Posted by: smstrouse | April 2, 2018

The Theology of “Jesus Christ Superstar”

“Jesus-Christ-Superstar-Live-in-Concert”First let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed last night’s airing of Jesus Christ Superstar Live. The staging was great and some of the performances were simply outstanding. It’s been 48 years since I first fell in love with the rock opera, and maybe 20 years since I saw a stage version. But I’m proud to say that I remembered most of the words. 

However, some things have changed since 1970.
On the plus side: a black Jesus. It’s always bothered me that the only person of color in the original cast, the movie and every production I’ve ever seen has been Judas. So it was a welcome improvement to see the diversity of last night’s cast.  

The ending was also changed.
One of the more controversial issues when Jesus Christ Superstar was released in 1970 was that there was no resurrection. It ended with the crucifixion. Last night saw John Legend’s Jesus on the cross fading into cosmic light. I guess one could argue that it was an appropriate ending for Easter evening; the original was more suited for Good Friday. So I have mixed feelings about this one. Theologically speaking, the message of the cross is not that transformation or new life comes immediately after a loss (whether it’s the ending of a relationship, the loss of a home or  job, or the death of a loved one). The need to dwell in the grief and pain is a lesson that most of us do not want to learn, but it is the reality of death and resurrection. Most of us want to fast forward quickly to resolution. The original ending didn’t let us do that. 

Other issues I had last night, though, had nothing do with this production but with Rice and Webber’s original script.

  1. The crucifixion was not God’s plan.
    Judas was not set up (“God, God I’m sick. I’ve been used, And you knew all the time. God, God I’ll never ever know why you chose me for your crime.”). Some even argue that Judas was not an actual person, rather a literary myth. Here is a good overview of this position. In any event, Jesus was not killed to satisfy some sadistic need of God. He was killed by the Roman Empire, with the collaboration of the religious establishment. Which brings me to #2.
  2. Pontius Pilate had to keep order in the empire.
    Pilate was not the angst-ridden ruler so wonderfully portrayed by Ben Daniels (a much better performance than Alice Coopers, imho). Granted, the gospels themselves started it, letting the Romans off the hook and blaming the Jews. Here is an interview with biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan that has some good insight into this. Crossan also has a book entitled Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus – which gives you a good idea of where that direction led us. So, while I can’t blame Jesus Christ Superstar for telling the story this way, it disturbs me to see that message propagated.

  3. And then there’s the trouble with Mary.
    Let me say this as forcefully as I can: MARY MAGDALENE WAS NOT A PROSTITUTE!  And portraying her as such was never, ever biblical. Here is a group that advocates for Mary – and for “all women who dare to work among men as equals (and) get sexualized and marginalized.”
    Yes, Sara Bareilles was lovely as Mary. But I cringed at the words: 

He’s a man he’s just a man41ZW3FNWJ6L._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_
And I’ve had so many men before

In very many ways
He’s just one more

Puh – leeeze! You know, if they can change the ending to include the resurrection, why can’t they change Mary from a prostitue to an apostle?

All in all, I loved last night’s performance. I just hope we remember that this isn’t biblical scholarship or theological correctness (whatever that is!) And it’s a darn sight better than The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told – imho.

Posted by: smstrouse | February 13, 2018

Earth Shaken as God Is Stripped of “His” Masculinity

5546445563_87d37cc027God must be quaking in “his” boots. The masculinity of the Divine One is under assault.

In January, at its annual convention, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington passed a resolution concerning the use of gender-neutral language for God. Episcopal News Service delivered the scary news:
The Diocese of Washington is calling on the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to consider expanding the use of gender-neutral language for God in the Book of Common Prayer, if and when the prayer book is slated for a revision.

In other words, no time soon.


But that hasn’t stopped God’s protecters from coming to “his” defense As one article  explains for our benefit: “Throughout scripture, God continually refers to Himself as “Father” and presents Himself to humanity as masculine. Christ, who is also both man and God, called God the “Father” and ascended into heaven in a male body. For Catholics, the feminine aspects of the Church have always been represented in the Virgin Mary, whom they believe was crowned “Queen of Heaven,” and by the Church itself. Either way, God has never presented Himself as anything other than a masculine Father.” 

