Posted by: smstrouse | May 20, 2022

Teaching Civil Conversation – then Buffalo Happens

This past weekend, I led a retreat and preached at the Church of the Nativity in Buffalo, NY. After phone and Zoom conversations beforehand with the planning committee about what they wanted to get out of our time together, we decided the title for the weekend would be “Carrying Christ into a Divided World.”

It all started with Pastor Ruth Snyder, who’s been my best friend since the days I served a congregation in Buffalo. She heard the committee discussing ideas and said, “You know, I have a friend who might be able to help.” She picked up her phone and just happened (despite three hours time difference) to catch me in my office. The original idea had been my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters? But it quickly turned to our current national quandary: how do we have civil conversations with people with whom we disagree.

I’ve been saying for a while now that the process of talking across differences in religious beliefs could be the same for political and cultural beliefs as well. The event I helped organize, Hearts Across the Divide: Reclaiming Civil Discourse, had been scheduled for March 2020. Of course COVID put an end to that. For that event, we had lined up an experienced facilitator in this kind of dialogue. For this retreat, I would be the “expert” and it would come from a Christian context.

We spent the first half of the day grounding our endeavor in our faith. In the second half we learned some tools for doing the work. I’m a firm believer that it’s not enough to write and read books and articles about the need to do this work; we have to make the commitment to do it. And believe me – it is not easy! But, like everything worth doing, it takes practice.

One of the things I did was show Valerie Kaur’s TED Talk: 3 lessons of revolutionary love in a time of rage. Her Revolutionary Love Project calls us to join “a revolution of the heart.” If you take the pledge to rise up in Revolutionary Love, this is what you’ll declare:

  1. We declare our love for all who are in harm’s way.
  2. We declare love even for our opponents
  3. We declare love for ourselves.  

Of course #2 is the hard one.
Kaur: “It’s tempting to see our opponents as evil, but I have learned that there are no such things as monsters in this world, only human beings who are wounded, people whose insecurities or anxieties or greed or blindness cause them to hurt us. Our opponents – the terrorist, the fanatic, the demagogue in office – are people who don’t know what else to do with their insecurity but to hurt us, to pull the trigger, or cast the vote, or pass the policy aimed at us.” And she encourages us to “tend the wound,”

Make no mistake: Valerie Kaur is not naive; you have only to read or watch her to know this. And so I encouraged retreat participants to learn to listen to the stories of those with whom they disagree, to learn to regulate their own anger, defensiveness, and fight or flight reactions. It’s a hard first step in a process of relationship-building and, hopefully, a glimmer of mutual understanding.

Ruth and I did a role-play, in which I met with a pro-life evangelical pastor. It was heartening to see how people got the wisdom of establishing connection and trust before getting into the disagreements.

And then . . . we discovered at the very time we were engaged in peace-building, a gunman opened fire in a predominately Black neighborhood in Buffalo. Kaur’s words bounced around in my head along with the heart-rending news and pictures and stories of the victims and their families and neighbors.

It’s tempting to see our opponents as evil, but I have learned that there are no such things as monsters in this world, only human beings who are wounded, people whose insecurities or anxieties or greed or blindness cause them to hurt us.

Now, I know there have been calls by many to not be sidetracked by questions of this man’s mental health or other factors that might have played into his evil actions. But I believe in the “both/and” where most of life resides. We can both try to understand (which does not mean excusing) and condemn his actions.

As I tried to work through my own emotions and my belief in the work of civil conversation, I wondered how Kaur would respond. In her blog post this week, ‘grieving in the wake of Buffalo,’ she called us to “reach out to the colleagues, neighbors, relatives in your life who subscribe to this dangerous and racist belief (replacement theory). Open a channel for deep listening, share stories, stop the spread of misinformation.”  

Yes, this is where it gets really hard. And we have to do the work of #1 and #3 as well. But if we are going to have any impact on the hearts and minds of people who have bought into dangerous ideas – many of them fueled by unscrupulous politicians and media personalities – we have to move into the both/and parts of our brains. And get to work.

Posted by: smstrouse | August 20, 2021

Why I Changed the Name of My Blog


Still a “Proud Member of the Religious Left. But.

Make no mistake; my political leanings have not changed. I am still a “Proud Member of the Religious Left.” But . . . or rather I should say And . . .

in the wake of election, pandemic, political, cultural, and religious divisiveness, it’s pretty clear that we need a shift in our way of being with one another – all of our one-anothers.

It’s no secret that we are a deeply divided country. Rants from every side on every issue ricochet off our silo walls. Families, friendships, churches have been rent asunder. I hear many voices bemoaning this sorry state, but few suggestions of ways to move forward.

I’m not being preachy here; I know that I need to make this shift. It’s been too easy to shelter inside my neatly ordered world of those who are of the same mind as me. Truth be told, I do my share of ranting. The issues confronting us today inspire outrage and passion. I don’t expect that to end any time soon. I also know I have to do better.

The most important word

Lately I have been intrigued and inspired by Father Richard Rohr’s take on his organization, The Center for Action and Contemplation:

The most important word in our name is not Action nor is it Contemplation;
it’s the word ’and’. 
We need both compassionate action and contemplative practice for the spiritual journey.


Ah, I think he’s onto something. I look around and I notice how much either/or, black/white, all-or-nothing thinking abounds – everywhere. Social media and cable news thrive on it, but it infects our personal interactions as well.

Take this example. It’s a meme that showed up a few years ago. Its wish for help for homeless veterans is set against others’ wish for help for immigrants and refugees. But it’s a false dichotomy. There’s no reason to limit our care to either homeless veterans or immigrants and refugees, when in reality we can care for both/and.

Generally speaking, social media has become very unsocial and not a place where much constructive dialogue happens. With the exception of sites like Smart Politics, where the stated purpose is to teach progressives how to talk across partisan divides, most of the ‘dialogue’ is either ‘gotcha’ memes or personal attacks.


It’s not always along the political divide, either. Even groups that are purportedly religious have become pretty toxic. We seem to have become captive to a hierarchy of grievances. Most of the grievances are valid. However the makeup of the hierarchy shifts from group to group, depending on who is seen as privileged and who is seen as oppressed. But all that happens in these Oppression Olympics is that we all end up being losers. 

The way out of this quagmire is to ditch hierarchical models of either/or, top/bottom, in/out and begin Living into ‘And’.

* Oppression Olympics is a term used when two or more groups compete to prove themselves more oppressed than the others.

Showing up for one another

Living into ‘And’ opens up a lot more space for us to address the social ills of our day. I can be anti-racist and address problems created by misogyny. I can advocate for lgbtq+ rights and address the rights of those who are disabled. I’m not saying that every advocacy organization should take on every issue; they should keep on doing what they do best. We each may have one issue that is of primary importance, but that doesn’t mean we ignore or negate the importance of the others. The result of Living into ‘And’ is that we can show up for one another.


I just started reading Dear White Peacemakers by Osheta Moore and she has the perfect illustration. She decided to attend the Special Olympics because a friend had told her: “we belong to each other. Every single person whom God has made is immediately a member of this large, messy family. We’re siblings, and siblings show up for one another.”

She describes this ‘Living into And’ experience:
“That weekend my disabled siblings were running and playing their hearts out, so I decided to gather the kids, make some signs, and spend a Saturday cheering them on. Having three children who are grossly labeled as “typical,” I was challenged by Margot’s encouragement to show up because I rarely if at all make space to consider how people with disabilities move through their lives. Because I don’t have to, it’s easy to not grieve their losses, celebrate their joys, or learn how they perceive this big, vast, challenging world. For over thirty years of my life, I’ve lived with them, but never for them, and most definitely not among them. And so I decided to pay attention, first to their joys at the Special Olympics and then to their perspective by learning from Margot, whose intentional community gathers people of all abilities to truly become that large, messy family.”

So much better than the Oppression Olympics!

This poem by blogger Todd Jenkins appeared in my inbox this week – just in time for me to include it here.


I had a side,
and I thought my side
mattered, a lot.
The people on my side
were like me,
and they made it feel
good to be me.

What I couldn’t see
from my side,
because I was blinded
by my reflection
in all the people on my side,
was that I wasn’t put
on this earth to create sides
or choose sides.

There’s a reason
the planet is round.
It doesn’t have sides.

I was put here
to invite people
to a table;
a round table
that doesn’t have sides.
I bet you were, too.

It’s not even my table.
It’s God’s table;
a table of welcome,
a table of generosity,
a table of abundance.

Welcome to
the table of grace.

© 2021 Todd Jenkins

Finally, here’s more encouragement from one of Cameron Trimble’s posts on the Convergence Facebook page.
May we Live into And together!


