Posted by: smstrouse | January 8, 2017

Epiphany and the New Herod

15965132_10211123120292287_7334055007453144376_nMost of us have probably put our Nativity sets away for the year. The Twelve Days of Christmas are over. And churches, like ours, that insist on celebrating Epiphany on the Sunday closest to January 6th – the actual day of Epiphany – are really pushing it having the angel, the shepherds, the animals, the whole shebang here along with the Magi today.

But Epiphany 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 (except maybe for this one at Trinity Lutheran Church in Manhattan!), 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 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 to Herod 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.

15965193_10211123117692222_8687064585588012110_nThe point in this Epiphany tale 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.

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 aren’t the politics of the world. And the politics of Jesus will always be confrontational to the halls of wealth and power. We will 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.

And 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. Of the six religious leaders who will stand with the president-elect and offer prayers on inauguration day, two are prosperity gospel preachers and one is Franklin Graham.

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. That’s why I want our delegation to the Women’s March to have some kind of identifying button or banner, so that the presence of the faith community is known.

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 – the work of Christmas begins.



Isaiah 60:1-6
We can’t let our fears of darkness dampen our lights. When political leaders lack a moral compass, we must supply a new ethical and spiritual direction. When religious leaders sell out their faith for power and the return of the good old days, we must chart a different course. Not letting go of the name, “Christian,” despite the foolishness of popular Christian leaders, we must redefine Christian faith for our time to transform the world and to witness to those who have been traumatized or scandalized by the “captivity of the church” in our time.  

It is written . . .

Arise, shine, for your light has come! The Glory of YHWH is rising upon you!
Though darkness still covers the earth and dense clouds enshroud the peoples,
upon you YHWH now dawns, and God’s Glory will be seen among you!
The nations will come to your light and the leaders to your bright dawn!

Lift up your eyes, and look around: they’re all gathering and coming to you—
your daughters and your sons journey from afar, escorted in safety;
you’ll see them and beam with joy, your heart will swell with pride.

The riches of the sea will flow to you, and the wealth of the nations will come to you— camel caravans will cover your roads, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah;
everyone in Sheba will come, bringing gold and incense
and singing the praise of YHWH.

Ephesians 3:1-12
Our light has come and it is for everyone. Paul proclaims the mystery of God that reaches out to the Gentile world. Today’s Gentiles are immigrants, Muslims, transgendered persons, and the forgotten working poor in inner cities and rural America. Our faith must include the “other” and this faith must be embodied in acts of kindness, political involvement, and community transformation.

 It is written . . .

For I, Paul – a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles – am sure that you have heard of God’s grace, of which I was made a steward on your behalf; this mystery, as I have briefly described it, was given to me by revelation. When you read this, you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was unknown to the people of former ages, but is now revealed by the Spirit to the holy apostles and prophets. That mystery is that the Gentiles are heirs, as are we, members of the Body, as are we, and partakers of the promise of Jesus the Messiah through the gospel, as are we. I became a minister of the gospel by the gift of divine grace given me through the working of God’s power. To me, the least of all believers, was given the grace to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ and to enlighten all people on the mysterious design which for ages was hidden in God, the Creator of all. Now, therefore, through the church, God’s manifold wisdom is made known to the rulers and powers of heaven, in accord with the age-old design, carried out in Christ Jesus our Savior, in whom we have boldness and confident access to God through our faith in Christ.

Matthew 2:1-12
Magi come from the East. They come from another religion and nation. Followers of Zoroaster, trusting the ultimate victory of light over darkness, they come to worship a simple, working-class child. The fullness of God is not to be found in the Jerusalem temple, the halls of Congress, Trump Towers, boardrooms, or even basilicas. God is in these places, of course, but Epiphany reminds us that God comes to us among the poor and vulnerable, in the life of a little child. The Magi reveal the truth of John 1:9 – the truth of God, coming into the world, enlightens all creation and every person.  

It is written . . .

After Jesus’ birth—which happened in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of Herod—astrologers from the East arrived in Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay homage.” At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.

“In Bethlehem of Judea,” they informed him. “Here is what the prophet has written:   ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,
since from you will come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

Herod called the astrologers aside and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, after having instructed them, “Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report back to me—so that I may go and offer homage, too.”

After their audience with the ruler, they set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering the house, found the child with Mary, his mother. They prostrated themselves and paid homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went back to their own country by another route.






Posted by: smstrouse | January 7, 2017

Moving (Slowly) Out of My Comfort Zone

star-east-copyI have a good friend who voted for He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. I don’t understand it. It’s upsetting to me. You’d think the temptation would be to write off the friendship and move on. Except that we truly like each other and enjoy one another’s company. She’s been a strong support for me when I’ve needed one, and vice versa. How do you just write that off?

I’ve known about her political leanings and she’s known mine. We’ve just stayed away from those topics. But that’s become impossible to do now. We had a phone conversation last week and waded into the deeper water. She talked about her experience of being a conservative living in a blue state, of keeping her mouth shut when friends and members of her church made disparaging remarks or assumptions about people like her. When she did “come out” at one gathering, she described her discomfort at having to immediately be able to defend her positions in a rather unsafe environment – even among friends.

On one hand, I can sympathize. No one should have to be afraid to claim their opinions or positions. On the other hand, I know I’d be in there pushing back on them.

And yet. We’ve been hearing since the election how we on the left haven’t listened, how we need to relearn how to be in conversation with those with whom we disagree. For heaven’s take, this is the exact same pitch I make for interfaith and intrafaith conversation! How can I not be willing to do the interpolitical work?

