now an American custom and institution. In its articulation and practice, Thanksgiving Day has become more of a secular holiday.

In the process, the original message has gotten lost. The bounties have been forgotten or, at least, taken for granted. The sense of deep gratefulness and gratitude for blessings received is missing from many tables. More than that, though, the religious nature of the holiday has become less prominent.

Reclaiming it is a worthy undertaking because there is much for which to be thankful. From A to Z, here’s a list: ability, beauty, children, daily bread, electricity, family, grace, health, ice cream, jobs, kindness, laughter, mothers, neighbors, opportunity, purpose, quiet, rest, survival, talent, understanding, voice, water, X-rays, years and zeniths. Each of us can develop our own list.

At the top of mine is almighty God, the source from which all blessings flow. They come all the time and in all ways, despite our troubles, foibles, frailties and imperfections. For this reason, every day is Thanksgiving Day and each day is a day to give thanks to God.

The Rev. Bonita Grubbs is executive director of Christian Community Action, 168 Davenport Ave., New Haven 06519. E-mail:

Completely love God and you will have what you need

When you live completely for God, you have what you need

DURING the 17th century, a man known as Brother Lawrence wrote a book, “The Practice of the Presence of God.”

Its point is that we should be aware of the presence of God at all times and in all things, and this should guide us in everything we do. Lawrence made it his practice to converse silently with God throughout all his daily activities.

We are not like him. To us, God is like a genie in a bottle, forgotten and on the shelf most of the time. Come a crisis, and we reach for him, rub him and wait for his magic. We talk about God when it’s expected and convenient, but we don’t live for God throughout our day.

When we’re driving and someone cuts us off and we’re ready to curse at them through the window, are we aware that God is with us? When we give less than our best at work, are we aware that God is with us? When we yell at our spouse or our kids because we’ve had a bad day, are we aware that God is with us? When we make public statements that are deceptive or outright lies, are we aware that God is with us? When we’re married and we’re “spending time” with someone who isn’t our spouse, are we aware that God is with us?

The point is that our relationship with God isn’t some trinket we wear like a bracelet to show off to others, then throw it in a drawer when we’re done. Our relationship with God is meant to be the air we breathe with each breath. It’s meant to sustain us and keep us going during the worst times, while giving us a reason to feel a sense of awe and gratitude during the best times.

If we’re serious about our relationship with God, sooner or later it has to be reflected in how we live our lives. I’m talking about when we’re at home dealing with familial conflict, when we’re at work figuring out how to carry out our daily responsibilities, when we’re at school and we’re dealing with bullies, teachers and peer pressure, and when we’re in the community dealing with those, some good and some not so good, on our block.

We will make mistakes, but our relationship with God will guide us. It will guide us to sincerely admit both to God and those we’ve harmed that we’ve done wrong, and then strive to be better. Some will accept our apology and others will not, but it’s not about how others react. It’s about whether we’re doing what we believe God wants us to do, regardless of how others react.

When you learn to practice the presence of God at all times and in all things, you become the most dangerous person alive. When you live completely for God, you can’t be bribed, pressured or threatened. You have what you need, God.

The Rev. Dr. Eric B. Smith is pastor of The Adoni Spiritual Formation Center, P.0. Box 3534, New Haven 06525. Email: