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.

Posted by: Susan Strouse | March 8, 2014

Wading into the “Gnostic Gospels”

Uncommon-Lectionary-1

An Uncommon Lectionary provides selections for each Sunday from sources outside the scriptural canon, drawing mainly from texts rediscovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945, including the so-called “gnostic gospels.” The gospel readings for the season of Lent are all from The Gospel of Thomas.

I first became aware of the term “gnostic gospels” when Elaine Pagels’ book, The Gnostic Gospels was published in 1979. Not that I had any interest in reading it for myself. In 1979 seminary wasn’t even a glimmer in my mind’s eye. At that time I was a floor manager at B. Dalton Bookseller’s flagship store in Philadelphia. My job was to keep the book, which had won the National Book Critics Circle and the National Book Awards, in stock.

Even when I went to seminary in 1982, these gospels weren’t part of the curriculum – and even if they had been, I had enough challenges with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to keep me occupied. Plus – it was made very clear that anything with the name ‘gnostic’ attached to it was verboten.

It wasn’t until I was doing doctoral work in Berkeley that my interest was finally piqued. Pagels’ latest book, BeyondUnknown Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, had been released in 2004 and I had the opportunity to hear her speak at a book talk. One thing that stuck with me from that night was Pagel’s statement that if she had it to over, she wouldn’t name her previous book The Gnostic Gospels. Not only does the word ‘gnostic’ have negative connotations for most Christians, it also doesn’t adequately encompass the wide variety of beliefs deemed as heretical by the early church. In subsequent years, I did a little bit of delving into these mysterious works. Beyond Belief was a breakthrough work and a good starting place. The Westar Institute (home of the Jesus Seminar) also had a symposium on some of the gospels, like those of Mary, James and Judas. What I learned was that not all of these texts carry the same weight as others. Their main value, though, is as a window into the diversity of early Christian thought and belief – before orthodoxy, with its creeds and dogmatic requirements.

Susan %22Heresy%22

I am fully aware that for some, using these texts in a congregation is a heresy that places me outside of the Christian fold. For others, it may be a breath of fresh air that blows into the church as we open ourselves up to a fuller understanding of our tradition.

I’m not worried about being called a heretic. What I find most challenging is the fact that there are very few exegetical and no homiletical or liturgical resources, so it feels a bit like working without a net. And I certainly don’t want our Lent journey of discovery to be simply a series of lectures of the Nag Hammadi texts. Rather, I hope that we’ll be able to glean some insights, not just about our past but also about our faith in this 21st church.

And right now, I have a sermon to write.

Posted by: Susan Strouse | March 1, 2014

Ash Wednesday: In Dead Earnest

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As Ash Wednesday approaches, I’ve been thinking about death. Or I should say I’ve been thinking about what will happen to my body after I die.

Several things precipitated this concern, even though I’d already done my advance directives some years ago, including the decision about the disposal of my remains. I opted for donating my body to science. I’ve always been big on not throwing something when it could still be useful. Why not the ultimate recycling project?

It seemed like a good idea at the time. And I hadn’t thought anything about it until just this week when, of all things, I was listening to an audio book in the car. I’m addicted to listening to mystery books (the suspense makes me look forward to driving), and in this one, the detective is interviewing an anatomy professor. He walks into the lab just as the class is about to cut into a cadaver. Even though it was an audio book, the scene was graphic in my mind’s eye. And it was not pleasant. I felt an immediate jolt of “OMG, that’ll be me!” recognition. I began to consider changing my directive. Maybe cremation was the way to go (pun intended).

But then, as part of the story line, the professor gives an impassioned speech about his gratitude and respect for the people who had donated their bodies so that medical students could learn to heal. I was  quite moved – and the recycling project was back on track.

Coincidentally, I read an article this week in The Christian Century  about green burials, an eco-friendly way of “taking serious the biblical reminder, ‘for you are dust and to dust you shall return.'” I learned that a green burial doesn’t include embalming (if it does it’s with only earth-friendly chemicals). Caskets are made of untreated wood or other natural materials. So, while there is no denial of death, there is a profound emphasis on rebirth. I like that – the cycle of life and all. Although there’s still the matter of taking up space in the ground.