Read More…

Posted by: smstrouse | December 19, 2020

Magnificat! Means Dismantling Patriarchy*

*This is a repost from June, 2018
For the Fourth Sunday in Advent, 2020


Did you know that in the 1800s, British authorities banned The Magnificat from being recited in church?

And in the 1970s, Argentinian authorities banned The Magnificat after the ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ used it to call for nonviolent resistance to the ruling military junta?

And Mary said:My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.
You have shown strength with your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their conceit;
you have deposed the mighty from their thrones,
and raised the lowly to high places.
you have filled the hungry with good things,
while you have sent the rich away empty.   (Luke 1: 46-53)

I found this great tee shirt on Ben Wildflower’s Apocalyptic Art store on Etsy. And I absolutely love it! This image of Mary illustrates what I’ve been thinking for a while now: Mary is one of our greatest prophets. 


The Magnificat is Mary’s response to her cousin Elizabeth after telling her about her pregnancy. For too long, Mary the mother of Jesus has been portrayed as virginal, meek and mild, and obedient. Then, of course, these attributes are lifted up as the example for all of womanhood. But here we have another way to look at Mary – a faithful, obedient servant God, speaking in a powerful, prophetic voice of God’s justice. 


Throughout history, the rich, mighty, and proud were quick to get Mary’s subversive message. Yes, The Magnificat was banned being sung or read in India under British rule. Yes, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo plastered her words on posters throughout the capital plaza. In the 1980’s, it was banned in Guatemala. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian killed by the Nazis in 1945, wrote:

The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here….. This song… a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth. (The Mystery of Holy Night)

I love to preach about revolutionary Mary in Advent when the Luke text always appears. But now, I’m also claiming her as patron saint of this blog, which is dedicated to the dismantling of patriarchy.


By definition, patriarchy is a system in which men have power over women patriarchal society consists of a male-dominated power structure throughout organized society and in individual relationships. But I want to go beyond just the male/female power dynamic to address all patriarchal dualities.

Dualism divides the world into opposed pairs of concepts. In this system, one concept in each pair is deemed superior to the other: men better than women, humans better than nature, mind better than body, etc. It’s easy to see how judgments about gender, race, class, etc. arise out of this way of seeing “reality.”


In the patriarchal belief system, ‘masculine’ qualities of reason and analysis are deemed superior to intuitive, emotional ‘feminine’ qualities. Misogyny isn’t just about women; it includes anyone perceived to be ‘like a woman,’ which explains much of the homophobia directed towards gay men. Homophobia is underpinned by patriarchy, which defines what it means to be a ‘real man’ and a ‘real woman.’ The domination of women and the domination of nature are also fundamentally connected, which has lead us to the brink of environmental destruction. 


Unfortunately, it’s been religion that has propped up this dualistic, misogynistic, body-denying, earth-destroyng worldview.  And it’s time for it to end. This blog will continue to explore the religious roots of patriarchy – in all its forms – and hopefully contribute to dismantling at least a small piece of it. 

*** The Magnificat image is used with permission.
*** You can find other prints by Ben Wildflower here.


Some years ago, the congregation where I was the pastor decided they needed a new logo – something that would immediately convey who we were as a progressive Christian church. So we engaged the services of a graphic designer and anxiously awaited our new look.

The first design we were given was an immediate flop – but I don’t fault the designer. The logo was the classic power button symbol – but with a cross inside. It really was quite good. But I told our designer that the congregation wouldn’t go for it. She looked at me quizzically and I explained that, while the cross was indeed the central symbol of the faith, it was problematic for many progressives who didn’t want to be identified with evangelical Christianity. And I was right; they took one look at it and voted thumbs down.

I am reminded of this experience every time I see a picture of Kayleigh McEnany, current White House press secretary. No matter what outfit she’s wearing, a little gold cross is always front and center.


In no way am I mocking or criticizing her for wearing a cross. It’s obviously a very meaningful expression of her faith. However, there are major differences between what she and I believe as Christians.

A recent article in The New Republic describes McEnany’s belief in what she perceives to be a war on Christian belief and morality in America. She was strongly inspired by the death of Rachel Joy Scott, one of the students at Columbine High School in 1999. As the story is often told, the shooters asked Scott if she believed in God. When she said yes, they shot her four times.

At first I was confused. I remembered a story like this, but the name was different. I knew there was a book about Cassie Bernall entitled She Said Yes. Rachel Scott’s story is similar. A book written by her father is entitled Rachel Smiles: The Spiritual Legacy of Columbine Martyr Rachel Scott.

It has been widely reported that there was no religious motivation for the murders that day. But that hasn’t stopped Bernall and Scott’s elevation to martyrdom, proof of religious persecution of Christians that continues to this day in the minds of many evangelicals – as McEnany wrote in a column on the fourteenth anniversary of Columbine:


“As Congress tries relentlessly to squelch religious liberty and remove God from our public buildings, our schools, and our heritage, let’s choose instead to honor the written word of Rachel Joy Scott this April 20th:
“I am not going to apologize for speaking the Name of Jesus. I am not going to justify my faith to them, and I am not going to hide the light that God has put in me. If I have to sacrifice everything … I will.” 


As a “warrior for Christ” (an appellation taken from Rachel Scott’s journal), McEnany embodies a form of Christianity that I cannot embrace. And with her role in the political arena, it is troubling to see cross and flag so close together.

The question remains: should Progressive Christians abandon the symbol of the cross? I don’t think so. But I continue to struggle with the dilemma of how to promote a form of Christianity that is different in so many ways from McEnany’s.

At an intrafaith workshop I led at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2015, I asked participants what symbol they would choose to put on a float in an interfaith parade. Someone immediately said, “A cross,” but the rest of the room expressed a collective, “No!”

Many other ideas were then offered. But there was no agreement on one symbol. Someone asked if we could have more than one float. And that’s the reality. There is more than one Christianity out there. And it bothers me to see that little gold cross front and center in press conferences, newspapers, and other media.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany holds briefing at the White House in Washington

I’m not suggesting she should take it off. God forbid I be accused of persecuting one of Christ’s warriors. I’m simply raising the question.

Posted by: smstrouse | September 13, 2020

Forgiveness: Even During an Apocalypse


It would be so easy to focus only on the train wreck this year has been. ‘Apocalyptic’ is the word that seems to be the adjective of choice, especially this past week. There’s something about the sky turning orange and ash falling from the sky that makes Old Testament prophets like Joel sound not so bizarre:

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your children will prophesy, your young people will see visions, 
     and your elders will dream dreams.
Even on the most insignificant of my people, 

I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.

The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of our God.

That’s from the reading for Pentecost Sunday, which is the good news of God’s Spirit indeed being poured out. But those signs and wonders – I don’t know about you, but I always want to read that part of Peter’s sermon a little faster to get through it. But it’s impossible to ignore today, when major news outlets have headlines like “Apocalyptic Orange Skies and Dramatic Rescues as Fires Rage in CA.”

As strange as apocalyptic literature in the Bible may seem to us, it’s clear that most people understand ‘apocalyptic’ to refer to the end of the world. And it’s true, this genre of writing that developed in post-exile Judaism and early Christianity did concern itself with end times, prophetic visions (the word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘revelation, unveiling or disclosure’) about the coming of the end of the present evil age and the final advent of God’s realm.

Now here’s the thing. Even though some of the symbols and visions in apocalyptic writings are very strange and, truth be told, frightening, these writings were meant to give hope to God’s people in times of crisis. The faithful are encouraged to look beyond the struggles of this life toward a time of justice under God’s future rule.


These days we tend to talk more about God’s rule being both now and not yet, though sometimes it’s hard to see the ‘now’ part. But, not wanting to put all our hope in a ‘some day’ promise, I wondered what revelations, disclosures, apocalypses might give us hope today. 

The Book of Daniel and COVID-19: Apocalyptic Hope in a Time of Pandemic and Political Oppression

At first glance, the gospel reading (part 2 from Matthew’s chapter 18) doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of good news. As Part 1 last week implied the reality of conflict among the faithful, Part 2 indicates an issue with forgiveness. Peter wants a concrete rule: “How many times do I have to forgive somebody?” We might wonder if he’s thinking about an ongoing offense: “OK Jesus, just how long do I have to put up with someone who’s unrepentant, whose behavior doesn’t change?” Or is he recognizing the fact that he has forgiven someone for an offense, but then when he again feels his anger or his hurt, he has to forgive them all over again, maybe many times? Peter doesn’t say whether this granting of forgiveness is a face-to-face encounter with the wrongdoer or if it’s something taking place within Peter’s heart and mind. 