I am so aware of how easy I have it. I live in a solidly blue state. I reside in Berkeley; I work in San Francisco. My congregation is as progressive as you can get. There is no risk to me in speaking my mind and being an activist on progressive issues. In a very big way, I rejoice in this!

But now I have this little niggling voice in my ear telling me that it’s not enough. There’s work to be done in bridging the divisions among us and relearning how to have civil conversations. And what better way than to begin with a friend?

Respectful dialogue must begin with relationship-building. Participants must trust one another with their stories. My friend and I already have this, so it would seem that we have a foundation on which to build. In our phone conversation, we approached this possibility carefully. We both agreed that we’re not ready yet. Maybe after the inauguration, after I’m back from the Women’s March. We’ll see.

I confess, this is not a process I really want to undertake. But I believe it may be one to which I’m being called (really, God?!) But Epiphany is the season of revelation. I’m going to have to trust the guidance of the star of Wisdom on this one.




Posted by: smstrouse | January 7, 2017

Moving (Slowly) Out of My Comfort Zone

star-east-copyI have a good friend who voted for He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. I don’t understand it. It’s upsetting to me. You’d think the temptation would be to write off the friendship and move on. Except that we truly like each other and enjoy one another’s company. She’s been a strong support for me when I’ve needed one, and vice versa. How do you just write that off?

I’ve known about her political leanings and she’s known mine. We’ve just stayed away from those topics. But that’s become impossible to do now. We had a phone conversation last week and waded into the deeper water. She talked about her experience of being a conservative living in a blue state, of keeping her mouth shut when friends and members of her church made disparaging remarks or assumptions about people like her. When she did “come out” at one gathering, she described her discomfort at having to immediately be able to defend her positions in a rather unsafe environment – even among friends.

On one hand, I can sympathize. No one should have to be afraid to claim their opinions or positions. On the other hand, I know I’d be in there pushing back on them.

And yet. We’ve been hearing since the election how we on the left haven’t listened, how we need to relearn how to be in conversation with those with whom we disagree. For heaven’s take, this is the exact same pitch I make for interfaith and intrafaith conversation! How can I not be willing to do the interpolitical work?

I am so aware of how easy I have it. I live in a solidly blue state. I reside in Berkeley; I work in San Francisco. My congregation is as progressive as you can get. There is no risk to me in speaking my mind and being an activist on progressive issues. In a very big way, I rejoice in this!

But now I have this little niggling voice in my ear telling me that it’s not enough. There’s work to be done in bridging the divisions among us and relearning how to have civil conversations. And what better way than to begin with a friend?

Respectful dialogue must begin with relationship-building. Participants must trust one another with their stories. My friend and I already have this, so it would seem that we have a foundation on which to build. In our phone conversation, we approached this possibility carefully. We both agreed that we’re not ready yet. Maybe after the inauguration, after I’m back from the Women’s March. We’ll see.

I confess, this is not a process I really want to undertake. But I believe it may be one to which I’m being called (really, God?!) But Epiphany is the season of revelation. I’m going to have to trust the guidance of the star of Wisdom on this one.




Posted by: smstrouse | December 23, 2016

Shift Happens: The Dying Gasps of Nationalism

shift-happens-1000x437Shhh. Don’t tell He Who Shall Not Be Named and all his ilk: something is happening. There’s a paradigm shift in process, and while it may appear that the forces of xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, antiSemitism, and Islamaphobia have won the day, they are really the dying gasps of the old order. I don’t mean to downplay the misery these people can and will cause. But I also believe that there is a larger movement at work.

The Interspirit Alliance and others, such as Kurt Johnson and David Robert Ord in their book, The Coming Interspiritual Age,  envision “the emergence of a new axial age, reconciling destructive tensions that have plagued the human family and awakening a transformed new era of enlightened understanding.” They not only agree with Brother Wayne Teasdale’s characterization of interspirituality as the religion of the third millennium, they predict that humankind is about to enter into a new age of interdependence among the people of the world.

interspirualageNow before you dismiss this movement as too “New Age-y” or simply a remnant of the 60’s Age of Aquarius, know that this prediction is actually based on social theory. Teasdale and others who consider themselves interspiritual pioneers would have us look back to a major paradigm shift in human consciousness called the Axial Age and consider that we are now in the first stages of a second such shift. Theologian Hans Küng goes so far as to call it a Macro-Paradigm-Shift, in which humanity is coming to understand the world and human responsibility in global, not local terms. This shift is the impetus for working together for the betterment of the world.

But first, a word about what came even before this First Axial Age. Human culture was primarily tribal. Being part of the tribe meant not only knowing one’s identity, but also having protection from other tribes. The lives of pre-axial people were intimately connected to the life cycles of nature and to the cosmos. Harmony in the relationship between human beings and the natural world was expressed in myth and ritual. However, this harmony extended only to members of one’s own tribe. Other tribes were considered “other” and usually with hostility.

Then from about 800 BCE to 100 CE (the date range varies among historians) a new way ofaustralian-gr-poster-gif-html thinking emerged from the eastern Mediterranean to China. Tribal cultures were faced with the rise of urban life. They had to develop ethical systems that could transcend the rules of the various tribes. Consider the phenomenon of the Golden Rule, which is expressed throughout religions, philosophy and ethical systems. This idea that we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves emerged during the First Axial Age, which ushered in a radically new form of consciousness. The great religions of the world are the product of the Axial Period. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Judaism all took shape in their classical forms during this period; and Judaism provided the base for the later emergence of Christianity and Islam.