In other words, end of discussion. 

When the Lutheran Church of Sweden decided last year to change God language in its 41+G6WahyML._AC_UL320_SR212,320_worship handbook, it faced the same resistance. In “No, the Swedish Church Has Not Banned the Male Pronoun God, they tried to explain, 
“God is beyond ‘she’ and ‘he’, God is so much more.”

That’s in alignment with the Episcopal resolution which recommends using “expansive language for God from the rich sources of feminine, masculine, and non-binary imagery for God found in Scripture and tradition.” 

The ELCA has been struggling with this issue for years. We were trying to get inclusive language into worship when I was at seminary over thirty years ago!  But now we’ve received the draft copy of the new “Social Statement on Women and Justice” for our study, discussion, and response (What are social statements in the ELCA).

Of particular interest to me are sections addressing the issue of language.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commits to: 

  • Use inclusive language for humankind and inclusive and expansive language for God
  • Encourage the use of language for God that expands rather than limits our understanding of God’s goodness and mystery
  • Support developing liturgies, hymns, prayers, and educational materials that broaden our language beyond primarily male images
  • Promote scriptural translation and interpretation that support gender justice, acknowledge the patriarchal context in which the Scriptures were written, and reject the misuse of Scripture to support sexist attitudes and patriarchal structures.
  • Call upon our leadership and members to enlarge the dialogue about and practice of expansive language and images for God. 

Well, alright! Maybe there’s hope. It remains to be seen, however, how many pastors and congregations will heed the call. 

Note the use of words like expansive, expands, broadens, and enlarge.

Hmm. Maybe it’s not an assault on God that people are so worked up about after all.
Maybe it’s the assault on patriarchy. 


See also:
How Can We Dismantle Patriarchy and Still Call God Exclusively “He”?
How Can We Dismantle Patriarchy While Still Having a Theological Hierarchy?

Posted by: smstrouse | February 9, 2018

First We Marched; Now We Organize!

If you’ve been asking what you can do to bring about change in our country, have I got an event for you!

It was a fabulous Women’s March last month! It’s estimated that at least 50,000-60,000 people marched in San Francisco. But, I wondered, what could we do to keep that energy going?  How coud we find ways to step it up to the next level and take action?

To begin to answer this question, I’ve been working with the OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership. 

OMNIA’s mission is to train leaders to build power,
so they can collaborate with diverse communities
for effective action for justice and peace.

Copy of Copy of OMNIA Leadership Summit Print Flyer (1)

OMNIA’s #StepItUp campaign will be holding day-long and half day-long training eventsin many locations around the country. Here’s the one I’m organizing:

Saturday, March 3: 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 pm (lunch included with registration)
678 Portola Drive, San Francisco

Clergy and religious leaders of all traditions
Social entrepreneurs
Political and civic leaders
Educators and students

The event will be led by my friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, Executive Director of OMNIA (and member of the board of directors for the Parliament of the World’s Religions). I recommend him highly! 

I am committed to having at least 30 people attend this first organizing training. Will you come? Can you bring one or two or more people with you?

Register here

Posted by: smstrouse | February 4, 2018

The Gift of Anger to the Church

be-the-change-9781481442657A sermon for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany             Isaiah 40: 21-31; Mark 1: 29-39

Did you not know? Have you not heard? Was it not told to you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? God reduces the privileged to nothing and throws the rulers of the earth into chaos. God blows on them and they wither, and a storm wind sweeps them away like chaff.

I’ll be honest; I’m having a hard time believing that today. I hear the words of the prophet calling me to hope, to trust. But what I’m experiencing – and have been experiencing for a while now – is anger. Which creates a problem for me – because like a lot of women (and I’m sure a lot of men, too), I was raised to believe that anger is bad and you need to just get over it. It’s somehow not “Christian.”

