Posted by: smstrouse | July 15, 2017

Zoom Church: Take One

Screen Shot 2017-07-09 at 6.16.07 PM (2)We had our first “Zoom Church” last Sunday – that is church using the video conferencing platform Zoom. Fifteen people logged on, four of them from other parts of the country. 

Our worship planning team did a lot of work – and practice runs – ahead of time to ensure that things would run as smoothly as possible. Yes, there are still bugs to work out. It’s amazing how much more there is to learn when you’re using video conferencing for more than just committee meetings. Like:

  • how to help participants log in and learn “Zoom etiquette”
  • planning liturgy and putting up a worship bulletin without detracting from the gallery of faces
  • adding music and videos
  • managing background noise and lighting
  • balancing congregational participation with “muting all” to keep down noise and confusion
  • sharing the peace virtually 
  • to use to not to use the “chat” feature 

We haven’t read all of the survey results yet, but from informal discussions it appears that our first attempt was a success. We loved being able to include friends who have either moved away from the area or were away on vacation. We were even able to have a musical offering from one of our community members who’s just moved up to Tacoma. Of course we loved not having to drive in Bay Area traffic (although we did miss having refreshment time!)

This Sunday, we’ll be back at Turk & Lyon for worship in person. So I’m sure we’ll get more feedback then, too. The next Zoom Church on July 23rd will be the second of our three trial formats. Pastor Anders Peterson and Middle Circle will take on leadership of a discussion around what it means to be a progressive Christian.  

Will this be the wave of the future? I don’t know. I’m so grateful to be in a congregation that’s willing to try new things, be patient with the results, fail early, try again – and be part of the evolution of the church in the 21st century. 


Posted by: smstrouse | July 8, 2017

Getting Ready for “Zoom Church”

The-Medium-is-The-Massage-Installation13All the way back in 1967, Marshall McLuhan wrote his classic book The Medium is The Massage. In 2015, Keith Anderson begins his book, The Digital Cathedral, with this McLuhan prophecy:

“The medium, or process, of our time – electric technology is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life.
 It is forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Everything is changing: you, your family, your education, your neighborhood, your job, your government, your relation to ‘the others.’ And they’re changing dramatically.”

Add to that list of institutions: the church. This Sunday, my congregation is going to take a bold leap into this ever-changing, ever-challenging digital age. We are going to have “Zoom Church.” 

What, you may well ask, is Zoom Church? Zoom is a video conferencing platform that we’ve been using this past year for church meetings. With members who live all over the Bay Area, Zoom has been a wonderful resource – much better than conference calls, almost as good as in-person (except everyone has to bring their own coffee and snacks!). When we were lamenting the miserable traffic jams we have to endure to get to church on Sunday and the difficulties of getting there every week, we wondered, “Why not use Zoom for church?” 

So we decided to try it out during July and August. Our worship planning team has been working on learning the bells and whistles of Zoom, how to add music, videos, and text. Today we did a practice run and tomorrow will be our debut.

We’re going to try three different formats over the summer. Tomorrow’s service will be the liturgical model, based on our usual order of service. The second one will be a discussion format, the third a contemplative one. A survey will go out to participants after each so we can evaluate how it’s working and what people find most meaningful.

Of course, we’ll still have our in-person church services on non-Zoom Sundays. We’re also going to offer a podcast for those who participate in a community service project in September. Instead of being in real-time, like Zoom, it can be accessed at any time.

Will these ideas work? We don’t know. Some may find the idea of a digital church to be way too far out. Others will think we haven’t gone far enough. But our theory is that the church today talks a lot about the need to change, to try new things, to go outside the proverbial box. So that’s what we’re going to do. 

Stay tuned – or better yet, tune in. We’re being fairly quiet about Zoom Church for now; we want to get as many of the bugs worked out as we can. But if you want to join in on July 9, July 23, or August 13, let me know – we’ll send you the link. 


Posted by: smstrouse | July 1, 2017

Revisiting the “Texts of Terror”

dcfc437727d7b7fe98dc10c9904c28e3I was in seminary when Phyllis Trible’s book Texts of Terror was released in 1984. Feminist theology was just beginning to seep into our awareness – at least on our Lutheran campus. Feminism was discussed among women in a dorm room, not in any of our classes. My eyes were quickly being opened to new ways to read the Bible – and one of those ways was to recognize the violence toward women inherent in patriarchy.

One of the “texts of terror” that Trible brought to our attention is the story of Hagar. I was reminded of the book because Hagar appeared in last week’s assigned scripture reading (Genesis 21:8-21), part of the dysfunctional Sarah and Abraham family saga. But the story started back in chapter 16. Sarah couldn’t have kids, so she gave Hagar, her Egyptian slave, to Abraham so Hagar could produce a child in her place. Does this sound like an ancient version of The Handmaid’s Tale? It should.

