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.




Posted by: smstrouse | November 25, 2016

Don’t Agonize; Organize!


Everyone who is anyone was there: the mayor, the police chief, the fire chief, members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, out-going and in-coming state senators, the Honorable Nancy Pelosi, as well as leaders and members of every religious tradition – including us! Once again, First United Lutheran Church and Middle Circle occupied a table at the San Francisco Interfaith Council‘s annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast.

This year the theme was “The Soul of the City: Faith and Social Justice in San Francisco” (who knew how timely that theme was going to be?!).

1620819_1280x720For the sold-out crowd of 500 in the ballroom of the Kabuki Hotel it was like a social justice revival meeting. Bishop Marc Andrus, who had recently returned from Standing Rock and the Marrakech Climate Change Conference, got us up out of our seats to join in a chant of “We’re still in” as he recited a litany of issues which will continue to command our attention.

Nancy Pelosi preached it: “We are gathered here at a sad time in our country . . . a time that we have to have our faith and courage from the heart.” And channeling the late African-American activist,  Florynce Kennedy, she gave us our rallying cry, “Don’t agonize. Organize.”

She described a time in the House of representatives when someone made a disparaging remark about “San Francisco values.” Pelosi responded with  “San Francisco Values??? YES!!!” quoting the Prayer of St. Francis, patron saint of our city.

Michael Pappas, executive director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, reminded us of the words Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed to a crowd staging a protest outside of the Santa Rita Prison on December 14th 1967: “There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without Justice!”

martin-luther-king-jr-2Then he also reminded us: “those prophetic words came, not from a politician, but from a pastor, not from a government official, but from a charismatic and courageous faith leader. Dr. King, in every speech, in every sermon, reminded his listeners that his courage to speak truth to power was rooted, not in himself, but inspired by his God and that timeless tradition of fearless people of faith who have led every civil rights and social justice movement in history.”


And then he addressed the civic officials gathered there: “To our civic leaders let me say this… In the wake of over a year and a half of contentious national campaigning, with its unprecedented, painful and divisive rhetoric, and in these post-election days, when basic human and civil rights have never been more threatened and at risk, we the leaders in San Francisco’s communities of faith, intend and pledge to exert our moral authority, reclaim our prophetic voice and fearlessly stand at the forefront of the movement to protect, advocate for and advance human rights, social justice and equality for all!

“Many months back, when we selected this year’s breakfast theme of social justice, I must confess, I never imagined the profound challenge before us, nor the time-sensitive call for unity, to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable residents of our City and nation. On behalf of our rich constituency of over 800 congregations, their respective judicatories, religiously founded educational and healthcare institutions, as well as the faith-based social service agencies that provide the social safety net for our most vulnerable residents, we pledge to you this morning, that we will neither shrink from, nor abdicate the critical role we are being called to play at this fragile time in our nation’s history.”

Between this event and the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service yesterday, I’m feeling more energized and hopeful than I’ve been since the election. We are the people with San Francisco values. And our rallying cry will be “Don’t agonize. Organize!”2016-11-24-11-09-37




Posted by: smstrouse | November 22, 2016

The Divine Commonwealth of Christ


This is a difficult day on which to preach. There were at least three things feeding into my reflections this week. First, it’s the last Sunday of the church year, the day traditionally known as the Feast of Christ the King, but here at First United known as Christ Anointed. Second, it’s the third Sunday in our Season of Remembrance, as we widen the circle out to honor those throughout the world who are victims of violence and oppression. And third, it is the second Sunday after the election apocalypse.

All of these do actually do fit together because they all have to do with how we want to be governed and how we are governed. Of course we don’t have a king; that was the reason for the War of Independence after all. And within the church, many of us have problems with the ‘king’ language for other reasons. Some have changed the name of the day to the Reign of Christ to eliminate the gender issue. But you still have the feudal language that implies a hierarchical order of power. But don’t take it from me. Let’s watch a short documentary about the problem with kings.

726f37831b7109adf1e144f242c7e868Watch Monty Python’s “The Annoying Peasant”

 Arthur’s Britain wasn’t the only place where having a king was problematic. The reading from Jeremiah is also a rant against a king, probably Zedekiah, the last of great King David’s dynasty. It was Zedekiah’s actions that had brought about invasion, siege, destruction, and finally exile to Babylon, so his popularity rating was zilch. I imagine the prophet Samuel laughing from the Great Beyond. Because although Samuel had long ago anointed Israel’s first king, Saul and later David and Solomon, he’d tried to talk the people out of their desire to have a king at all. He warned them:
“He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots for him to ride in luxury. He’ll take your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and give them to his friends. He’ll tax your harvests to support his extensive bureaucracy. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you’ll cry in desperation because of this king you want so much.” And so it was.