So I’ve been wrestling with this anger over the state of the union, with the unending revelations of sexual assault by men in positions of power. And even over the church, and its seeming inability to really address – and change – issues of patriarchy and privilege. To top it off, I’ve been reeling at the sudden death of a beloved colleague. So add grief to the mixture. I was taught in seminary not be too self-revelatory in my preaching. But over the years I’ve found that my struggles have often been the same ones experienced by people in my congregations. So, like a good Lutheran: here I stand. God help me; I can do no other.

Now, I’m sure you are quite aware that being a follower of Jesus doesn’t mean that we’ll never get tired, discouraged, upset, or even angry. We’re full-service human beings. Along with all the joyfulness, excitement, and energy we often feel, there are also “those times.”

Jesus himself knew this. The gospel writer doesn’t give us any indication of what Jesus was feeling that day in Capernaum. But after a full schedule of teaching, healing, and tending to the needs of others, he decided to go off to a lonely place in the desert to pray. It’s such a small part of the text. We usually tend to lift up the activities: the healing story, those pesky demons. But tucked in there is the self-care that Jesus needed to do in order to go back into his work in the world. So when the frantic disciples came looking for him, he was ready to go, because after all, that was what he knew he had come to do.

So this one little verse – in the very first chapter of the very first of the gospels to be written – is also advice to us when we become overwhelmed with the weight of the world: not only the day-to-day challenges of life, but also the very real challenges of being a disciple of Jesus in the midst of trying and troubling times. Especially when we get angry and discouraged by news of those who also profess to be Christians saying and doing things that simply are not consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

I was talking to a member of another congregation yesterday about this. He’d been trying to organize what he called a “day of outrage” for Christians to come together to find a way to get the word out that “Christian” did not have to be a pejorative among those who hear about and experience only that kind of Christianity. He was wondering why it was so difficult to get people together to even try to make a change. One idea several of us had was that so many people are discouraged. With so many issues, so many things wrong, we have compassion fatigue.

I though about this as I wrote this sermon – still feeling my anger and grief. And I heard these words about Jesus again: go to a lonely place in the desert to pray. And, no, you don’t have to go out to a desert; you don’t even need a particular prayer. It’s really the inner “lonely place in the desert” where inspiration comes. And we each have to find how to get there. For me, it’s taking time out from thinking and instead focusing quietly only on my deep breathing. Evidently that works for the Holy Spirit because she showed up for me last night.

Unexpectedly, I was drawn back to Second Isaiah, who was offering hope and encourage-ment to the Hebrew exiles in Babylon who had finally been given the opportunity to return home. But when we dig a bit deeper into the story, beyond the obvious good news of the release of the captives, we find that with that opportunity came many soul-searching questions. Why should they go back? After decades of wondering if their God had maybe lost some kind of cosmic battle with the Babylonian god or had simply abandoned them, their faith and trust had been depleted. Maybe, like me, their first reaction was anger.

I don’t know. In any event, recognizing their spiritual depletion, Isaiah calls them to remember: to remember their identity as people of God, to remember what their relationship with God had once been. The prophet paints a picture of a powerful, caring, creative deity. Even if the devastation of exile has sapped their faith and their strength, he assures them that they can still draw on Divine strength for spiritual renewal and for the energy they’d need for the journey home. In the midst of all the emotional and spiritual baggage they carried, Isaiah encourages them to go back.

Although, in reality, they’re not going back; they’re going forward. The really good news –for them and us – actually comes a bit later in Chapter 43, as God proclaims:
Look, I’m doing something new! Now it springs forth;
can’t you see it? I’m making a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

The way back is paradoxically a forward movement into a future of new possibili-ties. Which brings us to where we find ourselves today. We can’t go back – whether to a better day: to a nation that never thought its democratic system could be under attack from within. We certainly can’t go back to a worse day: to a culture that enables the abuse and assault of any of those deemed weaker and therefore fair prey. We can’t even go back to a time we’re not quite sure was better or not: like the “glory days” of the church.