And speaking of dust to dust: along with that article, there was another about the likelihood that cremation is not all that eco-friendly. There’s a lot of energy expended in the cremation process, and bodies to be cremated are still embalmed. Plus nasty pollutants from metals in tooth fillings and surgical implants are released. So, despite it’s growing popularity, cremation isn’t such a  good deal after all.

So in light of all this, I’m going to stick with my original recycling plan. It’s the best I can do in the spirit of the late Lee Hayes (member of The Weavers and author of great folk songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”). His poem  In Dead Earnest says it all:

     If I should die before I wake,
     All my bone and sinew take:
     Put them in the compost pile
     To decompose a little while.
     Sun, rain, and worms will have their way,
     Reducing me to common clay.
     All that I am will feed the trees
     And little fishes in the seas.
     When corn and radishes you munch,
     You may be having me for lunch.
     Then excrete me with a grin,
     Chortling, “There goes Lee again!”
     Twill be my happiest destiny
     To die and live eternally. 

Amen, Lee! Amen!

 

Posted by: Susan Strouse | February 22, 2014

The Pain & Power of Being Exiled

UnknownExile can take many forms. None of them is pleasant. However, out of exile can come both individual and group empowerment, as well as a powerful witness.

Consider the story of Concordia Seminary in Exile (Seminex). On February 19, 1974, a large majority of the student body at Concordia Seminary and most of the faculty marched off campus into an unknown future. They did so in response to a crackdown on the president and faculty from the denomination (Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) over the teaching of historical-critical method of biblical interpretation. This past week was the 40th anniversary of the walkout and a celebration of the people who risked academic, financial, family relationships in response to injustice. It was also a celebration of their contribution to the church of today. There is a strand of feisty faithfulness that came out of that experience of exile. seminex-300x205

And it wasn’t limited to the seminary either. As I listened to the stories of these heroes in the faith, I was reminded of one of my own heroes – also a product of the Missouri Lutheran schism. As the ripples from the seminary reached across the country, Pastor Robert Wendelin began to feel the effects in his own congregation in Buffalo, NY. Eventually, the congregation split, with Pastor W. and about a hundred members walking out into their own exile. Eventually, after about three years of wilderness wandering, they joined together with another church, North Park Lutheran, which had also decided to leave the Missouri fold. Ultimately the congregations that left became part of the newly forming Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I always loved this story. I first heard it when I was serving in my first call in a Buffalo suburb. I saw Bob Wendelin as a prophetic role model, willing to risk it all for the sake of truth. When he retired, I immediately expressed my desire to follow in his footsteps and was called as pastor to North Park in 1993. The strength of faith and character forged in exile was evident in those wonderful people – even in families that had been torn apart by the schism.

I was reminded of all this again when I was called to First United, San Francisco in 2004. First United had been sent into exile in 1996, after being put on trial and expelled for calling Jeff Johnson, an openly gay pastor, in defiance of denominational policy at that time (the ELCA finally caught up with us 20 years later and changed the policy). My first response to being asked to interview was to question what would happen to my status on the ELCA clergy roster and, of course, my pension. I learned that I would be put “on leave from call,” which meant I’d have three years to accept an “approved” call or lose my clergy credentials. My pension would also be frozen during the “on leave” period.

In spite of being advised by my bishop not to accept the call, I did it anyway. Everything pointed to this being a genuine call. Warnings against accepting it seemed to me to be a continuation of the punishment of this courageous congregation. In the spirit of my hero and mentor, I took the risk. Today, I am still an ELCA pastor. And First United rejoined the denomination in a powerful service of reconciliation and healing. We are a witness to the possibility of life after exile.

I don’t claim to have experienced the same kind of exile as those Seminex founders or parish pastors like Bob Wendelin and Jeff Johnson. I have, however, known the pain of other kinds of banishment. My own seminary memories are scarred by wounds that, even though never fully healed, have shaped who I am and how I minister to others in whatever exile they may be going through. And most of us go through something at one time or another: rejection, exclusion, marginalization. For any number of reasons. Some because of a prophetic stand; some for no good reason at all.

The thing is: exile doesn’t have to mean the end. In fact, it can be the beginning of new life, new faith, new power and new witness. Our contemporary heroes in the faith stand as a cloud of witnesses to this fact and give us courage for the next time we find ourselves “on the outs.” They join the prophets of old and Jesus himself in declaring it to be so.