And it doesn’t really matter because Jesus’ answer applies to either scenario: “You forgive seventy times seven.” Or “seventy-seven times.” All of these ‘sevens’ in this account should clue us in that we’re not talking about the literal number “seven” here, but of innumerable, continual forgiveness. This incalculable amount might also remind us of Lamach, the great-great-great grandson of Cain (remember his murder of his brother Abel?). Lamach appears to have inherited his ancestor’s violent ways, when he vows to take revenge on anyone who does him wrong: “If Cain is avenged seven-fold, then Lamach seventy-sevenfold” (Gen 4:24). Jesus’ call to forgive is a repudiation of this kind of vengeance and violence. 

I’m willing to guess that none of us has been threatening anyone with vengeance and violence. But I’m also willing to guess that most of us, at one time or another, have had a problem with forgiveness. What comes to my mind, as I’m sure to yours, is the danger of forgiveness given too quickly or coerced forgiveness, for example when an abused person is pushed to ‘forgive’ and remain in an ongoing abusive situation. The seventy times seven rule could mean a life of misery, if not a death sentence, for such a person. And surely Jesus would have known that; surely he wouldn’t have created such a rule. 

And he didn’t, not in the way Peter wanted anyway – a hard and fast rule for dealing with the disagreements, bad behaviors, wrongs, hurts, and damages that are part and parcel of our lives as human beings who live in community with one another.  

This whole subject of forgiveness is so fraught with pitfalls, it’s another one of those teachings from Jesus that can cause discomfort – even angst when there comes a time when you find yourself unable or even unwilling to forgive. 

So, like most teachings of Jesus, we need to dig in and explore what this forgiveness business really means and how it can work for us. The first thing we have to do is give up any notion that this is a simple, clear-cut rule. It’s not like the Nike ad, “Just Do It.” Or I should say, it’s not ‘just do it’ and there’s nothing else to it – all over and done. Even those who believe in the immediate granting of forgiveness know this. 

The Amish are often held up as examples of Jesus’ command to forgive. They did just that when a man walked into a one-room school house in Nickel Mines, PA in 2006 and shot ten young girls, killing five. Members of that community have been open about the struggles they’ve had since. The command to forgive does not include the command to just get over it. That’s not how it works. It is work – holy work.

Jesus attempts to describe how it works, not by laying out a technical methodology, but by telling a parable. It’s an exaggerated story, we shouldn’t agonize over why the forgiven official should turn around and be such a jerk. The picture Jesus paints is a window into the economy of the realm of God, a way of life, a way of being – an entire climate in which the atmosphere is love and mercy, in which forgiveness is a quality of mind and heart, an ongoing a way of being, a skillset for living. In this realm, forgiveness isn’t something we do, it’s just part of who we are. 

The whole message of Jesus sounds foolish to those who don’t understand the value system of the realm of God, a system upside-down and completely at odds with the world of greed, power-grasping, violence, and destruction.  A messiah who teaches love, non-violence, who dies on a Roman cross. Ridiculous! But here is the truth: deep down within creation, there is a dynamic even more profound than all of the reality we think we know, one driven by love, humility, creativity, and generosity. Yes, to live in this realm means you will suffer – and it also means you will rise! The logic of self-centered grasping, of trying to save your own life, in the end only results in losing it. A way of life that entails “losing” your life for the sake of love and justice, in the end results in saving it.

I want to tell you about Father Gerry O’Rourke. Father Gerry, who died at age 95 just this past July, was a priest for 70 years. He had been head of ecumenical and interreligious work in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He was instrumental in the founding of United Religions Initiative and the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, which is where I came to know him. He had also done a lot of peace-building work in Northern Ireland, bringing together Catholics and Protestants – talk about conflict management! 

In an interview last year, he said that the polarization going on in the United States right now may seem impossible to overcome, but only if you are not open to that miracle. “Somehow you have to respect one another despite all of that. I mean, first of all, I was the first Catholic priest the Orange (Protestant) man ever spoke with (at an ecumenical dinner). It’s seeing the value of that and letting the other know that you have that respect.”


Forgiveness was a subject very close to Father Gerry’s heart. He once said that “people in the church see me as this ‘forgiveness kind of guy.'” And he was. He would often ask, “Who in your life needs to be forgiven?” I confess that there were times I didn’t want to hear it. I wasn’t willing or ready to forgive. I was still nursing a hurt or a grudge. But he was relentless. When he retired and moved to an assisted living facility here in Burlingame, Pastor Megan Rohrer and I went to visit and to interview him about some of the remarkable achievements of his life.  Watch video here

On the subject of forgiveness, he was quite clear: it’s not about having a feeling of forgiveness. He said, “I have a process that I use. If you want to forgive someone or you want to forgive yourself, the most important word is “willing.” Don’t go to your feelings. Go to your will. Am I willing to forgive? Am I willing to accept forgiveness? This willing, that’s where the power exists.”

I would add that Father Gerry is an example of someone who dedicated his life to living in the here and now realm of God – tapping into that climate of love and mercy, where forgiveness is a quality of mind and heart, an ongoing a way of walking, a skillset for living, a way of being. And he brought that way of being into some of the destructive places of the world – and changed them. 

There is a lot of bad stuff going on in our part of the world right now. We get weary. We become afraid. We feel overwhelmed. Perhaps forgiving yourself is the best thing to do in those moments. Living in the realm of God is loving others as you love -yourself. So be very compassionate and forgiving to yourself – or at least willing to be – as you are compassionate and forgiving to others – or at least willing to be. Remember, it’s a process.

Seventy times seven is the infinite, never-ending economy of God’s realm. The more that we can tap into it, align ourselves with it, abide in the wondrous goodness of it – the more we’re then able to exude the values of it out into the world. There will be no need to say “Just Do It” because we’re able to just be it. 

This is where we find apocalyptic hope. The flaws and failures of human institutions take nothing away from the deeper reality that Jesus taught us. The devastation and destruction of our planet caused by our actions and inactions does not negate our belovedness in God’s eyes. The power of a deadly virus cannot defeat the power of (capital L) Life and (capital L) Love. 

That power is what gives us the where-with-all to do God’s work in the world to overcome flaws and failures, devastation and destruction, and the power of death.

May we not allow the apocalypse of 2020 to defeat us. Instead, may we continue to see revelations of God’s ultimate power, promise, and hope.



Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came up and asked Jesus, “When someone wrongs me, how many times must I forgive? Seven times?”

“No,” Jesus replied, “not seven times; I tell you seventy times seven. And here’s why. 

The kindom of heaven is like a ruler who decided to settle accounts with the royal officials. When the audit was begun, one was brought in who owed tens of millions of dollars. As the debtor had no way of paying, the ruler ordered this official to be sold, along with family and property, in payment of the debt. 

At this, the official bowed down in homage and said, ‘I beg you, your highness, be patient with me and I will pay you back in full!’ 
Moved with pity, the ruler let the official go and wrote off the debt. 

Then that same official went out and met a colleague who owed the official twenty dollars. The official seized and throttled this debtor with the demand, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ 

The debtor dropped to the ground and began to plead, ‘Just give me time and I will pay you back in full!’ 

But the official would hear none of it, and instead had the colleague put in debtor’s prison until the money was paid. 

When the other officials saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and went to the ruler, reporting the entire incident. The ruler sent for the official and said, ‘You worthless wretch! I cancelled your entire debt when you pleaded with me. Should you not have dealt mercifully with your colleague, as I dealt with you?’ 

Posted by: smstrouse | January 6, 2020

Now the Work of Epiphany Begins

susan-pratt-smith-st.-joseph-church-northwoodEpiphany is a much too important part of the Christmas story to be overlooked in the jam-packed holiday season we’ve just come through. If the only story we know is the one we learned from children’s Christmas pageants, we assume that the Magi arrived on the scene at the same time or shortly after the angels and shepherds and were simply part of the great birthday party in the Bethlehem stable. But the Magi play a very specific role in this story that Matthew created to illustrate what the life and death of Jesus meant to him.

As cute as the little kids are in their bathrobes and cardboard crowns, carrying props that resemble gold, frankincense and myrrh, the words of the traditional song hint at darker days to come:
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying, Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.

Not the most cheerful birthday party song. I pity the one who had to offer Jesus that gift. But then Matthew wants us to know that from the very start Jesus was going to cause problems for the powers-that-be. Starting with King Herod, who had so obsequiously asked the Magi to come back and tell him about the newborn child so that he could go and pay tribute, too. If this were a movie, we’d be shouting at the screen, “Don’t believe him!” Thankfully, they’re warned in a dream not to report back and go home another way.

But that’s not the last of it. According to Matthew, after the Magi depart Joseph has a dream in which an angel warns him to take his family and flee to Egypt. A good thing he does because when Herod realizes he’d been tricked by the Magi, he goes into a rage and orders the deaths of all children in and around Bethlehem two years old or younger. 