Dinosaurs like me often say that the church I was trained to serve doesn’t exist anymore -or it’s holding on with its last breath. Even some of my colleagues in “thriving” churches recognize the reality of declining numbers and influence. And even those who applaud the emergence of innovative missions question how they can fit into the existing structure of the church, how they’ll be funded, what kind of leadership will be required.

These are anxious times. But we can’t go back. As the church, we move forward into an uncertain world. There will be days when we’ll experience indescribable joy and wonder. But there will also be “those days” when we wonder how to go on, how to make a difference in the world in the name of Jesus. There will be days when we’ll feel fatigue, grief, disappointment, and anger. But even these can be transformed for the sake of the gospel.

For example, in his book (which I love), The Gift of Anger: And Other Lessons from my Grandfather Mahatma Gandhi, Arun Gandhi describes how at age eleven he was sent to live with his grandfather, and for two years learned pivotal life lessons about social justice and community transformation – even though the fight against hate and extremism can often feel endless and overwhelming. In an interview he said, “My grandfather said that anger is a wonderful emotion. It’s not something we should be ashamed of. It’s a very powerful emotion but we need to learn how to channel it intelligently, so that we can use it effectively. Anger is like electricity. It’s just as useful and just as powerful but only when we use it intelligently. It can also be just as deadly and destructive if we abuse it. So we must learn to channel anger so that we can use that energy for the good of humanity rather than abuse it and cause violence. If we learn to channel anger effectively and positively, it can turn into courage, it can turn into something positive that we can use.”

And so, fueled by Gandhi and Jesus, my anger about the deep-rooted patriarchy and misogyny in our nation and our church has led me to a place of action in organizing a leadership training follow-up to the San Francisco Women’s March. And Second Isaiah propels me forward.

That’s not to say that you should do the same thing. However, the process is the same. Recognize when, like the exiles in Babylon, your spirit is depleted. Then, go to a lonely place in the desert to pray. Breathe deeply. Listen for the murmuring of the Spirit as she breathes along with you. Rest in the strong arms of the One who has named you and claimed you.

And then, when you feel the nudge to get up and get back into the world, remember – as Isaiah preached it in days of old and now to us. Remember your identity as a child of God. Remember your relationship with the Divine that called you into discipleship. Remember the picture Isaiah painted of a powerful, caring, creative deity. Even if the devastation of the daily news has sapped your faith and your strength, remember that you can draw on Divine strength for spiritual renewal. Even if anxiety about the future of the church raises questions about its survival, breathe deeply. Have faith that we will be guided by the story of Jesus and sustained by the presence of Christ within the body of Christ. And trust that the Church will become whatever the Holy Spirit is birthing into being.



Isaiah 40: 21-31
Did you not know? Have you not heard? Was it not told to you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
YHWH sits above the vaulted roof of the world,
and its inhabitants look like grasshoppers!
God stretches out the skies like a curtain,
and spreads them out like a tent for mortals to live under!
God reduces the privileged to nothing
and throws the rulers of the earth into chaos.
No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root on earth,
than God blows on them and they wither,
and a storm wind sweeps them away like chaff.

“To whom can you liken me?
Who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
“Lift up your eyes and ask yourself
who made these stars,
if not the one who drills them like an army,
calling each by name?

Because God is so great in strength,
so mighty in power, Not a single one is missing.
How can you say, tribe of Leah and Rachel and Jacob,
‘My destiny is hidden from YHWH,
my rights are ignored by my God?’

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
YHWH is the everlasting God,
the creator of the ends of the earth.
This God does not faint or grow weary;
with a depth of understanding that is unsearchable.
God give strength to the weary,
and empowers the powerless.
Young women may grow tired and weary,
Young men may stumble and fall,
But those who wait for YHWH
find a renewed power:
they soar on eagles’ wings,
they run and don’t get weary,
they walk and never tire.