And now, we stand poised to enter  the New Axial Age. What’s the difference? Here are some of the main characteristics of the emerging paradigm:

  1. It’s global. Humanity is seen as a single tribe and this one tribe is interconnected with the total cosmos.
  1. It’s an age of dialogue, not monologue. Instead of talking only with those like us, we meet with people of differing convictions, not as opponent, but in order to listen, share and learn from one another.
  1. It will be characterized by a deep commitment to environmental justice, including a shift from an exclusively anthropocentric view to one which sees humanity in interdependent relationship with all other life forms and with the Earth itself.
  1. It will involve a redefinition of religion. Many of the answers given in the past do not address questions being asked today. Just as Christianity moved from a Jewish way of thinking into one of Greek philosophy (which produced the ‘substance’ language of the Nicene Creed), we are now moving into a new way of reflecting on theological matters. Interspiritual pioneers, such as Teasdale, Johnson and Ord believe that interspirituality is the form that it will take.

Does this sound anything like what He Who Shall Not Be Named and his ilk represent? Hardly. However, paradigm shifts happen whether we want them to or not. As a person of faith, I believe in the continual unfolding of “all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, decent, admirable, virtuous and worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8). I’m putting my money on the indefatigable Spirit of Divine Creativity.

In the  meantime, our work is cut out for us. We must do everything we can to resist the forces of the gasping, grasping, dying paradigm. But do not lose heart.

Remember: shift happens!



Posted by: smstrouse | December 19, 2016

Advent 4: Love Wins!

weasel-awardLove, according to a prominent theologian, is a notoriously ambiguous “weasel word.” I didn‘t know what a “weasel word” was, but it didn’t sound good. So I looked it up. A “weasel word” is a word or phrase that’s used to create an impression that a meaningful statement has been made, but really only a vague or ambiguous claim has actually been communicated.

I knew immediately what that meant. At an Interfaith Center meeting last week, we were trying to come up with a title for a new children’s program. Someone suggested “Interfaith Families for Peace.” Someone else remarked, “No, peace is such a meaningless word.” I was shocked at first, but had to agree with the reasoning behind it. I got it: “peace” has also become a “weasel word.”

How sad that two of the most important words in the church have become so trite – two words that are so integral to this season. Although with strains of Silent Night and O Little Town of Bethlehem assaulting our ears in every store and restaurant, it’s no wonder.

I was sitting in Peet’s on Thursday, reading the news. In the background was Bing Crosby singing “Silent Night” and I wanted to scream,  “They’re committing war crimes in Aleppo, you idiot!”

But today is the fourth Sunday in Advent when we light a candle for Love. And if it’s going to be more than a “weasel word,” we have to be very intentional about what love is. But what is it? Despite the millions of poems, songs, and works of art devoted to love, few actually define it. In fact, Jules Toner, author of the book The Experience of Love, said “Those who write best about love devote very little space to considering what love is.”

But some have tried to get a better handle on this pervasive yet elusive, crazy little thing called love. Some years ago, Leo Buscaglia, a professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Southern California, distressed by the suicide of one of his students, proposed to teach a course on the subject of love. Some of his fellow faculty members dismissed the subject as “irrelevant.” One mockingly asked whether the class would have a lab requirement and with a leer asked if Buscaglia would he be the primary investigator.


But he was serious; this wasn’t a frivolous thing for him. He did get to teach the c51vg6k7rvul-_sy344_bo1204203200_ourse,
but only on the condition that he teach it free of salary in his spare time and  there would be no course credit given for it. Over the three years that followed, the course – not a scholarly or deeply philosophical study of love but “a sharing of some of the practical and vital ideas, feelings and observations” related to the human condition – earned Buscaglia the name “Dr. Love” and became one of the university’s most popular classes.

Still, it was hard for those trained in more academic ways to get it. He recounted that when he was asked to speak, he’d be asked, “Will you talk about love?”
“Sure,” he’d say.
“What’s your title?” they’d want to know.
“Let’s just call it love,” he’d reply.
There would be a brief hesitation, then, “Well, you know this is a professional meeting and it may not be understood.”
So he’d suggest ‘Affect as a Behavior Modifier’ and they’d be happy with that.

Since then, there have been more scientific studies into love. One researcher, Thomas Jay Oord, took a stab at it in his book – with the very academic title, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific and Theological Engagement. His definition: “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being.” That’s pretty dry. Yet he and other researchers identified ten ways that love promotes well-being: celebration, respect, generativity, forgiveness, courage, humor, compassion, loyalty, listening and creativity. Sounds a lot like our list of words to describe First United.

I think we can add another word to that list: vulnerability. We allow ourselves to be our most vulnerable only with those we love (well, maybe our therapists, but they’re paid for the privilege). And even that’s hard sometimes. To be so completely known by another can be a frightening thing. And some people who have been hurt by a loved one can be very wary of ever allowing their heart to be so open again. Yet that is what it takes to love and be loved: the daring risk to be vulnerable and the willing-ness to carefully hold the vulnerability of another.

0decf3d5-8e82-469a-bdee-b477d467c623Maybe that’s why we’re so taken with the Nativity myth. The idea that God would allow God’s self to become as vulnerable as a newborn baby is an unusual view of Divinity. When we think of Divinity, we usually think in terms of Almighty, All Powerful, Majestic, Omnicient, Omnipresnet, etc., etc. Certainly not weak, powerless, utterly dependent on others – so much like us, and frankly not us as we like to be reminded we are.

So at Christmas, we are reminded of this great Love, cosmic in its expansiveness, yet also so near to you and to me to be able to know the depths of our hearts, to laugh along with us in our joys and to suffer with us in our pains and sorrows. This great Love also resides in our hearts, and to the extent we allow ourselves to acknowledge it, we’re able to extend love to ourselves and to others. This love isn’t a “weasel word.” This is the real deal.

And yes, love can have consequences. It can get us hurt. The life and death of Jesus is the ultimate example of the riskiness of vulnerability and openness to love. But there are many ways we might be called to pay the price for love.