But what’s really important about this warning is that is an expression of the class tension (shades of Monty Python) between prophet and ruler. Remember: the prophets of ancient Israel were not predictors of the future or foretellers of Jesus; they were critics of the government, thorns in the side of kings, emperors, and other officials of both church and state. Which is still the role of prophets today.

Which brings me back again to this dilemma over Christ the King and its companion, the Kingdom of God because language really does matter in the face of oppressive regimes. “Basileia tou Theou”(Greek for Kingdom of God) was the main preaching point of Jesus’ teaching: the kingdom of God is like this; the kingdom of God has come near; the kingdom of God is within you. But “basileia” is being interpreted in some interesting ways these days: reign, realm, even regime of God. Many New Testament scholars, including the Jesus Seminar are calling it the “empire of God” – the rationale being that Jesus’ major agenda addresses his major antagonist, the “empire of Rome.”

Others aren’t so enamored. Process theologian John Cobb, who describes the “basiliea theou” as a counter-culture based on the values that were rejected by the political, economic, and religious establishments of Jesus’ day, prefers to call it the “divine commonwealth.” And the Inclusive Bible that we use calls it the kin-dom of God.

As much as I can appreciate the rationale behind “empire of God,” I have a hard time translating that to Christ the Emperor. I’m much more attracted to “kin-dom” or Cobb’s “divine commonwealth” because they get us away from limited feudal or empire language and broaden out into a more cosmic, interconnected vision – like that of the “divine milieu” of early 20th century scientist-priest Teillhard de Chardin. In this “divine milieu” Christ is described at various times as the Total Christ, the Cosmic Christ, the Whole Christ, the Universal Christ or the Mystical Body of Christ.

For Teillhard, Christ is not just Jesus of Nazareth risen from the dead, but rather a huge, continually evolving Being as big as the universe. In this colossal, almost unimaginable Being each of us lives and develops in consciousness, like living cells in a huge organism. With the help of all the human sciences as well as the scriptures, Teillhard shows how we – the cells and members of the Body of Christ – can participate in and nurture the life of the Total Christ. He also shows, thanks to the continuing discoveries of science, how we can begin to glimpse where that great Being is headed and how we can help promote its fulfillment. In a spirituality like this, the power of God is not a coercive power like that of a king. But it is a persuasive power that beckons us forward into the way of the Total Christ, whose task it is to transform this fragmented world, through love.

If that sounds too far out for you, remember that even in a spirituality of the divine milieu, the cosmos includes all the mundane, down-to-earth stuff we wrestle with each day, including the work of peace and justice. We never sit back and expect God to come and fix things for us. In the words of Theresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which Christ blesses the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are Christ’s body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

You may still prefer the king and kingdom language. It is, after all, the familiar and that is perfectly OK. My intention is to open up some other ways of thinking about it because it really does have implications for how we see our governing bodies today and our role as people of faith in support of and in opposition to those bodies.

Which brings us to our focus for the Season of Remembrance. We are remembering the oppressed of the world, both living and dead, who have suffered and continue to suffer under policies of governing bodies that deny any or all of their basic human rights. Today has been designated as the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, for the 87 people murdered this year alone. We light a candle for them. And for the people of Aleppo. Tonight we join with communities around the world in “A Light for Aleppo, A Light for All: Offering a light in the darkness, to show those who face daily conflict and starvation that the world is spreading out beacons of vigilance and hope.”

As our concerns grow that some members of our communities may be denied some or all of their rights by our government, we remember. Which then brings us back around to the call to be prophetic witnesses. The words of the prophets are still being written on subway walls and tenement halls, as Simon and Garfunkel sang 50 years ago. But now also on Twitter feeds, email blasts, and Facebook walls. And they are calling on us to join our voices, to join forces. For example, the latest message from Faithful America is: “Every church that is faithful to Jesus Christ must now become a sanctuary for those coping with violence and degradation.” 

How do we do that? I spoke last night at an early Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the Pacific Institute. It was packed; in fact they’d had to turn people away who had RSVP’d too late. Muslims, Jews, Christians of assorted denominations, and a smattering of Buddhists joined together both in expressing gratitude for being together and in resolve to continue working together for peace and justice. This past week, in Washington, DC, interfaith leaders met at the Nation’s Mosque to pray and to send a strong statement of interfaith solidarity with the Muslim community. At an anti-Semitism conference in New York, Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League said, “If Muslim Americans will be forced to register their identities, then that is the day that this proud Jew will register as a Muslim.”

