Posted by: smstrouse | November 14, 2022

When I Asked

Here are some great words of wisdom by Todd Jenkins. If we really want to live into ‘and,’ we have to learn to listen.

tuesdaysmuse

Photo by Jennie Roberts Jenkins

 The angry young protestor said he was taking a stand for Jesus. When I prayed, I heard a voice telling me, “Lend a hand for Jesus.” I asked what he was protesting. He said, “Because I’m being oppressed.” When I prayed, I heard a voice ask me, “Who are the folks you’ve blessed?” I asked him to tell me about this oppression. He said, “I have to follow so many rules!” When I prayed, I heard a voice say “Pray silently for all you fools.” I asked him which rules were the hardest. He said, “I can’t say or do what I want!” When I prayed, I heard a voice  say, “Surrender the urge to taunt.” I asked him to tell me his story. As he did, tears rolled down his face. In the very act of listening to him I could sense I was in…

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Posted by: smstrouse | August 17, 2022

Litany of Contradictory Things

After a conversation with a friend today, lamenting humanity’s seeming inability to move beyond either/or thinking, I went back to a prayer I found on a blog called prayerandverse.

“Litany of Contradictory Things” is based on a prayer by the same name by Michael Moynahan, SJ in the book Hearts on Fire. Here is just part of the prayer – you’ll get the idea.


Wheat and weeds:
let them grow together.

Arabs and Jews in Palestine:
let them grow together.

Greeks and Turks of the Balkans:
let them grow together.

Documented and undocumented aliens:
let them grow together.

Immigrants and Native Americans:
let them grow together.

Revolutionaries and reactionaries:
let them grow together.

Russians and Americans:
let them grow together.

People of God who wound and heal:
let them grow together.

Those whose thinking is similar and contrary:
let them grow together.

Joys and sorrows, laughter, tears:
let them grow together.

Strength and weakness:
let them grow together.

Doubt and faith:
let them grow together.

Virtue and vice:
let them grow together.

Contemplation and action:
let them grow together.

All the contrarieties of the Lord:
let them grow together.

What would comprise my list of contradictory pairs?

This got me thinking: what would comprise my list of contradictory pairs? And to be unflinchingly honest, which of them would be the most difficult for me personally?

  • depression and joy
  • anxiety and contentment
  • progressive Christians and evangelical ones
  • those who agree with the importance of inclusive language in the church and those who don’t
  • benefits and drawbacks of institutional religion
  • introverts and extroverts
  • those who make lists and those who “play it by ear”
  • work and play
  • eating healthily and binging on Cherry Garcia
  • fair and unfair
  • doing and being
  • fixing problems and letting things be

It’s all about balance

I could probably go on and on. But I think I’ve gotten Father Moynahan’s point. Let them grow together. I need to live into the ‘and’ in me, to let my contradictions grow together. You’d think I’d know this already. I’m a Libra, my astrological sign is represented by the scales. We Libras love symmetry and balance.

AND it’s all about justice

The scales also represent the scales of justice. I’m a ‘One’ on the Enneagram. Ones are often described as reformers. We want to fix the world and we can get very frustrated when we’re not able to do what we believe is the right thing to do. But I also have a ‘Nine’ wing, which means that I want to be a peacemaker and create harmony. Again with the balance!

Let them grow together. It’s a tough challenge. But living into ‘And’ begins with me – and you. What are your contradictory things?

Misery and joy
have the same
shape in this world:
You may call the
rose an open
heart or a
broken heart.

– Jalal-ud-Din Rumi
(Translated by Andrew Harvey from A Year of Rumi)

Posted by: smstrouse | July 30, 2022

Living into ‘And’ in a Divided Church

Sometimes it’s just too hard. Or to be honest, I just don’t want to. Living into ‘and’ is difficult enough in a politically and culturally fractured world is hard enough. But when a divide opens up in the church, it feels even more painful.

Of course, the split in the Methodist Church is the big news these days. But there’s a division here in my corner of Luther World. In the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), we have synods. Each synod has a bishop who is chosen by clergy and lay members of that synod. Last year, in a historic action, the Sierra Pacific Synod elected the Rev. Megan Rohrer to the office of bishop. The importance of that action was that Bishop Rohrer (they/their/them) was the first transgender bishop in the ELCA.

