Posted by: Susan Strouse | July 24, 2014

Why Are Christians So Mean? And Other Google Autosuggestions

autocompleteI didn’t even know what Google Autocomplete was until I started reading a bunch of recent articles about it – starting with a little paragraph by Arianna Huffington in the Huffington Post. It seems  that if you type in the words “why am” on Google, the Autocomplete genie will immediately offer you suggestions to complete your question. So I tried it. The first suggestion was: “why am I so tired?” The second: “why am I always tired?”  Hmm, what does that say about us?

But the article that really piqued my curiosity was Yasmine Hafiz’ Google Suggest Reveals the Internets’s Offensive Religious Stereotypes. So I started Googling. Naturally I began with my own denomination. I typed “Why are Lutherans” and immediately got: #1 “Why are Lutherans in the upper Midwest?” and #2 “Why are Lutherans wrong?”

Hmmph! #1, as a Lutheran from Southeastern Pennsylvania, I’m offended. And #2, as wrong as we can be sometimes, is that really the second most asked question?

So I continued and found:

  • Why are Episcopalians . . .
    #1 rich?
    #2 leaving the church?
  • Why are Presbyterians . . .
    #1 called the frozen chosen?
    #2 different?
  • Why are Methodists . . .
    #1 called Methodists?
    #2 wrong? (wrong like the Lutherans or their own brand of error?)
  • Why are Mormons . . .
    #1 so nice?
    #2 so weird? (is it weird to be nice?)
  • Why are Jews . .
    #1 persecuted?
    #2 so rich?  (as rich as the Episcopalians?)
  • Why are Muslims . . .
    #1 so angry?
    #2 countries so poor?
  • Why are Catholic  . . .
    #1 countries so poor?
    #2 churches closing?
  • Why are Atheists . . .
    #1 so angry?
    #2 so rude?  (maybe they can learn something from the Mormons)

But the one that really got to me was one thaimagest didn’t even get two suggestions, just one (as if it’s the one and only definitive answer:
Why are Christians . . .  so mean?
Ouch!

Oh, I get it; I really do. We have a lot of repenting to do for a lot of bad stuff. And if you listen only to the rantings of the Christian right, you’d have every reason to think that Christianity is one mean-spirited religion. Take, for instance, this quote from Ann Coulter: “I’m a Christian first, and a mean-spirited, bigoted conservative second, and don’t you ever forget it.” It’s hard for me to believe she and I profess the same religion.

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But seriously, is “mean” the only suggestion Google can come up with? Yeah, I know; it’s nothing personal. “Autocomplete predictions,” according to Google, “are automatically generated by an algorithm without any human involvement based on a number of objective factors, including how often past users have searched for a term.”

So does the blame falls on all the people who went on line to find out why the religion based on the teachings of a humble, non-violent, compassionate, inclusive, boundary-breaking, spirit-filled Jewish peasant has become . . . mean?

Does the blame fall on those so-called followers of Jesus who somehow have forgotten those teachings?

Does the blame fall on progressive Christians who have allowed our religion to be defined by the meanies?

Or should the question be: does the responsibility lie with progressive Christians being proactive in getting out the message of the humble, non-violent, compassionate, inclusive, boundary-breaking, spirit-filled Jesus we follow? And if that’s the question, then how do we become more proactive?

I suppose the first step is getting on Google and typing in the words: Why are Christians so  . . .

  • humble
  • non-violent
  • compassionate
  • inclusive
  • boundary-breaking
  • spirit-filled
  • and every other positive thing we know we can be.

No, it doesn’t mean that each and every Christian will exhibit all of those characteristics all of the time (we probably should add the word “human” to the list). But even with all our faults and errors, all of us aren’t mean all the time either.

So I say we go after that algorithm and teach it a thing or two. Why are Christians so . . .

Tag, you’re it.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Susan Strouse | July 19, 2014

Becoming Jewish Again for the First Time

jesus-in-hebrewJesus was a Jew.  “No duh,” you say.

