Posted by: smstrouse | June 13, 2015

Reading the Quran in Church – Again

A few yeas 640x392_80048_246190ago, First United participated in an initiative called Faith Shared: Uniting in Prayer and Understanding. We joined Christians churches across the country in hosting readings from the Qur’an as an act of solidarity with the Muslim community. The idea was to send a message both here at home and to the Arab and Muslim world about our respect for Islam. I was astonished by the flurry of negative emails and comments on our church’s web site. Several quoted the Bible to defend their messages. For example:

“Your (sic) planning to send “a message both here at home and to the Arab and Muslim world about our respect for Islam” with a time to read the Quran during worship this Sunday. Second Corinthians 6:14-18 says we’re forbidden to do that kind of thing. It’s one thing to be friendly with someone in Islam, but it’s a whole other thing in a Christian community to be reading something that is antithetical to Christianity and is hostile to Jesus Christ himself. You should be ashamed of yourself and resign never to preach in a Lutheran or Christian church again.”

Several accused us of becoming “Chrislam,” a hybrid of Christianity and Islam. That was a new one to me! I’ve since found many references to this fear-mongering tactic. One web site asks:”Is Your Church Secretly Indoctrinating You to Accept Chrislam?”

My answer to that is:
1) We’re not indoctrinating anyone to accept anything. We trust that you will use your brain to explore the teachings of any tradition. We’ll also encourage respectful questions, and even disagreements.

2) We are a Christian church that seeks to enter into respectful dialogue with people of other religions and those with no religion. If that makes us Chrislam, so be it. But we’re also Chruddist, Chrindu and Chraosit. Ouch, that makes my head hurt! But then so does the ignorance of anti-Muslim ranting.

3) Get ready; we’re doing it again. This week is the start of “Pluralism Summer III” at First United. Our first guest is from the Sufi tradition, and so, along with our usual Hebrew and Christian scriptures, we will have a reading from her sacred text, the Qur’an.

pope-reads-kuranWhile I don’t enjoy criticism, I’m also honored to be in the company of other spiritual leaders. Even Pope Francis is not immune. When he made the statement last year that “Islam is a religion of peace, one which is compatible with respect for human rights and peaceful coexistence,” he became the target of the Internet trolls. in January when he included Muslim prayers in a service at the Vatican, he was declared the antiChrist.

I agree with the statement he made urging Christians and Muslims to get rid of stereotypes in order to establish better interfaith relations. He said that most effective antidote to violence among us is learning about each other and then accepting differences. Inter-religious dialogue can make progress only by careful listening – something many have yet to learn.

Hopefully, our small effort at promoting inter-religious dialogue will have an effect on our corner of the world. I anticipate another round of criticism. But mostly I trust that we are part of the movement of the world into peaceful coexistence.

May it be so.

Posted by: smstrouse | May 22, 2015

Church Feud in AZ

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“Theology Feud Pits Half of Town’s Protestant Churches Against Another”

So reads the headline posted on Christianity Today last week. The “another” in the story is The Fountains United Methodist Church and its pastor, David Felten. Up until now, I’ve known about David Felten only from his involvement in creating the Living the Questions and Saving Jesus series. These are two of the best progressive Christian adult education programs available, and now he’s taking heat for practicing what he teaches.

Last week, a group of eight conservative churches in Fountain Hills, AZ – including Baptist, Lutheran (sigh), Presbyterian, and non-denominational congregations – launched a unified campaign against the likes of Pastor Felton. And me. And maybe you, too.

progressive-xianityBanners appeared in front of the eight churches. A sermon series has been advertised by an op-ed and half-page advertisement in the local paper.  One of the stated objectives of the series is to differentiate between “Progressive” Christianity and Biblical Christianity. In quotes from these pastors, words like ‘heresy’ and  ‘apostate’ appeared. One said that those who promote a progressive form of Christianity are undermining the Christian faith.

Hmmpfff!

They’re also pretty proud of themselves for joining together in solidarity to demonstrate the “unity of the body of Christ’ in Fountain Hills.” As one said, “Imagine Baptists united with Lutherans working side-by-side with Presbyterians, all while holding the raised hands of charismatics.”