Did that actually happen? There is no historical evidence for it, despite other valid accounts of Herod’s misdeeds, including murdering three of his own sons, his mother-in-law, and his second wife. But historicity is not Matthew’s point.

His point is that the birth of Jesus would have both religious and political implications. The news of Light coming into the world was not necessarily good news for the rich and powerful of Jesus’ day. In fact, as the Magi discovered, the rich and powerful actually have a vested interest in destroying that Light. As one commentator wrote: “While politicians promise to shake things up and drain the so-called swamp, their words reveal more heat than light. The rich and powerful want to remain rich and powerful even if it means holding onto the status quo of widespread poverty, destruction of species and the eco-sphere, and the growing disparity of the rich and poor.” 

Herods abound – as much today as they have throughout the ages. That’s the reality. But as the Magi discovered, that does not mean that it’s the end of the journey. It simply means (as my GPS often tells me) “rerouting” and going a different way. 

I say simply, but it’s not that simple, is it? When you expect things to go a certain way, anticipate one outcome, one pathway but then have to let go of it and embrace another? Sometimes we get to choose another road, but other times not. All kinds of things can force us onto paths we would not have chosen: job loss, illness, accident, divorce, natural disaster, national upheaval. We make our plans, but often have to turn off the GPS and go forward, not fully knowing where our new path will

That doesn’t mean, though, that we are left with no guidance system. If the Epiphany story tells us anything, it tells us about Divine guidance. A star in the sky leads the Magi to Jesus. A dream warns them to go home a different way. And Joseph’s dream, too, ensures that the Light will continue to shine on.  

I think this is why I love Epiphany so much. It doesn’t allow the Christmas story to stop with a sweet scene in a stable on a silent night. It zooms the birth of Jesus out into the political realm with a realism that we recognize all too well. I remember when I was a kid, I couldn’t understand why Jesus was called Prince of Peace. If he came to bring peace on earth, something had obviously gone wrong. But then I came to understand that the birth of Jesus wasn’t about there being a new Herod in town. The politics of Jesus weren’t the politics of the world. And the politics of Jesus would always be confrontational to the halls of wealth and power. We would always have to stand in opposition to the powers-that-be.

It’s no wonder that being a Christian for the first three centuries was so dangerous. Even the Christmas story itself, so beloved for its promise of “peace on earth,” was essentially a story of political resistance, proclaiming a radically different kind of Savior and a vision of peace on earth based not on power over others, but upon compassion and justice for all people. I think the poem by Howard Thurman, the African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, says it best.

Now the Work of Christmas Begins
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,

to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

That was the work of Jesus; it is our work as well. And I love that Thurman adds making music in the heart to our mission as followers of Jesus. Because music takes us out of our heads and into our hearts – into the realm of wonder. There is wonder in this Epiphany story: stars, dreams, angels, intuition, Zoroastrian strangers with symbolic gifts. Our rational minds want to shout, “That didn’t happen!” But our rational minds don’t know it all. Just because a story isn’t historically true doesn’t mean there’s not truth in it. 

imagesAnd the truth is that there is a star that guides us. Holy Wisdom, Divine Light beckons us both inwardly, into where our own heart of wisdom resides – and outwardly, into the world where we can walk unknown paths with un-rational confidence. 

Our dreams guide us, too. We’re coming up on Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, and we still remember his dream – not just his speech, but his dream – and we recommit ourselves to making it come to pass. We have our own dreams. Maybe you’re a fan of dream interpretation, as I am. Or maybe you strive for a vision that you hold for yourself, your family, your country. Dreams are real and they are powerful. Matthew knew that when he wrote them into his story.  

Epiphany reminds us to pay attention to the mystics – the ancient as well as contemporary ones. Meister Eckhart wrote in the 13th century, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. For God is always needing to be born.” And writing about Christmas, the 20th century mystic, Thomas Merton wrote: “Today, eternity enters into time, and time, sanctified, is caught up into eternity.” 

We, too, are caught up in the mystery of Christ – beyond the story of the first Christmas as told by Matthew and Luke; beyond all the trappings that have come to surround this season – we acknowledge our role in bringing to birth God’s dream for the world. 

There was a TED Talk that went viral back in the fall. Rabbi Sharon Brous spoke eloquently on the subject: “It’s Time to Reclaim Religion.” The video went viral and engendered tons of discussion. What caught my attention were her opening comments about the state of religion today. She began with religious extremism, but then she said that extremism isn’t the only challenge that religion faces today. She says, “At the very same time that we need religion to be a strong force against extremism, it is suffering from a second pernicious trend, what I call ‘religious routine-ism.’ 

“That’s when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don’t mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that’s completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that’s the way things have always been done.”

I would add that for Christianity, another pernicious trend is the normalization of a kind of faith that I don’t believe Jesus would recognize, for example religious leaders like Franklin Graham aligning themselves with political powers-that-be. 

This Epiphany, we cannot succumb to ‘religious routine-ism’ or the normalization of a Christianity not true to the gospel. We must step out in faith into the world to claim the name of Jesus as our teacher, the Spirit of Christ as our guiding star. 

There’s a new Herod in town. But our Divine GPS system is on the job, giving us the new way. It might not be an easy way – I dare say that it won’t be easy at all. But if we’re true to our roots as Christians, we’ll acknowledge that it was never meant to be easy. 

The Twelve Days are over. The Nativity set is put away. 

The song of the angels has now been stilled, the star in the sky is gone,
the Magi have gone home, and the shepherds are back with their flocks.

And now, now – in Epiphany, the work of Christmas begins.




Posted by: smstrouse | December 22, 2019

Revolutionary Love on Advent 4

weaselHow Would You Define Love?

We could spend hours discussing that question. But here’s a definition I didn’t expect. According to a prominent theologian, love is a “weasel word.” I didn‘t know what a “weasel word” was, but it didn’t sound good. So I looked it up. A “weasel word” is a word that’s used to create an impression that a meaningful statement has been made, but really communicates only a vague or ambiguous claim. 

I knew immediately what that meant. Some time ago, at an interfaith meeting, we were trying to come up with a name for a new children’s program. Someone suggested “Interfaith Families for Peace.” Someone else said, “No, peace is such a meaningless word.” I was shocked at first, but then I got it: “peace” has also become a “weasel word.” How sad that two of the most important words in the church have become so trite – two words that are so integral to this season. 

But if love is going to be more than a “weasel word,” we have to be very intentional about what love is. But what is it? Despite the millions of poems, songs, and works of art devoted to love, there are very few definitions.


I was at a rally recently, and one of the leaders was leading a prayer chant. She started out by saying we would be using the name God, but if anyone was uncomfortable with that, they could use the word “Love” – which for those of us who believe in God is totally fine, since we say that God is Love.

Still, it’s a little hard to pin down exactly what it means. But as we approach the Christmas celebration, we are coming closer to the story that, for us, makes the most meaningful statement – not with academic theological ruminations, but with song, poetry, and imagery. Maybe that’s the only way we really can get at it. And whether you believe in the literal facts presented by the gospel writers or you believe they created their Nativity stories to convey a greater truth, it doesn’t matter. Their message is clear: God – Love – is here among us.

Mary, the Prophetb7770a4b333704c36f81804c600ec3c3--church-t-shirts

Today, as we stand on this threshold between the expectation of Advent and the revelation of Christmas, the figure who most captures our imagination is not yet Jesus, but Mary. But you know what? In a way, Mary has unfortunately also become a “weasel word” because we’ve relegated her to a passive vessel: obedient, meek and mild. Yes, of course, we see Love in her eyes when we picture her in the stable with baby Jesus. But remember, she is the prophet whose song we read last week: 

My soul proclaims your greatness, O God . . .
You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit.
You’ve deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places.
You’ve filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Those are not weasel words!


As I was pondering this image of Mary, another picture came to mind. Another young woman named Valarie Kaur. She an award-winning filmmaker, lawyer, and civil rights activist. She’s a follower of the Sikh religion. She was born and raised in Clovis, CA, where her family, coming from India, settled as Sikh farmers in 1913. She is, among many other things, the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project (you can join the movement here).

And she’s a mother. You might have seen the YouTube video of her TED Talk when she describes giving birth to her son:

There is a moment on the birthing table that feels like dying. The body in labor stretches to form an impossible circle. The contractions are less than a minute apart. Wave after wave, there is barely time to breathe. The medical term is “transition,” because “feels like dying” is not scientific enough. During my transition, my husband was pressing down on my sacrum to keep my body from breaking. My father was waiting behind the hospital curtain … more like hiding. But my mother was at my side. The midwife said she could see the baby’s head, but all I could feel was a ring of fire. I turned to my mother and said, “I can’t,” but she whispered in my ear. “You are brave,” she said. “You are brave.” Suddenly I saw my grandmother standing behind my mother. And her mother behind her. And her mother behind her. A long line of women who had pushed through the fire before me. I took a breath; I pushed; my son was born. 