The disciples were all Jews.  Again, “No duh.”

The earliest Christians were Jews.  No doubt you’re tired of these obvious observations.

They might seem obvious, and yet I have come to see the error of this assumption.  For the past week I’ve been listening to lectures and discussions led by Bishop John Shelby Spong. The summer session class at the Pacific School of Religion was Bishop Spong’s latest book,  The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. The title of Tuesday evening’s public lecture was Biblical Literalism: a Gentile Heresy.

The main point of it all was that we cannot read the gospels except through Jewish eyes. This isn’t a brand new idea. But in recent years, it’s been getting more attention. And I say it should get all the attention it deserves.IMG_0453

My awakening to the roots of anti-Semitism in Christian scripture, liturgy and hymnody began at a funeral I attended with a Jewish friend. The text from John, which I had read countless times at funerals and in church, hit me between the eyes with its exclusionary message: No one comes to the Father except through me.
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Thus began my problems with what was once a favorite hymn, I Am the Bread of Life. Some of the lyrics are:
Unless you eat
Of the flesh of the Son of Man
And drink of his blood,
And drink of his blood,
You shall not have life within you.
.
Really?!
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Then there’s the “bidding prayers” in the Good Friday liturgy, which include this prayer for Jews: Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God. Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and your teaching to Moses. Hear our prayers that the people you called and elected as your own may receive the fulfillment of the covenant’s promises. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
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I guess I should be grateful that the language has been softened from what it used to be (and I won’t even stoop to print it here), but I’m not. The prayer has to go.
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As Christians, we have a responsibility to deal with the scriptural basis for what Spong (I think rightly) calls a heresy. How can we read the references to “the Jews” in the gospels, as well as words put on Jewish lips by gospel writers, such as  “His blood be upon us and on our children” without putting them in their proper historical context of an inter-religious polemic?

Spong’s book is a good place to start. He’s done his academic homework, but it’s not an academic book. Like his other books, it’s very readable.
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I will say that I don’t agree with all of his conclusions. Nor would he expect everyone to agree with everything. Except for one thing: that Jesus, the disciples and the first Christians were Jews. We should treat them as such. And we should recover our own Jewish eyes if we are to see the non-exclusionary message of the life and death of Jesus and the power of the living  Christ (in the fullness of what that means) for all people.
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Shalom!

 

Posted by: Susan Strouse | July 12, 2014

25+ Years of My Love/Hate Relationship with the Church

July 9th was the 25th anniversary of my ordination. I’ll admit that it felt great to receive words of congratulation and appreciation from members of the four congregations I’ve served and from assorted friends and family. But it also felt weird – and not just because of the fact that it reminds me how old I am. It took me on a trip all the way back to the beginnings of what would become my life’s work.

People often ask when I knew I wanted to go into the ministry or if there was one specific moment of feeling “the call.” Those are difficult questions to answer because the process was so convoluted. There were bright and shining moments of clarity, but there were also dark days of struggle and despair. But I can’t wish that none of it had ever happened because it has all contributed to the person and pastor I am today.

Some of those bright/shining and struggle/despair moments came from the church. Like a parent, the church has the power to both love and affirm, but also to shame and abuse. I’ve experienced all of that.  And I believe that it is important to remember the painful parts of the story because they obligate me to reach out today to those who have been hurt by the church and tell them that healing and maybe even reconciliation is possible.

I also believe that it’s important to remember the good stuff because it obligates me also to remind us all of the good that we can do through this imperfect institution.

There are days I think I should just kiss the church good-bye. When I hear about a colleague getting emotionally battered by her congregation. When I see a young colleague burning out in her first year of ministry. When I get frustrated with the business of running an institution.

And then there are the days when the church is what the church is supposed to be. When compassion trumps doctrine. When justice trumps policy. When gospel trumps law. Those are the days I live for. And why I’ve stayed.