Yeah, great.

To David Felten’s credit, he’s taking the high road on all this. He said, “It’s hard to imagine how much this kind of publicity would cost if we had to pay for it!” It worked on me; I went right to his church’s website to see what they were about. The first sentence of their mission statement says it all: “At The Fountains, our purpose is simple: to connect with God and serve others with thought-provoking openness and honesty.”

Oh, the heresy! The apostasy!

All this goes to show is that the gap between conservative Christianity and progressive Christianity is widening. If the questions being addressed in the sermon series (e.g. “Why Does It Matter that Jesus Was Born of a Virgin?” and “Why Does It Matter that the Bible is Reliable?”) are any indication, there’s not much room for discussion. There’s a fundamental difference in scholarship, theology, science and worldview at work here.

As churches continue to wring their hands at the loss of membership and money, they will either recognize that a whole lot of people are looking for congregations where they are welcome to be and welcome to think – or they will eventually die.

So I say, kudos to David Felten and the people of The Fountains. You’re a beacon of light that will not be put under a bushel.

For our part, we will continue to use Living the Questions apts-logo-white-framend other great material like it. We just started Painting the Stars: Science, Religion and an Evolving Faith. I can only imagine the reaction of the “Gang of 8” to that! Actually I wouldn’t mind some of the publicity The Fountains is getting. San Francisco is a tough market for any kind of organized religion.

Postscript: I just saw a response released by a group of Presbyterian clergy in the area stating that “the entire spirit of this campaign is not in keeping with the teachings of Jesus Christ” and calling on their colleague and his cohorts to cease and desist. Hurray for them! I hope the local Lutherans will follow suit.

 

Posted by: smstrouse | May 14, 2015

Creeds: The Frayed Furniture of the Church?

Presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton had an article in The Lutheran magazine this month. It started out kind of interesting, talking about how to make church the same kind of  “third place” as our local coffeehouse (“first place” being home and “second place” work).

dscn4276She had a good insight that what we offer at church can be like a lived-in room, that’s become so familiar that we don’t notice the frayed furniture. Good metaphor, I thought.

But then she lost me. “And please, please do not rewrite the creeds. It took the church a couple of centuries to come up with the Nicene Creed. Why do we think we can do better knocking it out on our laptop?”

Ironic, I’d say, given that she’d just invited us to look at our “frayed furniture.” Actually I think that’s a very apt metaphor for the creeds. I am not a proponent of simply tossing them away. I consider them important historical documents, which give us knowledge of what the church of that time was thinking and how they were making sense of the Jesus story. They had a philosophic, theological and scientific worldview which was relevant for their time.

But not for today.

I’ve heard a lot of rationales for keeping the creeds in the liturgy, some from my greatest progressive heroes. But I’m just not buying it. Not only do the ancient creeds use outdated biblical knowledge (e.g. the virgin Mary) and old concepts like ‘substance’ and ‘begotten,’ they completely ignore the life, teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth.

ChristSophialarge

So what many have done is to ditch the Christ of faith and go solely with the Jesus of history. They say “I’m a follower of Jesus.” And that’s OK; I say that, too. But to jettison the Christ of faith because all we know is what we read in the creeds is to miss the experience of the reality of the Christ, which is bigger than the man Jesus, bigger even than Christianity. It’s to miss the Christ of the mystics, the Cosmic Christ of Teilhard de Chardin, the inclusivity of Christ-Sophia.

And I need both. In response to the question, “Which is more important, the historical Jesus or the Cosmic Christ?” theological John Cobb responded: “. . . the primacy of the Logos is not in competition with the importance of Jesus. When we identify the Logos with the Cosmic Christ we are recognizing how intimately the importance of these two very different kinds of realities is bound together. This unity is at the heart of the Christian faith.”

