Posted by: smstrouse | March 5, 2015

Is the Cross an Obsolete Symbol?

12-06-colorful-abstract-cross_P2We hired someone a few years ago to help us design a new logo for our church. One of the first designs she submitted had a cross in the center. When I saw it, my immediate reaction was, “They’re not going to go for this; it’s a cross.” Her incredulous response was, “But you’re a church!” Turns out I was right. The design was rejected.

For many progressive Christians, the cross has become a stumbling block – not for the same reasons Paul wrote about in I Corinthians 1:23 (“. . . but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”).

africa__congo__carved_wooden_crucifix_with_jesus_and_two_mourning_figures__1_thumb2_lgwThe reason is the rejection of the idea that God purposefully sent Jesus to die – what some have called “divine child abuse.” In fact, it’s the rejection of the very idea of the need for a ransom or payment or substitution for humanity’s fallen state. It is not rejection of the reality of sin within the human experience or our need for confession, forgiveness, reconciliation – with God and with others. The cross is seen as what it was: an instrument of terror, torture and death, used by the forces of empire to control occupied people. And Jesus was killed, not to save us from our sins, but because he was a threat to the Roman empire.

So if that’s the case, should we keep the cross as the central symbol of Christianity? In 2013, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston said “no.” They chose the design of a cross-section of a nautilus shell against a blue background, to be backlit at night. The Dean of St. Paul’s said that the nautilus is “the perfect metaphor for a spiritual journey.”

The artist wh8743169960_8f84e88b52_bo created it explained, “I wanted to find a symbol, an image, that would speak to everyone and be beautiful. The spiral is the most ubiquitous shape in the universe.  It’s in the movement of subatomic particles and it’s in the vastness of galaxies.  So if you’re thinking about God, or even if you don’t believe in God, the spiral, I think, can still speak to people.”

As you can imagine, controversy ensued.


I love the nautilus symbol and totally get the reasoning behind the Cathedral’s decision. However, I’m not ready to throw out the cross. But, like so much of Christianity’s language and symbolism, it needs to be reinterpreted. We have so much new knowledge of science, new biblical studies, new awareness of the harm that Christianity has often done under the banner of the cross. How can we communicate a message of the cross as symbol of compassion and hope?

That message has always been there. Divine power is revealed in suffering and weakness of the cross, not in strength and glory (despite Constantine’s use of a cross on his military standard.)

Richard Rohrer, the Franciscan priest and writer, says it best: “I believe that human consciousness is now finally ready to accept that Jesus’ sacrifice was made to transform us, to reveal a God who is self-giving, suffering love. Jesus died to reveal the nature of the heart of God.”

3959181-abstract-blue-cross-on-white-background-Stock-PhotoI do not believe that sacrifice was a pre-ordained plan. I do believe that in the willing act of going to the cross, Jesus showed us that suffering is not the final answer. Hope, healing and transformation come about in the midst of our own very real circumstances of pain, suffering and death. I believe this because my times of greatest healing, most profound self-discovery and spiritual growth have come about in the process of recognizing, feeling and working through my own suffering.

I love the nautilus shell symbol for different reasons. But I love the cross for telling it like it is. As the Buddhists say and as M. Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.” The cross reminds me of this. But beyond that, the cross is a reminder of Divine love for humanity and the promise of new possibilities. And I’m going to stick with that!






Posted by: smstrouse | February 27, 2015

Saving Jesus from the Apocaplyse

c755b2b4bc8c723a1a0268de88ab1ae5Holy Doomsday! I didn’t get the memo. Until now. Thankfully I received an email telling me: “Worldwide, everyone feels that the prophesied Apocalypse is very close.” It also offered links to helpful articles, such as “Another PROOF that the 4 April 2015 Blood Moon will start the 150-day Apocalypse!”

As I wondered why my spam filter let this through, I also thought about our discussion group just the day before on “What Can We Know about Jesus (and How?)” – part of the Saving Jesus DVD series. Promo materials ask: “Ever feel like Jesus has been kidnapped by the Christian Right and discarded by the Secular Left?”

It includes offerings from a diverse range of contemporary theologians, biblical scholars and just plain folks talking about a progressive way of thinking about Jesus, the Bible and Christianity in general.
(you can find out more about it at http://www.livingthequestions.coUnknownm)

The theme question for each session is: “What element or learning from this session do you think will be most important in “Saving Jesus” in the 21st century?” After this week’s  juxtaposition of Saving Jesus and The Prophesied Apocalypse,  I’d say that it’s the importance of getting the word out about a Christianity that isn’t based on intimidation and fear.

Granted, the “Blood Moon will start the 150-day Apocalypse” fringe is just that – the fringe. But there’s enough bad religion out there being done in the name of Jesus to warrant a rescue operation. Some members of our discussion group even lamented the inclusion of “Jesus” in the title, wondering if some might not understand that it wasn’t about “that kind of religion.”

Christianity_Jesus_meditating_golden_lightWe’ve got a lot of work to do, folks, if we want to be a voice for Jesus in the midst of the  Christian Right and Secular Left. My greatest hope is that people – even those who have been hurt or rejected in the past, those who don’t know anything about religion or the Bible, those who don’t agree with all the doctrines of the church, those who don’t know what they believe – will find a safe place to discuss all of these things.

And if you can’t find such a place, the good news is that you can start one! Get a copy of Saving Jesus – and let the conversation begin!




Posted by: smstrouse | February 19, 2015

Is Lent the Christian Ramadan?

B88WakmIIAEzTOOI’m intrigued by the story of Muslims who have decided to fast during the Christian season of Lent.  The article in The Huffington Post (click here) reports that “In a display of solidarity and interfaith appreciation, some Muslims are pledging to fast alongside their Christian neighbors this year, and they hope it will become an annual tradition.”

How cool is that?! I have always loved being invited to Ramadan iftar dinners in which Muslims break their daily fast. But I’ve never gone so far as to actually fast beforehand!

And now it’s Lent – the traditional time for Christians to take on the disciple of fasting. Of course for us it’s a bit different. We don’t go in for the whole day thing. Some of us will give up something for Lent – like chocolate or smoking or Facebook. But some will take on something instead; one year I took on a project of memorizing and reflecting on two poems that I found meaningful. Fasting the way that it’s done in Ramadan would be a big stretch for mB89ISmbIEAA7_NUost of us.

One of the Muslim speakers in First United’s Pluralism Summer series spoke about her love of Ramadan, how she looked forward to the discipline of the fast and the meaning that it brought to her and her family. I couldn’t help wondering how many Christians looked forward to Lent. And once again I thought about how people of other religious traditions bring valuable gifts to the table. We could, I thought back then, learn a lot from Muslims who practice daily prayer and observe the Ramadan fast.

So I think it’s very cool that these Muslims are joining us Christians during our holy season. They bring new perspective and new life to an ancient tradition.

Following their example, maybe next Ramadan, I will actually fast before the iftar.






Posted by: smstrouse | February 12, 2015

Can Progressive Christians Also Be Mystics?

This Sunday is 781px-TransfigurationTransfiguration Sunday in my part of the church. In one of the weirder stories from the gospels, Jesus goes up a mountain to get away from it all, taking a few disciples with him. While he’s up there, he undergoes a radical transformation, in which his clothes become dazzling white and his face begins to glow like the sun. Then the long-departed Moses and Elijah appear and the disciples observe the three of them having a confab.

Eventually Moses and Elijah disappear and only Jesus, now restored to his normal self, remains. We, along with those disciples, might ask, “What the???”


Those who have trouble believing any of the biblical accounts that go beyond the laws of rationality and science will have trouble with this one for sure. That would be true for many progressive Christians. John Shelby Spong calls it “a narrative attempting to describe both this growing understanding (of Jesus as unique, not one of three gigantic figures) and a dawning awareness of what the Jesus experience really was.”  Even some classical biblical scholars want to call this a “misplaced resurrection account,” the theory, no doubt, being that such a thing could have happened after Jesus rose from the dead but not before.                                                                                                                     

I want to leaveimages-1 open the possibility, however, that someone (Jesus or perhaps one of the disciples who were there) had a mystical encounter. Maybe it came in a dream, maybe in a waking state. In either case, the experience was so powerful that whoever had it talked about it long afterward, until finally the gospel writers wrote it down and incorporated it into their ways of telling the Jesus story.

I love and respect the scholars of who study the historical Jesus. But at some seminars I’ve attended, there’s not much interest when a question of spirituality or mysticism comes up. It seems that if one does not believe in a supernatural, interventionist God, then one cannot believe in mystical encounters.

I don’t agree. There is more in this universe that we don’t know than we do. Believing as I do that the universe is the body of God, then there is infinite possibility for transfigurations – glorious, overwhelming, stupendous, cosmic revelations of Divine Presence. And not just for Jesus, but for anyone.

So yes, I think progressive Christians can be mystics. In fact I know they can. And I’m glad that there is this weird and wonderful day on the church calendar to celebrate that fact.


Transfiguration, 2004
Armando Alemdar Ara
Transfiguration, 2001
James B. Janknegt
 Transfiguration, 2008
 Lewis Bowman













Posted by: smstrouse | February 5, 2015

What’s Up with Faitheists and Atheists?

Last summer, we welcomed guests from different religious and non-religious traditions to speak at church on the imagessubject of caring for creation. Most of our guests were easy to describe, e.g. Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim. But one speaker, Chris, was not so easy to categorize. He did not like using any labels at all, but finally settled on “free-thinking naturalist.” When Chris began his talk, he jokingly said that he had deliberately avoided the “A” word when referring to himself.

Atheism is a tricky subject. It used to be simple; an atheist was someone who didn’t believe in God. Then many of us read or heard Marcus Borg describe his many conversations with university students: “Every term, one or more of them says to me after class, ‘This is all very interesting, but I have a problem every time you use the word ‘God’ because, you see’- here there’s usually a pause and a deep breath- ‘I really don’t believe in God.’ I always respond the same way: ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’”

The student then describes a version of God that he or she perhaps learned in Sunday school, from his or her parents or simply from popular culture. When Borg says, “Well, I don’t believe in that God either,” a space opens up for conversation about other possible ways of understanding the Divine.

Of course there are those who do not believe in any kind of Divine being, no matter how we might reimagine what that means. Many of these folks are also interested in being part of interreligious conversations. Henry, a long-time member of the board at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio is a co-founder of an organization in Berkeley called Ahimsa (the Sanskrit word meaning nonviolence). One of the goals of the organization is “to encourage dialogues on issues which bridge spirituality and various science and social issues.” Henry is also an avowed atheist, yet appreciates deeply the opportunity to work on projects together with others who want to be peacemakers in the world.

I contrast Chris and Henry with militant atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher, who denounce the God they don’t believe in, but are never willing to listen to or discuss any other possibilities. I consider them to be as intractable as any fundamentalist of any religion.

Another Unknownguest in our speaker series was Vanessa, who is very involved in the interfaith scene and describes herself (at least for today, she said) as a Secular Humanist, although she said that others have called her a “faitheist.” This was the first I had heard of the term, which comes from the book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious by Chris Stedman. Stedman’s point is that atheists should be involved in respectful dialogue with those of religious persuasion. Vanessa did tell me, however, that being called a “faitheist” was not a compliment. The Urban Dictionary defines it as “an theist who is ‘soft’ on religious belief, and tolerant of even the worst intellectual and moral excesses of religion; an atheist accommodationist.” For some reason, it gives me satisfaction to know that there are factions even among the non-believers.

What I have learned from listening to those on the interfaith scene who describe themselves with the “A” word or with other isms is that these are people of good will and great love for humanity and the world. I welcome the opportunity to be in dialogue. Right now I have members in my congregation with family members who are declared atheists. I would love to have the “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in” conversation with them – not in order to convince them that they are wrong, but to see where they really fit in the wide range of what atheism means today. And what “God” means today.



Posted by: smstrouse | January 29, 2015

Jonah vs. American Sniper

Originally posted on PrS (Pr. Susan M. Strouse): Proud Member of the Religious Left:

UnknownI haven’t seen American Sniper. I’m not going to see American Sniper. I know there’s a lot of controversy an  d division between those who support the military without question and those who question American foreign policy which sends the military to war. Fine.

What bothers me is a news commentator who thinks (in response to the question “What would Jesus do?”) that “. . . Jesus would tell that God-fearing, red-blooded American sniper, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant for dispatching another Godless jihadist to the lake of fire.’”

I could dismiss this as just more ignorant twaddle from one of “those other kind of Christians.” But it really frosts me when someone makes such an egregious characterization of Jesus – and fans the flames of anti-Muslim ignorance and fear. Because too many people don’t make a distinction between al-Qaeda and Sunni Muslims, between ISIS and Shiite Muslims…

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Posted by: smstrouse | January 29, 2015

Jonah vs. American Sniper

UnknownI haven’t seen American Sniper. I’m not going to see American Sniper. I know there’s a lot of controversy an  d division between those who support the military without question and those who question American foreign policy which sends the military to war. Fine.