25 years! Unbelievable. But what a joy to hear from a kid from my first congregation, now with children of his own, to learn from another young man that it was because of me that he stayed in the church and now is there with his wife and kids, to hear stories of faith from so many people I love and admire.

Has it been worth it? Oh, yeah, it has.

Will I still get frustrated with the church at times?  No doubt.

Will I continue to work for reformation, healing and reconciliation? You betcha!

 

 

 

Posted by: Susan Strouse | July 5, 2014

Forget Hobby Lobby; How Can I Boycott SCOTUS?

hobby-lobby-justicesA lot of metaphorical ink has been spilled since the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case last week. Those who are outraged at the decision are calling for a boycott of the craft store chain. I’d have to drive 40 miles just to get to one of their stores. But the more I think about it, the less angry I am with Hobby Lobby. My outrage is directed at the Supreme Court (actually the 5 justices who think it’s appropriate for the government to make decisions that favor one religion over others or no religion at all) and I want to know how I can boycott them.

ruth_bader_ginsburg_ap_img

I know that’s a silly question. But the sentiment is real. What can we do when the highest court in the land has clearly gone off the rails? Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 35-page dissent says it all. For example: Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention. One can only wonder why the Court shuts this key difference from sight.

birth-control-gumball-hobby-lobby-scotus-638x424As upset as I am about the Hobby Lobby decision, I see it as just another symptom of the dangerous turn this country has taken away from the democracy envisioned by our founders, as well as the advances made in the lives of citizens not originally covered in those founding documents, i.e. anybody who’s not a straight white man.

Consider that on Tuesday, a group of religious leaders wrote to President Obama on Tuesday asking for exemption from a pending executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discriminating against lgbt people in hiring practices. And so it goes.

I’ve been thinking about all of this at the same time that I’m hearing about my friend who has become the target of attacks by a small group in the congregation she serves. Hearing about the tactics of this group – the lies, skullduggery and the unwillingness to hear any facts that would refute their prejudices – I had to say, “They sound just like the Tea Paanxietyrty.” The sad thing is that this kind of behavior is happening in churches throughout the country.

Here’s what I think is going on, in our church as well as the whole country. Change is happening. Power is shifting. And those who have been in power do not like that. I don’t necessarily mean power of political office; I do mean power of privilege. As soon as African-Americans, Latinos and Latinas, and women and lgbt people of all races began to claim the right to be part of the decision-making process of our culture, the anxiety level of the old structure went way up. To be fair, that’s to be expected; change does that. What is not fair when this anxiety goes unacknowledged.

Consider this definition of anxiety: an emotional state in which people feel uneasy, apprehensive or fearful. People usually feel anxiety about events they cannot control or predict, or about events that seem threatening or dangerous. There is a feeling of vulnerability. Severe anxiety can persist and become disabling.

Severe anxiety can persist and become disabling. Gee, does that sound like our government?

In the situation in my friend’s church, it is a group of fearful, anxious people who see their church changing. They don’t understand that all the good things about what a church is supposed to be will remain the same. On the other hand, they absolutely do understand that they won’t be the ones calling all the shots anymore.

The big question is how will we confront this climate of fear and anxiety crippling our institutions? Here are some thoughts:

#1  Name it for what it is
#2  Acknowledge its power
#3  Refuse to be held hostage by it
#4  Deal with it in our own psyches (nobody’s immune, so self-awareness is key)
#5  Work tirelessly for inclusion, justice and transparency
#6  Speak out against abuses of power
#7  Support leaders who understand that democracy – as well as the realm of God – is for everybody
#8  Don’t give up; live in hope
#9  Support one another because this work can get tiring
#10  Be a part of “climate change” in any way you can (iow: be the change you want to see)

Now how will I personally translate these thoughts into a response to the Hobby Lobby decision? Probably not by preaching to the choir and posting snarky cartoons about conservative Christian employers. Hobby Lobby is what Hobby Lobby is.