I think this is a better way for us to even hope to become a “third place” for spiritual seekers today. So no, I’m not going to use the creeds in worship. But I’m also not going to try to knock out something better on my laptop. We’ll be about following Jesus and abiding in Christ, not about ‘believing in’ a collection of frayed furniture that needs to be moved out of the living room.

images                                                 “The Cosmic Christ” by Sister Rebecca Shinas

Posted by: smstrouse | May 9, 2015

For All My Mothers

Mother887174_10203021373468572_6063021794519708667_os Day can be tough for many women for many different reasons. My mom has been gone now for seven years, and I still wrestle with the good and bad of our relationship. In the midst of all of it, though, I honor her  memory and all she contributed to who I am today.

But I’ve also come to appreciate the other “mothers” in my life – those women (some of whom I’ve never even met) who shaped my (relatively) healthy sense of self. I think of Gloria Steinem, who (believe it or not!) launched me into ministry.  The line “We are becoming the men we wanted to marry” from her book, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, stirred me out of bitterness toward the church and a clergy ex-husband into a career of my own. My doctor at the time, a staunch feminist, had a fit – but that’s another story. gloria__arthur_photossidebyside2

And at 81, Gloria still inspires. On May 24, International Women’s Day for Disarmament, she’ll join a group of women’s rights activists to march across the DMZ from North to South Korea. She’ll be the oldest person on the peace march. So if that’s what old age looks like, all I have to say is, “Bring it on!”

Then t6a00d8341c03ee53ef017d3c82ec6e970c-500wihere’s another one of my heroes, Sister Simone Campbell.  In an interview with Stephen Colbert, who called the Nuns on the Bus radical feminists, Sr. Simone answered: “We’re certainly oriented toward the needs of women and responding to their needs. If that’s radical, I guess we are.”

On the more personal level, my “mothers” include Sr. Joan Wagner, Rosita Torres and Marlene Denardo. These women have been (Marlene still is) my spiritual directors over the years. Each has inspired, guided, comforted, challenged, loved, taught and modeled “mothering” to me.

As far as I know, none of the women I’ve named has given birth, yet all have given me gifts that I didn’t get from my birth mother. This is not a criticism of my mom, just a statement of fact. There’s a lovely song by Sinéad O’Connor called “This Is to Mother You.” But when I sing it, I change the words “For when you need me I will do what your own mother didn’t do” to “what your own mother couldn’t do.”  Here’s a great rendition by Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. 

For me, this song is not only about the women who have mothered me, it’s also about the God who continues to do so. On Mothers Day, what better time to honor our Mother, Christ Sophia and Ruach haKodesh?

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To all my mothers – and to you and yours, Blessed Mothers Day!
Posted by: smstrouse | May 2, 2015

Incarnation Is You & Me

Hildegard-of-Bingen3-195x300Incarnation is one of those funny church words we throw around a lot. But what does it mean, really? We hear it a lot around Christmastime in reference to “the Word was made flesh,” but then we move on to other theological mysteries.

In our “Saving Jesus” session last week, we were amused by one presenter’s use of the name “Jesus con carne,” meaning that God was made flesh. But the main point was that incarnation isn’t just something that happened 2000 years ago, but happens when we are open to the Divine spirit in us. Also, we are reminded that each and every other person is the presence of Christ. In other words, we are all connected to one another in both our humanity and in the Divine Presence that dwells within us. Granted we are aware and responsive to this Presence in varying degrees. Still, it causes me (in my better moments) to stop and think before I judge someone as outside my sphere of interest.

And to care about people I will never meet, but who are intimately connected to me in a web of incarnational life:

  • Protesters in Baltimore, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, all those advocating for justice in all communities – as well as those resorting to violence and looting
  • Police officers who abide by regulations, as well as those who use their power to inflict suffering
  • Girls kidnapped in Nigeria, as well as their captors
  • The people of Nepal, rescue workers and victims’ families, as well as climbers who have made Mt. Everest the “highest garbage dump” in the world

Incarnational life isn’t about caring only for the lovable or the just. It also isn’t about letting injustice go unpunished. It is about honoring our common humanity and working together for the good of all.

