By Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC
©Doug Slagle, 2010; all rights reserved.

Dave Barry, a classic American humorist, once wrote in a column about the month of December:

“In the old days, it was not called the Holiday Season; Christians called it “Christmas” and went to church; Jews called it “Hanukkah” and went to synagogue; atheists went to parties and drank a lot of booze. People passing each other on the street would say “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Hanukkah!” or, to the atheists, “Look out for that wall!”

And here we are today, deep into what many, in an ecumenical spirit, call the holiday season.  Just last evening at sunset, Jewish people began their eight day celebration of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

I recall that when I was growing up, I was jealous of my Jewish friends who got to enjoy eight days of receiving gifts instead of my one.  I thought at the time that it would be wonderful to have eight Christmas mornings when my sister, brother and I would awake at 5 AM and beg our parents to get up so we could see what Santa had brought.

Eight Crhistmases in a row seemed like a child’s delight and a parent’s nightmare!  But, of course, Hanukkah was more then just gift receiving – and sensible Jewish Santas spread out their gifts over the eight nights – one night a pair of socks, another night some pairs of underwear and perhaps one night a new bike!

Hanukkah has been passed down through the ages to Jews and gentiles alike as a celebration of a seemingly inconsequential miracle.

It is, however, an opportunity for those of the Jewish faith to come together and remember their survival as a culture over centuries of hardship and outright persecution at the hands of non-Jews.

Hanukkah began around 150 BCE (before the common era) as a way to commemorate how the Jerusalem Temple lamps burned for eight days and nights on what seemed to be only one day’s worth of lamp oil.

Written in the Jewish Torah and in the Christian Old Testament book of Exodus, are commands from God detailing how his dwelling place – the Temple –  must be equipped.

In that regard, a Temple lamp was be constantly lit not only for practical purposes but to symbolically indicate that the shekinah glory of God shined forever.

Around approximately 150 BCE, Jews revolted against the tyrannical rule of Israel by the Selucid empire under the leadership of Antiochus Epiphanes.

Antiochus was an especially brutal dictator who took delight in taunting Jews.  He demolished the inside of the Jewish Temple, erected statues of his gods and even had pigs slaughtered on the altar.

For observant Jews, this was too much.  The Temple was God’s dwelling place –

it was known as the Holy of Holies –

and to desecrate it with images of others gods and goddesses and to profane it with pigs –       a distinctly forbidden and impure animal to Jewish people –       could not go unchallenged.

Under the leadership of the Maccabee brothers, the Jewish rebellion eventually defeated Antiochus and recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple.

In their immediate rush to rededicate the Temple, Jews re-lit the lamps and found that there was only enough consecrated, holy oil to keep them lit for one day.

According to Jewish law, Temple oil had to be processed in a manner that kept it pure and holy – this time period took eight days.

Miraculously, the Temple lamps stayed lit until enough holy oil was made.  God’s glory within the Temple was not only restored but it remained lit without being dimmed.

To the Jews of the time, this was a miracle worthy of an annual commemoration.  God remained faithful to his people once again.

Hanukkah was not a major Jewish festival or holiday, however, until hundreds of years into the first millennium.  Some commentators assume that it gained stature and prominence in the Jewish calendar of celebrations as a counter to the predominance of Christmas.

Why let all the gentiles have all the fun?

Nevertheless, its hallmarks for Jews are its celebration of light, of faith and of belief in miracles.

Unlike Hanukkah which had its origins in ancient history, Kwanzaa is a twentieth century phenomenon.  It originated in response to a need to affirm, especially in non-African nations, the cultural roots of black people.

First proposed by an American professor of Pan-African studies, the holiday celebrates seven traditional African principles of

unity,          faith,                   economic cooperation,          personal responsibility,          self-determination,          common purpose and creativity.

To symbolize such principles, African motifs such as fruits of the harvest,          ears of corn,         candles,                   and a common chalice are all employed.

This year, as in every year, Kwanzaa begins on December 26th and extends for one week to January 1st.  For African-Americans this Kwanzaa must well be the summit of four hundred years of their American experience –

from slave ship to          plantation to          segregation to          civil rights to          today, a black American President and his family –          how can we not all rejoice in this unique story of a proud culture, vibrant and alive today despite its historic struggles –          much like the Jewish people?           Such is the spirit of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

  • For us then, what importance should we give to these holidays?
  • Do we simply respect them as celebrations by worthy and proud religions and cultures?
  • Do they offer us insights into the universal Truths we seek?