In the first place, Hagar was a slave. Then she was given to Abraham so she could be raped and forced to bear a child for him. She then undergoes abuse from Sarah – with the permission of Abraham – and runs away. God finds her and tells her to go back and submit to Sarah. But – don’t worry, Hagar; you will have a son named Ishmael and all will be well. Finally, because of Sarah’s jealousy, Abraham banishes Hagar and her son into the desert. But an angel appears to Hagar and saves her and her child from death.

So all’s well that ends well, right? Keep reading. Trible continues with the stories of the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22); the rape, torture, murder, and dismemberment of an unnamed woman (Judges 19:1-30), and the sacrifice of the daughter of Jephthah (Judges 11:29-40). Texts of terror indeed.

Hagar is the only one of these women who appear in the lectionary cycle of readings. But this patriarchal blight of the use and misuse of women is embedded in our sacred texts. And it is incumbent upon us to recognize and understand these stories – and how they continue to contribute to the misogyny that still exists today.

Especially now. Like it or not, we have a president who gets away with bragging about grabbing women by the pussy and body-shaming women he doesn’t like. We have entertainment personalities like Bill Cosby getting away with abusing and raping women for decades. Female students complain about the rape culture on college campuses. Women clergy continue to share stories about inappropriate remarks and physical contact from men in churches. The texts of terror continue.

Those of us who are still in the church must take these biblical stories seriously. We must allow Hagar and Tamar and all the unnamed women speak. And we must stand up on their behalf – and on behalf of all the women who are still terrorized by a patriarchal system that has got to go.

Posted by: smstrouse | June 25, 2017

The Religious Left: No Peace But a Sword?

cfe78d7eb6424bf0cb36e91dd0dc6495--biblical-inspiration-postsSermon for Pentecost 3

My job, supposedly, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Although originally used to describe the role of journalists, it’s often been used to define the role of preachers. And there’s no doubt in my mind that this gospel reading today is definitely afflictive. Yes, there’s comfort in there, too. But seriously, who keeps listening after “Don’t suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword”?

And frankly, the reading from Genesis isn’t any better. Although I get it. It’s a story from our sacred scripture – not historical fact, probably written around the 6th century. Genesis is a history book in the sense that it was written to create a history for a people living in exile. But its actual purpose is as a theological book, describing the relationship between a people and their God.

But still, what are we to make of this story about Hagar and Ishmael? The backstory is back in chapter 16, where Hagar the Egyptian first appears. Sarah can’t have kids, so she gives Hagar, her slave-girl to Abraham so that Hagar could produce a child in her place. Does this sound like an ancient version of The Handmaid’s Tale? It should. If you’re not familiar with the Margaret Atwood novel or now the TV series, it’s about a dystopian future, in which women are forced to live as reproductive “handmaids” a la Hagar.

But let’s be clear. Hagar was a slave. I disagree here with The Inclusive Bible, which translates the Hebrew word for ‘slave’ as ‘attendant.’ Hagar was not a willing employee to begin with. Then she was given to Abraham so she could be raped and forced to bear a child for him. She then undergoes abuse from Sarah – with the permission of Abraham – and runs away. God finds her and tells her to go back and submit to Sarah. But – don’t worry, Hagar; you will have a son named Ishmael and all will be well. Is it any wonder that Phyllis Trible included Hagar’s story in her groundbreaking feminist book Texts of Terror? It’s a horrific story. The whole Abraham and Sarah narrative itself is a study in dysfunctional families.

The message of the whole Abraham/Sarah narrative, of course, is to tell us about the love and vision that God has for us, that despite our doubts and meddling and thinking we know best, God is able to take our stumbling efforts and make something good out of them. That’s the “comfort the afflicted” part.

But I’m not so sure I want to get there so fast. I think we’re too used to reading this “history” of ours through patriarchal, white, Judeo-Christian lenses. If we switch lenses to Hagar’s point of view – an African slave woman – we should begin to squirm. And when we recognize that the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael is foundational to Islam, perhaps we should switch to these other lenses more often. Although it may cause us discomfort – and rightly so. Because reading Islam’s version of the story takes us out of our position of privilege. And no matter how liberal or progressive we think we are, we always have more to learn – about others, about ourselves, in so many different areas. Especially now in our own dystopian political reality. But even in places where you’d think we’d know better.

It’s been interesting reading about some of the controversies around Pride this year. Lavern Cox complained recently: “As a black transgender woman, I have not always felt included in Pride, to be honest with you. The LGBTQ community has not always been the most welcoming to trans people and people of color.” Also in the recent news was the murder of a Muslim teenager by a Latino which sparked discussions about Islamaphobia among Latinos. One post on Twitter said: “Muslims from other backgrounds have begun to lash out at the Latino undocumented community to cope. This is not how we can move forward.”

And that last sentence is exactly right. This is not how we can move forward. It seems that the more diverse we become, the more we have to learn how to hear stories from a different perspective and see life through other eyes. We’ll never be truly welcoming if we don’t. And that’s a luxury we cannot afford.

There have been a lot of articles and blogs recently about the need for the Religious Left and Progressive Christianity to step up and, to get itself as well organized and effective as the Religious Right has been for so many years, to promote itself better as an alternative to fundamentalism. As protesters dressed as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrate against cuts to healthcare and reproductive rights for women, we can see that a dystopian future based on a literal reading of Genesis isn’t so far off the mark. So, yes, it’s time.