This past week I attended a seminar on homelessness in San Francisco. One of the key messages I heard from both agency officials and from people who used to be on the street was that homeless people are often treated as if they’re not human. Even if we can’t provide someone with what they want or need, we can look at them, speak to them, smile at them – look upon them as the face of Christ, which they are.

Is incarnational life easy? No. It would be simpler to keep it as a Christmas thing that we can out away with the creche. Out of sight, out of mind. But instead, we’re supposed to be Jesus con carne. We’re the ones who carry Divine compassion and justice to the world around us.

Posted by: smstrouse | April 18, 2015

Christ is Not Jesus’ Last Name!

Unknown

In my last post I wrote about the relevance of Jesus for the 21st century and asked the question: which Jesus? This week, I’ve been thinking about the post-Easter Jesus, that is the Jesus who’s obviously no longer with us in any of those pre-Easter physical forms.

Actually, I prefer the name “The Christ of Faith” over “The Post-Easter Jesus” because it differentiates between the man who was born into a particular place and time and the Christ which is a reality bigger than space and time. Jesus exuded (manifested, incarnated) this Divine Presence, but the Christ (Logos, Tao) is not confined to one person. So it makes sense that, although Jesus the man died, the Christ lives on. images

So when I see pictures of the post-Easter Jesus as a man rising on clouds, wearing a crown or any anthropomorphic imagery, I’m turned off. In Easter, I much prefer abstract art because the cosmic nature of the Christ is beyond my imagination.

ThUnknownis way, too, I can sing hymns like “O Christ-Sophia, Rise” by Jann Aldridge-Clanton which incorporate the feminine person of Wisdom. This in no way diminishes or denigrates the masculinity of Jesus. Rather it allows us to expand our awareness of the full, diverse, inclusive nature of the Christ.
(If you don’t know the work of Jann Aldridge-Clanton, you should check her out right now at http://www.jannaldredgeclanton.com/index.php)

While I don’t agree with Christians who always put Jesus and Christ together, as if Christ is Jesus’ last name (sometimes we even put an H in as a middle initial!), I also don’t agree with some progressive Christians who are interested only in the historical Jesus. I don’t have any argument with their passion for following Jesus as a model of compassion, liberation and justice. I follow that Jesus, too. But I also believe in the cosmic Christ, who is present in the Eucharist and in many and various mystical ways.

Like a good Lutheran, I recognize that we live in a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or world’. For me, Christianity is about being both a follower of the historical Jesus and a devotee of the cosmic Christ: Wisdom, Logos, Tao, the Name that Cannot Be Named, Mystery. See, just as I don’t like being limited by representational art, I have trouble with names, too!

But no matter, the Christ is big enough to encompass all of our efforts at conceptualizing and understanding. You can’t get any more relevant than that.

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Posted by: smstrouse | April 11, 2015

Is Jesus Relevant in the 21st Century?

Blonde-JesusSo you say you’re a follower of Jesus. OK, but which Jesus?
Blonde Jesus? Jewish Jesus? Black Jesus? White Jesus? Zen Jesus? Jedi Jesus?

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Christianity_Jesus_meditating_golden_lightJedi JesusAmerican-actor-Ted-Neeley-takes-part-in-a-rehearsal-of-the-show-Jesus-Christ-Superstar-AFP-800x430                                                                         Superstar Jesus?

Maybe you’re a fan of Bruce Chilton’s “Rabbi Jesus” or John Dominic Crossan’s “Mediterranean Jewish Peasant,” Sarah Bessey’s “Jesus Feminist” or Reza Aslan’s “Zealot.”

Any way you look at it, Jesus is a popular figure – as a figure of belief and/or devoUnknowntion as well as a target for poking fun. Check out the Jesus action figure with glow-in-the-dark hands I got for my birthday last year.

What is it about this guy that holds our interest? And does he really have any relevance to us in our 21st century lives? Many would say no way. Others, who have dropped out of the church, might claim to be “followers of Jesus” but not want to be identified as a Christian (too much historical baggage with that). However, people of other religious traditions do have high regard for Jesus. My Jewish friends love when I refer to Rabbi Jesus. And Jesus was quoted many times at the Sufism Symposium two weeks ago.