Yesterday, the banner went up outside the church announcing to all who pass by that “Immigrants and Refugees Are Welcome Here.” It took us a while to get all of the Turk & Lyon congregations on board with doing it – which was good. I didn’t want us to put it up merely as a political statement, but as a real invitation to real people who may be very vulnerable in the coming months. Questions about what we’re really equipped to do, what we’re willing to do, what we know how to do are important ones.


Thankfully, we have a wonderful resource in Maria Eitz from the Sophia in Trinity congregation who has contacts from her former parish who were involved in the Sanctuary movement for Central American refugees in the 80s. Maria is ready and willing to be part of the leadership of this movement should we be called upon to act.

What we might be called upon to do is unclear. Yes, San Francisco is a Sanctuary City. But a Chronicle headline this week warned of possible dangers ahead: “The sanctuary battle: a test of San Francisco’s soul.”

“Now the question is whether Mayor Lee will have the same determination to defend the more than 44,000 immigrants living in San Francisco without documentation. All of them -including about 35% who are Asian – are at growing risk as the Trump administration prepares to take power. Lee staged a defiant press event in the City Hall rotunda to affirm SF’s status as a sanctuary city. ‘We will always be San Francisco, he declared. ‘A city of refuge, a city of sanctuary, a city of love.’ Beautiful words, but many city officials and immigration advocates are wondering how strongly Lee will back them up, particularly as he grapples with a shrinking city budget and likely federal cutbacks.”

We may be called upon to put ourselves out there in a way that goes beyond simply putting up a banner. Although, by putting up that banner we have made ourselves vulnerable. As disciples of Jesus. As disciples of Love.

You see that Mary and Joseph are on the banner as symbols of refugees. But I would add that they also represent the process of the presence of Divinity being birthed into the world: a presence of infinite and intimate Love.

Why is God so often equated with love? It is no simple question. Love appears to be a self-replenishing spiritual force, beyond human understanding. As Romeo exclaims to Juliet in one of history’s most famous love stories: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep, the more I give to thee, the more I have. For both are infinite.”

For God, love is not a “weasel word.” Nor is peace or hope or joy or justice. These words are real; they have power. These candles that we light are not flickers in the overwhelming darkness; they are beacons to the world.

I saw a video Christmas message from renowned biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan: “Caesars and Christs come in many different forms & sizes.” We might feel intimidated by the power of empire – and there are reasons to be afraid. But we can also be heartened, encouraged, emboldened by the many forms that Christ will take in the midst of it. Those forms will sometimes be you, me, us.

We are not “weasel words.” We will mean what we say and say what we mean. And tonight, we say, “Love wins.”



Isaiah 7:10-16

This is another of the many Old Testament prophecies interpreted by the church as predictions of the Messiah. However, Isaiah was likely indicating a young woman at the court of Ahaz who was present during the prophecy. The Hebrew word almah simply means an unmarried adolescent girl, or a woman of marriageable age. A different word, bethulah, is the term for a virgin. A growing number of scholars think that this young woman is the prophet referred to in 8:l3, and that the child she conceives with Isaiah, whom he calls Maher-shala-hash-baz, is the same child whom she will call Immanuel. 


It is written . . .


Once more YHWH spoke to Ahaz and said, “Ask for sign from YHWH your God; let it be deep as the netherworld or high as the sky!”

But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask; I will not put YHWH to a test.”


Then Isaiah said: “Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary those around you, must you also weary my God? Therefore the Holy One will give you a sign: this young woman will become pregnant and will give birth. You will name the child Immanu-el. This child will be living on curds and honey by the time it knows how to refuse evil and do good. But before that – before the child knows how to refuse evil and do good – the land of the two rulers you dread will be laid waste.”


Romans 1:1-7

Paul’s salutation to the Christians in Rome roots Christ’s life in the history of the Jewish people. Jesus took flesh – that is, he became human and is fully human – in the line of David. He has David’s DNA and we share many of the same genetic markers with the Savior. Although the resurrection is beyond our comprehension, we can still affirm solidarity between Jesus and humankind. We are related. Regardless of our ethnicity, we belong to Christ. God is with us and in us, as intimate as our DNA.


It is written . . .


From Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart to proclaim the Good News, which God promised long ago through the prophets, as the holy scriptures record – the Good News concerning God’s Only Begotten, who was descended from David according to the flesh, but was made the Only Begotten of God in power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Savior. We have been favored with apostleship, that we may bring to obedient faith all the nations, among whom you have been called to belong to Jesus Christ;

To all in Rome, beloved of God and called to be holy people: Grace and peace from our Abba God our Father and our Savior Jesus Christ.



Matthew 1:18-25

Under Roman rule, the people longed for a ruler like David, but also for someone to speak to them like the prophets of old. When Jesus came along, they looked back for signs of how God had worked through their ancestors: miraculous conceptions and births, promises of newborn kings who would lead the people in a new way. We now wait and hope expectantly for what God is birthing new in this world and in our lives. So we read the story over and over again, year after year, as the people read the prophets of old. We read the old, old stories, and look for the newness of God to break through.


It is written . . .


This is how the birth of Jesus came about. When Jesus’ mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, an upright person unwilling to disgrace her, decided to divorce her quietly.


This was joseph’s intention when suddenly the angel of God appeared in a dream and said, “Joseph, heir to the House of David, don’t be afraid to wed Mary; it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived for the child. She is to have a son, and you are to name him Jesus – Salvation – because for he will save the people from their sins.”


All this took place to fulfill what God has said through the prophet:

“The virgin will be with child

and give birth,

and the child will be named


A name that means “God is with us.”