The big question is how do we do that? There are three things we have to be able to do. One: recognize that we’ll never have a unified position like the Religious Right does. That’s the beauty of who we are – and the challenge. Therefore, we have to do our own internal work of understanding the multitude of constituents under our umbrella. Not a simplistic and offen-sive “all lives matter, but “Black Lives Matter” and “Women’s Rights Matter” and “Immigrants Are Welcome Here” and “Celebrate Pride,” and all the other wonderfully diverse movements for rights and inclusion. Maybe it’s actually comforting to be afflicted by scripture, knowing that our discomfort will prod us even further in the way Jesus calls us.

Speaking of which – back to the gospel. We read last week that Jesus sent out the original disciples with instructions to proclaim that the realm of heaven has come near by healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons. I suggested that we might translate that language into something more useful for today. For instance: care for those who are suffering; raise the spirits of those who feel like death, who wish they were dead, or whose dreams have died; take away the shame from those considered unclean or unworthy; cast out the demons of oppression and injustice.

Now today we find out that there may be a cost for doing any of that. “Don’t suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I’ve come to turn a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, in-law against in-law. One’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household.”

So the second thing we have to be able to do is recognize that sometimes proclaiming the realm of heaven – that is, life right her and right now – won’t be popular. When I read Jesus words, I can’t help thinking about my cousin’s daughter “L”. After the election, her sister felt the need to get a license and carry a gun. L, who has two toddlers, was very clear that she would not allow anyone carrying a gun into her home. Her sister took offence at this and the relationship has deteriorated from there, affecting everyone else in the family as well.

Last week, things escalated even more at a birthday party for my cousin, L’s mom. Afterward she told me that she’s finally accepted that this rift may never be healed. “No peace but a sword.” Also, as she described to me the yelling and cursing she endured, she noted that her two brothers simply left the room. I’m not telling you this as a slam on them. After all, who likes conflict? The point, however, is that there will be times when we are called to stand up and speak up and leaving the room will not be an option. I’m proud of L for standing up for her beliefs, even when it has meant discord within the family.

If we’re going to speak from the Religious Left, we have to understand that there will be con-sequences. Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington DC, where we rested after the Women’s March, put on their sign for Trinity (and Pride) Sunday: “Thank the Holy Trinity for God’s Whole Diverse Creation – Happy and Blessed Pride!!! That got them onto the “Exposing the ELCA” website which says the congregation and the sign are shameful, tragic, and an apostasy (a renunciation of our Christian belief). No peace, but a sword. Get used to it.

The third thing we have to do is to speak our politics from our faith. In “Four Reasons Why the Resistance Needs the Christian Left,” Catherine Wallace argues: “The secular Left is too easily embarrassed by talk of spiritual yearnings and larger meanings in life. The Christian Left has a powerful, ancient language rooted in ancient teachings about compassion, social justice, public responsibility, and human moral equality.

“The Christian Left believes that compassion for others is the love of God flowing through us; human intelligence is the light of God shining through us. In our eyes, it is profoundly immoral—a direct offense against God and the image of God in other people—to scapegoat the vulnerable or to deny the actual consequences of legislation or executive orders. We have a powerful, accessible language in which to hold (our government) morally accountable. We can defend the moral heritage of the West in ways that cannot be easily dismissed as ‘partisan arguments’ defending ‘special interests.’”

So we’ve got to get over our shyness about speaking about spiritual matters, especially as they relate to our politics and our life in the public realm – which is the realm of heaven. There is no distinction. The realm of heaven has come near. It is among us. It is within you and me and all of us together.

We can be comforted in many ways by this. And we need to rely on that comfort as we go about the work of discipleship. Jesus said: “Don’t let people intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, and nothing is hidden that will not be made known. Don’t be afraid of anything – you are more valuable than an entire flock of sparrows.”

When you give yourself over to the ways of God, it might feel like you are losing your life – your autonomy, your independence. But in reality, you are gaining your life – a real, true, fulfilled life of being in unity with all of creation, of heaven and earth. And the work will flow from this divine, unified presence.

So don’t be afraid. Don’t be shy. The time is now.



Genesis 21:8-21
In this story, Hagar is the vulnerable one, the one who has lost everything, the refugee, the mother desperate to save her child. Ishmael, the child God delivers, is revered in Islam and according to legend buried alongside Hagar in Mecca. This passage reminds us that God cares for Muslims as well as us and that God’s story of grace extends beyond our own tradition. It is written . . .

The child grew, and on theday of weaning, Sarah and Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah noticed the child that Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. She demanded of Abraham, “Send Hagar and her child away! I will not have this child of my slave share in Isaac’s inheritance.”


Abraham was greatly distressed by this because of his son Ishmael. But God said to Abraham, “Don’t be distressed about the child or about Hagar. Heed Sarah’s demands, for it is through Isaac that descendants will bear your name. As for the child of Hagar the Egyptian, I will make a great nation of him as well, since he is also your offspring.”

