Posted by: Susan Strouse | May 10, 2014

Am I Still a Christian?

37353_130716663615900_100000327023697_234786_5182971_n“I don’t know if I could still call myself a Christian.” Before you call my bishop, please note that this was not a statement said by me. It was said to me by an elderly man who’d asked for spiritual guidance.

That it was not said by me might come as a surprise to those who have already judged me to be outside the Christian fold. I’ve been called a heretic and accused of leading my congregation down a slippery slope into relativism. I’ve been asked why I don’t just join the Unitarians and be done with it. My work with interfaith organizations has made me suspect in some camps. For others, the fact that I have high regard for other “heretics,” such as Bishop John Shelby Spong, certainly places me beyond the pale.

So let me be clear. I am a Christian. I’m a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who showed us in words and in actions what living in the commonwealth of God is all about. I’m also a believer in the mystic presence of the Cosmic Christ, who existed before time began and was exuded so magnificently in Jesus.

I could go on and on about what that means to me, but I’d rather talk about my elderly friend who is questioning about what it means to be a Christian. Here’s someone who was baptized and raised in the Christian tradition, but rejected it long ago. From what I can determine, this was for several reasons. One of them being that for his very logical, intellectual mind many of the claims, creeds and doctrines just didn’t make sense.

In our ongoing conversations about religion and spirituality, we laugh about how I’ve turned him into a heretic by exposing him to progressive Christian writers like Spong, Elaine Pagels, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. My detractors will shudder at the path on which I’ve  led this lost sheep astray. But I would venture to guess that he’s been thinking and talking about Jesus more now than ever before.

Still, he knows what traditional Christianity is and so reflects, “I don’t know if I could still call myself a Christian.” Only he can answer that, but in my mind there is no reason why he could not. In fact, I see progressive Christianity opening the way for many of us to be able to still make that claim with honesty and integrity. In fact, I wish with all my heart that those who have been turned off by exclusivistic doctrines, outdated biblical scholarship and problematic creeds could know that there is an alternative.

I’m eternally grateful that I discovered it. My faith and my commitment to the church has been stronger because I did. And I’m grateful that I can minister to those, like my elderly friend, who is longing for spiritual guidance – as well as intellectual conversation.

Thank you, Jesus (and I do mean that) that we are able to do both!

 

Posted by: Susan Strouse | May 3, 2014

Speak Up Progressives! What DO WE Say about Baptism?

baptism.confusionI hesitate to even mention her name because it gives her more attention than she deserves. But the statement by Sarah Palin linking waterboarding to baptism has caused outrage in many Christian circles. Faithful America, an online organization that encourages Christians to put faith into action for social justice, has responded by initiating a petition to send to the media denouncing her use of a Christian sacrament to advocate the use of torture. 

However, as I signed the petition and groused about the politics of certain individuals, I also realized that something was missing (and missing from a lot of ‘progressive’ or ‘Christian left’ communiqués): a clear declaration of what we believe, rather than just a refutation of what we do not believe. 

water_drop_ripple123This is not  a criticism of Faithful America or any of the other responders, not at all. It is a rallying cry for us to speak up about why we see the water of baptism as sacred, life-giving and love-affirming.

Maybe the challenge for progressive Christians is that we’re not sure how to do that. We’re clear about what what we don’t want to say: that baptism is something you have ‘done’ in order to get your ticket to heaven punched; that it’s a way of determining who’s in and who’s out, that it’s about original sin and the depravity of being human.

images-1Some have rejected it altogether as unnecessary and meaningless. But I’ve always been opposed to throwing out the baby with the bath water (OK, pun intended). Just as sacred symbols, such as the cross and church-y words, like salvation need to be reinterpreted and reclaimed, so does baptism. And we’re slowly beginning to produce liturgies, hymns and prayers that express a progressive way of believing.

I’ve had several baptisms in which there was an interfaith component to the family. With each I talked about the sacred meaning of water in their tradition and how the baptism of their child can be something meaningful for all of them. And in conversations with ‘spiritual but not religious’ folks, I’ve come to understand that their request for baptism for their children is not simply a way to placate grandma. They truly do crave an encounter with the Sacred.imagesWhen I’ve talked with them about original blessing and the baptized way of life, they are grateful. These have been some of the most profound discussions about baptism I’ve ever had.

So I say we take our sacrament back from people like Ms. P., who obviously doesn’t get it. She’s tried to pollute our water, which of course, she cannot do. We, however, have an opportunity for pouring out and expressing our joy, delight and gratitude. Or, as the old John Ylvisaker song calls it, “Walking Wet.”  

Baptism-1

 

 

 

Posted by: Susan Strouse | April 26, 2014

Net Neutrality on the Divine Web

 

images-2So we may soon have to pay extra for better service on the Internet. The Federal Communications Commission is hoping to implement a plan that would offer some websites the ability to provide faster traffic. Naturally this ‘preferential option’ will cost extra, driving up the cost for users down the line.  This flies in the face of the principle of Net neutrality, which holds that service providers should treat all data on the Net equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, etc.  images

Sounds like the Internet version of “All are welcome here!

I see this attempt to whittle away equal access to information and expression as a perfect example of the difference between the way of the world and the way of the Basileia tou Theou (usually translated as Kingdom of God or, more recently, Realm of God to avoid the male language, but I prefer John Cobb’s Commonwealth of God, in resistance to hierarchical and imperial language).

WebDrops In the Commonwealth of God, we exist as equals in interconnected and interdependent relationships. We are in a web of life, which includes all of Creation, not just humans, where the needs of all are taken into consideration. This is the Divine Web, where there is no hierarchical power and privilege, where there is neutrality, not in the sense of being disinterested or disengaged, but of being impartial, unbiased and equitable.

Does the church always fulfill this ideal? Nope. But is this the ideal to which we should attain? Oh, yes!

For those of us who choose to hang in with the church as a way to live into the Basileia tou Theou, we strive to define what it means to be ‘spiritual and religious.’ As far as I’m concerned, net neutrality on the Divine web is a primary characteristic – right up there with Divine Love. If either a spirituality or a religion professes anything different, then it’s not for me.

The church will never be perfect; it will often fail to live up to Jesus’ vision of the Basileia tou Theou. But as long as this is the vision for which we live and work, then count me in. We have a lot of work to do to counteract those who will always strive for their vision of power and privilege for a few. And the work is best done – together.

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Posted by: Susan Strouse | April 18, 2014

“Being at Cross Purposes”

24BCINTEL1-articleLargeOn a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame . . .

Every month, driving on Highway 24 to see my spiritual director, I pass by these rugged crosses. Not one rugged cross, thousands of them. They are the Crosses of Lafayette. They began to appear in 2006 to commemorate battle deaths in Iraq. Later, they included those from Afghanistan. Among the crosses are also stakes topped with crescent moons, pentacles, the Star of David and dharma wheels. Also tiny crosses, indicating children, and atomic symbols, marking the deaths of US service members and Iraqi citizens from depleted uranium. Morning is an all-inclusive activity.

images-4Many of the crosses have names on them. When it began, organizers would  put up a cross for each new casualty. But they ran out of room in 2011 with 4000 markers. Now they maintain the site as best they can and update the sign with the current death toll from the Department of Defense.

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For some, this memorial is a tribute to those who’ve sacrificed their lives for their country. For others, it is a giant protest sign. For me, it’s both. I reject the dualistic thinking that says that either we show support for our service mean and women or we reject the war they’ve been called upon to fight.

images-2On this Good Friday, I mourn the loss of life that is represented on this hillside. I respect those whose names are scratched into these markers and those who are known here only in the tally of war dead. I also grieve for the untold thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians who have suffered and died in these protracted wars.