Much like we often study Jesus and his teachings, should we examine a holiday like Hanukkah?

For practical reasons, I believe we should.  Why should we not understand and share with our Jewish brothers and sisters – or our African-American friends, the meaning of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa?

Even further, I believe the symbols and meanings of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa have universal principles that have equal validity and importance as those of Christmas.

As we celebrate here the idea that there are many pathways to God –

exemplified by our poster depicting Abraham, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, Confucius and Christ dancing together under the Divine light –

I propose that Hanukkah and Kwanzaa offer us glimpses of the Divine.

We can see the God force in all of its mysterious wonder by reflecting on the symbolic meanings of light,                   of miracles and          of faith in our own lives.

As we all know, Jewish history is one of repeated persecutions culminating in the holocaust of our recent past.  Throughout their history, light has been a motif and symbol for the defeat of evil and darkness.

  • It is not cliche but simple truth that where one candle shines in the blackest of nights, there is no darkness.

For those who celebrate Kwanzaa, like Hanukkah, candles symbolize hope, victory, destiny and goodness.

It is no wonder that Kwanzaa too, is symbolized by lighting seven candles, originated in the dark but promising days of 1960’s America when lynchings still took place, when those of color sat at the back of the bus and when brave men and women fought for equality.

For us, too, light has symbolic meaning.  Jesus called for people to let their light shine so that others may see the goodness and love inherent in them.

We see light, too, as that force that illumines injustice and advances truth.  In this regard, we are to shine the truth about ourselves,

  • we are to reveal our inner goodness and
  • we are to embrace that which is good.

As we move into and dwell within symbolic light, we reject the darkness inside ourselves – our fears,          doubts,          flaws and inconsistencies.

In Hanukkah, the Jews celebrate the miracle of light – of hope for the future and a rejection of evil and hate.  In ourselves, we must embrace the promise of hope,          the destiny of a better world and the determination that our light makes a difference.

Like the Jews celebrating Hanukkah or African-Americans celebrating Kwanzaa, we are all children of the light.

We are all children of the Divine, of a God so beautiful and wondrous that his and her existence is in every heart – yearning to shower love on others,                   crying at pain and hatred,                   rejoicing in acts of mercy,                   protesting injustice and          shining forth the truth that good is more powerful then evil.

Just as Jesus said, “I am the light of the world”, so are we to echo his words.  We are each lights of the world – beacons to one another, to our families and to the many other lives we touch.

Marianne Williamson, the contemporary Christian writer says, “As we become purer channels for God’s light, we develop an appetite for the sweetness that is possible in this world. A miracle worker is not geared toward fighting the world that is, but toward creating the world that could be.

Have not the Jews created an ethic and a determination to make themselves safe from hatred and persecution?

Have not blacks struggled to do so as well?

Do many groups today still not fight against forces of darkness – of prejudice, lies, fear and intolerance?

Do gay men and women everywhere not light a candle of hope for acceptance and equality every day of year?

Do those living in poverty not yearn for a light of fairness in a world filled with too much greed?

In this regard, how might we be channels of Divine light?  To the naysayer who sees only evil,          to the doubter who cowers in fear at his or her own abilities,          to the one who denies mystery and the supernatural force of love and cooperation,          can there be a miracle of light?

Can we work for continued triumphs of good over evil?

Can we each be self-aware enough and self-loving enough to see the contributions we can offer others?

Can we shine a light into the darkness of our fears?  Should we not risk everything to love and be loved?

Jesus also taught “No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.  Make your light shine so that others will see it…

For many of us who fear our own capabilities, who wonder if we can make a difference, Jesus’ words are prophetic.

Imagine the consequences in history had not key men and women summoned the courage to shine forth their abilities and their moral imagination to create a better world?

Where would we be today had a timid Jesus lived,                   or a doubting Buddha,         or reluctant Joan of Arc,          a fearful Michaelangelo,          a shy Jefferson,                  retiring Lincoln,          unwilling Susan B. Anthony or          indifferent Martin Luther King?