I sent an email yesterday to the leaders of the other congregations who meet in this space, as well as Middle Circle, to see if there might be a way that we can show our solidarity. There seems to be support for that, so we’re looking for ways to embody it. Your suggestions are welcome.

 What can we take away with us today from all this? We take our grief. Our mourning for the dead and for the oppressed does not end. Our mourning for our country’s decent into dangerous political waters does not end.

But we can also take with us an awareness of the hugeness of the divine milieu in which we live. This vast universe that is the body of Christ is alive and we are part of it, growing and evolving in awareness and faith. And while such an immense reality may seem to big to include our concerns, our own individual concerns or the struggles of immigrants or the conflicts within nations, the truth is that in the body of God or the commonwealth of God or the kin-dom of God, each cell matters, each person matters, each hope, fear, dream, joy matters. This is the message we take with us on this final Sunday of the church year. So go out as prophetic witnesses to the peace and justice of the kin-dom, knowing that you are loved by a Love unbounded by space and time or by titles and political systems. Bigger than any king or queen or president, power or principality. This is the reality to which we cling and from which we will take action.



Jeremiah 23:1-6
In every age political and religious leaders have often created difficulties for those for whom they had responsibility. This text makes abundantly clear that ancient Israel was no exception. It is likely that these oracles were pronounced against the advisers of King Zedekiah of Judah (597-586 BCE). Placed on the throne as a vassal of the Babylonians, he was the last of the Davidic dynasty to reign. His rebellion against his overlords brought about the invasion of the kingdom, the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and the exile of the king and the nation’s leading citizens to Babylon.

 It is written . . .

“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep in my pasture!” declares YHWH. “Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who are tending my people: You have scattered my flock and driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds, declares YHWH. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have dispersed them, and will bring them back to their own pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will also raise up shepherds who will look after them and pasture them. They will no longer be afraid or terrified nor will any by missing, declares YHWH.

Behold, the days are coming, declares YHWH,
when I will raise up for the house of David
a righteous branch,
who will reign as a true ruler and act wisely,
and do what is just and right in the land.
In those days, Judah will be saved,
and Israel will dwell securely.
This is the Name on which they will call:
‘YHWH, Our Justice.’”

Second Reading from America, America by Saadi Youssef (translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa)

We are not hostages, America
and your soldiers are not God’s soldiers…

We are the poor ones, ours is the earth of the drowned gods,
the gods of bulls
the gods of fires
the gods of sorrows that intertwine clay and blood in a song…

We are the poor, ours is the god of the poor
who emerges out of farmers’ ribs
and bright,
and raises heads up high…

America, we are the dead.
Let your soldiers come.
Whoever kills a man, let him resurrect him.
We are the drowned ones, dear lady.
We are the drowned.
Let the water come.

Luke 1:68-79
Known to Christian tradition as The Benedictus, this psalm may well have had Jewish origins long before the birth of Jesus. It is composed of a series of familiar Old Testament phrases taken chiefly from the Psalms. It became an early Christian hymn and was incorporated into Luke’s Gospel as part of the poetic narrative of the Messiah’s birth.

Zechariah’s words portray a similar theme as Jeremiah’s. The Savior to come will guide us in the ways of peace. The new order will be characterized by grace, healing, and mercy.

 It is written . . .

“Blessed are you, the Most High God of Israel-
for you have visited and redeemed your people.
You have raised up a mighty savior for us
of the house of David,
as you promised through the mouths of your holy ones,
the prophets of ancient times:
salvation from our enemies
and from the hands of all our foes.
You have shown mercy to our ancestors
by remembering the holy Covenant
you made with them,
the oath you swore to Sarah and Abraham,
granting that we,
delivered from the hands of our enemies,
might serve you without fear,
in holiness and justice,
in your presence all our days.
And you, my child, will be called
the prophet of the Most High,
for you’ll go before our God
to prepare the way for the Promised One,
giving the people the knowledge of salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high
will bring the Rising Sun to visit us,
to give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.”


Posted by: smstrouse | November 19, 2016

Feeding the Activist Soul

s-l300In the wake of the presidential election, I am convinced of two things.