Mark 1: 29-39
Upon leaving the synagogue, Jesus entered Simon’s and Andrew’s house with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told Jesus about her. Jesus went over to her, took her by the hand and helped her up, and the fever left her. Then she went about her work.
After sunset, as evening drew on, they brought to Jesus all who were ill and possessed by demons. Everyone in the town crowded around the door. Jesus healed many who were sick with different diseases, and cast out many demons. But Jesus would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew who he was.
Rising early the next morning, Jesus went off to a lonely place in the desert and prayed there. Simon and some companions managed to find Jesus and said to him, “Everybody is looking for you!”
Jesus said to them, “Let us move on to the neighboring villages so that I may proclaim the Good News there also. That is what I have come to do.”
So Jesus went into their synagogues proclaiming the Good news and expelling demons throughout the whole of Galilee.








kingI know, I know. It’s way too early to go into my annual rant about “Christ the King” Sunday. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

In my last post, I questioned whether we will be able to dismantle patriarchy while using exclusively  male names and pronouns for God. Now I’m asking a further question: can we dismantle patriarchy by continuing to use hierarchical language for the Holy One? I’ve written before about “king” language, as well as “kingdom” (see Christ the King: An Obsolete Metaphor? and Morphing Christ the King).

“Lord” is another problematic name. The Bible abounds with these words, so it’s no easy task to simply eliminate them. And in my opinion we shouldn’t totally dismiss them. Especially “Lord.” There are some very good reasons to remember both ancient and modern resisters professing “Christ is Lord” in opposition to the claims whatever empire was in control was making.

However, we should still do all we can to promote a theology of interconnectedness and power with, rather than one of hierarchy and power over. For too long the prevailing theology has been one of elevating spirit over body, humankind over the environment, and man over woman. And the destructive effects of this can be seen in all kinds of ways. It’s not a huge leap to the conclusion that our patriarchal theology needs a radical overhaul.

As I wrote in The Divine Commonwealth of Christ

. . .  language really does matter in the face of oppressive regimes. “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. Many New Testament scholars, including the Jesus Seminar are calling it the “empire of God” – the rationale being that Jesus’ major agenda addresses his major antagonist, the “empire of Rome.”

Others aren’t so enamored. Process theologian John Cobb, who describes the “basiliea 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.” And the Inclusive Bible we use 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 Cobb’s “divine commonwealth” because they get us away from limited 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 Teillhard de Chardin. 

For Teillhard, Christ is not 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 in consciousness, like living cells in a huge organism. With the help of all the human sciences as well as the scriptures, Teillhard shows how we – the cells and members of the Body of Christ – can participate in and nurture the life of the Total Christ. He also shows, thanks to the continuing discoveries of science, how 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 it is a persuasive power that beckons us forward into the way of the Total Christ, whose task it is to transform this fragmented world, through love.

I would much rather live in the divine milieu than in a kingdom because there I can trust that the well-being of all people, as well as that of all of creation, is essential. Of course this means we need to also overhaul our scripture readings, hymns, prayers, liturgies, children’s curriculum – no small task. But if we’re really serious about dismantling patriarchy, the work is essential.






17190893_10211025597129161_1724137338447503191_nIt’s time to march again! The 2018 Women’s Marches are fast approaching. Time to get to work on a new batch of pussy hats for the ongoing work of dismantling patriarchy in all its pernicious forms.   click here for a list of march locations

It’s also way past time to get to work on our language about God. Think that these are two separate topics? Think again.


When the only pronouns we use for God in church and in our own speech are male, what image do we convey? When we use only “Father” to name the Divine, what are we promoting?  C’mon, it’s so obvious; God is male. And the patriarchy that is inherent in much of our sacred texts is reinforced by our refusal to dismantle the patriarchy lodged in our church’s hymns, prayers, sermons, and everyday speech.

I began reading a recent article that wants to make the case for not dumbing down Christianity. OK, I’m for that. But then the author goes on to say:
“I have found that the more I learn about God, His Word and theology which describes Him, the more I can love and worship Him, because now there is that much more to adore and be amazed by. If my ability to worship God is a fire, learning more about Him only adds more wood to the blaze. After all, if you really loved God, wouldn’t you want to learn as much about Him as possible?”