Accountability must lie with those who are supposed to be governing and making decisions on our behalf. So my protest, activism, vote and financial support has to be directed there in order to help bring about the change I want to see.

So – kudos to RBG! Thanks for speaking out for us. You give us courage to fight the good fight.

And fight it we will!

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Susan Strouse | June 28, 2014

In Solidarity With Kate Kelly

477Oh, church. How you abuse your children. I get so angry with you, even as I defend you against those who lump all your daughters and sons into categories like judgmental, delusional and masochistic. I’ve often wondered (in the questioning sense) myself why I’ve stayed, why I’ve put up with some of the abuses I’ve both witnessed and endured.

But I’ve also wondered (in the being awed sensed) at the times of compassion, justice-seeking and community-building I’ve witnessed and experienced in far greater numbers. Just this week, the oldest member of our congregation died. As we come together in love and solidarity with his his widow and daughter, I marvel at the blessing of our little community.

Tomorrow, some of us will march in the San Francisco Pride Parade. For a number of years now, my bishop has lead the Lutheran contingent and will do so again this year. We’ll be among a larger group of other open and affirming congregations – putting denominational differences aside in unity under the rainbow flags.

Church can get it right. Sometimes it takes a while. It took twenty years for my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to catch up to the stand that my congregation took for the full inclusion of lgbtq clergy. First United was put on trial and expelled for calling an openly gay pastor against church policy at the time. When I was called as pastor, they’d been independent for a long time. When the ELCA changed the policy and invited us to come back into the fold, we took a long time to make the decision to return. We decided that it was important to affirm the progress the church had made and to continue to work for changes still to come.

Which is why I stand in solidarity with Kate Kelly, the Mormon activist who has been excommunicated from the Mormon Church this week. Kelly is the founder of Ordain Women, working to reform the all-male leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

While certainly not in the vanguard, Lutherans in the US have been ordaining women since 1970 (the Lutherans in Denmark began in 1948; the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod still does not). But I’m old enough to remember the controversy over it and the struggle for acceptance, even after the battle had been won.

The church moves slowly. But it can move, although sometimes we have to push it along. So I have hope for Kate Kelly and the women of the LDS. There may be tough times ahead, but ultimately justice will prevail. We who are further along in that particular struggle, should all be standing with them in solidarity. After all, we’re the church, too. The all-male leadership just hasn’t gotten the memo: their days of power and control are over.

Posted by: Susan Strouse | June 21, 2014

Pluralism Summer II

bible-quranA question appeared on our Facebook page recently: “Is your church seriously having readings from the Qur’an there?”

I didn’t know how to respond, since it was all by itself on the fb page,not as a comment to any post. Plus it seemed to be a loaded question. I’m guessing that the questioner wasn’t saying, “Gee, how cool that an unapologetically Christian church includes readings from other religious traditions, and that you actually meet with people of other faiths and dialogue together about what you have in common!”

Rather, I’d put my money on, “You do what?! How can you call yourself a Christian church?!”  I say this, knowing that a few years ago, when we had an interfaith event, I started getting emails accusing us of being a Chrislam church. That term was new to me at the time, but since then I’ve discovered that any pastor that even mentions Christianity and Islam in the same breath (or sermon) is likely to be called out for trying to syncretize the two religions. Oy veh, I say.

As we get ready to embark on our second pluralism summer next week, I’m preparing for the deluge. Since our first guest speaker will be a rabbi, I suppose we’ll be accused of being Judeo-Christian – whoops, we are!

And since I’ll be preaching tomorrow from the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis) part of the story of Hagar and Ishmael, I imagine we’ll be called Judeo-Chris-lam.

But the fact is that we are a Christian church in the Lutheran tradition. Yes, we invite and welcome people of all faiths and no faith to meet and talk with us. Most even like to pray with us. They learn things about us that they didn’t know before, and we learn things about them that we didn’t know. Friendships are made.  Stereotypes are broken down.  What in the world could be so threatening about that?