I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
Isaiah 43: 19

Posted by: Susan Strouse | February 14, 2014

On Being an Aging Beatlemaniac

BeatlesFifty years since the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show?! No way! I’m not that old. OK, I am planning a “When I’m Sixty-Four” birthday party this year. But still – fifty years!

I remember it vividly – the first rush of full-blown Beatlemania, the perplexed look on my mother’s face as I screamed, cried and jumped up and down on the sofa. It was the beginning of a love affair that’s changed over the years but never ended. Much has been written about the Beatles phenomenon, analyzing it from all kinds of angles, including the spiritual. I’ve often pondered myself what it was that caused such a profound impact on my life.

imagesThe day after John Lennon was killed, I stumbled into my job at the bookstore in Center City Philadelphia, where some of my co-workers were also reeling from the news. We got permission to create a display in one of the windows and placed a simple rose and green apple in Lennon’s memory. Many of our colleagues didn’t get why we were so upset, didn’t understand the profound grief. It is hard for me to explain the depth of connection to these four people I never met or even saw in concert.

Back in the early days, my best friend was in love with Paul. I felt an immediate connection with George. We both wanted to look like Beatle girlfriends ands scoured the shops of dinky Pottstown for “mod” clothes. Later, though, we began to part ways. In the late 60s, I was much more attuned to the politics of John and the spirituality of George more than to Paul’s “silly love songs.” And then the Beatles broke up, too. In so many ways, those were terrible days. But even though the band was gone, the influence of both the Beatles as a collective and the individual members continues.

images-1George Harrison gave me one of my very first exposures to another religion. Even when it wasn’t ‘hip’ anymore to be a fan of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, George remained devoted to meditation and mysticism. Through his music I learned to appreciate a culture and belief system very different from my own. So even as I was being a good, recently confirmed Lutheran, the seeds had been planted for a multi-cultural, multi-faith awareness and appreciation. 

And didn’t John Lennon’s “Imagine” just pave the way for progressive Christianity? It even spoke to those who choked on the line about “no religion too.” This may seem to be the anthem of the ‘spiritual but not religious, but as far as I’m concerned, even those of us who are ‘religious’ needn’t stumble over these sentiments. I have much more in common with them than with many orthodox doctrines and creeds. 

As I look back on the fifty years since the Beatles burst into my consciousness and on the twenty-five years since my ordination, I can see a wonderful blending of these two worlds.  I’ve realized that I came of age in a social/political/ spiritual milieu heavily influenced by the music and personalities of the Beatles. When I went to seminary, I learned how to be a good orthodox pastor, but again, the seeds of progressive Christianity had been planted.

Now I’ve come back full-circle. I’m grateful for my theological education that’s given me the skill to articulate my own understandings about God and Jesus, about other religions, about spirituality, about politics and social justice. I’m also grateful that I did come of age in a time when “All You Need Is Love” was taken absolutely seriously.  Of course, I’m well aware of the flaws of the very-human Beatles and the naiveté of the flower children of the late 60s. However, I’m also aware of a magical, mystical interweaving of theologically-trained hippiedom.

Last week’s 50th anniversary tribute took me righty back to sitting in front of the black and white TV in the house where I grew up. I’ve been listening to and singing Beatles songs ever since. George’s birthday is coming up. My teeny-bopper friends and I used to have birthday parties for all the lads. Maybe I’ll have one this  year, too.

colorful-dreamer-imagine-john-lennon-peace-quote-favim_com-44714You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will live as one

Hallelujah! 
Hare Krishna!

Posted by: Susan Strouse | February 8, 2014

Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan: America’s True Folk Hero?

‘Twas a memorable week for folk music. On the same day I watched the live stream of the Peter Seeger tribute held in Berkeley, I also saw Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl commercial. The juxtaposition of the two 60s icons was just too bizarre for words.

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On the one hand, a memorial to a man who lived his ideals and leaves behind a legacy of love and social action. There’s a movement to have the new Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River named for this man who was the inspiration and driving force behind the river’s cleanup. Personally I think they should rename the river itself. I mean what’s Henry Hudson done for us lately?