It’s been only since 2009 that the ELCA has allowed the full inclusion of LGBTQ clergy. Although Pastor Rohrer has been ordained since 2006, their ordination was through Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM). When the ELCA changed its policy, they were one of the “Bay Area Seven” received into the ELCA in 2010. So the 2021 election was big!

Fast forward to one year later, to a contentious synod assembly that frankly left participants traumatized. The day after the assembly, Bishop Megan Rohrer resigned. To me, the aftermath felt very similar to the 2016 presidential election. I now find myself on opposing sides from some of my friends and colleagues.

What happened? It depends who you ask. Some facts are known; some (due to confidentiality) are not. In a nutshell: after accusations of racism, based on the removal of the pastor of a predominantly Latino congregation, and after a resolution from the assembly floor called for their resignation, and after that resolution narrowly failed, and after Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton declared us a divided synod, and after the assembly was over Eaton declared in an email her intention to bring disciplinary charges against Bishop Rohrer for newly discovered information (which has never been disclosed), Bishop Rohrer resigned, citing “the constant misinformation, bullying and harassment that has taken too hard a toll on the Synod I love, my family and myself.”

After that it all gets very murky. If you believe everything you read on social media, you will vilify Megan Rohrer and clamor for the restoration of roster status to the pastor who was removed. But there is so much more involved. In fact, this situation has been festering since last year’s assembly. During the election process, then-Bishop Holmerud disclosed that there were allegations of abuse against one of the candidates, Pastor Nelson Rabell-Gonzales. The uproar was immediate, as accusations of racism, white supremacy, and ‘professional lynching’ were hurled at the bishop and the ELCA.

When Megan Rohrer was elected, many lamented that the final two candidates had been white. I truly get the desire to have a person of color elected to the office of bishop and would support that person wholeheartedly. But I would like us also to see the historic nature of Pastors Jeff Johnson and Megan Rohrer at the top of that ballot. Barred from the ELCA for so long, both had fought a hard fight to that place. But in the eyes of many, they were simply ‘white.’

Then came the incident that touched off the call for Bishop Rohrer’s resignation: the removal of Nelson Rabell-Gonzales from Iglesia Luterana Santa Maria Peregrina on December 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Disputes over facts abound. There are some who claim to have the whole story. One, a contributor on the Patheos website (and a friend of Rabell-Gonzales), has written extensively about Bishop Rohrer’s “abuse of power.” These articles have been widely disseminated through social media as the truth. The latest article, “Unraveling Rohrer’s Big Lie,” borders on libel.

So now we have an interim bishop.  And in a “A Letter Regarding Bishop Claire Burkat’s Visit to Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina,” she promises “to bring reconciliation, healing, and hope to a synod that has experienced great turmoil” and to “renew trust in the Office of the Bishop.” Hmm. OK. Then she reports that on her first Sunday, she visited Iglesia Luterana Santa Maria Peregrina and apologized for the lack of care to the congregation and promised a full investigation into the accusations against Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez. While she did not mention the participation of Rabell-Gonzalez, he appears in a photo with her at the church. This prompted my letter to the bishop, which you can find below.

We are still a divided synod. And I am not yet ready to participate in clergy gatherings where I know I will disagree with some of my colleagues. I am angry at the process that scapegoated one person for problems that exist within our synod. I am angry at the misinformation being passed off as facts.

But if I intend to practice what I preach,
I have to be committed to finding a way of getting to and living into ‘and.’

So I went back to what I’ve been learning from people who are better at this than I am.

  1. Emotional Regulation
    Anger is difficult for me. I hate conflict, so I’m usually a fan of the ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’ response. But when something really gets my dander up, I can go off in a rant. Neither of these behaviors is helpful. So the number one skill I have to remember is to take a breath, create some space between the trigger and my response. Even if others are not managing their emotions, I have to regulate mine. This doesn’t mean that I don’t feel angry or that I deny my anger. I can even say that I’m angry. But I do it calmly, by choice, and as a way to get to a better level of communication.

2. ‘Change Conversation Cycle’
developed by Karin Tamerius, founder of Smart Politics.
If I’m able to regulate my anger, I’m getting more confident of moving through this process. I’m pretty good at asking questions. I’m a good listener. I can reflect back the other person’s position. But I run into trouble when I try to share my point of view without going into preaching mode. In the role play I did in my workshop in Buffalo, we all had a good laugh at my obvious stumble at that point. As soon as I did it, I knew, my role play partner knew it, and all those watching us knew it. It was actually a good teaching moment both of how the cycle works and how difficult it can be to get all the way to that level. It takes practice and I can’t avoid a difficult conversation forever.

