Posted by: Susan Strouse | November 23, 2013

Thanksgiving: an Interfaith Holiday

UnknownIt hasn’t happened since 1888: Thanksgiving and Hanukkah will fall on the same day, that is, the first full day of the eight-day Jewish festival. Inevitably, clever people have named the coming holiday “Thanksgivukkah” and have been creating special foods and other accoutrements (like a turkey-shaped menorah) to celebrate the occasion.

As a follower of Rabbi Jesus, I feel included in the Hanukkah festivities. I’m looking forward to lighting the candles on the menorah I received as a Christmas gift last year. But I’m also wondering how we can make Thanksgiving even more of an interfaith holiday. Just think – Thanksgiving is not a strictly Christian observation. It’s not like Christmas or Easter. It’s all about our human need to give thanks, which is addressed in all the major religious traditions.

For example:

  • Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. - G.K. Chesterton (Christian)
  • If you concentrate on finding whatever is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul. - Rabbi Harold Kushner
  • Thankfulness brings you to the place where the Beloved lives. - Rumi (Sufi)
  • A thankful person is thankful under all circumstances. A complaining soul complains even in paradise. – Baha’u’llah (Baha’i)
  • Give thanks for unknown blessings already on their way. – Native American 
  • You have no cause for anything but gratitude and joy. - The Buddha
  • Under affliction in the very depths, stop and contemplate what you have to be grateful for. – Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science)

See what I mean? Gratitude, thankfulness, blessings: on this one day at least, we have language in common. Many communities have already recognized this and have been holding interfaith Thanksgiving services. But why not make it more official, more institutionalized?


Also – in response to Macy’s decision to be open for business on the 28th, a call has gone out for  “No Shopping on Thanksgiving Day!” A day set aside for giving thanks with friends nad family should not include going to the mall to buy stuff we can get any other day. This is also language   that can speak across religious traditions.

Why not declare Thanksgiving to be an interfaith holiday, dedicated to giving thanks, sharing our common humanity, eating together, singing and praying together? These are the things we really need! Maybe then we wouldn’t feel like we had to run out to Macy’s for that big sale on a bunch of things that we really do not need at all.

Posted by: Susan Strouse | November 16, 2013

Occupy Your Sacred Self – Part 2

Last week I wrote a reflection about the Women of Spirit and Faith gathering, “Alchemy: Occupy Your Sacred Self.”


After re-reading it, I thought it might have come across as critical or negative – which was certainly not my intention. As a ‘T’ on the Myers-Briggs indicator, I tend to analyze stuff and pull out patterns, implications and other assessments. I know – way too T-ish! So this week I want to highlight some of the stuff that was just plain good – no analysis or evaluation needed.

The best thing was the theme of collaboration and the need for a new paradigm of leadership in the world. The conference itself was a model of how to put this into practice. Unlike most events like this, there were no keynote speakers, even though there were some big-name women, like Naomi Tutu, among us. But the idea was that each woman was a leader and each brought wisdom and expertise to the gathering.

WaterEven the schedule for each day was pretty loosely planned. There was a framework, but the planners allowed space for unexpected things to happen. One of their decisions was to say “Yes” to any woman who asked to contribute a chant, song or ritual. That meant being highly flexible and willing to make changes quickly and without drama. Would that could be true everywhere!


A beautiful symbol of this openness to the unknown and unexpected was the clear glass bowl that sat on the stage in the stage in the center of the ballroom for the entire event. The meaning of the empty bowl was that we had created a space for whatever wanted/needed to show up. That could be something for an individual or for the entire assembly.


The other thing that I loved was the intergenerationality of the conference. There was a good number of younger women there - and by younger I don’t mean under 50. There was truly participation by 20 and 30-somethings. But we oldsters weren’t neglected. There were many references to the wisdom of the elders, as well as the energy and creativity of the young ones. In fact, on the final day a group of elders and young women met in a circle among us all to share their thoughts, experiences and ideas for carrying the spirit of “Alchemy” forward.

I very much appreciated this coming together of generations. As much as I wonder how I could have ever reached the age of being an elder, I know that I have. Especially now, having two much younger colleagues, I feel the generation gap.


What annoys me is that a lot that’s being written about the emerging church and the new re-formation assumes that it’s only younger pastors who “get it.” I suppose I was just as arrogant when I was young, although I do remember older colleagues I admired and respected. So I just wish that writers would recognize some of us “dinosaurs” who are still out here doing the work of transformation and are quite happy to collaborate with our younger colleagues.