We’ve been carefully shielded from the horrors of these wars. Those who wage war learned theirLafayette Crosses3 lesson well in the Vietnam era, when we saw horrifically vivid pictures on the nightly news. No more. We’ve been able to go our merry way, pondering truly important issues such as Kim Kardashian’s weddings and Miley Cyrus’ tongue.

But the Crosses of Lafayette do not allow us to forget what we have done, what we do, the price we pay when we go to war or resort to any kind of violence as a solution to our problems.

images-6Today, I honor Jesus, who was killed by an imperial power. In his death, I see a tribute to one who went to death to lead us into a way of peace. Not sacrificed by God in some kind of cosmic courtroom drama, but willing to go all the way to a cross in full commitment to the integrity of his counter-culture teaching.

 

“When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”

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Posted by: Susan Strouse | April 12, 2014

Holy Matrimony! Jesus Was Married?!

32cbeba593c520604e99537fa46cef30

I won’t believe it until I see the wedding album. Show me the video of the couple’s first (professionally choreographed) dance together. Where’s the picture of Mary looking pensive as she put finishing touches on her makeup in the the bride’s room? And the one of the groomsmen smoking in the parking lot?

And – I want to know – who did the premarital counseling?

0410_gospel-papyrus-624x410

The news this week that “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” a tiny, credit-card sized fragment of papyrus, which has Jesus calling a woman “my wife” and “able to be my disciple,” is not a modern day forgery has set the universe humming. Some scholars are still harrumphing about it and declaring it a fake, while others are accepting its authenticity but scrambling to explain away its importance.

But I think it’s fabulous! I heard an interview with Professor Karen King from Harvard Divinity School on Thursday on my way to the office. She said that, while the controversially-dubbed “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” doesn’t prove Jesus was married, it does shed light on early Christian thinking about women, marriage, sexuality, celibacy, etc. – in other words, issues that could turn some current church teachings on their heads. 

So even though there’s no proof – no videos, wedding album, leftover cake – this is an important little piece of papyrus.

In fact, I don’t even care whether Jesus was married or not. We’ve made too much of that institution already as being “instituted by God.” I am totally in favor of all people having the right to marry – or not. So either way is OK by me for Jesus.

What does interest me is the hope that churches who denigrate the role of women in ministry, fuss about sexuality and elevate celibacy as the better lifestyle will have a change of heart. There will surely be a lot more scholarship to come on this little ancient tidbit. I eagerly await it and the opportunity to join in the discussion.

 

Photos:
Nathan Gunn and Sasha  Cooke in SF Opera’s The  Gospel of  Mary Magdalene
Papyrus fragment with writing in Egyptian Coptic that includes the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…'”

Posted by: Susan Strouse | April 5, 2014

McCutcheon vs. Beatitudes

 

183654819 Words cannot express my dismay at the Supreme Court ruling in the McCutcheon v. FEC case, which has struck down overall limits on campaign contributions.

The rationale that contribution limits do not act to prevent corruption is ludicrous. And the idea that imposing such limits infringes on the right of free speech of the very rich is beyond absurd. I can only wonder at the motivation of the members of the Court who agreed with this inanity. The dissenting justices must have wept after the ruling.

To put it into a spiritual framework, there is only one place to turn: the Beatitudes.images-1
Yes, I know. In the face of such an endorsement of plutocratic power and might, the alternative outlined by Jesus looks utterly ridiculous. Blessed are the poor? The meek? The peacemakers? McCutcheon and his ilk laugh in our faces.

But I say to McCutcheon (and Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito) that it’s time to claim it and support it and work for it and vote for it. How can we, as followers of Jesus, not?

Yes, we’ll sound naive, crazy to those who don’t understand the upside-down wisdom and power of God, who loves all equally, without regard to the size of our bank accounts. But if we hear the words of the Beatitudes as the vision that God has for us, then we know we are on the side of righteousnes.

Then there’s also the Canticle of Mary. Here is no schmaltzy, over-spiritualized Mary, but a truth-teller of the most powerful kind.

images-2
My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you.
You have looked with love on your servant here and blessed me all my life through.