When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of God had directed, and they went ahead with the marriage, but had no marital relations with her until she had given birth; she had a son; and they named him Jesus.



Posted by: smstrouse | December 16, 2016

With God in Our Bellies


I’m sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops, trying to figure out what to make of Christmas this year. Granted, there’s trouble in the world no matter what season of the year it is. But this time we’re in right now seems  especially grim. As we prepare ourselves for a nightmare administration, the likes of which we’ve never seen before, it’s so easy to fall into despair.

In the background, the ubiquitous Christmas music continues. Bing Crosby is singing “Silent Night” and I want to scream,  “They’re committing war crimes in Aleppo, you idiot!” Then I read this poem on It’s by Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life at USC and it’s what been speaking to me today much more powerfully than a silent night. I mean no disrespect to Jesus or his birthday, but right now it’s his mom giving me hope.

God in the Bellymqdefault
Full of God, full to birthing,

Mary howls: head back, hair tossed,
Hands skyward with joy
That wrongs are about to be righted,
Salvation’s about to be sighted.
No more groveling for crumbs of charity:
She pronounces justice with crystal clarity.
She’s done waiting for the concentrated wealth of the 1%
To trickle down magically to the other 99.

virgin-mary-stylized1The Santa System is stuck in the chimney;
And she won’t be burned by it again!
A new kind of Christmas is coming –
To undo the dogma of domination,
Snap out of blame-the-victim hypnosis,
Chase money-changers out of the temple,
Redistribute the common wealth,
Restore power to the people,
And send the Religious Right empty away.

With one magnificent rhetorical swing,11557918553_242c2d054b_z
Mary bats the political center into left field.
Pundits fumble, talk-show hosts mutter,
Super-PAC donors quiver, campaign strategists stutter:
Mary out-Magnificats them all.
So let’s get in her line and carry her sign
And holler and act as if we, too,
Have God in our bellies!

And just to be clear: this isn’t only for pregnant women. I’ve never been nor will I ever be pregnant. This Mary, prophetic and fierce, is for every gender. And her time is now!

Posted by: smstrouse | December 12, 2016

Advent 3: When There’s No Joy in Mudville

three_candles_by_rarw_tisme-d3feuwxAdvent 3     December 11, 2016        I
saiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

I have a confession to make. I lit the joy candle on my Advent wreath a day early. I couldn’t wait because I’d been thinking and thinking and thinking about joy – and coming up empty. Which is a problem because we’re fast approaching the season of Christmas joy, preparing for the birth of Jesus, who would later tell his disciples – and through them us – “These things I’ve said to you: that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.”

But I’m feeling more like John the Baptist these days, when he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or do we to look for another?” That’s quite a change, isn’t it from last week’s reading. Last week John was full of confidence, preaching with power about the one to come, whose sandals he was unworthy to even untie. But now, years later, he’s sitting alone in a dark and dank cell, questioning his earlier confidence and perhaps his very mission and identity, as he sends word to ask Jesus a poignant, even heartbreaking question: are you really the one or should we look elsewhere?

The movement from last week’s reading to this one is a jump from a sure and certain confidence to doubt; from fiery conviction to uncertainty and despair. Anticipation to disappointment. Hope to desperation. We’ve all been there, right? Charging ahead with dreams and plans, moving forward with optimism about the future, only to be stopped in our tracks: maybe by illness, or injury, loss of employment, the death of a loved one, or the loss of a relationship, or any of a thousand other things that cause us suddenly to stumble and lose our confidence. And when our heartache, uncertainty, despair, disappointment, and desperation isn’t only about ourselves, but our entire nation – the pain is overwhelming. As it was for John, I imagine.

As it was for the exiles in Babylon, too – the ones Isaiah was writing to in our first reading, hundreds of years before John. They must have wondered, “Aren’t we God’s own chosen people? How could it have come to this, to be so humiliated, to have our homeland taken away from us? Could the words from Psalm 137 express their heartache any more poignantly:
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.

 That kind of despair isn’t unique to ancient Israelis. Exile is a condition in which many people find themselves: refugees and displaced people from Syria and Somolia; unaccom-panied children from Central America; political exiles such as the Dalai Lama. But we don’t have to go far to find others in exile. The holidays can be an especially difficult time for LGBTQ people who have been banished from their families. This year I’m mindful of those estranged from family and/or community because of the election. In a way, the whole country has been thrown into exile. Is this our home? We don’t recognize it anymore. So how can we sing God’s song in a foreign land? As Orion put in the email introduction to Keeping in Touch, “There is no joy in Mudville.”

So there I was with my Advent wreath candles burning down: candles for hope, for peace, and for joy. And I realized that this has been one of the most spiritually challenging Advents that I’ve experienced. In the aftermath of the election, I don’t know how it’s been for you, but I’ve had to go a lot deeper into these words. Spiritual platitudes won’t do – not for me, and I’m certainly not going to spout them to you.

But just as hope is not the same as optimism and peace is more than absence of conflict, joy is more than fleeting happiness. Remember the old camp song: I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy. Down in my heart, Down in my heart, Down in my heart?

It’s not just a dumb old camp song. Sometimes those old chestnuts get at a profound truth. Down in your heart is where you find the hope, peace and joy that passes all understanding. Now getting down into the heart may not be so simple. We let our hearts get pretty well defended, especially – let’s just admit it – against God. Because if we really allowed ourselves to feel the presence of Divine Spirit within us, well, it could shake our world. We might be inspired to do something that would totally mess up our vision of the way life is supposed to be. And I’m not going to tell you that couldn’t happen. But I am going to tell you that by opening our hearts to Divine Spirit, we also open ourselves to deep joy.