This summer’s series will be asking our interfaith guests – as well as our own Christian selves – to reflect on the question: how does my tradition or practice inform how I think about caring for the earth? Hey, maybe if we all talk together about this, we can actually do something together to heal this world of ours!

What a thought. Actually, what a prayer. May it be so.

Posted by: Susan Strouse | June 14, 2014

Reimagining “Our Father”

romance-and-marriage-fathers-day-2I hasten to say, on this Fathers Day weekend, that I have nothing against fathers. One of my favorite parents was a father.  And I give the guys their due on their special day.

But when it comes to God, it’s a different matter. There are way too many issues involved with calling the Holy One “Father” – at least exclusively.

Cima_da_Conegliano,_God_the_FatherSo, in my congregation, we don’t say “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”  We don’t even use the updated version “Our Father in heaven . . .”  We believe that it’s important to go beyond the attempt to merely update the Old English to contemporary language. And no matter how much traditionalists rant and rave about God not being the same as our earthly fathers and God is not a male, etc., etc., the fact is that the word had become a stumbling block. Even if you have a parent who really is the “Greatest Father in the World,” you need to recognize the difficulties in using the same word for the Ground of our Being.  Again – at least exclusively.

Last year, in my congregation, we revised our inclusive language statement. We adopted a policy of inclusive language when talking about people and a policy of expansive language for God. This means that while we won’t root out all references to Father, Lord, King, etc., we will include a wide variety of other names, words and images as well.)WhirlpoolGlxyThe challenges of the “Our Father” are not only about inclusive language. In the Q&A section of a recent column by John Shelby Spong, a reader expressed other problems with the traditional prayer and offered a version he had written. But when he asked if Bishop Spong thought that such revisions would ever happen in congregations, the response was, “No, I do not think that the churches will ever engage this issue.”

Let me say right away that I’m a huge admirer of John Shelby Spong. I don’t always agree with him, but I often do. And I admire his courage in speaking out for the “church alumni society,” as he calls it. In fact, it was at one of his lectures years ago that I knew I’d passed the point of no return on the path of progressive Christianity.

So when I read his answer, I had to respond.
Dear Bishop,
In response to your latest columns Q&A: our congregation never uses the tradition “Lord’s Prayer.” We are an ELCA congregation, which around 10-12 years ago wrote our own version after a study group led by the late Dr. Robert Smith from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. We use this version for part of the year, but also switch off to others as well. One of our favorites is the one written by Parker Palmer.  Another is the one from the New Zealand Prayer Book. There are others; in fact I have a growing file of them – which is quite encouraging. I get many positive comments from visitors and from others when I use these prayers at other gatherings. Just thought you’d like to know.

I know that First United is unusual. But I also know we’re not the only ones engaged in faithfully reimagining our traditions. I hope this will become more and more widely known and those who are turned off by the language of “Our Father” will know that there are alternatives.

So Happy Fathers Day to all the dads, grandpas, uncles, godfathers  and all the guys who give fatherly care!

But tomorrow when we pray, it will be with these words (from Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Newmarket, Ontario):

God, lover of us all, Most Holy One,
help us to create what you want for us here.
Give us today enough for our needs.
Forgive our weak and deliberate offenses,
just as we must forgive others when they hurt us.
Help us to resist evil and to do what is good.
For we are yours, endowed with your power to make the world whole.
Amen

Posted by: Susan Strouse | June 7, 2014

Pentecost/ Pluralism/ Planning 2014

Acts 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.I’m writing this as I prepare for three converging activities tomorrow. It’s Pentecost Sunday, which is often described as the birthday of the church. I found a really nice painting of the coming of the Holy Spirit to a group of people obviously of many different ethnicities. However, when I checked its copyright information, I discovered that the artist had some rules for its use.