In my opinion, the more we continue to distinguish the historical Jesus from the cosmic Christ, the more we can reclaim the radical, subversive message of compassion, liberation and justice that Jesus taught. And the more we can embody that message and act like we believe in that vision, the better others will be able to see the real Jesus – no matter how we end up painting his picture.

The 21st century needs compassion, liberation and justice just as much (or more) as the 1st century. You don’t have to be a Christian or a follower of Jesus to believe and live that. But for those of us who do identify as such, there’s no reason to hide it. I am a Christian. I am a follower of the ethics of the realm of God that Jesus proclaimed. That realm is as relevant as ever. And I want to be part of it.

Who’s with me?!

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Posted by: smstrouse | April 3, 2015

The Tomb Is Open: Dare to Come Out into the Light!

the-cosmic-christ-sister-rebecca-shinasYears ago, I went through a spiritual awakening, a transformational  experience. The memory stays with me today and has informed my life and ministry. Call it mystical or spiritual (you can even call me delusional, I don’t care). I call it resurrection: a calling forth from the tomb of shame, depression and despair.

That is why I absolutely love and agree with the presenters in the “Resurrection” segment of our Lent series, Saving Jesus. Their emphasis was not so much on The Resurrection (the ‘of Jesus’ kind), but on the resurrections that can happen any day, in anyone’s life – before and after death. In fact, it was the ‘before death’ kind we talked most about that evening.  ,  Living the Questions

Of course, this Sunday is Easter Sunday, when we remember The Seeing+Risen+ChristResurrection – whatever that was. There’s been a lot of speculation back and forth by many about just what did happen, as well as the absolute certainty of many others that they know exactly what happened. But – as the series pointed out: even the gospel writers don’t agree.

But the late Marcus Borg gets the prize for best answer: “The emphasis upon the tomb really being empty that’s made by some Christians and the emphasis that Jesus rose in a physical, bodily way from the dead is really a distraction.”

40130Something happened. I have no doubt about that. But I can’t explain it any more than I can explain what happened to me years ago. Whatever happened to me was wondrous, life-changing, transformational, joyous, wanting to be shared. Life suddenly went from black and white to technicolor. For me, that was Easter; that was resurrection.

So, yes, to to emphasize only the resurrection of Jesus long ago, misses the point. To argue about or insist upon what actually, literally happened, is truly a distraction.

The point is that Divine Creativity is at work in the world. That life-giving, life-jesus-resurrection.jpg.crop_displayempowering Presence can roll away stones from the tombs that imprison us – whatever they are. I’m not talking about a magical, fix-it, Santa Claus, fairy godmother who will grant our every wish. I’m talking about an opening up of dreams we’ve forgotten and possibilities we never even knew existed.

The thing is, though, there’s risk involved in being open to such cosmic wonder. We might come out of the tomb into a life that is very different. And as uncomfortable as the tomb may have been, it’s the one we’ve known. It will take courage to come out into the light. Many will not; freedom is just too scary.

This Easter, I will celebrate resurrection life. I will give thanks for Jesus, who showed us the way through death itself. No matter what happened at his tomb, I truly do believe that something wonderful happened to him and that his followers experienced glimpses and glimmers of that wonder.

I also truly do believe that creative, transformational energy is available to each and every one of us. And I’ll celebrate that too.

Don’t be distracted by beliefs or unbeliefs in an historic empty tomb. The stone in front of your tomb is waiting to be rolled away. Are you ready to come out into the light?

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Posted by: smstrouse | March 28, 2015

Holy Week, Foot Washing and Human Trafficking

imagesI saw one of those fun quizzes on Facebook recently that I couldn’t resist:  “Which Saint Has Your Myers-Briggs Personality?”
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I got St. Catherine of Siena because, it said, “You absolutely love contemplating unity with Christ and the beauty of the Eucharist during Maundy Thursday. It’s so fulfilling. You especially love to contemplate this while hiding in the bathroom during the foot washing portion.”