Whoops, I guess I just succumbed to negativity again. But, forgive, me it was in service to the positive experience of “Alchemy!”

The pictures above are the altars that Sridevi Ramanathan and I created for the conference based on the four elements: fire, water, earth and air – with the empty bowl for space in the middle.  

Posted by: Susan Strouse | November 9, 2013

Occupy Your Sacred (Christian) Self

This weekend I’m at the “Alchemy: Occupy Your Sacred Self” gathering at the Sofitel Hotel in Redwood City. This is the second event sponsored by Women of Spirit and Faith. There are about 120 women here, from all over the country and the world, representing many traditions, races, ethnicities and religions. It’s also refreshingly intergenerational. There’s a lot of emphasis on indigenous peoples, on our connection to Mother Earth and healing the world. A wonderful Spirit is dancing throughout, a spirit of collaboration, interconnectedness and ways of leadership that claim the gifts of women (as one woman described as “power and grace”).

There have been only two discordant notes for me – nothing that has tarnished the glow of the gathering, but they’ve been causing me to think. The first was during the opening ritual, which included music, meditation, chants and prayers from a variety of traditions. One was a prayer offered by a woman who identified herself as an Episcopal priest and then said that she guessed that many in the room probably didn’t know what that was, that there probably weren’t very many Christian people here. As she looked around, she asked if there were other Christian people out there. Quite a few hands went up around the room, and she greeted us enthusiastically with “Hello, Christian people!”

Now this is not a criticism of this woman. But it did raise some questions for me. One is about the place of Christianity in the inter-spiritual movement. Is it expected that most Christians cannot or will not be open to other ways of belief and/or practice? Must Christians be apologetic about who we are? And if we don’t want to be apologetic, then how do we present Christianity in a way that intersects and interconnects with other traditions?

IMG_0416I was talking about this with one of the conference organizers (who happens also to be a Lutheran) and she had had the same discordant reaction. As she talked about having grown up in a church that honored other religions, she lifted the symbol that hung from the chain around her neck, a drop of water with a small cross  on one side and said, “I am a Christian; that’s why I wear this symbol of my baptism.” My experience has been different. I’ve had to struggle  through a process of deconstruction and reconstruction of what it means to be Christian, while my friend has always been comfortable in her inter-religious Christian skin. But we wondered together how we interfaith-friendly, inter-spiritual Christians are going to learn to speak unapologetically and boldly from our tradition.

The other discordant note has been the attitude among many participants that inter-spirituality is better than belonging to a particular religious tradition. I’ve noted before that there is a divide in the interfaith movement between those who insist that one must first be grounded in a particular religion in order to explore other paths and those who insist that one does not. There seems to be a dualism, an either/or mentality growing in the very movement that espouses interconnectedness, a both/and vision. And I believe there needs to be a conversation about this very soon.
I suppose the two concerns are connected, growing pains of a movement. And even with the discordant, thought-provoking notes, I’m grateful to be part of it.
Posted by: Susan Strouse | November 2, 2013

Spiritual Chiropractic


A car accident can really mess up your body. Lots of people told me to expect problems down the road. While I didn’t disbelieve them, I didn’t anticipate the ongoing challenge of getting my equilibrium back – even after 2 months. I’ve been seeing my chiropractor weekly since the accident, but lately I’ve needed some more intense treatment. For some reason my spine keeps going out of alignment. Thankfully, I know who to turn to and where to go to get a tune-up for my physical self.

All this has made me wonder about the times our spiritual selves get out of alignment. Where do we go and what do we do? Even if you’re a regular church-goer, the Sunday service might not provide all you need. Especially if you’re clergy or involved  in leadership in some way, Sunday can be a time of serving, but not attending to your own spiritual needs. So what to do when you need a chiropractor for the soul?

San Damiano

Yes, you can talk to your pastor or spiritual director. But I’ve found that there are also other practices that can help with spiritual realignment. One of these, of course, is the labyrinth. Especially if I enter with a specific problem, concern or feeling, being open to the wisdom that often comes while I’m walking.


I’ve also found that taking my cell phone with me on regular walks can be a spiritual practice. No, not to
make phone calls or play games, but to take pictures. As I walk I try to be attentive to the little things I see along the way - plants, flowers, details of buildings, cracks in the sidewalk - anything unusual and thought-provoking. Not only does this slow me down and make me less goal-oriented, it also helps me to be more attentive to the presence of God everywhere.