At that point, I was gone. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not picking on this particular article. It was just the latest example that set me off.

I should say that I’m also not a big fan of exclusively female language for the Holy One. I prefer to use a variety of names. Years ago I came across a great list of Names of God put together by Ruth Duck – one of the best sources for this kind of work. Some names she includes (and this is just a small sampling) are: Breath Within Our Breath, Poet-Creator, Bond Of Peace, Holy Fire, Creator Of All Time and Space, Holy of Holies, and Giver of Life. 

So when we wanted to include a new liturgical greeting in our worship service, I wrote:  The wonder of Divine Creativity, the Justice and Truth of Love Incarnate,
and the Wisdom of Breath Within Our Breath be with you all.

I have long said that words matter. The words we use in our worship service – and the theology that underpin them – matter. If we in the church are going to put on our pussy hats and fight the good fight of dismantling patriarchy, we have got to do it within our own domain.

Next post: rethinking hierarchical names, such as King and Lord.

Here are two of my previous posts on the subject:

Inclusive Language: Words Do Matter

Reimagining “Our Father”

Posted by: smstrouse | September 30, 2017

“Zoom” Communion: Sacrament or Sacrilege?


Back in July, I posted about our decision to experiment with online worship experiences through the video conferencing platform Zoom. We call it ZOOM Church (clever, huh?)

Over the summer we tried several different formats: liturgical, discussion, contemplative. After each one, we surveyed participants to see what they liked, found meaningful, etc. When our worship planning team reconvened in September to evaluate and plan for the fall, the question arose: what about Communion?

prefilled_communion_cups_with_wafers_123I’d actually already been thinking about that – how ironical it is that after years of persuading Lutherans that weekly Communion was right and good, we’d now go without for two weeks each month. But Communion online? Visions of people scurrying out to buy boxes of pre-packaged wafer and wine sets gave me pause.

But we decided to give it a go. Our email announcement explained:
Yes, there will be Communion during ZOOMChurch this week. Because we believe that the presence of God is not limited by time or space and that we are intimately interconnected with the Divine and one another, we can participate in the sacred Meal in this new way.
You are invited to have bread and wine/grape juice with you to be blessed during the liturgy.  Although there will be many parts that make up the Meal, there is still only one Body. 

Afterwards, I did a little research to see if anyone else was thinking along these lines. And I discovered that a United Methodist pastor had not only begun offering Holy Communion online in 2003, he had written a theological rationale for the practice! In Online Holy Communion: Theological Reflections Regarding The Internet and The Means of Grace,  Dr. Gregory S. Neal wrote:

The Sacrament of Holy Communion is the preeminent spiritual expression of the Church; regardless of its size, shape, place, date, name, denomination, or style, all Christian congregations are nevertheless part of the Universal Body of Christ as exemplified in the Eucharist. Thinking of the Church as being bound to a single local congregation or a particular group of people in worship, comes dangerously close to denying not just the doctrine of the “Communion of the Saints” but also the very idea of the “catholic Church” as understood and articulated by Protestant Christians. To put this simply: the worshiping community which I pastor, and within which I preside as celebrant at the Table of the Lord, is metaphysically interlinked with, and ontologically indistinguishable from, the faith-communities within which all other Christians partake of the blessed Sacrament … we are all part of the One Body of our One Lord Jesus Christ. If this is true — and, by faith, we do believe that it is so — then why is it any more difficult for the Holy Spirit to extend the Real Presence of Christ from multitudinous localized congregations to Christian believers who are joining, in faith, with such congregations by means of the internet? Put another way, if the Body of Christ is not limited by temporal or spatial limitations, why do we — in our human dogmatism — feel the need to limit the Body of Christ and the Means of Grace to just those who can be, physically, a part of a worshipping community? Are Christians only part of the Body of Christ when they are temporally and spatially present at Church? Of course not! Likewise, I believe that the Community is also present with a lone believer who is worshiping Christ and receiving the Means of Grace even by long-distance, over the internet. Temporal and spatial limitations may limit us, but they do not limit God or the Holy Spirit’s ability to convey Grace to a believer.