What bothers me is a news commentator who thinks (in response to the question “What would Jesus do?”) that “. . . Jesus would tell that God-fearing, red-blooded American sniper, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant for dispatching another Godless jihadist to the lake of fire.’”

I could dismiss this as just more ignorant twaddle from one of “those other kind of Christians.” But it really frosts me when someone makes such an egregious characterization of Jesus – and fans the flames of anti-Muslim ignorance and fear. Because too many people don’t make a distinction between al-Qaeda and Sunni Muslims, between ISIS and Shiite Muslims. They’re all just “ragheads.” And our God, like our nation, is bigger and better than everyone else’s.

I’m especially disturbed by this ongoing ignorance and fear-mongering because this Sunday begins World Interfaith Harmony Week. Every year since 2010 the first week of February has been designated by the UN as a week to showcase and celebrate the ongoing work of interreligious harmony and peacemaking (you can find out more about it at

And especially since I’ve been learning about Jonah this week. Most Christians know the story of Jonah and the (mistranslated) Whale. But I’ll bet most don’t know that Jonah is revered in Islam, as well as in Judaism and Christianity. In fact, the site of Jonah’s supposed tomb is in Mosul, Iraq – across the river from the ancient city of Nineveh, destination of the prophet Jonah.images

Last summer, ISIS blew up Jonah’s tomb, located in a Sunni mosque, this past summer because they condemn shrines erected by any religion. We should be in solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers who are under attack from religious extremists.

What could we do for World Interfaith Harmony Week that would further the vision of Jews, Christians and Muslims engaging in dialogue based on the two fundamental commandments at the heart of all three religions: Love of God and Love of Neighbor?

1. Get educated, if you’re not already.
2. Go to the World Interfaith Harmony Week web site and Facebook page for inspiration and ideas.
3. Seek out an interfaith council, if there is one in your area. Ask for ideas. Ask for introductions to people of other faiths.
4. Speak out against those who would characterize any religion by its most extreme members.
5. Have zero tolerance for ethnic, racial, gender, religious or any kind of slurs against anyone.

We can’t stop the ignorant from spewing their nonsense. But we’re also guilty if we don’t speak up. What would Jesus do? I don’t usually even try to answer that question. In this case, however, if I have to choose between “dispatching another Godless jihadist to the lake of fire” and “Love of God and Love of Neighbor,” I’m going with the latter. That’s the Jesus I know.


Posted by: smstrouse | January 24, 2015

Remembering Marcus Borg


f1d416f0-0de4-44e2-9ae0-c5ab68a959e7What can I say that hasn’t already been said by countless others? I’ve spent the past few days, like everyone else, in a state of disbelief and grief. I echo the thoughts of so many others that it is because of Marcus Borg that I am still a Christian, still a pastor.

I remember the day that my best friend excitedly told me that I had to read this book called Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. We had been having many conversations about church doctrine. I particularly recall reading the curriculum for an upcoming confirmation camp session on the atonement. She said, “Are we going to use this?” We looked at each other. Then we both said, “Nah!” and tossed the papers on the floor.

So when I reached the part of Borg’s book about the atonement, I was ecstatic. Who knew I could get so excited about atonement theology?! But that was one of his gifts: taking tired old teachings and getting to the heart of what Jesus was really all about.

Another was the the ability to present a different way of looking at a belief in a pastoral way. For example, he could talk about the mythology of the Nativity story without dismissing those who still held to a literal interpretation. I don’t know how many times I’ve quoted his re-telling of the Native American preface:  “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know that it’s true.”

I am so grateful that I was able to attend several seminars with Borg and John Dominic Crossan. At the last one Borg was presenting material from what would be his book, Speaking Christian. What was great was that at the start of every session, he’d have us gather around our tables and talk about our first impressions of words like “righteousness,” “salvation” and “mercy.” We used the book in a Lent series the following year and it was one of the best we’ve ever had. Our own small group conversations about these words and concepts were invaluable. And while I still wrestle with some of the words (I’m ambivalent about “mercy”), I think the struggle itself is worthwhile. Marcus Borg taught me how to do that.