And of course there’s music. I downloaded two new CDs of meditative music, plus one of the sound of ocean waves. Very spiritually chiropractic!

Then there’s coloring – yes, coloring! I especially love my mandala coloring books and find that the calming activity is actually a meditative practice. To make it even more fun, you can put together a Smilebox creation. I made one using mandalas I colored and excerpts from the poetry of Rumi. You can check it out by clicking here.

And another of Hildegard of Bingen pictures accompanied by her music. Click here.

What kinds of spiritual chiropractices have you found to helpful in keeping your spirit aligned?

Posted by: Susan Strouse | October 26, 2013

Re-thinking Re-formation at the Jesus Seminar

What a mind and spirit boggling week it’s been!  First, I spent two days at the Fall Meeting of the Westar Institute (yes, the Jesus Seminar people), where the theme was “Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies?”


If you’ve ever been to a WI event, you know how academic it is. The intellectual pursuit is the be all and end all. One brave soul dared to ask a question about mystical experiences and was quickly dismissed, and further discussion was squelched.

I enjoyed the lectures, though. There was some good information and interesting ideas. But, for me, something was missing.


So, off I went on Saturday to an all-day session on Interspiritual Meditation. Talk about opposite ends of the spectrum!  Just thinking about bringing those two groups together makes me giggle.

But here’s the thing: both groups are dealing with the quest to find meaning beyond the traditional teachings with which many of us were raised. As an heir to the Reformation tenet of  “Ecclesia semper reformanda est (“the church is always to be reformed”), I have mixed feelings.

On one hand, I applaud and affirm these explorations. On the other, I wonder what is to become of the church as we know it. Someone at the Westar conference asked one of the speakers if he thought the church could change and become accepting of these new ways of thinking. His answer was “No.”  The Baby Boomers (like most of us in the audience) can’t do it, and Millennials aren’t interested.

Indeed, interspirituality may be the choice of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious.”

So what am I to think as I prepare for tomorrow’s Reformation Day service?

First of all: Hooray for Martin Luther, posting those 95 theses as items of discussion on the church door!  And: Hooray for Martin Luther making a courageous stand for change!


But I’m also left with questions.  What will change look like as we move further into the 21st century? What will emerge from our new initiative of outreach to the  “spiritual but not religious” folks of our community? How will we be changed by their presence? How will they be changed by ours?

Lots of questions as Re-formation continues.
But Hooray! anyway.
Let’s celebrate – even with all our questions and uncertainties.
Ecclesia semper reformanda est!

Posted by: Susan Strouse | October 17, 2013

Prayer by the Ocean

I went to the ocean to pray today. I was hoping to receive some wisdom about some particualrly thorny problems. Actually, I was hoping for some answers!

IMG_0327I’ve come to realize that, for me, to be near the the ocean is to inhabit a thin place – as Celtic spirituality calls those places where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin, a place where we can sense the Divine more readily.

The ocean is that kind of place for me. The sight and sound of the waves, the smell of the sea, the touch of sand and rocks and shells – it’s a full-sensory prayer experience.  And I do mean prayer. I’m here for a pastors’ conference, and we’ve had lots of times of worship and prayer. Mostly all of them lovely and meaningful. But, for me, nothing like the holy communication that has happened in the times I’ve wandered away into that thin place.

I wonder what kinds of places or practices others find to be their own special ways of connecting to the Holy – of prayer, if you will. I would never make the claim that my way is THE way. I know that there are a multitude of ways to enter into holy conversation: music, art, poetry, silence, etc.

It’s been of immense importance to me to come to this awareness. I know that I need to come to the ocean to pray – with words and without. I have encountered Wisdom here these past few days, not necessarily answers, but insight, peacefulness and renewed strength for the tasks ahead.

Now as I’m preparing to leave, listening to the barking of sea lions not too far off shore, I make a new commitment to prayer by the ocean. Thankfully  I live in a place where this is not difficult!

What has been a thin place for you?

Posted by: Susan Strouse | October 16, 2013

On Being a Pastoral Dinosaur

It didn’t help that I had a positively crappy two months:  from a tooth infection, leading to three root canals – to an accident on the Bay Bridge, totaling my car – to a nasty bout of hives, rendering me loopy from the antihistamines.  I’ve kinda been a wreck.