And that must have been what Isaiah experienced. What else could have caused him to proclaim to the people who dwelled in deep darkness, the exiles in Babylon:
Let the desert and the wilderness exult! Let them rejoice and bloom like the crocus!
Let it blossom profusely, Let it rejoice and sing for joy!
Those whom God ransomed will return.
They will enter Zion with shouting for joy, with everlasting joy on their faces.
Joy and gladness will go with them; sorrow and lament will flee away.

Maybe some of those who heard Isaiah’s words thought he’d gone off the deep end. There was no rational reason to think that any such thing would happen. But there it was – a song of joy in the midst of darkness.

And that’s what we’re called to do in Advent. Advent reminds us that, against all evidence to the contrary, another world is possible. New life can emerge from the ruins. In the patient partnership between divine and human, God keeps on creating and calls us to be innovative as well. We owe it to ourselves and the world to find this place of joy down in our hearts. And maybe the quote of the week in KIT gives us a clue: “It is so much easier to sing about joy than to talk about it.”

Now I have to tell you that it was right here, at this point in the sermon that I opened the email from Orion with the bulletin attached. I wanted to see what he’d picked for us to sing after the sermon. I laughed out loud: “Comfort, O Comfort, My People.”

Let me explain. I met with my spiritual director on Friday and we spent most of the time discussing the aftermath of the election and how we need to find a balance between our righteous anger at what’s happened and our compassion for people who are on the other side of the political divide; between being prophetic/telling it like it is and finding some common ground where reconciliation might happen. What we came to was a recognition that we have to accept that probably for a long time we’re going to be in an uncomfortable place. I jokingly said we might not be able to sing “Comfort, O Comfort, My People” this year. But I see now that I was wrong. It’s exactly what we need to sing. The words of comfort to people living in exile are words of comfort for us. And what happens when we sing – especially when we sing together – is that we go down into our hearts where we can find that deep joy.

No, it doesn’t make logical sense. But logical sense isn’t always what is called for. I saw one of those time-waster quizzes on a friend’s Facebook page. It would tell you if you’re more right brain or left-brain. My friend scored 50/50: evenly divided between analytic, rational, objective left-brain and imagination, creative, music right brain. Mine, however, came out 70/30 on the analytic, rational, objective side. My comment was, “Sigh I’ve really been trying to engage that creative side more.” My friend wrote back, “I think your analytical side is very creative.” My response was, “I’ll have to think about that.”

Now I realize that my answer should have been “I’ll have to sing about that.” Or dance. As Sufi teacher Pir Vilayet Khan asked “Why aren’t you dancing with joy at this very moment? It’s the only relevant spiritual question.”

I know. Not all of us are singers or dancers. But the message of both quotes is to do something to engage that creative right brain: sing, dance, make art, read a poem, write a song, create a new recipe, play silly games that make absolutely no sense. Laugh. I wish we had Dolores White here with us to do laughing yoga.

Will this take away the troubles of the world? No. But it will create joy deep down in your heart where the Holy Presence resides in you. And from that holy heart of it, the world will change. In the patient partnership between divine and human, God will keep on creating and will keep on calling us to be innovative as well.

But for now, it’s so much easier to sing about joy than to talk about it. And so that’s just what we’ll do. “Comfort, O Comfort, My People.”


Isaiah 35:1-10
Exiles will return; the fearful will be comforted, the oppressed uplifted; all creation will share in God’s glory. The Advent readings present a vision of impossibilities – the kindom of God among us, a new orientation for all whose lives have been broken by political or personal trauma. Yet, are these impossibilities? Many things deemed so have come to pass through patient attending to God’s vision for history. Of course, many things still seem beyond our grasp – and indeed appear to be moving further from our grasp –yet still lure us toward personal and corporate transformation. History is ambiguous. However, we can live with hope as God’s partners in healing the world.

It is written . . .

Let the desert and the wilderness exult!
Let them rejoice and bloom like the crocus!
Let it blossom profusely,
Let it rejoice and sing for joy!
The glory of Lebanon is bestowed on it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the glory of YHWH,
the splendor of our God.

Strengthen all weary hands.
Steady all trembling knees.
Say to all those of a fearful heart:
“Take courage! Don’t be afraid!
Look, YHWH is coming, vindication is coming,
the recompense of God –
God is coming to save you! ”

Then the eyes of those who are blind will be opened,
the ears of those who cannot hear will be unsealed.
Those who cannot walk will leap like deer,
and the tongues of those who cannot speak will sing for joy.
Waters will break forth in the wilderness,
and there will be streams in the desert.
The scorched earth will become a lake,
the parched land, springs of water.
The lairs where jackals used to dwell
will become thickets of reeds and rushes.

And through it will run a highway,
a road called the Holy Way.
The unclean may not travel by it,
but it will be for God’s people alone;
and no traveler – not even fools – will go astray.
No lions will be there,
nor will any fierce beast roam about it.
But the redeemed will walk there –
for those whom God ransomed will return.
They will enter Zion with shouting for joy, with everlasting joy on their faces.
Joy and gladness will go with them; sorrow and lament will flee away.

James 5:7-10
The Letter of James counsels patience. Yet, in light of the whole message of James, patience does not imply passivity. James is an epistle of ethical activism and care for the downtrodden. Faith without works is worthless. We must be patient with the movements of God’s moral arc of history; we must not give up hope nor should we polarize in times of challenge. God’s nearness challenges us to justice-seeking, grounded in care for those whose power we confront. Pray for the president-elect and president even when you may be inclined to protest their policies. They too are God’s children, and as they seek to gain  the world, their souls may be in jeopardy.

It is written . . .