For myself, life has been a constant effort to summon the courage to let my light shine.  All of you know of my closeted history and some of you may also know of my conservative religious past.

In many ways, both personally and professionally, I have had to overcome my own inner obstacles and my own inner inclinations to hide myself and my light.

Taking on this role as a Pastor is both a fulfillment of many dreams, but it has also been one that occasionally gets clouded by fear.  As Ed can attest, he frequently serves as my encourager and supporter.

If anything, Ed champions me in subtle and quiet ways –          allowing me to be who I am and to express my own thoughts and ideas – all the while telling me that I have value and that I need not shrink from exposing my light to the world.

Just as we can look at a history written on the big stage, we can also examine the smaller stages as well.

  • What would exist of the Gathering without the vision of many of you?
  • Or the ability to read given to a young man tutored by a volunteer mentor?
  • Or a homeless man getting bus fare to his new job because of the courage and generosity of others?
  • The counseling of troubled souls by those who advocate for them?
  • The racial divide crossed by the bravery of a few?
  • The child nurtured and loved by countless mothers?

Where would we be without the countless ways each of us touch and care and have impact in other lives?

How beautiful is this little world of ours because so many do not fear to get involved…to light a candle in the darkness of life.

Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are commemorations of courage over fear, justice instead of hate, good defeating evil.

And they are holidays of the miraculous – simple miracles really – lamp oil lasting for eight days and a college professor calling forth black pride.  But these holidays, in their simple miracles, point to everyday miracles as well.

I do not argue for the objective, supernatural miracles of which literal readers of the Bible often celebrate –          the sun standing still, or babies born to virgins or          dead people returning to life.

I refer, instead, to the simple miracles of which I spoke above – miracles we create with our own personal light –          miracles of touch,          of healing,          of love,          devotion and          idealism.

In this regard, just as we have a light within ourselves that we are to shine without fear or doubt, we have the power to create miracles.

Jesus said at one point in his teaching that “You are all gods” and

in this meaning, he emphasized that we are our own source of truth, we have divinity within ourselves in our own moral imagination,

we possess the power to heal and to love and to touch and impact the lives of others.

Each of us have this divine spark to create hundreds of miracles.  And the greatest of our own possible miracles is that of saving ourselves – redeeming and resurrecting our very nature.

In one of the gnostic gospels – those that are not within the sanctioned Bible – Jesus is quoted as saying “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.”

Marianne Williamson again writes that, “Miracles occur naturally as expressions of love.  The real miracle is the love that inspires them.  In this sense, everything that comes from love is a miracle.”

I propose that love is an essential ingredient in life.  Without it, we not only wither and suffer emotionally and psychologically, we are diminished physically.

Many of you may recall the experiments done with baby monkeys – some of whom are left in the care of their mothers to receive the touch, nurture and maternal love that comes naturally.

Others were separated from their mothers and were placed, instead, only with a wire and cloth facsimile of an adult monkey.  This wire monkey could not nurture,          love,                   groom and                   care for the baby even though all of its basic physical needs were provided.

Without the love of a mother, the babies became withdrawn, fearful at the approach of others and severely depressed.

Sociologists and psychologists have concluded that without experiences of genuine love, we as humans suffer profoundly – we become anti-social,          depressed,          withdrawn,                   frequently angry and violent.

And the same is true if we are not able to express love to others.  It is not an exageration to say that love is our emotional and psychological oxygen.  With it, we thrive.  Without it, we die.

Can we offer to others – to the wider world – a miracle of love?  Love cannot be complacent,          inattentive or          frequently withheld.  It should be generous,          abundant and          overflowing.

What miracles of love do we each have within us – both to give and to receive?  And this is not simple or facile love.  It is love that requires work, thought, attention and effort.

It is love that does not count its cost, fear its loss or consider its advantages.  It is wasteful and profligate.

We must love one another as if we will never be hurt, never be abandoned and never look like a fool.  Indeed, love pursued is never a bad thing – it is good, healthy and wise.

Let us – with all of our differences of opinion and all of our differences of background, gender, sexuality and ethnicity – so love one another that it is a miracle!

In this season of holidays, in this eight days of Hanukkah, in the advent of Christmas and of Kwanzaa,                   let love so guide us and motivate us in our actions towards each other and towards the outside world that we amaze ourselves with love’s power and its miraculous, light shining beauty.