Mary didn’t have a mother whispering encouragement to her or the sterile luxury of a birthing table. But I can imagine Mary and Valarie comparing notes on each of their labors of love.  

I saw another video of Valarie Kaur last November at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto. She was scheduled to be a keynote speaker, but at the time, she was eight months pregnant with her second child, and so spoke to us by video. Watching it again on YouTube, as she cradled her belly, I saw Mary – in the transition between Advent and Christmas, speaking to us – as Mary did – in a prophetic voice about Revolutionary Love (a lot of what follows is taken from her talk).


She said: I am an American civil rights activist who has labored with communities of color since 9/11, fighting unjust policies by the state and acts of hate in the street. And in our most painful moments, in the face of the fires of injustice, I have seen labors of love deliver us. My life on the frontlines of fighting hate in America has been a study in what I’ve come to call revolutionary love. Revolutionary love is the choice to enter into labor for others who don’t look like us, for our opponents who hurt us and for ourselves. 

In this era of enormous rage, when the fires are burning all around us,
believe that revolutionary love is the call of our times.


I’m looking at the fourth candle on our Advent wreath today, traditionally known as the Love candle. And all I have to say is, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” I also had to laugh because she said, “If you cringe when people say, ‘Love is the answer,’ I do, too (obviously she knows what a weasel word it’s become).

So she goes on to tell us what she means by revolutionary love. She told the story of her uncle. Do you remember, after 9/11, the first person killed in a hate crime was a Sikh man, who was standing in front of his gas station in Arizona? This was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a family friend whom Valerie called “uncle.”  

She tells how she went to be with his widow. She said, “I wept with her and asked her, ‘What would you like to tell the people of America?’ I was expecting blame. But she looked at me and said, ‘Tell them, ‘Thank you.’ 3,000 Americans came to my husband’s memorial. They did not know me, but they wept with me. Tell them, ‘Thank you.'”

First Lesson in Revolutionary Love: “There are no strangers.”

This was her first lesson in revolutionary love. She said, “Thousands of people showed up, because unlike national news, the local media told Balbir Uncle’s story. Stories can create the wonder that turns strangers into sisters and brothers.” There are no strangers.

Second Lesson in Revolutionary Love: “We love our opponents when we tend the wound in them.”

Fifteen years later, she returned to that gas station and lit a candle in the spot where her uncle had bled to death. His brother Rana said, “Nothing has changed.” But she said, “Who have we not yet tried to love?” And they decided to call the murderer in prison, this man named Frank Roque, who once had said, “I’m going to go out and shoot some towel heads. We should kill their children, too.”

She describes the act of will it took to wonder, to ask him why he had agreed to speak with them. He said, “I’m sorry for what happened, but I’m also sorry for all the people killed on 9/11.” Valerie says she became angry because he failed to take responsibility and she was worried for Rana.
But Rana was still wondering – and listening.
He said, “Frank, this is the first time I’m hearing you say that you feel sorry.”
Frank said, “Yes. I am sorry for what I did to your brother. One day when I go to heaven to be judged by God, I will ask to see your brother. And I will hug him. And I will ask him for forgiveness.”
And Rana said, “We already forgave you.”

“Forgiveness Isn’t Forgetting; Forgiveness Is Freedom from Hate.” 

“Because when we are free from hate, we see the ones who hurt us not as monsters, but as people who themselves are wounded, who themselves feel threatened, who don’t know what else to do with their insecurity but to hurt us, to pull the trigger, or cast the vote, or pass the policy aimed at us. But if some of us begin to wonder about them, listen even to their stories, we learn that participation in oppression comes at a cost. It cuts them off from their own capacity to love.

“We love our opponents when we tend the wound in them. Tending to the wound isn’t healing them — only they can do that. Just tending to it allows us to see them. I looked back on all of our campaigns, and I realized that any time we fought bad actors, we didn’t change very much. But when we chose to battle bad systems, that’s when we saw change. The choice to love our opponents is moral and pragmatic, and it opens up the previously unimaginable possibility of reconciliation.”

“But remember, it took 15 years to make that phone call. I had to tend to my own rage and grief first.  Loving our opponents requires us to love ourselves.

“Because for too long have women and women of color been told to suppress their rage, suppress their grief in the name of love and forgiveness. But when we suppress our rage, that’s when it hardens into hate directed outward, but usually directed inward. But mothering has taught me that all of our emotions are necessary. Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger is the force that protects it.

Third Lesson in Revolutionary Love: We love ourselves when we breathe through the fire of pain and refuse to let it harden into hate. 

“That’s why revolutionary love must be practiced in all three directions. Loving just ourselves feels good, but that’s narcissism. Loving only our opponents is self-loathing. Loving only others is ineffective. We need to practice all three forms of love. And this is how.

#1: “In order to love others, see no stranger. We can train our eyes to look upon strangers on the street, on the subway, on the screen, and say in our minds, “Brother, sister, aunt, uncle.” And when we say this, what we are saying is, “You are a part of me I do not yet know. I choose to wonder about you. I will listen for your stories and defend you when you’re in harm’s way.”

#2: “In order to love our opponents, tend the wound. Can you see the wound in the ones who hurt you? Can you wonder even about them? And if this question sends panic through your body, then your most revolutionary act is to wonder, listen and respond to your own needs.

#3: “In order to love ourselves, breathe and push.”

We Are All Meant to Be Mothers of God

Revolutionary Love is not just for pregnant women, not even just for women. Remember, as Meister Eckhart, the 13th century mystic said,

quote-we-are-all-meant-to-be-mothers-of-god-for-god-is-always-needing-to-be-born-meister-eckhart-226278So, as Valarie Kaur reminds us: “When we are pushing into the fires in our bodies or the fires in the world, we need to be breathing together in order to be pushing together. So, how are you breathing each day? Who are you breathing with? Because … when executive orders and news of violence hits our bodies hard, sometimes less than a minute apart, it feels like dying.”

In a lovely story she tells us how, in dark times, her son will come and put his hand on her cheek and says “Dance time, Mommy?”
“And we dance,” she says. “
In the darkness, we breathe and we dance. Our family becomes a pocket of revolutionary love. Our joy is an act of moral resistance. So, how are you protecting your joy each day? Because in joy we see even darkness with new eyes.

“And so the mother in me (and I would add Mary, too) asks, what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our future is not dead, but still waiting to be born? What if this is our great transition? Remember the wisdom of the midwife. 

‘Breathe,’ she says. And then — ‘push.’ Because if we don’t push, we will die.
If we don’t breathe, we will die.”

Here we are today, with Mary, about to give birth to revolutionary love. With her, we will be required to breathe and to push. Sometimes it may feel like dying. And when it does, you will hear the whispering in your ear, “You are brave.”

And soon we will also hear Jesus whispering in our ears, “Emmanuel; God is with you.”



Posted by: smstrouse | December 3, 2019

Ordained by God? The Religious Left Must Address This!

shutterstock_211871884 copy.jpgAre politicians chosen by God?

A lot of Christians think so. Apparently a lot of politicians do, too. Or at least they say they do in order to appeal to voters on the Religious Right. 

Last week, outgoing Secretary of Energy Rick Perry stated that the election of Donald Trump was ordained by God. To be fair, he also said that Barack Obama had been sent by God, too. Although, also to be fair, I can’t remember anybody defending Obama’s divine appointment to the presidency. Still, here is the crux of the Religious Left’s dilemma. We might scoff at claims such as this. But they’re not the rantings of religious fanatics. This is a theological belief system espoused by many people in this country. And those of us who don’t subscribe to this brand of Christianity had better wake up and smell the coffee. 

Evangelical Trumpians are busily promoting the claim that DT is the “chosen one.”

  • Franklin Graham stated in an interview, “I think God was behind the last election.” In a radio interview, he called opposition to DT “almost a demonic power.” When the host interrupted to say, “It’s not almost demonic. You know and I know, at the heart, it’s a spiritual battle,” Graham agreed.
  • Brad Parscale, DT’s campaign manager tweeted, “Only God could deliver such a savior to our nation, and only God could allow me to help. God bless America!”
  • DT himself has declared that he is “the Chosen One.” When defending his trade war with China, he said, “This is a trade war that should have taken place a long time ago. Somebody had to do it.” Then, looking up at the sky, he added, “I am the Chosen One.” Watch the video clip here.
  • In a Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked if we could compare DT to Queen Esther, helping to save Israel from the modern-day Haman – Iran. He replied, “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.” And later he stated, “I am confident that the Lord is at work here.”
  • In another CBN interview, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times, and I think that He wanted Donald Trump to become president. That’s why he’s there, and I think he has done a tremendous job in supporting a lot of the things that people of faith really care about.”
  • David Brody, Chief Political Analyst for CBN News, began his recent interview with Nikki Haley by asking the “spiritual question: is he (DT) there for such a time as this?” (Queen Esther again!) He continued by asking, “What are your views spiritually on the sovereignty of God and what is He doing exactly putting DT as president of the United States?” Haley’s answer was to credit God with putting DT in power for ‘lessons’ and ‘change.’ 