Great and mighty are you, O holy One. Strong is your kindness evermore.

How you favor the weak and lowly ones, humbling the proud of heart
You have cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplifted the humble of heart.
You have filled the hungry with wondrous things and left the wealthy no part
Great and mighty are you O faithful one. Strong is your justicestrong your love.
As you promised to Sarah and Abraham, kindness for evermore.

My should proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you
You have looked with love on your servant here and blessed me all my life through.

Between the lyrics of this song and the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes, we have our marching orders. Weeping and wailing is not enough.

The realm of God is now – claim it!

Posted by: Susan Strouse | March 29, 2014

Why I Might Actually Go See “Noah”

imagesIt’s pouring down rain today, so thoughts naturally turn to Noah.

I’m not a fan of epic biblical movies. I’m also not a fan of movies about ships. Don’t tell me Titanic was really a love story. Does the ship sink? End of conversation. And don’t even get me started about The Poseidon Adventure.

When it comes to Noah, I much prefer Bill Cosby’s version.  If you’ve never (unbelievably) heard it, go listen – now! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bputeFGXEjA) So when I first saw previews for Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel’s Noah, I turned up my nose and mimicked the Cos, “Right!” I put Noah in the same category as the new Son of God movie and the old classics like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told.

I even have problems with the cutesy kids’ Noah’s Ark paraphernalia. I’ll never forget the Sunday when our children’simages minister filled a tub with water to demonstrate the story and was flummoxed when the kids got very upset when they learned that all the animals not on the ark ( and presumably the people too) were drowned. Yeah, it is a pretty intense story when you think about it, and we usually relegate it to children’s merchandise. I’m not a complete scrooge about this, but it does make one think about all the implications of the story.

So I had no plans to see Noah. That is until I read that some Christians were boycotting the movie because, first of all it doesn’t conform to the literal biblical story, and second because it pushes the “liberal agenda” about climate change.

Well now. Now you’ve got my attention.

Then I read an interview with Aronofsky and Handel, in which they described the film as a midrash on the Noah story from Genesis. Midrash is a tradition which we Christians are finally beginning to recover from our Jewish roots. A way of storytelling that explores the practical, ethical and theological questions of a  biblical text, midrash leaves room for imagination in grappling with questions such as how we perceive God: is the God of Noah merciful and loving, or vengeful and demanding justice?

As Ari Handel explained beautifully: “Ultimately in the midrash tradition the text has purposeful lacuna; it has questions that are posed in the very words, so the closer we read it, the more questions arose from it.”

Or as we like to say at First United: it’s more important to ask the questions than to know all the answers.

So I think I’ll go see Noah after all. Darren Aronofsky advises us to let go of all our expectations and go see an entertaining movie – and then have a conversation about it afterwards.

Right!

 

 

Posted by: Susan Strouse | March 22, 2014

Where in Heaven is Fred Phelps?

imagesI really wanted the title to be: “Where in Hell is Fred Phelps?” but I’m trying to grapple with my feelings about the death of this old man. It’s been so easy to hate him, to dismiss his “church” as a cult and to cheer those who have rallied to thwart their hate-mongering ways. When I heard the news he was dying, the old questions about heaven and hell, reward and punishment came flying back in.

I prefer to believe in an afterlife in which we are returned to the river of Divine life, whatever that will actually mean. My hope is that each of us then will be completely whole, fully healed of all the slings and arrows of life, perfectly in a state of shalom. I say I prefer to believe this because I don’t know if this is true any more than those who long for clouds, pearly gates and harps know their version is true. But my understanding and experience of the character of God leads me to believe in this kind of vision.

That is until someone like Fred Phelps dies. Then it gets harder for me to give up the idea of Hell. Or at least the concept of Divine punishment. Surely he must pay for the harm he’s done, not only to those he’s railed against but also his own family, who he’s poisoned and damaged. His hateful legacy goes on – it even came back to bite him when he himself was ex-communicated.