And one tangible way I propose to extend love is to reach out with one of our simplest of gifts – the miracle and power of touch.

Through acts of a simple pat on the back, a gentle resting of the hand on a shoulder, or a deep and loving hug, touch carries the power of healing.  It has been shown to

  • boost our immune systems,
  • conquer depression,
  • lower our brain levels of stress and
  • improve our moods.

The Hanukkah lamp story is a simple miracle.  The power of love and touch is seemingly simple and overly cliche.  We all know that love is good and a hug is nice.

But how often do we genuinely contemplate and meditate on their true affect on ourselves and others?

Love someone with abandon today.  Extend your touch to another without fear or doubt or reluctance.

Let such lights be lit in ourselves – miraculous lights that heal wounded souls,                   lift sorrowful spirits and          abundantly pour out the divine god we harbor within each and every one of us.

If we are to shine our light and thereby create our own miracles, how do we move beyond such tasks and truly appreciate the historic tradition of Hanukkah?

It is, for Jews around the world, a celebration of faith in their ancient religion, their traditions and in themselves as a people and culture.

But what do we make of faith?  Is it, in today’s increasingly secular world, a dirty word?  How is it possible that we should have faith in long ago stories or in a supernatural God we can neither see, touch or hear?

I believe that faith is essential to us and, as much as I struggle with the concept, I find that if I untie the sure moorings of my faith and cast myself entirely upon a sea of reason and logic, I am lost and without a reference point for understanding the mysteries of the universe.

As I have briefly alluded to in my messages over the past month, my faith journey has been marked by some unique twists and turns.

Bill Jamison told of his faith journey two weeks ago and it is not unlike yours or mine in its unique character.

I grew up in an essentially faithless environment.  My parents were products of a generation who fought the depression and World War Two.  That greatest of generations, as we have called them, had faith in themselves.

So my grandparents passed this non-religious faith to my parents who chose to have none and who therefore raised me and my two siblings with very little religion or spirituality.

And that left me somewhat adrift as I grew up and tried to reconcile myself as a man and as an adult faced with responsibilities of a wife and two daughters.           What is truth?           What is good and what is evil?           Are these relative terms or are there, somewhere, universal truths we can all seek?

Over twelve years ago, due largely to those questions as well as my personal struggle with an inner gay identity, I began going to church intrigued with the ideas of forgiveness and redemption.

In my inner sense of shame, these notions were hugely attractive to me.

Increasingly, I was drawn into a Christian church life until, finally, I believed that I had the epiphany that conservative Christians continually seek to promote in their children and in adult non-believers.                    I believed I became born again.

This was an emotional response to the appeal of a Jesus who is said to have died for my personal sins and who loves me so much that he offered himself so that I might, if I believe in him, have eternal forgiveness and right standing with God.

Without belaboring this story too much, I dove into Christianity head first, soon attended seminary and later befriended influential Cincinnati Christians who, along with the Crossroads church, decided to start a similar church in Indian Hill.  Let’s evangelize to the rich and powerful as that thinking went and still does today.

I was hired as a Pastor in charge of Pastoral Care, which I loved.  In what became a fairly large church of almost a thousand people, I was often visiting hospitals and nursing homes offering myself,

a listening ear and prayer.

I performed many marriages and I officiated at quite a few funerals.  I was the Pastor doing work that many Pastors do not enjoy.  I was, more often than not, engaged in sad or distressing  work.

To get to the point of my personal story, though, my faith became increasingly troubled.                    I did not have to preach the doctrines of my conservative church so I was not faced with outright hypocrisy.  But my inner turmoil was strong.

I saw what I believe is conservative Christian hypocrisy.  I saw an absolute devotion to certain Biblical texts but indifference or silent rejection of others.           I saw many things that concerned me and led me to lose faith in the reality of being born again.

I do not wish to disparage all of those I served or were in church with, but evangelical Christianity seemed, in so many ways, unlike the Jesus it worships and unlike the moral force it wants to be.

I also encountered doubts about the truths of conservative Christian faith.           How true are most parts of the Bible?                    Can it not be read with a desire for insight and enlightenment instead of dogmatic certainty that every word is the holy breath of God?

As my story goes, I came out as a gay man almost five years ago, I was promptly told to either get conversion therapy and become ex-gay, or to resign.