I think that’s what I said!

But Pastor Neal took a lot of heat for this. In 2013, the United Methodist Church called together theologians, bishops, church executives, and pastors to address the validity of online Communion. Their decision was to call a moratorium on the practice pending further study. Full Communion partners also weighed in, including the ELCA which gave a thumbs-down. (Read the report here)

So, I guess that’s where it stands right now – at least in official church-dom.

But what do you think? Online Holy Communion: sacrament or sacrilege?






Posted by: smstrouse | August 5, 2017

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel: A Lesson for Donald Trump

0fa3263f31a6c0492032bf5a1e46637f.jpgThe story of Jacob wrestling with the angel happens to be one of my favorite Bible stories. So it was a no-brainer which text I’d pick to preach on this week. I’ve always thought of Jacob’s struggle and his ensuing limp as an archetypal story of transformation. So I began searching for commentaries from a Jungian point of view. I came across an article from the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies entitledJacob Wrestles the Angel: A Study in Psychoanalytic Midrashby Michael Abramsky. 

As I read the description of pre-transformation Jacob’s behavior as that of the “trickster,” I began to recognize this person. “When the shadow component dominates, these powers are used to manipulate, place obstacles in the paths of others, and are destructive to self and others. The trickster dominates Jacob. He is cerebral, clever, and goal directed. He is aware of the frailties of others. Whether he will use his power in a positive or negative way is still an open question.” 

Donald Trump is our Jacob! 

Looking further, I found “Decoding Donald Trump: The Triumph of Trickster Politics” by  Rosario Forlenza and Bjørn Thomassen. Consider these qualities:

  • The trickster is a figure of excess, especially of eating and drinking, and of sexual exploits.
  • The trickster is a breaker of taboos, a joker and prankster, the best of companions, but also a thief, a liar and an impostor.
  • In many storylines, the trickster is a vagrant who happens to stumble into a village, appearing as if out of the blue, just as a crisis has erupted. He tries to gain the confidence of villagers by telling tales and cracking jokes. He is an outsider without existential commitments.
  • He is also a mime, telling people whatever they would like to hear — all according to the occasion.
  • The trickster holds no real knowledge but practices a cunning intelligence.
  • The trickster manages to impose himself, not because of his real qualities, nor by enabling the people around him, but by blurring distinctions. Rather than making clear the difference between truth and lie, the trickster thrives in ambivalence.
  • While presenting himself as a solution to the crisis, he actually perpetuates insecurity by blurring boundaries and undermining the very sense of distinction and judgment.
  • The trickster is a demonic clown.

Sounds very familiar, right? But here’s the chilling prognosis:  “The sense of empowerment that tricksters manage to produce feels real enough for a while, but it evaporates as suddenly as the trickster entered the stage, and dissolves in nothingness. Before that happens, however, entire societies can drive themselves to destruction.”

The Jacob story is a classic example of transformation from trickster to magician – the archetype of awareness and insight, the ability to make positive and constructive life decisions. And – as Jacob discovered – it’s not an easy process. He limped away from his encounter. This is a threshold time, a rite of passage. It involves struggle, wrestling with who we are and what we are to become. Identity dissolves. Ambiguity reigns. But in the midst of this crisis is a new openness to a new identity. Jacob emerged a true leader with integrity and authenticity.

Could Donald Trump achieve the same result? Only if he either willingly enters into the struggle before he dissolves into nothingness or he is forced into it and is open to the gift that his downfall could be. As one who believes that no person is beyond redemption, this is my prayer for our current trickster – that he be confronted with himself at his own River Jabbok, that he enter into a wrestling match with his shadow self, and that he emerges, as Jacob did, a true leader. 

Will that ever happen? Who can say? Jacob (Cheater) became Israel (one who wrestled with God). No one could have predicted that change. But until such time as it does, the Resistance continues. We cannot allow the trickster to drive us to destruction. 

Posted by: smstrouse | July 28, 2017

Church on the Web: Innovation or Delusion?