On top of that was the arrival of our seminary intern. Don’t get me wrong; that’s been wonderful. It’s just that – for someone who’s supposed to be modeling strong leadership – I feel like the model for Dufus Pastor of the Year. People keep reminding me that it takes time to recover emotionally from an accident, but it’s disconcerting when I forget or misplace something. Hard times for this recovering perfectionist.

The thing is – it makes me feel old! Not only have I been reminded of my physical and emotional vulnerability these past two months, I’ve also realized that I’m a dinosaur.

Our young intern brings new energy and creativity to the congregation. Our newly called Mission Developer is also young and eager to get out and do the work of ministering in new and innovative ways. Both are Millennials, the face of the church of the 21st century. And I am so excited to be part of mentoring them and helping them to launch into new ways of being church.

That said, though, I do feel some sadness. It’s strange to go from being an “up and coming new leader of the church” to being a “wise, old mentor.”  Once upon a time, we Baby Boomers were going to change the world. Now we have to get out of the way and let the young’uns do it. Who would’ve thought?!

But I know that I’m just cranky right now, still dealing with insurance claims, gasping at endodontist bills and figuring out how to connect my new phone in my new car (a Millennial would just know). Tomorrow I’ll be back at being a progressive pastor in the emerging,  curating, re-forming new/old paradigm of the 21st century church.

This dinosaur ain’t extinct just yet.

Posted by: Susan Strouse | October 5, 2013

Why Pastors Smile


Some time ago I wrote about Roger, who lives in a “healthcare facility” (I guess “nursing home” developed a negative connotation, so we changed the name). He’s been physically incapacitated for many years, but still retains a sharp, intellectual and inquisitive mind. We talk about everything from politics and current events to religion and philosophy. And of course – pawnbroking.

Roger’s PhD thesis back in the 80s was entitled “Pawnbroking and the Working Class in Victorian London: 1850-1914″.  For reasons I won’t go into again, he never received his degree – a regret that has haunted him more and more in the waning years of his life.

With a degree eliminated as a possibility (not through lack of trying), the publishing route opened up. CreateSpace, a self-publishing arm of Amazon, was the perfect solution. And as soon as I submit some final details, the book will go up for sale on Funds for the project came from the church and others who have come to know and love Roger.

The main thing I know and want to share about all this is the dramatic change in Roger’s face today from his downcast look as I approached and asked how he was doing to – of all things – a smile! And words I don’t think I have ever heard from him: “I am so happy.”

Roger is almost blind; he can barely see his name on the cover. I read him the introduction that I wrote and the blurb on the back cover written by a member of the congregation who teaches at the University of San Francisco – who also helped with the publishing process. He shook his head several times and said, “I can’t believe I’m an author.”

I showed the book to the volunteer at the reception desk, who was duly impressed. Roger was beaming. He asked if he could keep the copy I brought so he could show it to his chess buddy. “Of course,” I said, “it IS Yours.”

All that’s left to do now is plan the book release party. I’m hoping that many friends and church members will come and celebrate with this wonderful man, who deserves some happiness in his life.

His one regret, he said, is that his wife isn’t alive to see it. She was an integral part of his research and his biggest fan. He still misses her dearly. I hope that somewhere in the great beyond she is smiling with Roger too.

The bottom line is this: it’s for this we are created – to care for one another, to help one another find meaning in life and fulfill our deepest hopes and dreams. It’s not often we can actually do this or know we’ve done it. Often, we can barely help ourselves find meaning. And good luck with the hopes and dreams.

But it does happen. And sometimes we even know it at the time it happens. And it feels oh, so wonderful.

Today I’m happy because Roger is happy. No, not because I’m hopelessly co-dependent. But because a wrong has been righted; a dream has been fulfilled; a long effort by a lot of people has come to fruition.

And because Roger is smiling.

Posted by: Susan Strouse | September 21, 2013

Cosmic Wow!

My mind has been on the cosmos. Some might take this as confirmation that my head is always in the clouds. But it’s quite the opposite. In getting ready for Cosmos Sunday (Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation), I was taken with the statement from the season of creation website*:

“The special focus for this service is not only the cosmos in all its immensity and wonder, but also the spiritual impulse or presence that permeates the universe and is connected with each of us on Earth.”


I love looking at pictures from space like this one. The vastness of the universe is so mind-boggling, so incomprehensible, yet so fascinating. And maybe this vastness is just one of many, part of a multiverse of an infinite number of universes. Like I said: mind-boggling!