Early the next morning, Abraham took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar. Then, placing the child on her back, he sent her away. She wandered off into the desert of Beer-sheba. When the skin of water was empty, she set the child under a bush, and sat down opposite him about a bowshot away. She said to herself, “Do not let me see the child die!” And she began to wail and weep.

God heard the child crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven. “What is wrong, Hagar?” the angel asked. “Do not be afraid; for God has heard the child’s cry. Get up, lift up the boy and hold his hand; for I will make of him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went to it and filled the skin with water, and gave the child a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the desert and became a fine archer. He made his home in the desert of Paran, and his mother found a wife for him in Egypt.
Matthew 10:24-39
Jesus’ words express the conflicts that may occur when we follow God’s way. The paths of denial and witness are placed before us, and we must ask, “Where do we deny Christ?” and “What is the nature of our witness?” Following Jesus means “letting our lives speak” in our families, employment, lifestyle, and politics, and this may lead to conflict, to a sword and not peace. Yet, the way of Jesus calls us to seek healing with civility in our relationships – to promote justice, to support the vulnerable, to sacrifice for the greater good, to encourage morality among our leaders and in our nation’s policies.  It is written . . .

“A student is not superior to the teacher, nor a servant above the master. The student should be glad simply to become like the teacher, the servant like the master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of the household!

“Don’t let people intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, and nothing is hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in darkness, speak in the light. What you hear in private, proclaim from the housetops.

“Do not fear those who can deprive the body of life but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.

“Are not the sparrows sold for pennies? Yet not a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Abba’s knowledge. As for you, every hair of your head has been counted. So don’t be afraid of anything – you are worth more value than an entire flock of sparrows.

“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Abba in heaven. Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before God in heaven.

“Don’t suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to turn a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, in-law against in-law. One’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household.

“Those who love father or mother, daughter or son more than me are not worthy of me. Those who will not take up the cross – following in my footsteps – are not worthy of me.

“You who have found your life will lose it, and you who lose their life for my sake will find it.”




Posted by: smstrouse | June 22, 2017

Resistance and the Religious Left by Gina Messina

Gina Messina-Dysert CGUFor the last forty years, the Christian Right has influenced the conversation in American politics. Where is the Religious Left and how are they impacting our nation’s moral agenda? It is an important question, and now, more than ever, we need a progressive religious viewpoint in the conversation.

We are living in an era where the morality of our society is at stake and the soul of our nation is being bought by billionaires who have an insatiable appetite for money, power, and control. With an alt-right movement growing and nationalism becoming the Trump Administration theme, we are in danger of losing our humanity.

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karen hernandezThe recent killing of 17 year old Nabra Hassanen is on my mind. Not only was she killed—brutally beaten with a baseball bat—but it is thought that she was raped, too. Twice. During Ramadan. By an undocumented Latino from El Salvador.

It is said to be a case of “road rage.” I am having a difficult time believing this. Maybe this man was drunk. Maybe he was angry at his partner. Maybe it was a hate crime. Maybe we’ll never know the whole truth.

What matters, however, is that Nabra—a young woman, black, and a Muslim—was killed. Do not tell me, or anyone, that these three aspects were not factors in her death. That her death had nothing to do with her being a person of color. Or that her death had nothing to do with her wearing an identifying, religious headscarf. Or that her death had nothing to do…

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Posted by: smstrouse | June 12, 2017

Why Should We Join the Dance of Trinity?

234x200_inflightWhy don’t you just become Unitarians? I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked that question. When I talk about my understanding of God as the Holy One and of all of creation as part of this One, it’s almost inevitable that someone will ask about the Trinity. How can you still believe in that? It’s especially problematic for Muslims who view the whole three-in-one-ness of God as complete heresy. So why are we still celebrating Trinity Sunday?

Any talk of a holy trinity today might be more about Durant, Curry, and Green, the Big 3 of the Golden State Warriors than about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But actually these three basketball superstars might give us a new and better way to look at an old dusty church doctrine. Well, not just Durant, Curry, and Green. Probably most of us are familiar with the term “in the zone.” If you play any sports, maybe you’ve felt that state of consciousness where you’re totally focused, nothing exists but you and your performance and you’re playing at your absolute best. It’s more than just concentration; it’s almost a spiritual experience.    Caddyshack clip

But not just for athletes. Back in 1990, a professor of psychology published a bestselling book called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified flow as a highly focused mental state, in which you’re “completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Sounds just like being “in the zone,” right?

As a reviewer wrote: “You’ve heard about how a musician loses herself in her music, how a painter becomes one with the process of painting. In work, sport, conversation or hobby, you experience the suspension of time, the freedom of complete absorption in activity. This is ‘flow,’ an experience that is at once demanding and rewarding – one of the most enjoyable and valuable experiences a person can have.”

Did you catch the spiritual reference there? A painter becomes one with the process of painting; a musician becomes one with the music. But how could this oneness possibly have anything to do with the Trinity?