I chose the latter and was quickly ignored and shunned by former associates and friends.  I was the same man I had always been but the loss of many former Christian friends caused me to develop an even greater doubt in my faith and in the truths of Christianity.

And, eventually, I found my way here where I found not only acceptance and love, but also a brand of faith that is questioning, rooted in rational thinking,                   focused on social justice and never so sure of itself that it cannot change.

In my spiritual path since coming to the Gathering though, I have come back from the edge of becoming someone without belief.

Ration and reason are absolutely important.  We have been given these abilities and we must use them.

As I said in my message to you back in August, it is by thinking that we can discover truth.

But, how far can thinking take us?   In what is often called a battle between logos –          or reason,                   and mythos – or mystery,          I had plunged too far into logos.

My past experiences told me that mythos or religion was not solid, was based on man-made stories and could not be relied upon.

Over the past year or two, I have moderated that thinking – and my search for truth continues even now.  I do not have all the answers and I am on that journey with all of you.

But, just as Jews today celebrate their ancient faith, and African-Americans celebrate faith in themselves and in their battle for justice, I too must find a faith to celebrate.

And I choose a faith in the mysteries of life that cannot be rationalized.           And this is the faith of the Jews in Hanukkah or blacks in Kwanzaa.           It is faith in the God force alive in each person – in the mysteries of love that defy bio-chemical or rational explanation.

It is faith in acts of altruism that are sacrificial, faith in people who come together in cooperation despite the seemingly easier path of hostility and aggression.

It is faith in the power of the unknown and unexplainable – where did the original piece of matter come from?  If the big bang created the universe, what caused the big bang?

It is faith in the mystery of that question,

  • in the mystery of our minds capable of meditation and deep reflection,
  • faith in love that is powerful,
  • faith in the human mind so unbelievably complex that even we do not understand its depths.

I choose, like the Jews in Hanukkah, to celebrate the mystery of light overpowering darkness and evil.

I choose, like them, to celebrate everyday miracles of which I spoke earlier.

I choose, like Jesus said, to have faith like a child.

And, it is that faith that we can celebrate today –          faith like the joyous Jews who rejoice in light,          in miracles and          in faith itself.

I remember, in this holiday season, a personal story that brought home for me the power of faith like a child.  On a mission trip to Mexico many years ago where I and others were to build homes for the poor, I recall a young girl of about five years in age who would occupy the home I was helping to construct.  She and her two parents lived in what was literally a cardboard shack, dirt floor and no electricity or plumbing.

While her mother worked around her meager house and her father went off to the sugar cane fields, the young girl sat outside near where we were working.

And throughout the five days we were there, this child played with her prize toys – a collection of old bottle caps – the kind we used to pry off of bottled soda – and used these as parts of her play world – as trucks, as people, as houses and cars and whatever.

She would laugh and talk to herself and move the caps around as if they were the real thing.           And this occupied her for hours.  She was a beautiful, dark haired, large eyed girl with a happy charm that indicated she had no idea she was missing anything in life that I might think is important.

This, for me, was a faith in life and joy and love that I still remember.  This little girl, so amused by simple bottle caps, was happier and more alive than I was or many other people are.

She may not have known about the faith of her family, but she had the faith that Jesus spoke of –          the faith of a child in simple things, in matters that she could not explain but                   for the fact that she could laugh and play and be loved and offer love in return.

This is simple, to be sure, but how can we celebrate the coming holidays with the faith of the Jews in Hanukkah and African-Americans in Kwanzaa?

It is, I believe, to find our inner light, to see the miracles that such light can create – through love and touch and faith – and pour it out.

When we focus on lots of shopping, getting and receiving gifts and doing all of our normal holiday busyness –          can we remember to have faith like a child?           To forget all of our logic and rationality and to simply live in joy, love and celebration?

Can we shine our lights,          exult in love,          reach out and          hug with abandon and          see the miracle of our very existence,          the happiness in all that we have,          the simplicity in everyday items and miracles?

  • Let us be a candle in a dark room.
  • Let us be a source of deep love for someone else.
  • Let us be a miracle to the world.
  • Let us be little children in the holidays ahead – happy, carefree and alive with wonder at mysteries and miracles all around us.

I wish you all a Happy Hanukkah.  Peace and joy to you…