In spiritual terms, we sometimes even talk about the universe as the body of God. I happen to think that’s a metaphor which bears much more exploration (Hmm, gives new meaning to “space, the final frontier”). But here’s the part I think we often miss: “connected with each of us on Earth.” The cosmos is not just “out there;” it’s right here.

Joni Mitchell got it right back in 1969*:

We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon . . .
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.  

We are creatures of the Earth, with a responsibility to take care of the garden. Environmentalism is a cosmic issue.

That’s why I was so excited to meet one of our partners at Turk & Lyon, the community center supported by First United Lutheran and St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Churches. Morgan Fitzgibbons, who lists his occupation as Community Organizer/Philosopher, is a leader in the Wigg Party (that’s Wigg, not Whig), a community organization based in SF neighborhoods surrounding the bike route known as the Wiggle.

That’s exciting enough. But this week I learned that he’ll be teaching a course in the Environmental Studies program at the University of San Francisco entitled “Cosmos and Community: Teilhard, Berry, and the Great Work.”

Wow! Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, scientist and spiritual radical AND priest and self-described “Earth scholar” Thomas Berry!  Who better to go soaring with into space and digging in the garden at the same time.

I think Fitzgibbons is on to something with his title. I think we should follow his lead and change the title of Cosmos Sunday to  Cosmos & Community. That way we avoid the perception or the temptation of soaring only out into the wonders space without being down to earth in our communal endeavors to heal the world.

We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden – together. Cosmic, isn’t it?



* Woodstock, Joni Mitchell

Posted by: Susan Strouse | September 14, 2013

Moving the Church (Slowly) into the 21st Century

We talk a lot these days about the sad state of the church, how membership is dwindling due to a myriad of factors. We put the blame on our stressed-out culture, our over-worked and over-scheduled lifestyles. We point our fingers at the secularization of our society, in which kids now go to soccer practice on Sunday morning.  And we look with bewilderment (and annoyance) at that very large number of people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”

Oh, we’ve tried to change. Back in the 90′s we ran to all the Church Growth seminars and learned how to create ‘seeker’ services. We formed worship bands, creating worship wars between ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ services. Changing Church gurus promised that if we carefully followed their model, our congregations would become megachurches. One program was actually called “Blueprints for Congregational Growth.” But I can attest that, despite following instructions to the letter, my last congregation did not become a megachurch – thank God!  It’s still a small church in a rust belt city doing great things with creativity and imagination.

So I get that many of us are reluctant to jump onto the bandwagon of yet another ‘new paradigm.’ I chuckle when I remember my older colleagues grumbling about the church growth movement. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t excited about these new developments, why they wouldn’t get with the program. Now that I’m the older colleague, I get it. It’s hard to be a pastor, trained in one way to be a leader in the church, then asked to do it all in a very different way. So, former colleagues, if you happen to be reading this – my apologies to you for my youthful arrogance.

However, that doesn’t mean that I won’t do my best to face the challenges of being the church of the 21st century. I believe that I’ve done that, in my commitment to progressive Christianity, inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God, and my willingness to take a stand for issues of justice.

And now we’ve decided to move beyond finger-pointing and rhetoric about the growth of the ‘None’ demographic, the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious,’ identifiers, and the ‘Church Alumni Society’ (described by Bishop John Shelby Spong). At First United, we’re about to embark upon a new adventure of reaching out to all these folks. But let me very clear: we aren’t doing it in order to drag them into our church, give them envelopes, put them on committees, and expect them to become like us. The goal is not church growth, at least not in the older sense of that phrase.

It is about the growth of the realm of God, but that kind of language will take some ‘splaining before we start throwing it around out there.  For starters, it’s all about listening , really listening, to the hurts and hopes of people, wherever they are on their spiritual journey – from the never-churched to the victims of abuse by the church.

The challenging part for those of us who love programs and plans, goals and measurable outcomes is that there’s no way to know what will emerge from this endeavor. My hope is that there will be some who will be attracted to the kind of community First United offers. My bigger hope is that a new community will come forth, organized from within by people who have found a safe pace to explore issues of faith and meaning. My biggest hope is that the two communities will find ways to share their experiences and their wisdom – together bringing to birth the church of the 21st century.

So stay tuned to this space. I hope that we’ll have an official launch date soon. But, in effect, we’ve already begun.

And this old-ish pastor is excited!

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