We had a similar conversation about this at our mid-week Lent book discussion of Joan Chittester’s God’s Tender Mercy. It was fairly easy to include absolutely everyone as deserving of God’s mercy. Until we got down to specific people, like Bernie Madoff, Wall Street bankers and, of course, Fred Phelps. Where do we go with our outrage? Where do we go with our longing for justice? Does God really love us all the same, even when the sinner is unrepentant? It’s a hard pill to swallow.

But it’s a good one. I’ve been immensely impressed with the response of people from various places on the spiritual/religious spectrum. Most have shown a measure of compassion and grace that they were never shown by Phelps and his ilk. I am glad to be in a world with people such as these. No one excuses his behavior or will stop working against the kind of evil he channeled. But I have to believe that they exhibit something of the Divine reception of Fred Phelps into the afterlife.

wpid-Photo-20140322083116

I’m sure that there will always be people who will challenge my notion of Heaven and my non-notion of Hell. But I’m also sure that I don’t want to return to a reward/punishment theology.  I can laugh at cartoons that parody such a belief, but I wouldn’t wish this kind of heaven on Fred, let alone Adam and Steve.

I hope that Fred Phelps has been welcomed into the great river of Divine Oneness. I also hope that there is some consciousness of the incredible grace afforded him, both by God and by those he has hurt.  (Check out Pastor Megan Rohrer’s response at http://revrohrer.blogspot.com/2014/03/fred-phelps-is-dead-and-i-am-not-is.html)

Maybe, hopefully, some of this generosity of spirit will spill over into the hearts of family members still caught inbisnqn2ccaaghnf-1 their web of hate. It will surely inspire us to continue to work against this kind of “religion” wherever it rears its ugly head, whether from the Phelps family in Topeka, KS or Pastor James David in Harlem, NY-  no matter what we believe about the afterlife.

 

And if you don’t agree with me, well, you can just go to  . . .
the bottom of this page and make a comment.

Posted by: Susan Strouse | March 22, 2014

Where in Heaven is Fred Phelps?

imagesI really wanted the title to be: “Where in Hell is Fred Phelps?” but I’m trying to grapple with my feelings about the death of this old man. It’s been so easy to hate him, to dismiss his “church” as a cult and to cheer those who have rallied to thwart their hate-mongering ways. When I heard the news he was dying, the old questions about heaven and hell, reward and punishment came flying back in.

I prefer to believe in an afterlife in which we are returned to the river of Divine life, whatever that will actually mean. My hope is that each of us then will be completely whole, fully healed of all the slings and arrows of life, perfectly in a state of shalom. I say I prefer to believe this because I don’t know if this is true any more than those who long for clouds, pearly gates and harps know their version is true. But my understanding and experience of the character of God leads me to believe in this kind of vision.

That is until someone like Fred Phelps dies. Then it gets harder for me to give up the idea of Hell. Or at least the concept of Divine punishment. Surely he must pay for the harm he’s done, not only to those he’s railed against but also his own family, who he’s poisoned and damaged. His hateful legacy goes on – it even came back to bite him when he himself was ex-communicated.

We had a similar conversation about this at our mid-week Lent book discussion of Joan Chittester’s God’s Tender Mercy. It was fairly easy to include absolutely everyone as deserving of God’s mercy. Until we got down to specific people, like Bernie Madoff, Wall Street bankers and, of course, Fred Phelps. Where do we go with our outrage? Where do we go with our longing for justice? Does God really love us all the same, even when the sinner is unrepentant? It’s a hard pill to swallow.