I was free to use it only if I agreed to a list of belief statements, including that “the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God.” I also had to “believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, his vir­gin birth, his sin­less life, his aton­ing death, his bod­ily res­ur­rec­tion, his ascen­sion to the right hand of the Father and his per­sonal return in power and glory. I believe that Jesus alone is the medi­a­tor between God and man.”

Needless to say I didn’t use it.

Interfaith-4-people-clipart

Especially since tomorrow we’ll also be celebrating Pluralism Sunday, in which we “affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.”
(from the 8 Points of Progressive Christianity      http://progressivechristianity.org)

We’ll be using the Global Mass, put together by our music director, Orion Pitts. He’s gathered chants, hymns and songs from many different traditions to create a liturgy that expresses the diversity of our world.

This will also kick off another summer of interfaith engagement with members of our community from other religions and from no religion, who will be invited to share how their tradition informs how they care for the earth.

And then it’s also the day of our annual meeting. I hasten to add that our annual meetings are not the usual fare. We take just a brief time to conduct necessary business, and then move into a time of exploration and discussion about our congregation’s ministry.

This year 141_spiritualnotreligious_widewill be interesting because it’s been just a year that we voted to enter into partnership with St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church to do outreach ministry to the “spiritual but  not religious” folks of our community. I also hasten to add that we’re not doing this as a way of getting people into our doors to fill up the pews. We are offering a space for people, wherever they are on the spiritual spectrum, to talk about their hopes and hurts. We expect that a new community will emerge from this, but we don’t know what that’s going to look like. To me, it sounds just like the early church in the days after the first Pentecost.

So we’ll be talking about that – celebrating the year past and planning for the year to come.

Pentecost Flamming Cupcakes '11
I’m not too big on the birthday of the church idea.  After all, it’s the institutional church that brought us things like “the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, his vir­gin birth, his sin­less life, his aton­ing death, his bod­ily res­ur­rec­tion, his ascen­sion to the right hand of the Father and his per­sonal return in power and glory. I believe that Jesus alone is the medi­a­tor between God and man.”

However, I am very big on Pentecost. I love the imagery of fire and doves and rushing wind. I love the color red splashed throughout the sanctuary as members sport their red socks, shoes, shirts, earrings – however the Spirit moves them! It’s a fun day!

We sound have more like it.

 

Posted by: Susan Strouse | May 23, 2014

What to Do for Pluralism Sunday 2014???

Interfaith-4-people-clipartHow do we top last year? In 2013, instead of Pluralism Sunday, we had Pluralism Summer – twelve weeks of guests from traditions other than our own. This year, the official day for Pluralism Sunday was May 4, but because it was so soon after Easter we decided to wait until Pentecost on June 8. And that’s coming up fast! So what to do?! Not that it’s a matter of having to ‘top’ ourselves. But it was such a positive experience for both congregates and guests, I can’t help wanting to keep the momentum going.

I do know that if I had to do last year over again I’d make some changes. I would be more specific in asking our guests to speak about what they personally love or appreciate about their tradition. Many of them did that anyway, especially when I starting asking that question about halfway through the summer. Although people are interested in hearing about another religion’s history, beliefs, etc., I think they’re much more interested in personal stories.

progressive_soup That’s why I would also build in some time for our own folks to share their stories of what they love or appreciate about being Christian. I find that those from other religious perspectives are interested in hearing about us, too – especially the perspectives of progressive Christians. Not only that, we have to get better at telling our stories if we want to have an impact on how the rest of the world sees Christianity.

So I’m back to my dilemma: what to do, not only for Pluralism/ Pentecost Sunday, but for the entire summer. One suggestion was to have guests from other, more conservative, Christian churches. I have to admit that the idea doesn’t thrill me – not because I don’t think progressives and conservatives shouldn’t be talking and worshipping together, but because I’m not sure that I could be objective or non-attached enough to pull it off. I find it much easier to play with my interfaith friends than with my more traditional sisters and brothers and others within the family.

images Another idea (from my friend Sridevi Ramanathan, our Hindu guest from last summer) is to have interfaith speakers again, but to have each one speak on the theme of ecology – how does your tradition inform the way you think about and care for the Earth? I kind of like that.