Mention the doctrine of the Trinity and eyes begin to glaze over. But I’m not going to talk about Trinity in the same old way. For too long we’ve been held hostage by western Christianity’s definition of God that’s based on outdated Greek philosophy. Now the early church fathers who decided all this (and they were all men) were asking the same questions we ask today: who or what is God and how do Jesus and the Holy Spirit fit in? Without going into detail, they used Aristotle’s philosophy to explain how there could still be just one God, even with these other characters in play. That’s where you get language like “being of one substance with the Father” – pure Aristotle – logical thinking that led into countless explana-tions of how three could really be one. Which led to other religions like Islam – not buying our ice/water/ steam displays – to call us polytheists. Which led countless Christians to leave the church because they could no longer believe “six impossible things before breakfast.”

But not all early Christians went in this direction. There are other ways of believing that have been around from the beginning. For instance, the Cappadocian Fathers of 4th century Turkey came to this conclusion:Whatever is going on in God is a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion between Three—a circle dance of love. And God is not just a dancer; God is the dance itself.”

And here’s a description of some of the ancient Greek Fathers: they “depict the Trinity as a Round Dance: an event that has continued for six thousand years, and six times six thousand, and beyond the time when humans first knew time. An infinite current of love streams with-out ceasing, to and fro, to and fro, to and fro: gliding from the Father to the Son, and back to the Father, in one timeless happening. This circular current of trinitarian love continues night and day…. The orderly and rhythmic process of subatomic particles spinning round and round at immense speed echoes its dynamism.”

The metaphors of circle and dance and current of love might seem strange to our western ears, but I believe that our emerging awareness of eastern Christianity and other eastern religions is leading us into a better spirituality than we’ve had before. Millennia before the publication of Flow, practitioners of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Sufism were following disciplines to overcome the duality of self and object. We’re just catching up.

Father Richard Rohr, author of The Divine Dance, is all over this idea of flow. “This God is the very one whom we have named ‘Trinity’—the flow who flows through everything, without exception, and who has done so since the beginning. Thus, everything is holy, for those who have learned how to see. The implications of this spiritual paradigm shift, this Trinitarian Revolution, are staggering: every bit of ambition for humanity and the earth, for wholeness and holiness, is the eternally-flowing life of the Trinitarian God.”

Now you might be thinking that we’re still trying to force God into a 3-part box. Why hang onto Trinity at all? Why not just become Unitarian? But Unitarianism itself came about as a rejection of the Aristotelian definition of Trinity. And we’re not even going there anymore.

In a stunning work called The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, Cynthia Bourgeault, busts open our silly attempts at defining God, at the same time reclaiming Trinity for a new spiritual age. She suggests that the principle of three is actually the operating principle of the universe (present in many religions) and undercuts all of our dualistic thinking (light/dark; heaven/earth; human/divine; male/female, etc.) that holds us back from being fully human.

How to explain this Law of Three? Let’s take a very current example. “Our politics have devolved into divisiveness and partisanship. You feel passionate about your party and your issues. Your co-worker or neighbor backs the other political party with equal passion. And everything stops right there.

Someone takes position A, and someone else opposes them in Position B; they exist in rivalry and antagonism, world without end. This is precisely what we’d expect in a binary system—a place of “two-ness” in opposition. At best, when we’re finished yelling at each other, we might try to compromise and form some kind of synthesis position out of our dueling dualisms. But, if three-ness captures the essence of the cosmos more than two-ness, it means that we can hold our position with complete integrity while awaiting an unexpected third force to arrive and surprise us all out of our neat little boxes. This isn’t some mere com-promise or synthesis of opposition, but something genuinely new arriving on the scene.

The first and second forces don’t suddenly find themselves invalidated in the face of some-thing newer and shinier. Instead, the third force gives everyone a valuable role to play in the creation of something genuinely new—a fourth possibility that becomes the place for our collective creativity to come out and play. The energy isn’t in any precise definition of the three persons of the Trinity as much as in the relationship among the Three. This is where all the power for creative renewal is at work: the loving relationship between them; the infinite love between them; the dance itself. In other words, it’s an entirely relational universe. When we try to stop this flow moving through, with, and in us, that’s when we fall into the state of sin, which is truly a state of being more than just a behavior.

So we want to get with the flow, which is all about creativity, growth, transformation, connection with the Divine and all that is. Sounds good, right? But how do we get into flow?

It’s like the answer to the question of how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Kevin Durant doesn’t get in the zone without picking up the ball and shooting over and over. The artist and musician put hard work into their craft before they experience that kind of transcendence. It’s the same with spirituality. Although (and this is important) you’re already in the flow, you’re already part of the divine dance. You don’t have to earn your place. But the more awake and alert you are to Divine Presence, the more you’ll feel “in the zone.”