Theology NightWe held our second “ZOOM Church” last Sunday (for background, see posts from 7/8 and 7/15). This was the second model we’ve tried in our summer experiment. Unlike the first one, which followed a liturgical form much like our usual Sunday service, this one was a discussion format. Nineteen people logged in, three of them from different parts of the country.

Anders Peterson, mission development pastor for Middle Circle, led the conversation on “Religion: Good or Bad?” After we took an on-line survey to answer that question, we began to unpack our answers. Interestingly, everyone answered that religion was good – even our “spiritual but not religious” members! But we all agreed that religion has the potential to be both good and bad – and the history to back that up. Some participants, expressing a little surprise at their own answers, wondered why, if there is value in religion, it has not been a  bigger part of their lives. 

We just barely scratched the surface of this subject and all its follow-up questions.  I know that Middle Circle plans to continue this venue on a regular basis. We’re still gathering evaluations to determine frequency, day/time, etc. It will be interesting also to see how the results compare between Middle Circle and First United. Not that First United is your typical Lutheran church, but it’s still too traditional for most Middle Circle folks. It remains to be seen which format – or some kind of combination – will appeal most to the “traditionalists.”

Response from outside the congregation are mixed. Some praise us for being innovational. Others look at me as if I’m delusional. To be honest, I don’t know if this is the wave of the future of the church. I have a lot of questions that can’t be answered until we’ve given this a good try. Right now, enthusiasm is high, but will it be sustained? How will it affect our in-person gatherings? Can we create authentic community with our far-flung members solely on the Internet? 

Next ZOOM Church is August 13 and will be a contemplative model. The final one will August 27; the format will be determined after the evaluations for the first three are in. After that, all I can say is: 4597292490

religious_leftThis bumper sticker has been on my car for years. I can’t tell you how many people have stopped me in parking lots and honked at me at stop lights to tell me they like my bumper sticker. Some even ask where I got it, which I’m happy to share. So get yours here! Last week, someone asked if there really are any of us out there. I felt frustrated because I know there are. And I wondered why it’s so hard for us to get ourselves together and be a united voice for progressive Christianity.


But then things began to happen. In response to the so-called health care bill that the Republicans presented to the Senate, protesters descended upon Capital Hill on July 13. And the religious community was there. The Rev. William Barber (Disciples of Christ), the Rev. Jennifer Butler (Presbyterian), and the Rev. Traci Blackmon (United Church of Christ) not only were at the rally, they were arrested for their trouble. 

5967e9271a00003400dbeae0At the rally, Rev. Barber called others of faith to action.
We’re saying today it’s time for other clergy to come. It’s time for moral agents to step up. It’s time for us to go down to the house of power and challenge the way power is being used.

That same day, an article by Nancy Hightower (who calls herself a post-evangelical Christian) entitled “Progressive Christians Need To Take A Stand Against Pence And Trump: Have A Sunday Walkout” appeared in the Huffington Post. In response to the gaggle of evangelical leaders who prayed recently over HWSNBN, Hightower calls on progressive Christians to step up.
We progressive Christians need a stronger visual to combat the message that other white evangelicals keep pumping into the media. We need a visual that will capture the nation’s attention instead of offering up yet another essay, article, video, tweet, or cliche answer about prayer. We need an action that will shake Trump and Pence’s faith in their religious fanbase.

We need to have a Sunday Without Church, when progressive Christians across the nation from multiple denominations—Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, non-denominational, Lutheran, Catholic, etc.—march in the streets to show Trump that he and his administration do not represent God’s gospel of love, mercy, and justice. Or create a march on Washington D. C. and use the National Cathedral for a sit in.

We need to show America that the church is not a homogenous entity composed of white middle class Christians lead by white men, but rather that there is a gloriously diverse body of believers who love Jesus and social justice.

I believe that Barber, Butler, and Blackmon are an inspiration to us all. We should be fired up about heeding Rev. Barber’s call to action. And I love the idea of a Sunday walk-out and sit-in. 

Who’s with me?




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