I’ve gone to a lot of seminars and read a lot of books by Jesus Seminar scholars and others who have been deconstructing Christianity. And while I appreciate their efforts and enjoy their scholarship, none has done a better job of reconstructing than Marcus Borg. One of the criticisms of progressive Christianity is that we are better at saying what we don’t believe than at what we do believe. That was not true of Marcus Borg. And his example showed the rest of us how to reclaim “the heart of Christianity” too.

Rest in peace, Marcus. My prayers go out to your family and to all of us who will miss you.


Posted by: smstrouse | September 11, 2014

A Lament for 9/11

911-26_gk33y7keIt could have all gone so differently. We could have taken the opportunity to do something transformational. In the Christian tradition, we’d say we believe that there can be new life (resurrection) even after a horrifying death. The potential was there. We had the good will of most of the world. We could have been world leaders in humility, self-reflection and measured deliberation on our response to the horror of the day.

Instead we went to war. We invaded Iraq. We occupied Afghanistan. We elected Barack Obama with the hope of bringing peace to a war-weary nation. Ours. Too bad that we left Iraq in a pile of rubble being picked over by its own internally warring factions.

Today, on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, we’re getting ready to get back into the fray. Out of the cauldron, into which we added our own ingredients of revenge, discord, nationalism and greed, has come ISIL. Oh how easy for us to pick up immediately on the “I” in the name: Islamic. How easy for us to scapegoat faithful Muslims who want nothing to do with this terrorist nightmare.

To tell the truth, I don’t know how I feel about the air strikes President Obama has ordered. I feel as horrified as anyone at the beheadings and other acts of brutality used by this group. Something obviously has to be done. I’m just not sure by whom. And I’d like to hear about some intelligent discussions of all the possible downsides of another incursion into what has until now been one imperialistic move after another.

We can’t go back to September 12, 2001 and get a do over. We are where we are. But isn’t it time for us as a nation to (religious language alert!) repent of our own misdeeds? I mean repent in the truly spiritual meaning of turning and going in a new direction, back to God (or back to our highest principles, back to the goodness in which we were created) and doing it better.

What would that look like? Would it diminish us as a nation? Would it signal to the world that the US has gone soft? I don’t think so. We could have done it 13 years ago. Instead we chose war.

When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?


Posted by: smstrouse | September 6, 2014

The Intra-faith Question

Maybe it just doesn’t matter anymore. Maybe I’m a dinosaur pastor preaching to a dying institution. But I can’t help myself. I got this bee in my bonnet 15 years ago about the church’s need to do intrafaith work. (Yes, that’s right spellcheck. Do not automatically change it to interfaith.)interspiritual-image

So I got my doctorate in the subject and now am writing the book. The working title is The Intra-faith Question: What Does It Mean to Be a Christian in an Inter-faith World? It’s intended to be a guide for pastors and congregations to face the theological challenges of encountering people of other faiths.

Unknown-1But there have been some big changes since I began this quest. First of all, the institutional church is too anxious about declining membership to notice the huge population that just doesn’t care about a lot of the stuff we talk (and fight) about. Yeah, we get that there are these people we call “spiritual but not religious.” But do we understand that they’re not some monolithic, easily categorized group? Nor are those who we’ve dubbed the “Nones”?

imagesThere are the never-churched and the members of the “church alumni society,” those who’ve left the institution for one reason or another. There are the millennials, that oft-targeted demographic of church growth pundits. There is the growing interspirituality movement, gleaning wisdom from all traditions. And there are the hyphenateds, Taoist-Lutherans, Buddhist-Methodists, Pagan-Catholics, etc. Do we have any idea what to say to these folks?

And I’ll tell you, these folks do want to talk. I find myself getting into deeper spiritual conversations with many of these folks than with church members. Just this past week, my massage therapist wanted to talk about my book. I had mentioned it the week before because he asked me what I did on my staycation. This week he brought it up again and obviously wanted to have some serious conversation about it. It was quite wonderful, really. But he doesn’t need my book. His questions are not about being a Christian in an interfaith world. He also would probably not fit into even a progressive congregation like mine.

I feel like I’m straddling two spiritual/religious (who knows what to call it anymore?) worlds: the one that is dying and the one coming into being. Maybe my generation should be called the Straddlers. Or the Bridge Generation.

Actually that helps. Instead of “aging baby boomer,” I can be “bridge builder.” My book can still have relevance to those who want to be bridges too. And it seems to even be a conversation-starter with the “spiritually independent” as well. The best of both worlds, really.

Bay_Bridge_reflections_at_nightI guess this dinosaur isn’t extinct just yet.

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