Be patient, beloved, until the appearance of Christ. See how the farmer awaits the precious yield of the soil, looking forward to it patiently while the soil receives the winter and spring rains. You, too, must be patient. Steady your hearts, because the coming of Christ is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, my beloved, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! To learn how to persevere patiently under hardship, take as your models the prophets who spoke in the name of the Most High.

Matthew 11:2-11
Jesus’ response to John the Baptizer echoes the hopeful vision of Isaiah 35. The Messiah is known by the appearance of good news at every level of life. Good news is lived as well as spoken. Bodies are healed, outcasts welcomed, impoverished given hope. Jesus’ gospel is holistic and life-changing, and gives preferential care for those at the fringes of life. 

It is written . . .

While John was in prison, he heard about the works the Messiah was performing, and sent a message by way of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or do we to look for another?”

In reply, Jesus said to them, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:
Those who are blind recover their sight;
those who cannot walk are able to walk;
those with leprosy are cured;
those who are deaf hear;
the dead are raised to life;
and the anawim – the “have-nots” – have the good news preached to them.
Blessed is the one who finds no stumbling block in me.”

As the messengers set off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the wind? Tell me, what did you go out to see? Someone luxuriously dressed? No, those who dress luxuriously are to be found in royal palaces. So what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, a prophet – and more than a prophet! It is about John that scripture says, ‘I send my messenger ahead of you to prepare your way before you.’ The truth is, history has not known a person born of woman who is greater than John the Baptizer. Yet the least born into the kin-dom of heaven is greater than he.
































Posted by: smstrouse | December 10, 2016

The Nazi Sermon on the Mount

homer-simpson-dohHow Could I Fall for This? is the title of the editorial in this month’s edition of The Fourth R (along with “Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic” Religion is the fourth “R” of basic literacy – according  to the Westar Institute)

Theology professor Art Dewey tells how he uses a paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount in his class. He presents the students with a version written by Ludwig Mueller, the Reichsbischof (Reich Bishop) of the German Evangelical Church in 1933. (The German Evangelical Church was a state church  which openly supported the Nazi movement – not to be confused with the Confessing Church movement which arose in opposition.) One of Mueller’s intentions was to eliminate any connectin of Christianity to its Jewish roots (see Hate for Jews Written into New Testament  from the archives of the Chicago Tribune from 1938).c4818bbe4cfcdecfd444bc4a4278ea91

Anyway, Dewey hands out the transition but does not identify the author or the language in which it was written. He also edited some words in order to disguise the historical context. The assignment: determine if the paraphrase gives a valid interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount.

He reports that the results of the exercise have been remarkably consistent over the years. A majority of students conclude that it’s a valid interpretation because it carries the same general idea as the Sermon on the Mount.

Some, however, do pick up on the political overtones in the paraphrase. For example, Mueller changes “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9) to “Benevolence to those who maintain peace with members of the nation.”
“Our ancestors were told” (Matthew 5:33) became “A national law, the holy tradition.” “National community is a high and sacred trust for which you must sacrifice” was added to Matthew 5:39.

Other telling phrases are:
“You carry it in your blood and your fathers have taught you” (instead of “As you know, our ancestors were told”);
“You shall not commit assassination … (he) destroys the national community”;
“You must hold the honor of God, of your nation and your own honor so high.”

When the students agree that the paraphrase “presents Christ’s challenges as they really are” and accept the concluding words of the preface: “the chief executive is trying to save the world from the edge of the precipice,” Dewey finally discloses that the “chief executive” was Der Fuhrer and that the national community was National Socialism.

jesus-facepalmD’oh is right.  Some of the students are embarrassed: “How could I fall for this?” Thankfully, Dewey uses the exercise as a learning experience and doesn’t give a grade. He recognizes how easy it is to go along with a piece of propaganda.

His concluding paragraph is a warning to us all: “Recent events in our country have shown how easy it is for so many to fall for such a political sleight of hand. It takes courage to stop accepting the feckless folly that foists itself on us and to remember why human beings continue to think deeply and have compassion. It means not settling for some prefabricated reality show that keeps on playing the ‘same general idea.’ It means taking the time to connect the dots and to detect wisdom where no one cares to notice.”

For Christians, it is the season of Advent. Our watchwords are: be alert, don’t fall asleep, prepare. This year – more than for a long time – these words call us to be vigilant in our response to political matters. May we not look back on our actions (or inactions) with shame, saying “How could I fall for this?”



Posted by: smstrouse | December 3, 2016

How’s Your Enneagram Type Processing the Election?

flat-coverThanks to a post by a Facebook friend, I discovered a new Enneagram website: The Road Back To You: Looking at Life through the Lens of the Enneagram. Included on the site is a weekly podcast hosted by authors Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile.

I’m interested in all things Enneagram, so this was a great find. Then I noticed the  introduction to the podcast from November 16:
“The election is over. How do you feel?”
My response: “I’m a One. How do you think I feel? I’m pissed!”

1473716046577But seeing that the topic was “Reclaiming Hope: A Conversation with Michael Wear on Politics, the Enneagram, and How America Moves Forward,” I figured it would be worth a listen. Guest interviewee was Michael Wear, author of Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America. A list of things that you wouldn’t want to miss included:

  • How to utilize the Enneagram to help understand your motivation
  • How to respond to others instead of reacting
  • How to discover a path of hope in the midst of profound disappointment

It was definitely worth the hour I spent listening – and then going back to hear parts of it again ! (You can listen to the podcast here.)