And then there’s Paula White . . .

The prosperity gospel televangelist has been DT’s spiritual advisor since October. She has also declared that a spiritual war is being waged against DT.

Here’s part of one speech: “Let every demonic network that has aligned itself against the purpose, of the calling of Donald Trump, let it be broken, let it be torn down in the name of Jesus.” 

And this from a recording of the prayer in a conference call with other Christian leaders: “Any persons [or] entities that are aligned against the president will be exposed and dealt with and overturned by the superior blood of Jesus.”

She continues by saying that believers know that Trump and his Christian supporters “do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against principalities, powers, rulers of darkness of this age, hosts of wickedness in heavenly places.”

And then prays: “Stretch out your arm and deliver President Trump and rid him of any bondage the enemy would try to bring against him.”

Need I go on?WomanGirdUpSquare-1

I don’t like to use militaristic language like “spiritual warfare,” but maybe it’s time to gird up our metaphorical loins and get busy.

I’ve watched a lot of CBN this week because I’ve become very interested in this fusion of religion and politics on the Religious Right. I know, they’ve been around forever – well, ever since the 700 Club debuted in 1966. Probably most mainline Christians know the name of founder Pat Robertson, if only from some of his absurd pronouncements, such as describing feminism as a “socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” 

It’s easy to poke fun at this kind of rant and dismiss it as irrelevant. But after watching interview after interview, I have to say that I was pretty impressed with the whole CBN operation – the operation that is, not the theology. When I looked up their mission statement, right there as the #1 method of achieving that mission is “the strategic use of mass communication and education that will train the young and old to understand how the principles of the Kingdom of God relate to those spheres of human endeavor which play a dominant role in our world.”

And friends, they are killing it. Now, we have some good stuff. But I don’t see us producing the 24/7 barrage they’ve got going. And what really gets me riled up is that so many pastors are taking heat about mixing religion and politics – even when they’re simply preaching the gospel. I’m not condoning bringing partisan politics into the pulpit, but listen to those interviews with Mike Pompeo and the other political guests. I guess their pastors aren’t taking any flak for it.

I don’t know what the answer is. We do not want to follow the CBN model. But there must be a way to get out the Gospel According to the Religious Left without being obnoxious about it.

Come on, faithful America!


I do like the work that Faithful America is doing. But their focus is on issues of social justice – and yea! to them for that. But I’d love to hear from more of us on other issues of faith – and how that faith informs our public life. Yes, we have spiritual views that are all over the map; we don’t have one nicely compact statement of belief like CBN, but that’s OK. That’s our strength. We just need a better marketing plan.

Unless we want to continue being called part of the “demonic network” aligned against the calling of DT, we’d better start letting it be known that our politics are also informed in the name of Jesus. We don’t have to (and shouldn’t) “demonize” those whose beliefs are different. But what if we had a 24/7 media outlet that put out the message of liberation, justice, compassion, inclusion, radical hospitality, and the intersection of spirituality and politics? I mean, it couldn’t hurt, right? 




Posted by: smstrouse | December 1, 2019

Advent 1: Hope Is the Thing with Feathers

little_blue_flickering_candle_by_emmaweasley-d5aq9loBetter to light a candle than to curse the darkness

I am not optimistic about the state of the world. However, I have great hope for the state of the world. To anyone who doesn’t know about Advent, those two statements are diametrically opposed; one cancels out the other. But those who do know about Advent – and get its deeper meaning beyond opening up a little door in a calendar the month before Christmas to find a piece of chocolate – know a secret: amid darkness, hope is deeper than optimism.

Don’t get me wrong; I love opening the little doors of Advent calendars with chocolates hidden behind them in the countdown to Christmas. I’m not a Scrooge! But I also don’t want to miss out on the profound message that is also hidden in this Advent time. It’s a message so counter-cultural, even counter-intuitive, that we do often miss it. Advent is a time we look with hope -both to the celebration of the birth of Jesus 2000+ years ago and to the continuing birth of Christ light into our lives and world.

So a little group of people comes together on a Sunday morning and lights a candle. Such a small, seemingly insignificant thing. Yet it is part of a much bigger movement undertaken by people of many different religions and spiritualities. We are not alone in our longing for light. Many spiritual traditions look to the natural cycles of light and dark, morning and evening, summer and winter as an invitation to consider the movement of our inner lives.

Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains have already had their festival of lights, called Diwali.


One of the major festivals of Hinduism, it spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. The 5-day celebration includes lights shining on houses, around outside doors and windows, and around temples and other buildings.

This year, the 8-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah – commemorating the time when the wicks of the menorah burned for eight days even though there was only enough sacred oil for one day – begins on December 22. Of course, we in the northern hemisphere have inherited many of our Christmas customs from northern Pagans, for whom the Winter Solstice (or Yule) is a major festival marking the longest night of the year.

It’s no coincidence that this time of year heralds the beginning of the Christian calendar, the season of Advent. Winter darkness has descended. Night comes too early. Many, even in the relative warmth of CA, suffer from SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. We wait for spring. We wait for the light. Even the spiritual-but-not-religious can identify with the underlying need for Advent. Candles, wreaths, Advent calendars tap into universal deep feelings and ideals. Not the least of which is hope.

Our longing for light is not just a physical desire. The long night also symbolizes our fears: for ourselves, our families, our nation, our world. It’s become traditional in many churches to call the first candle on the Advent wreath the flame of hope. But hope is often elusive. And there are few things worse than feeling hopeless. As Swiss philosopher Emil Bruner wrote, “What oxygen is to the lungs, such is hope to the meaning of life.

The thing with feathers

But wouldn’t it be nice if hope were more clear-cut? It seems we can approach it, at best, only through metaphor. For example, according to Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope”hope-2

This little poem is packed full of meaning. Hope is a feathered bird in the soul.
What does this bird do? It sings.
How does it react to hardship? It’s unabashed in the storm.
Where can it be found? Everywhere.
And what does it cost? Nothing, not even a single crumb.

But where can we find such hope in the midst of a dark night of the soul – whether it’s in the soul of an individual, the soul of a church,  or the soul of a nation?

This is where we have to remind ourselves that hope is deeper than optimism. It shouldn’t be confused with belief that everything – whether your own life or the future of the nation or the survival of our planet – is going to work out just fine. Hope is not wishful thinking. The late Christian writer Henri Nouwen, emphasizing that hope is faith in something beyond our control, said “I have found it very important in my life to let go of my wishes and start hoping.” Adding, “Hope is always open-ended.”

Fake it til you make it

But you know as well as I do that hope, like faith, can often be elusive. How does one get it? How does one keep it? Well, to be honest, sometimes it’s simply a matter of – as is often said in 12-step meetings – faking it until you make it. Living “as if” you have hope can actually open up the spiritual space for that “thing with feathers” to build its nest. Other times, it’s a matter of carrying hope for someone who’s not yet able or allowing someone to carry it for you.

Years ago, when I was a hospital chaplain, I was visiting a patient who told me that he didn’t have any hope. I don’t remember what the situation was, but I do know that I wouldn’t have encouraged unrealistically optimistic medical expectations. So it wasn’t necessarily about hoping for a cure. Before I left, I told him it was OK that he wasn’t able to feel hopeful just then, but that I was going to be hopeful for him. I’ll never forget the huge smile on his face when I said that and his appreciation of my offer. I don’t know what happened to him. I can only hope that the open-endedness of “things hoped for” made some difference in how he saw his life and his situation.


Oddly enough, apocalyptic writing in the Jewish and Christian scriptures – those passages about the end times – was all about hope in times of deep darkness and persecution. We usually read them today as threats. For example, the gospel warned: “Be vigilant! For you do not know the day your Savior is coming.”  In other words, “You better watch out, you better not cry, Jesus Christ is comin’ to town.” Or, in the old Bob Hope quote, “The good news is that Jesus is coming back. The bad news is that he’s really pissed off.”

But we too can think about apocalypse in a hopeful way. Everything in the New Testament, from the teachings of Jesus to the letters of Paul, is informed by the anticipation of the arrival of the realm (commonwealth, kin-dom) of God. Jesus was very specific about what that kin-dom would be like: the thirsty receive water, the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, repentance and humility are practiced, the poor are lifted up, the rich are brought down from their thrones. This kin-dom is not necessarily a time in the future, but happening now. In other words, apocalypse is really about revealing, showing forth the signs of God’s commonwealth right here and now. It’s happening all the time and all around.