As we were talking, though, we also got onto the subject of integrity. When is it proper to use prayers, rituals, etc. from another tradition and when is it cultural or religious appropriation? We both think that this is an important issue as more and more people claim to be interfaith or interspiritual. to-be-one1We’re not saying these are necessarily wrong, but would like to see a deeper understanding of the cultures and religions being appropriated. In fact, we may try to write an article together about this. As this interspirtitual movement grows, it would seem to be a timely topic.

Still, I’ve got to come up with something for Pluralism Sunday. We’ve moved beyond “let’s all be friends” and “hey, isn’t it cool, we’ve all got a version of the Golden Rule!” But there’s obviously much more work to be done – even in our Bay area bubble. What’s the next phase? Where should we go from here?

What do you think? Your comments are always welcome.

 

Posted by: Susan Strouse | May 17, 2014

What Do We Do with “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”?

imagesIf you’re looking for a simple answer to this question, you’re going to be disappointed. However, I can give some advice on how to work with it.

This verse has come up every time I’ve worked with Christian groups on interfaith matters. Sometimes it’s quoted as a rationale for an exclusivist position: Jesus is the only way. Mostly though, it’s raised as a concern: I want to respect my neighbors of other faiths but I don’t know how to reconcile that with what the Bible says.

However it’s presented, my advice is to take the question and the questioner seriously. This is a faith issue, and while you may have moved into a different understanding of the text, others need time to possibly catch up. I’ve heard well-meaning people respond to the question with words like, “Jesus is just the way for Christians; it doesn’t apply to others.” I once saw a young man, who had fairly conservative leanings, turn away after a response like that. I don’t know how he felt, but I felt that the abrupt answer was not respectful – and it ended any possible further dialogue. So again, my advice is to honor the question.

After all, it is in the Bible. We can’t (or shouldn’t) simply ignore the parts that cause us discomfort. Remember how we had toimages-1  go back and work with the so-called “anti-gay” biblical texts, looking at their contexts and digging more deeply into what the authors were trying to say? It’s the same with the seemingly exclusivist passages like John 14:6.

My second piece of advice is that if you haven’t done any biblical work with the text – and you want to know how to respond to questions about it – now’s the time to find some good resources to get up to speed. A good place to start is Diana Eck’s book, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, especially the chapter called “The Faces of God”. Within that chapter, there’s a section called “I Am the Way: Inclusive Love” which is really well done. Dr. Eck comes at the passage as a pastoral response to an anxious question.

Another nifty little book is a new one: Truth, Testimony, and Transformation: A New Reading of the ‘I Am’ Sayings of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel by Yung Suk Kim. He takes a quick and easy-to-read look at John’s concept of the Logos and how it applies to the “I am” texts. The last chapter, ‘I Am’ Sayings of Jesus in Today’s  Pluralistic Life Context, really gets down to the question. I recommend these both highly.

A-Day-in-LifeI do not recommend simply handing a book to someone who asks you this question. Once you’ve come to your own conclusions, then be ready to engage questioners in conversation – not to teach ‘the right interpretation’ or convince them to change their minds, but to open up a space for exploration. You could ask questions, too. Like: in light of the whole story, what do you think Jesus was trying to convey? You could also ask if you could share your take on the story. Again, not to listen politely and then give them the ‘correct’ interpretation, but to get at the good news of the text – together.

There’s a lot of good scholarship being done on problematic texts like this one. The challenge is in getting it down to folks images-2who probably won’t ever see it. It’s up to us to convey the good news of the inclusive love of God shown to us in Jesus – even in “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to Abba God except through me.”

 

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