3. Revolutionary Love
I keep going back to Valerie Kaur’s Revolutionary Love Project and the three points of the pledge she asks us to take:

  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.  

Check out the more detailed descriptions on her website.

I took the pledge and I am trying to overcome the challenge of getting to ‘and’ in my church.
Stay tuned for updates.

A Letter to Interim Bishop Claire Burkat

Dear Bishop Burkat,

I have no doubt that you are sincere in your desire to bring reconciliation, healing, and hope to our synod. However, I do not agree with your action of leading worship at Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina. While you do not name Pastor Rabell-Gonzalez as being in attendance, the photo on his Facebook page confirms his presence. In my opinion, your stated intention to renew trust in the Office of the Bishop, you have made it clear that you have already made judgements about what happened.

At the end of our synod assembly, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said that we are a divided synod. That is still true. I am disturbed and angry at the way this entire situation has been mishandled. It was clear at the assembly that many people, especially lay members, did not know what had happened on December 12, 2021. They were confused and begged for more information. Within the constraints of time and Roberts Rules of Order, we were forced to take a vote, and the assembly voted to not ask Bishop Rohrer to resign. To my surprise, Bishop Eaton announced in an email the next day that she would be bringing disciplinary action against Bishop Rohrer based on “new information.” That “new information” has never been disclosed. 

I have been watching the January 6 hearings and have been struck by the integrity of the process they have conducted. In comparison, the handling of our December 12 crisis has been incompetent and infuriating. No one knows all the facts. Some of us know some of the facts but have been asked not to break confidentiality. Some have been making public commentary in spite of not knowing all the facts. Lies and misinformation have been disseminated throughout the ELCA and the entire country. If we had an opportunity to hear all the facts (minus the names of alleged victims of Pastor Rabell-Gonzalez), we could make informed decisions.  

The assembly also made clear the tension between anti-racist activists and the LGBTQ community. Bishop Rohrer was continually misgendered by members of the assembly, even after correction. The listening team even had to make an apology about their ignorance around autism characteristics exhibited by Bishop Rohrer. It was obvious to me that we had an opportunity to learn about and deal with a very real situation of the intersectionality of oppressed communities. Instead, it now appears that one community is being privileged over others. I can’t help wondering what Pastor Rabell-Gonzalez’s accusers feel when they see your smiling faces on the photo from Sunday. Whatever happened to “listen to the women”? 

I am glad that there will be an investigation of the circumstances regarding the removal of Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez. I hope there will also be an investigation into the actions of the previous bishop and synod council, the actions and inactions of Presiding Bishop Eaton, and the scapegoating of Bishop Rohrer. Many of the comments from speakers at the microphones at synod assembly had nothing to do with the December 12 action. However, misinformation, ignorance of the facts, and personal opinion created what came to be called “a pattern of behavior” that convinced some that Bishop Rohrer was unfit to serve.

I hope that such an investigation will take place. After this initial action, however, I have my doubts. A day at Churchwide Assembly to offer a public apology to Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina, may sound good in a press release, but to me it sounds like vindication for Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez – and that is certainly how he is promoting it in social media. Rather than one more public commitment to anti-racism, I wish we could we have a public commitment to the truth – and to a real process of reconciliation.

I do not intend to watch any of the proceedings from Churchwide Assembly. I am disappointed, discouraged, and disheartened by the mishandling of December 12. Many people, including the members of Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina, have been hurt. Our synod is divided. Colleagues are divided. We are broken. My question to you is how are you going to help all of us come together into a place of truth and healing? 

Rev. Susan M. Strouse

Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd
301 Burlingame Avenue
Burlingame, CA

Posted by: smstrouse | May 27, 2022

It’s Not Either/Or

It’s Not Either/Or

It’s Both/And

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sides

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!

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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

Magnificat

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-Visitation

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. 

SUBVERSIVE MAGNIFICAT

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…..is 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.

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DISMANTLING PATRIARCHAL DUALISM
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.”

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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. 

IT’S YOUR RELIGION, STUPID

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.

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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.

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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:

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“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.” 

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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

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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.

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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. 

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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.”

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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.

Amen 

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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 lead.christmas-934177_1280

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.

Amen 

 

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