When I read that to a friend, she exclaimed, “That is so you!” And so it is. I’ve always loved the Maundy Thursday aspect of the institution of Holy Communion. And I’ve never, ever once in my 25 years of parish ministry planned a service that included foot washing. I will modify that to say that I’ve participated in such a service the past two years because we’ve had joint services with two other congregations. So I went along. But, yeah, I wanted to hide out in the bathroom.

I’m grateful to St. Catherine for assuring me that I’m not alone. But the quiz tnb_pic2results also got me thinking about another form of foot washing, that is the lovely scented bath that precedes a pedicure. From there my mind went to the seminar we had several years ago about human trafficking, where we learned that women who work in nail salons are often victims of trafficking for prostitution and/or forced labor. Ever since I’ve been mindful of the usually young, usually Asian women who wash my feet. I’ve read articles on how to look for signs of trafficking and frequent places I know are reputable. Still, knowing that this problem exists is troubling. And I’ve been pondering how it fits in with the message of Maundy Thursday.

Then I heard about another congregation, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Chicago, which did somethingweb_Washingfeet1 extraordinary this year. In preparation for Maundy Thursday for washing, they gathered together a team of podiatrists and podiatrists-in-training to provide foot care images-1to some of the members of the church, as well as members of the community who are served by their food pantry and community dinners.

I’m intrigued with the idea of re-imagining Maundy Thursday’s foot washing tradition as a way to concretely, not just symbolically, serve the needs of the people around us. In a city like San Francisco, which has one of the highest homeless populations in the country, there is ample opportunity to offer foot care that’s not a spa day luxury, but a health care necessity.

San Francisco is also a center for human trafficking. Maundy Thursday could be a day to promote awareness of the issue, publish warning signs and resources, and include survivors, victims and the agencies who work to eradicate trafficking in our worship service.

You might have other creative ideas.

As we seek to translate ancient rituals into modern ways of thinking and being, I wonder how we can convey the humble servitude of Maundy Thursday foot washing in our post-modern, post-Christian, spiritual-but-not-religious city. And if we can, I might even come out of the bathroom.

christwashingfeetofapostles

Posted by: smstrouse | March 21, 2015

Is God a Circle or a Triangle?

 

imagesBeing is God’s circle and in this circle all creatures exist. – Meister Eckhart

I’m much happier thinking of God as a circle. But I know that’s not the usual way of imagining heaven, earth, God, us, etc. It’s more like a triangle, with God at the top and everything else at the bottom. Think about it: we sing words like “Glory to God in the highest” and “Word of God, come down on earth.”

marriage-triangle-21At its best, it’s an image of love watching over us, a power greater than ourselves looking beneficently down on us. At its worst, it’s a threatening behavior control tool.

God-sign
But even assuming the best sense of it, I resonate so much more with Meister Eckhart, and with the philospoher Empedocles who said,  “The nature of God is a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere.”

I heard a Native American speaker this past week talking about just this. His point was that in order to really address the ecological issues facing our planet, we need to bet away from the hierarchical view of the world, including our concept of the Divine Presence (he wouldn’t have named that God, but it makes sense nonetheless). In the circle, everyone is equal. Even leadership is shared. Power has a different meaning from the top-down, coercive model we’re used to.

But much of the language of our liturgies, prayers, hymns and doctrines reflect the sky-god who either comes down to rescue us or threatens judgement over us.

Not all. We’ve been using a song for our midweek evening prayer services during Lent – “You Are the Centre” by Margaret Rizza, which begins “You are the centre, you are my life; You are the centre, O Lord, of my life.”

We also pay attention to the language we use in prayers: are we asking for a divine rescue operation or for deep connection to Presence which will enable us to do the work of healing the world? What are we asking for in an invocation: for God to come to us, when in reality God is always here?

It takes initiative, intentionality and work to make a shift from triangle to circle (I’m not talking about the Trinity here; that’s for another day). But I firmly believe that language matters.  Christianity has a lot to learn from the indigenous traditions, from Eastern religions, from our own mystics about the interconnectedness of all beings. We have begun. May we all recognize our place in the Divine Circle!

 

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