The premise of the interview was that people today are feeling a basic instability. Politics isn’t the only reason for this, but it plays a big role. And different people react to change and instability in different ways. In the second half of the interview, they went through all the numbers of the Enneagram to describe what the reaction to the election would be. Very, very briefly:

#One: Anger, responsibility. “I have to do something to fix this!”
Who knew Augustine would nail it?!
(I’m a One, by the way)
#Two: Sadness about breaches in relationships. “How do we repair this?”
#Three: Big picture thinking. “There is an answer and when I figure it I out, I want people to follow my leadership.”
#Four:  Needs certitude.”I want to affirm what I know to be true, to return to a firm foundation.”
#Five: Investigation. “I’ve got to figure this out knowledge-wise.”
#Six: This is particularly interesting, since the authors believe that Sixes played a big part in this election, that politicians manipulated their fears and need for security. They also claim that there are more Sixes in the general population than any other number. This definitely calls for more study.
#Seven: Struggling, but they can also be optimistic: “We have to laugh at ourselves, use out of the box thinking.”
#Eight: Done looking backward. “What are we going to do now to move forward?”
#9  They think Nines might be the most helpful in the days ahead and need to step up. Nines are the peacemakers, the only number that sees two sides to everything. They may be able to help in the de-weaponizing of our political views.


Quoting Richard Rohr, they remind us that change is when you take on something new. But transformation is when something old falls away, usually beyond our control.  It is a liminal space: it’s neither where we were or to where we’re going. It may be extremely uncomfortable, but it’s the most teachable space.

Although we are are now in a time of profound disappointment, they spoke of a
“fundamental hope” that transcends circumstances. A profound disappointment can open us up to something more than the trauma we’ve been through. And they wonder if this is a  season our country has to go through?

I found inspiration in this podcast. But I also understand my place of privilege. In no way do I intend to minimize the threat to other people in our country or the suffering that will come from lack of health care and other basic rights. But I’m convinced that those of us who want to “fix this” need to have a solid spiritual and emotional center. I think I’m going to have to go back and listen to this again.

Posted by: smstrouse | November 27, 2016

Advent 1: Amid Darkness, Hope Is Deeper than Optimism


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

Don’t get me wrong; I love opening the little doors of Advent calendars with chocolatesil_340x270-1023367290_h3j8 hidden behind them in the countdown to the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus. I’m not a Scrooge! But I also don’t want us to miss out on the profound message that is also hidden in this Advent time. It’s a message so counter-cultural, even counter-intuitive, that we do often miss it. Advent is a time we look with hope both to the celebration of the birth of Jesus 2000+ years ago and to the continuing birth of spiritual light into our lives and world.

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

imagesHindus, Sikhs, and Jains have already had their festival of lights, called Diwali. One of the major festivals of Hinduism, it spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. The 5-day celebration includes lights shining on houses, around outside doors and windows, and around temples and otimages-1her buildings. This year, the 8-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah – commemorating the time when the wicks of the menorah burned for eight days even though there was only enough sacredoil for one day – begins on December 25.

blessed_yule_1Of course, we in the northern hemisphere have inherited many of our Christmas customs from northern Pagans, for whom the Winter Solstice (or Yule) is a major festival marking the longest night and shortest day of the year. It’s no coincidence that this time of year heralds the beginning of the Christian calendar, the season of Advent. Winter darkness has descended. Night comes too early. Many, even in the relative warmth of CA, suffer from SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. We wait for spring. We wait for the light. Even the spiritual-but-not-religious can identify with the underlying need for Advent. Candles, wreaths, Advent calendars tap into universal deep feelings and ideals. Not the least of which is hope.

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

But wouldn’t it be nice if hope were more clear-cut? It seems we can approach it, at best, only through metaphor. For example, according to poet Emily Dickinson, “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” She goes on to tell what this bird does (sings), how it reacts to hardship (it’s unabashed in the storm), where it can be found (everywhere), and what it asks for itself (nothing, not even a single crumb). But where can one find such hope in the midst of a dark night of the soul – whether it is in the soul of an individual or the soul of a nation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m also partial to the poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi:875661
The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you. 
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep!

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

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

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

I’ll close with a blog post I received from Rick Morley, Episcopal priest in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. It’s been a source of inspiration for me this week – even though it contains a Game of Thrones reference that I have no clue about what it means. But it has been reminding me to stay focused on what is of ultimate importance and reminding me to be prepared.

No, if we know anything these days, it’s that we know so very little.
Our confidence can wither in moments, and everything that we once thought was “up” will be found to be “upside down.”
For the pundits and the pollsters try and lull us to sleep with their braggadocio. They hypnotize us with their numbers, and plans, and historical perspectives. They have their canon laws, their proof texts, and their little prayers that we can read at the end of a gospel tract and rest confident that we are going to be part of that number when the saints go marching in.
But then you’ll be grinding meal, and in a flash your partner will be gone.
Or, she’ll be left at the grinding stone by herself, wondering where you went when there was so much work to be done.
If there is one thing that we know, it’s that we have no idea what’s going on.
But, that’s ok. We don’t need to be in the know.
All we need to be is awake. Prepared. Ready.
For what? God knows what.
You know nothing, John Snow.
Maybe we’re getting ready to shoot up into the sky. Maybe we’re ready for that little mustard seed in us to sprout suddenly into the greatest of trees.
Maybe we’re waiting for something as silly as a child being born in a manger.
Who knows? I don’t.
But, I can be awake.

I am not optimistic about the state of the world. However, I have great hope.
Wait with me and watch. Don’t go back to sleep. For the light – this little light and so many like it – shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.   Amen 



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

This is what Isaiah ben-Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

In the last days, the mountain of YHWH’s Temple will be established as the most important mountain and raised above all other hills – all nations will stream toward it.

Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us climb YHWH’s mountain to the Temple of the God of Jacob, that we may be instructed in God’s ways and walk in God’s paths.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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