What practice? First of all, setting the intention to open your heart and mind. Then, seeking the practice that fits you best. Last week I talked about breath prayer. Or simply the practice quieting the mind in meditation. Finding quiet time. Listening to meditative music. Believe me, I know these things do not come easily or naturally to most of us. That’s why intention and practice are key. I also suggest taking a look at Richard Rohr’s blog about this: Although remember, it’s not just about the head knowledge. Reading about flow can be helpful, but ultimately it’s all about experiencing it. This exploration of a new way of under-standing Trinity isn’t just esoteric theological wordplay. It has implications for us today as we ourselves search for ways of understanding who and what God is.

Times are changing. The church is changing. How we define God – or don’t define God would be more like it – is changing. Personally, I like the idea of a divine circle dance much better than an image of a triangle. As Rohr says. “Clearly our triune God is a riot of expression, transcending and including any possible labels. And I’m glad to see the hymn that Orion chose for the hymn of the day because it’s been in my head all week. I hope that as we sing it, we’ll begin to get in the zone, get with the flow and join the dance of Trinity.


Genesis 1:1-2:4a
The Genesis reading doesn’t directly address the issue of the Trinity, although it does suggest a complexity in God, with the phrase, “Let us make humankind in our image….male and female [God] created them.” God is alive, many-faceted, and as wondrously complex as God’s creation. This is “our” creation story, our poetry, and needs to be told in light of our understanding of other creation stories and the universe story of today’s scientists.

 Video   In The Beginning Part 1: Creation

2 Corinthians 13:11-13
The passages represents an early attempts at articulating the Trinity, the wondrous incarnational presence of God. This is not the “threeness” misunderstood by Islam’s founders, as separate beings, and thus idolatrous representations of the One God. Instead, it is a unity of the spirit in which, despite the grandeur and infinity of God, the apophatic and “hidden” God, God is one in the Spirit and one in Christ. God’s moral nature is unified.

It is written . . .
And now, dear friends, I must say goodbye. Mend your ways. Encourage one another. Live on harmony and peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints send greetings to you. The grace of our Savior Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all!

Matthew 28:16-20
Trinity Sunday may be an “era piece,” but it may also be a day to celebrate a God who is still creating, who speaks in diverse ways, whose creativity and redemption embraces all creation, and who challenges us to go beyond all divisive and exclusive theologies to affirm the wonders of God’s creative love.

It is written . . .
The Eleven made their way to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had summoned them. At the sight of the risen Christ they fell down in homage, though some doubted what they were seeing. Jesus came forward and addressed them in these words:
“All authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth. Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of Abba God (the Father) and of the Only Begotten (Son) and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, even until the end of the world.”






Posted by: smstrouse | May 28, 2017

Jesus’ Mystical Prayer

opte_internet“ . . . that they may be one, even as we are one,” Jesus prayed. This verse comes near the end of the longest prayer of Jesus in any of the gospels, the so-called “Farewell Prayer.” I wonder if you can remember a time when you were saying good-bye and you were leaving final instructions to your kids or the house sitter – and you wanted to really make sure they under-stood about the plant watering schedule or the garbage pick-up day. You may have repeated yourself, right? “Are you sure you have our emergency number” or “Did I tell you not to over water the fichus?” If you’ve been on the receiving end of these instructions, you may have been rolling your eyes by this time and wishing they’d just get going. That wasn’t the case with the disciples and Jesus. In this account written by the author of John’s gospel, we may not have the actual words of Jesus. But I believe that as we read it through their eyes, we can hear the final farewell message with its repetition of the most important thing to remember about Jesus.

The prayer continues: “Abba, I’m not praying just for these disciples. I’m also praying for those who’ll believe in me through them (that’s us!) – that all may be one, as you’re in me and I’m in you; I pray that they may be one in us. I’ve given them the glory you gave me so they may be one, as we are one – I in them, you in me – that they may become perfect in unity.” I think we get the message! Jesus wants there to be unity among us.

But what is this unity? In The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, John Shelby Spong clarifies: “The desired outcome is not ecclesiastical unity, (that is to say the unity of the church), which is how this prayer has been interpreted by the church. That interpretation, that usage is always in the service of institutional power. Nor is it content or doctrinal unity, as various councils of the church have so often implied and sought to impose. It is not a unity imposed on any basis from outside the service of any agenda. No, the unity of which this prayer speaks is the oneness of the human with the divine that has been the constant theme of this gospel. It is the unity of the vine with the branches. It is a mystical experience of oneness – not a oneness in which individuality is lost, but a oneness in which individuality is affirmed, security is surrendered and new being is entered.”

In other words: the way in which Jesus’ followers understood Jesus is as opening up all of humanity up to a new understanding of what it means to be human. A way of being in the world that understands our origins in the One and our existence as One. And frankly, this radical expression of our humanity as being One with the divine, or seeing divinity in humanity changes everything. But most importantly, it changes the way in which we relate to God. God is no longer expressed as some far off distant supernatural being, but rather as an intimate, integral being, in which we live and move and have our being.