Don’t go back to sleep!

And this is where another big Advent theme enters in. If we’re going to notice these in-breakings, we have to pay attention.  As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep.”

shutterstock_1503095924 copyI’m also partial to the poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi:
The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep!

The Buddhists call this mindfulness. Don’t sleep through your life. Don’t let a holy moment catch you unawares. Don’t miss God moments occurring throughout the day. The Divine comes to us in every encounter. A pivotal life event might be happening right now. Pay attention. Don’t go back to sleep. Creative transformation – awakening to God and living in God’s commonwealth – is available to us all the time. We need to prepare moment by moment to experience God’s provocative possibilities. Advent living isn’t just a month-long thing that ends on Christmas Day. It’s our training exercise for a lifestyle of expectancy. We’re to live as if God is with us, precisely because God is with us.

Is it hard for me to remember this when I pick up a newspaper? You bet it is. Am I feeling optimistic about the state of the world? Not by a long-shot. But if there is one thing I know, it is that amid darkness, hope is deeper than optimism. And Advent calls us to exercise and develop our spiritual muscles so that, as followers of Jesus, we can be light to the world: bringing water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, forgiveness and hope to those in deep darkness, lifting up the poor, and bringing down systems that benefit only the rich.

One little candle symbolizes it all. Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness, as the saying goes. This quiet lighting of a candle can help us nourish our hope, deepen our resolve, draw strength from the fertile darkness and bear witness to the community we long to become and are working to create.

I’ll close with this blog post by Rick Morley, Episcopal priest in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. It’s been a source of inspiration for me – reminding me to stay focused on what is of ultimate importance and reminding me to be prepared.

Advent 1a: you know nothing

No, if we know anything these days, it’s that we know so very little.

Our confidence can wither in moments, and everything that we once thought was “up” will be found to be “upside down.”

For the pundits and the pollsters try and lull us to sleep with their braggadocio. They hypnotize us with their numbers, and plans, and historical perspectives. They have their canon laws, their proof texts, and their little prayers that we can read at the end of a gospel tract and rest confident that we are going to be part of that number when the saints go marching in.

But then you’ll be grinding meal, and in a flash your partner will be gone. Or, she’ll be left at the grinding stone by herself, wondering where you went when there was so much work to be done.

If there is one thing that we know, it’s that we have no idea what’s going on.
But, that’s ok. We don’t need to be in the know.
All we need to be is awake. Prepared. Ready.

For what? God knows what.
You know nothing, John Snow.
Maybe we’re getting ready to shoot up into the sky. Maybe we’re ready for that little mustard seed in us to sprout suddenly into the greatest of trees.
Maybe we’re waiting for something as silly as a child being born in a manger.

Who knows? I don’t.
But, I can be awake.

No, I am not optimistic about the state of the world. However, I have great hope. Wait with me and watch. Don’t go back to sleep. For the light – this little light and so many like it – shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.



Isaiah 2:1-5
Let us walk in the light of God, so says the prophet Isaiah. With darkness descending in the Northern hemisphere and fears of darkness politically and globally, these words are good counsel. The dark night – whether in terms of weather or the social order – challenges us to embrace God’s enlightened paths. Open to the light, we can see growth within darkness. We can also find our way through perilous personal, congregational, and political pathways. Isaiah proclaims the impossible possibility.

It is written . . .

This is what Isaiah ben-Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
In the last days, the mountain of YHWH’s Temple will be established as the most important mountain and raised above all other hills – all nations will stream toward it.
Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us climb YHWH’s mountain to the Temple of the God of Jacob, that we may be instructed in God’s ways and walk in God’s paths.”

Instruction will be given from Zion and the word of YHWH from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations and render decisions for many countries. They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation will not raise the sword against another, and never again will they train for war.

O house of Leah and Rachel and Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of YHWH!

Romans 13:11-14
The time to wake up from sleep is now. This passage acts as an alarm clock. It is not the unpleasant kind that wakes you up for another day of time famine, when you feel inadequate, overwhelmed, lost, or meaningless. It is instead an alarm clock that wakes you up for a day of adequacy, preparedness and meaning. Let us use this Advent season as a time for our own growth and the growth of our spiritual community.

 It is written . . .

You know the time in which we are living. It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep, for our salvation is closer than when we first accepted the faith. The night is far spent; the day draws near. So let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live honorably as in daylight, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourself with our Savior Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the night.

Matthew 24:36-44
Jesus’ words complement the counsel of Romans 13. Although there is an implicit threat in the unexpected coming of God, ultimately this passage is about mindfulness. Stay awake. Holy moments may catch you by surprise. Creative transformation – awakening to God and living in God’s realm – is available to us all the time. The future is in our hands as well as God’s and we need to prepare moment by moment to experience God’s vision of Shalom, God’s provocative possibilities embedded in every encounter.

It is written . . .

“No one knows that day and hour – not the angels of heaven, nor even the Only Begotten – only Abba God.

The coming of the Promised One will be just like in Noah’s time. In the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, having relationships and getting married, right up to the day Noah entered the ark. They were totally unconcerned until the flood came and destroyed them. So it will be at the coming of the Promised One. Two people will be out in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two people will be grinding meal; one will be taken and one will be left. Therefore be vigilant! For you do not know the day your Savior is coming.

Be sure of this: if the owner of the house had known when the thief was coming, the owner would have kept a watchful eye and not let the house be broken into. You must be prepared in the same way. The Promised One is coming at the time you least expect.




Posted by: smstrouse | November 24, 2019

The Evolution of Christ the King

shutterstock_1321985210.jpgIt was 1925. Pope Pius XI was troubled by the political climate he saw around him. Dictators, such as Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin were exerting alarming authoritarian power in Europe. Concerned about rising nationalism, as well as the decreasing authority of the Church, Pius introduced a new day onto the Church calendar, the Feast of Christ the King. By doing this, he was hoping, in part, that the nations of the world would see that the Church has freedom from the state.

Fast forward to a recent book by Dean G. Stroud describing a certain leader and his rise to power:
He seems to have thought about how Christians would view him . . . He certainly did not hesitate to reference God and to suggest divine support of his [agenda] . . . Getting off on the right foot with Christians was certainly an early priority.

Further on, the author writes:

Surely if we have learned anything at all about [this leader], it is that nothing he ever said could be taken at face value. We must test his every word against what actually took place. These pious words . . . have no basis in reality. [It] is just another example of propaganda.


The author is writing about Adolf Hitler. The book, called Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow, is about the way Hitler used Christianity to give religious legitimacy to Nazi ideology, and  includes 13 sermons by pastors who courageously spoke out against the Reich. Despite what you might suspect, the author did not write this as a comparison to our current administration. It was written in 2013.

But given Evangelical Christian support for this presidency and the kind of Christianity it espouses, it is chilling. Especially since Paula White, the president’s spiritual advisor, is among those claiming the president was divinely ordained, anointed by God.  She has also said that opposition to the president is opposition to God. I don’t care what your political persuasion is or who you voted for. But as Christians, we should be alarmed at language like that.

(See Preaching in Trump’s Shadow by Leah D. Schade) 

But let’s go back to Pope Pius and his way of resisting the troubling politics of his day. I’d venture a guess that Christ the King Sunday hasn’t been a particularly meaningful day on your calendar. Maybe you recognize it as the last Sunday in the church year, the Sunday before Advent. And I’ll confess that I’ve often looked at this day as an archaic remnant of a bygone time. Looking back, most sermons I can remember giving began: “Now I know we live in a democracy, so it might be hard to get the idea of being subject to a king.”

Of course, we can read about it in the Bible. The reading from Jeremiah is a rant against a king, probably Zedekiah, the last of King David’s dynasty. It was Zedekiah’s actions that had brought about invasion, siege, destruction, and finally exile to Babylon, so his popularity rating was zilch. 2010-03-01-Everybody-Wants-2_4503

I imagine the prophet Samuel laughing from the Great Beyond. Because Samuel had long ago tried to talk the people out of their desire to have a king at all. He warned them:
He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots for him to ride in luxury. He’ll take your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and give them to his friends. He’ll tax your harvests to support his extensive bureaucracy. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you’ll cry in desperation because of this king you want so much.  And so it was.

But what’s really important about this warning is that is an expression of the tension between prophet and ruler. Remember: the prophets of ancient Israel weren’t predictors of the future or foretellers of Jesus; they were critics of the government, thorns in the side of kings, emperors, and other officials of both church and state. Which is still the role of prophets today.