On the other hand, there’s Bob Dylan, who chose to use his voice to speak out for the good old American Way (and oh, by the way, buy a Chrysler). Oh, the  heartbreak! I wonder if Tom Paxton (another folk hero) will rework his old song from 1980 “I’m Changing My Name to Chrysler” to reflect Dylan’s new identity as a corporate shill.

Yes, it true, Bob Dylan’s life, career and personality have all gone through a lot of inconsistent changes. His latest incarnation isn’t a total shock. Which is why, I think, Pete Seeger stands out as the true folk hero of our day. He never wavered in his commitment to the values which he sang, worked and lived.

Last week in church we read the Beatitudes and I reflected how hard it is to really live the values that Jesus lays out in that sermon. Yet I can’t think of anyone in my lifetime who embodied those values, including the part about begin persecuted for righteous sake, more than Pete Seeger.

Pete was probably one of those “spiritual but not religious” folks we talk about today. He said once in an interview that he used to say he was an atheist, but not anymore. “According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”

To paraphrase his version of Old Time Religion, “It’s good enough for me.”

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In fact, I’d love to see Pete included in a new version of the book A Passion for Life, which includes icons of such modern-day saints like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero. Wouldn’t it be great to see Pete with his banjo that says “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender” on the cover of the updated edition?

I can’t think of a better way to honor this man. Well, except to continue to live the values, do the work and sing the songs he taught us.

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Rest in peace, Pete and Toshi.

41TRyl9jC-L._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Robert (“Obie”) Holmen has written a comprehensive history of the struggle for full inclusion of LGBT clergy within mainline churches (or ecumenical Protestantism, a term Holmen has adopted). The denominations covered include the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (of which I’m a member). The United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church.

Naturally, I had to turn to the ELCA section first, since my congregation figures prominently in its story. First United was expelled from the ELCA in 1996 for calling and extraordinarily ordaining the Rev. Jeff Johnson, an openly gay seminarian whose approval for ordination had been rescinded by the newly formed ELCA’s policy of exclusion. While I obviously was not the pastor at the time of the ordination or the trial and expulsion, I was part of First United’s decision-making process to rejoin the ELCA after the policy change in 2009. In doing so, I’d say we answered CBS reporter John Blackstone’s question at the time of the extra ordinem ordinations (quoted by Holmen): “Are they out of step with their church or a step ahead?” Even though I know the story, I was engrossed by Holmen’s telling of it, with stories about and by the key players, as well as constitutional and procedural data. 

But the value of this book goes well beyond my own personal interest. I was intrigued by the accounts of the other denominations as well. By reading these extremely well documented accounts of each denomination, one can understand better the struggles of each to address this issue within the confines of its polity. We are not all alike in how we make decisions. For example, Holmen describes the culture clash between emerging American values and those of the third-world, which has particularly affected the Methodists’ process of full inclusion.

I also appreciated Holmen’s attention to the interconnectedness of the struggles for LGBT ordination and the ordination of women. He posits that misogyny and homophobia are two sides of the same sociological coin, and that in a patriarchal system such as traditional Christianity, the two are yoked as a paired tandem. Therefore, the two movements should naturally be supportive of each other.

Interestingly, I’ve seen this played out in the ELCA, which has a quota system that mandates equal female participation at synod assemblies, etc. Holmen cites statistical evidence that women, and especially women clergy, tend to be more progressive than their male counterparts. This has meant that the increased role of women in leadership positions has moved the church in a more progressive direction. Conservative commentators concur, railing against the quota system as a contributing factor in the vote that allowed LGBT clergy in 2009.

Speaking of conservatives, I also found the accounts of the “gatekeeper organizations” fascinating. Included are not only those within each denomination, but also outside organizations, such as the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a neo-conservative “think tank,” which works to blunt the progressive influence of the ecumenical churches.

All in all, this is both a must-have reference book and a good read. There’s a lot of blow-by-blow information about constitutional wrangling that’s useful for understanding how these decisions are made. But there’s also a wealth of personal stories of the women and men who have lived and served in the midst of these wranglings. We owe it to them to hear their stories, honor their witness and move the church forward in the on-going quest for liberation and the full inclusion of all people.

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