I’ll be honest. I never got this message from John’s gospel before. I always took this oneness as the call to cooperation among different Christian denominations or finding agreement among church members. John’s gospel, in general, was a mystery to me. I liked some of the more esoteric aspects of it – like the opening “In the beginning was the Word.” But when I thought I had to take stories like the raising of Lazarus literally, I had major problems with John. I would have agreed with Fred Plumer’s review of Bishop Spong’s book. Plumer, the executive director of wrote: “Over the years I’ve wondered if Christianity would have been better off if the Gospel of John had not been made part of the canon. Ever since the 4th century, this Gospel has been used to support some of the most exclusive and divisive religious creeds in history. In my opinion it has had far too much influence on the development of modern Christianity.”

But his mind was changed by Spong who wrote: “My study has convinced me, first, that the gospel of John is a deeply Jewish book, and second, that by reading it through the lens of Jewish mysticism, our generation is given new doors for understanding this gospel.”

I was thinking about the Interspritual Wisdom event that we had back in 2010 featuring teachers from the Spiritual Paths Institute. It was unfortunate that the Christian member of the faculty was unavailable that weekend and we had to scramble to find a replacement. I say it was unfortunate because Christianity isn’t well known for its mystical tradition. That’s becoming less true. There has been a resurgence of interest in this part of our tradition. For instance, Julian of Norwich who in the 14th century referred to God as Mother as well as Father because she saw us as coming forth from the essence of the ONE who is the Source of all things. Even Jacob Boehme, the 16th century Lutheran wrote: “You must realize that earth unfolds its properties and powers in union with Heaven above; there is one Heart, one Being, one Will, one God, all in all.”

This was after all, the core experience of Jesus. He knew that he and his Abba were One. His whole life: divine/human, reclusive/public, teaching/listening was predicated on there being a unity – union between himself and the very Source of Life. As Julian says, our longings for God are at the heart of our being. Deep within us are holy, natural longings for oneness, primal sacred drives for union. We may live in tragic exile from these longings, or we may have spent a whole lifetime not knowing how to truly satisfy them, but they are there at the heart of our being, waiting to be born anew.

Now if you really want to delve into articulating this yearning for unity, ask the Sufis.
There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled.
There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled.
You feel it, don’t you?
You feel the separation from the Beloved.
Invite the Beloved to fill you up, embrace the fire.
Remind those who tell you otherwise that
Love comes to you of its own accord,
and the yearning for it cannot be learned in any school.     Rumi

Ending this separation is a major theme and primary goal of Sufi practice. Again from Rumi: “In real existence there is only unity.” And “In things spiritual, there is no partition, no number, no individuals. How sweet is the oneness – unearth the treasure of Unity.”

I believe that every religious tradition offers us all a gift. As one who’s been dipping her toes into Sufi practice, I know that their gift is the acknowledgement of our longing for union with the Divine and the practice that offers a way to experience it. Actually the Gospel of Mary leads us in this direction. Cynthia Bourgeault (our missing Christian presenter) sees a much more Eastern influence in Mary, less attention to sin and more to divine unity. So this is in our tradition, too.

So I rejoiced when I read Bishop Spong’s conclusion that “the call of Christ is not into religion but a new mystical oneness.” Maybe we’re all moving toward being “spiritual but not religious.” Or maybe our religion is returning to its roots. Maybe our religion should be primarily about encouraging us in our spiritual practice, in our quest for fulfillment of our basic human longing for unity.

Not that this negates other aspects of life as a disciple. Rather, following the example of Jesus, awareness of this unity becomes the basis for everything else: for an ethic of compassion and justice, for solidarity with all of creation, for worship and praise, for every aspect of our lives in the world. This is what Jesus prayed for us.

Now the question becomes: how will we be church if our primary goal is to guide our practice of seeking union with the Divine? What supports that goal? What hinders it? I’ll be honest here; I don’t have answers. But it’s something I think about. I’ve been reading a lot about the Sufi practice of sohbet or spiritual conversation. Kabir Helminski: “Sohbet is not sermon or lecture, but discourse, storytelling, encounter, and spiritual courtship. It is how God’s lovers share and intensify their love.”

I’ve been wondering how I might be a better facilitator of such conversations – and if others are feeling the same longing and desire for such esoteric explorations. Maybe not. I’ve been channeling John Lennon:
You might say I’m a mystic. But I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join me. And the world will be as one.

Jesus prayed, “ . . . that they may be one, even as we are one.”

May this be our prayer as well.


Acts 1:6-14

The disciples had to grow up and the Jesus movement had to flourish on its own. As Jesus “ascends” to the heavens, the disciples quite naturally gaze upward, but are then told to focus on this earth rather than heaven. Their work is here in this world. Jesus’ earthly ministry inspires their future ministries. Christ’s resurrection inspires them to commit themselves to healing the good earth. But, before they go forth to transform the world, they immerse themselves in prayer. Prayer orients us toward God’s vision and enables our actions to be grounded in divine wisdom and power.  It is written . . .