Which brings me back to Pope Pius and Christ the King. Even though the original intent was to confront authoritarianism, there are some problems. As you’ve gotten to know me, you may have learned that inclusive language is very important to me and whenever I’m here I ask if we can we use The Inclusive Bible for our readings. I’m a firm believer that language matters in the face of oppressive regimes, and that includes the words we use in church. In fact, I was part of a panel at the Parliament of the World’s Religions last year on “Dismantling the Religious Roots of Patriarchy.” And #1 on my list of action items was: Use inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God – which, by the way, was incorporated into the ELCA’s latest social statement, “Faith, Sexism, and Justice.”

So I’ve always resisted using ‘king’ language because of the gender issue. But there are other problems (I know, this is more than you ever wanted to know about Christ the King, but bear with me, I’m going to get to the good news).

Many churches have switched over to the gender-neutral title: Reign of Christ. But that doesn‘t solve it either. Patriarchy isn’t just a gender issue. It’s about hierarchies of power, of one group over another: white over black, straight over gay, privileged over poor, etc.


And in light of our growing awareness of these issues, we’ve also begun to question our old understanding of a God who is ‘up there’ somewhere reigning ‘over us’ – embracing instead the realization of the presence of God all around us and within us.   

Words convey meaning about all kinds of things, not the least of which is what we believe about God and about ourselves. So it’s not just the matter of cleaning up language pertaining to humanity. It’s also about evaluating our language about God – paying attention to imagery that is exclusively male, as well as hierarchical and triumphalistic. Christ the King Sunday is a perfect storm of these concerns – and some have chosen to ditch it altogether.

I’m not big on throwing out words and images just because they’re not working for us anymore, at least not throwing them out without an attempt at transforming them. I have to admit, results have been mixed. Some years ago, in an attempt to highlight the creative power of Christ throughout the universe, we called it the ‘Culmination of All Things in Christ.’ But one clever wag thought it made Christ sound like the Terminator (imagine ‘Christ the Culminator’ with an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent), so that was the end of that. Then we tried the ‘Cosmic Christ,’ ‘Christ the Alpha and Omega,’ and finally settled on ‘Christ, the Anointed.’

So it’s a work in progress. But an important one as we continue to navigate the language of the church of the 21st century in the midst of the issues of our day. Therefore, along with ‘king,’ there is also the question of ‘kingdom.’ ‘Basileia tou Theou’ (Greek for Kingdom of God) was the main preaching point of Jesus’ teaching: the kingdom of God is like this; the kingdom of God has come near; the kingdom of God is within you. But ‘basileia’ is being interpreted in some interesting ways these days: reign, realm, even regime of God. Some New Testament scholars are even calling it the ’empire’ of God – because Jesus’ main agenda addresses his major antagonist, the ’empire of Rome.’

Others aren’t so enamored. Theologian John Cobb, who describes ‘basiliea tou theou’ as a counter-culture based on the values that were rejected by the political, economic, and religious establishments of Jesus’ day, prefers to call it the ‘divine commonwealth.’ The Inclusive Bible calls it the kin-dom of God.

As much as I can appreciate the rationale behind ’empire of God,’ I have a hard time translating that to Christ the Emperor. I’m much more attracted to ‘kin-dom’ or ‘divine shutterstock_1084540790commonwealth’ because they get us away from feudal or empire language and broaden out into a more cosmic, interconnected vision – like that of the ‘divine milieu’ of early 20th century scientist-priest Teilhard de Chardin.

In this ‘divine milieu,’ Christ is described at various times as the Total Christ, the Cosmic Christ, the Whole Christ, the Universal Christ or the Mystical Body of Christ. For Teilhard, Christ isn’t just Jesus of Nazareth risen from the dead, but rather a huge, continually evolving Being as big as the universe. In this colossal, almost unimaginable Being each of us lives and develops, like living cells in a huge organism.

With the help of all the human sciences as well as the scriptures, Teilhard shows how we – the cells and members of the Body of Christ – can participate in and nurture the life of the Total Christ. He shows how, thanks to the continuing discoveries of science, we can begin to glimpse where that great Being is headed and how we can help promote its fulfillment. In a spirituality like this, the power of God is not a coercive power like that of a king, but a persuasive power that beckons us forward into the way of Christ, whose task it is to transform this fragmented world, through love.

Now, if that sounds too far out, remember that even in a spirituality of the divine milieu, the cosmos includes all the mundane, down-to-earth stuff we wrestle with each day, including the work of peace and justice. We never sit back and expect God to come and fix things for us. In the words of St. Theresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which Christ blesses the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are Christ’s body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

27164538_10213773989517253_952116539923756464_oWhich then brings us back around to the call to be prophetic witnesses. For as Pope Pius worried about the political climate of his day, so we worry about ours. The assaults on human rights, constitutional law, and Mother Earth herself are seemingly endless and threaten to overwhelm us. But the words of the prophets are still being written on subway walls and tenement halls, as Simon and Garfunkel sang 50 years ago. But now also on protest signs, Twitter feeds, email blasts, and Facebook walls. And they are calling on us to join our voices, to join forces. For example, a recent message from Faithful America said:
“Every church that is faithful to Jesus Christ must now become a sanctuary for those coping with violence and degradation.”

How do we do that? How do we translate our understanding of the Cosmic Christ, Christ the Alpha and the Omega into action in the world. I’ve come to one conclusion, one word: compassion. Maybe you think that’s too simplistic and unrealistic.  But more than two million people around the world have endorsed The Charter for Compassion, which says:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.charter_brand_transp_blue_small

This is the ethic of the divine milieu, the
kin-dom of God. This vast universe that is the body of Christ is alive and we are part of it, growing and evolving in awareness and faith. And while such an immense reality may seem too big to include our concerns, our own individual concerns or the struggles of immigrants or the conflicts within nations, the truth is that in this commonwealth, each cell matters, each person matters, each hope, fear, dream, joy matters. This is the message we take with us on this final Sunday of the church year.

As we stand on the cusp of a new church year, ready to enter the Advent season of waiting and expectation, we do not succumb to discouragement. Because as we go out as prophetic witnesses to the peace and justice of the kin-dom, we can know that we are loved by a Love unbounded by space and time or by titles and political systems. Bigger than any king or queen or president, power or principality. This is the reality to which we cling and from which we take heart – and action. In the name of Christ, the true anointed one.


Jeremiah 23:1-6
In every age political and religious leaders have often created difficulties for those for whom they had responsibility. This text makes abundantly clear that ancient Israel was no exception. It is likely that these oracles were pronounced against the advisers of King Zedekiah of Judah (597-586 BCE). Placed on the throne as a vassal of the Babylonians, he was the last of the Davidic dynasty to reign. His rebellion against his overlords brought about the invasion of the kingdom, the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and the exile of the king and the nation’s leading citizens to Babylon.

 “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep in my pasture!” declares Yhwh. “Thus says Yhwh, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who are tending my people: You have scattered my flock and driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds, declares Yhwh. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have dispersed them, and will bring them back to their own pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will also raise up shepherds who will look after them and pasture them. They will no longer be afraid or terrified nor will any by missing, declares Yhwh.

Behold, the days are coming, declares Yhwh,
when I will raise up for the house of David
a righteous branch,
who will reign as a true ruler and act wisely,
and do what is just and right in the land.
In those days, Judah will be saved,
and Israel will dwell securely.
This is the Name on which they will call:
‘Yhwh, Our Justice.’”

Colossians 1: 15-17
The Supremacy of Christ

Christ is the image of the unseen God, and the firstborn of all creation;
for in Christ were created all things in heaven and on earth,
everything visible and invisible.
Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignty, Powers—
all things were created through Christ and for Christ.
Before anything was created, Christ existed, and all things hold together in Christ.

Luke 1:68-79
Known to Christian tradition as The Benedictus, this psalm may well have had Jewish origins long before the birth of Jesus. It is composed of a series of familiar Old Testament phrases taken chiefly from the Psalms. It became an early Christian hymn and was incorporated into Luke’s Gospel as part of the poetic narrative of the Messiah’s birth.

“Blessed are you, the Most High God of Israel-
for you have visited and redeemed your people.
You have raised up a mighty savior for us
of the house of David,
as you promised through the mouths of your holy ones,
the prophets of ancient times:
salvation from our enemies
and from the hands of all our foes.
You have shown mercy to our ancestors
by remembering the holy Covenant
you made with them,
the oath you swore to Sarah and Abraham,
granting that we,
delivered from the hands of our enemies,
might serve you without fear,
in holiness and justice,
in your presence all our days.
And you, my child, will be called
the prophet of the Most High,
for you’ll go before our God
to prepare the way for the Promised One,
giving the people the knowledge of salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high
will bring the Rising Sun to visit us,
to give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.”



Older Posts »