But it’s a good one. I’ve been immensely impressed with the response of people from various places on the spiritual/religious spectrum. Most have shown a measure of compassion and grace that they were never shown by Phelps and his ilk. I am glad to be in a world with people such as these. No one excuses his behavior or will stop working against the kind of evil he channeled. But I have to believe that they exhibit something of the Divine reception of Fred Phelps into the afterlife.

wpid-Photo-20140322083116

I’m sure that there will always be people who will challenge my notion of Heaven and my non-notion of Hell. But I’m also sure that I don’t want to return to a reward/punishment theology.  I can laugh at cartoons that parody such a belief, but I wouldn’t wish this kind of heaven on Fred, let alone Adam and Steve.

I hope that Fred Phelps has been welcomed into the great river of Divine Oneness. I also hope that there is some consciousness of the incredible grace afforded him, both by God and by those he has hurt.  (Check out Pastor Megan Rohrer’s response at http://revrohrer.blogspot.com/2014/03/fred-phelps-is-dead-and-i-am-not-is.html)

Maybe, hopefully, some of this generosity of spirit will spill over into the hearts of family members still caught in their web of hate. It will surely inspire us to continue to work against this kind of “religion” wherever it rears its ugly head, whether from the Phelps family in Topeka, KS or Pastor James David in Harlem, NY-  no matter what we believe about the afterlife.

And if you don’t agree with me, well, you can just go to  . . .
the bottom of this page and make a comment.

images

Posted by: Susan Strouse | March 13, 2014

Are Some Religious Words Unredeemable?

Unknown

I’ve often said “Words Matter!” At my church we pay a lot of attention to language: inclusive language for humanity, expansive language for God. We also reflect a lot on what certain church-y words mean. Does a word mean the same thing for people of today that it once meant?

The subject came up again in our mid-week Lent book discussion. We’ve started reading Sister Joan Chittester’s God’s Tender Mercy: Reflections on Forgiveness and right off the bat, right there in the introduction we ran into the word ‘righteous.’ So of course, the first part of our conversation was around these words. It was inevitable, really. After all, last year’s book was Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored by Marcus Borg, in which he tackles church-y words like the above mentioned. In fact, I brought my copy along with me to the group because I knew there’d be some negative reaction to some of the words that Chittester was using.

The good progressive Christians didn’t disappoint. And we had a great discussion, eventually getting past the language issues into the heart of what Chittester was trying to convey about the path to forgiveness. To sum it up I quote one of the verses from the Gospel of Thomas, which is assigned for this Sunday (see last week’s post Wading into the Gnostic Gospels:

Jesus says, “You see the sliver in your friend’s eye, but you don’t see the timber in your own eye. When you take the timber out of your own eye, then you will see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye . . .” (
Gospel of Thomas, Logia 26).

In other words, be careful when you point that finger!

So, final analysis: a good start to this year’s Lenten series: lovely homemade supper, scintillating conversation and meditative evening prayer.  I’ve actually come to love Lent since we began this way of doing things.

But in the middle of the discussion time, one of the group members asked the question that still is rumbling around in my brain: are there some words that are just not redeemable? For example, is knowing that ‘righteousness’ can also mean ‘justice’ enough?

Or should we just jettison the ‘R’ word, which most people hear as ‘self-righteous’ and use ‘justice?’ That’s pretty much what we do already. But are there other words that are heard in negative ways?

I know, for instance, that ‘mercy’ can be one of those words. Some hear a presupposition of wrongdoing in which there is power to punish or not to punish, and they prefer to use ‘compassion.’ Others, however, like ‘mercy’ and prefer to use it when offering a petition during the Prayers of the People. So we’ll have both “God, in your compassion, hear our prayer” as well as “God, in your mercy, hear our prayer.”

Which is OK with me. Still, I can hear the difference. I definitely like the move away from the old church-y language toward equally biblical/ theological words that work better in our contemporary context.

Sometimes we’re accused of being too obsessed with language. And yes, we do need to be flexible; rigidity on the left is just as obnoxious as rigidity on the right. But I stand by my statement that words do matter, especially in the liturgy. So we need to continue our discussions, conversations and deliberations. We may not be ready yet to answer the question of whether some words that are not redeemable.

But it is the right question.

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