While meeting together they asked, “Has the time come, Rabbi? Are you going to restore sovereignty to Israel?”
Jesus replied, “It’s not for you to know times or dates that Abba God has decided. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”
Having said this, Jesus was lifted up in a cloud before their eyes and taken from their sight. They were still gazing up into the heavens when two messengers dressed in white stood beside them. “You Galileans, why are you standing here looking up at the skies?” they asked. “Jesus, who has been taken from you – this same Jesus will return, in the same way you watched him go into heaven.”
The apostles returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, a mere Sabbath’s walk away. Entering the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying—Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James ben-Alphaeus; Simon, a member of the Zealot sect; and Judah ben-Jacob. Also in their company were some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary, and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. With one mind, they devoted themselves to constant prayer.
The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene 9:2-7
The text resumes (4 pages are missing from the manuscript) in the middle of an account of the rise of the soul to God. Mary recounts the Savior’s revelation about the soul’s encounters with four Powers, which seek to keep it bound to the world below. In this portion, the second power, Desire, address the soul, which replies and then ascends to the next level.   It is written . . .
And Desire said, “I did not see you go down, yet now I see you go up. So why do you lie since you belong to me?”
The soul answered, “I saw you. You did not see me nor did you know me. You mistook the garment I wore for my true self. And you did not recognize me.”
After it had said these things, it left rejoicing greatly.

John 17:1-11
Jesus prays for our protection and well-being as individuals and communities. Studies have indicated that prayer is good medicine. In an interdependent universe, our intercessions may create a positive field around those for whom we pray, allowing positive energies to emerge in their lives and opening the door to a greater influx of divine activity. If God’s presence in the world is always contextual and relational, then our prayers help create open systems that more permeable to God’s visions.  It is written . . .

After Jesus said this, he looked up to heaven and said, “Abba, the hour has come! Glorify your Only Begotten that I may glorify you, through the authority you’ve given me over all humankind, by bestowing eternal life on all those you gave me.

And this is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and the one you have sent, Jesus, the Messiah. I have given you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. Now, Abba, glorify me with your own glory, the glory I had with you before the world began. I have manifested your Name to those you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me; and now they have kept your word.

Now they know that everything you’ve entrusted to me does indeed come from you. I entrusted to them the message you entrusted to me, and they received it. They know that I really came from you; they believe it was you who sent me. And it’s for them that I pray—not for the world, but for these you’ve given me – for they are really yours, just as all that belongs to me is yours, and all that belongs to you is mine. It is in them that I have been glorified. I am in the world no more, but while I am coming to you, they are still in the world. Abba, holy God, protect those whom you have given me with your Name – the Name that you gave me – that they may be one, even as we are one.

Posted by: smstrouse | May 13, 2017

I’m with Her on Mothers Day

10274166_10203021373468572_6063021794519708667_nI would never call my mother a feminist. The closest she ever came was when she called my father a male chauvinist pig. It wasn’t something that I – nor, I’m sure, my father – never expected to come out of her mouth. She’d been the good, subservient 1950s wife.

It wasn’t until after her death that I learned what a strong young woman she’d been. And I had to admit that it was her strength that enabled her to survive a difficult marriage and life in a patriarchal culture. I also had to acknowledge that I had inherited that strength – albeit along with some other less desirable traits. But years of therapy have enabled me to (mostly) separate the wheat from the chaff and I can honor Mildred “Millie” Esther (Ludy) Strouse  on Mothers Day.

I also honor other strong women, such as:517ojHaEqSL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobbyflat,800x800,070,f.u1


Sally Yates

Elizabeth Waren
The National Co-Chairs of the Women’s March on Washington:  Tamika D. Mallory, Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour, Bob Bland . . .

and all the women around the world who marched


Happy Mothers Day!


Posted by: smstrouse | May 9, 2017

Organ Farewell

image002On Sunday, we bid farewell to our beautiful pipe organ  in a glorious celebration of music and musical talent. First United installed the Woodberry & Harris organ in the chapel at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary after we sold our building in 2007. But now, as PLTS prepares to move to a new location, we have to find a new home for this lovely instrument. PLTS will leave the campus at the top of Marin Avenue on May 27, so we held our Sunday service in the Chapel of the Cross.

Click here for the story of how First United acquired the organ in 1995 from a church on Catalina Island: Easter IV and PLTS organ exit May 7 2017

Pastor Jeff Johnson, First United’s pastor at the time, and organist/music director Orion0636396-R1-029-13 Pitts shared stories of traveling to Catalina to dismantle and carefully pack the organ, load it onto a barge to take it to the mainland, then drive it to San Francisco to be installed in the church at 30th and Geary. Here are some pictures of it taken at my installation in 2005.




Pastor Kathryn Gulbranson, assistant to Bishop Mark Holmerud of the Sierra Pacific Synod, was our guest preacher. And council president Tamara Alliston wrote this beautiful prayer:

We pray a prayer of blessing for this organ and most especially those who play it;
for the songs and the musicians who write and sing them;
for the spaces that have and will continue to house it – and the communities that enjoy it;
for the people who will listen to it and whose spirits and voices rise to its music;
for those who assemble and disassemble, store, move, repair, and maintain it;
for the moments and lives that will be more beautiful for its sound;
May the inspiration that it has given us be carried forward with our blessings into its future –
and may FULC be woven into its music as a rich and integral part of its story.

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