#1: It will take commitment to actions that will resist any and all attempts to undermine the rights and dignity of all people and of the whole creation. I am grateful for all the organizations that are mobilizing people of faith. One example is Faithful America, whose mission is “organizing the faithful to challenge such extremism and renew the church’s prophetic role in building a more free and just society.” Another is Sojourners, which has just published “10 Commitments of Resistance in the Trump Era.” There are many others. I find hope among the weeds of despair in being part of a movement of faithful resistance.

#2: It will be impossible for me to carry out #1 without a spiritual practice to keep me centered. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all recommendation for everyone to follow. But I can share what’s keeping me sane right now.

From the Buddhists, I learned to create my own loving kindness meditation. Mmetta1y version is:
May I be happy and healthy.
May I be grateful.
May I be transformed.
Loving and compassionate
Open to your Spirit
Mindful of your Presence
May I be an instrument of your Peace.

As I repeat the meditation, I reflect on which one or two aspects is out of alignment at this time. Often, this will open up my awareness of feelings or concerns that I wasn’t paying attention to. I can then spend extra time in prayer or conversation with Presence about that. I have always found being an instrument of peace much easier after this practice. Plus you don’t need a special place or position to do it. In the car, walking down the street, lying in bed: it’s all good.

From the Sufis I’ve been learning to listen to my heart (trying to anyway). With each out breath of “la ilaha” and in breath of “illallah” or “there is nothing” and “but You,” I feel the peace and calm of simply being. This was the mediation that was most calming for me last week.

monk-in-heart-cave-meditatingFrom my pagan sisters and brothers, I am learning how to better listen to nature, to feel rooted to the earth under my feet while my arms reach up into the sky. It’s not always easy in the midst of the city, but not impossible.

From my own Christian tradition, I find strength in the community, my congregation when we gather for worship. The singing, the prayers, the concerns for one another and for our world lift my spirit. The commitment of the whole gives strength to me as an individual (and I hope to each of us) to be resilient in the face of adversity.

We face extremely challenging times ahead. But I am convinced that as people of faith, we are up to the challenge. The light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.




Posted by: smstrouse | November 14, 2016

A Young Person’s Response to the Election

This letter was received in time for our worship service yesterday. The writer is a young woman in her second year of college here in California. We watched her grow up in the congregation and take on leadership both in helping to lead worship, but also in mentoring other young people. I can’t begin to express how proud I am of her.
Here is her letter:

Dear First United,

There are so many thoughts and feelings that I have following this election.

Watching the coverage of the election and slowly watching the states place their votes with Trump will be a moment that I’ll never forget. Everyone was so confident that Clinton would win. How could we be so wrong with our predictions?

This election was shocking. It proved that white supremacy is alive today. In California, we get stuck in a bubble. We forget that most of the country does not think as we do. This election was an important eye-opener for us, and hopefully we can gain something from it.

As we were gathered around watching the election, something stuck out for me. One of my friends, who does identify as a conservative Republican, was becoming increasingly anxious during the coverage. This is a man who refused to vote for either candidate, because he could not vote for someone that he did not believe in. As we were watching the election though, he was becoming more and more distraught. This was because he realized, for the first time, how much he really did not want Trump to win. Here he was, rooting for a woman that he hated, because the other candidate’s win was too unbearable to believe in. I realized something in this moment. When did I start thinking of the world as Democrats vs. Republicans? This is the hate that Trump has been preaching; the us vs. them ideology. He played off the fears of the country. And now I am afraid of what the future might hold for those that are deemed as “different.” I realized that in the coming years, it will be important for us to work together to create a safe America, where everyone feels welcome.

Following this election, it has become obvious that not everyone is welcome in America. As a women, I have seen the impact that this election has had on the gender that I identify with. The other day, a girl in my class said that she did not vote for Hillary because a woman could not be president. A girl in California who is pursuing her higher education degree believes this. It is also important to note that this was during a Women Writer’s course.

Also, when Hillary gave her concession speech she said, “To the little girls out there, never doubt that you are valuable, and powerful, and deserve every opportunity to pursue and achieve your own dreams”. How often do you see a white man coming out and telling white boys that they can be anything they want to be? You don’t. Because white boys already know this. Girls still have to be reminded that they can do whatever they want, because they do not know that. Apparently, women can do anything they want, as long as it does not interfere with the patriarchy.

Currently, most people in America are fearful for the next few years. My campus has created safe places where students can come and talk about their feelings concerning the election. Growing up in a white middle-class family has made these conversations challenging for me. Sitting in a class where my peers express their concerns for their illegal immigrant families has opened my eyes. I personally do not have to deal with those same fears. Even Latinos, Muslims, Asians, etc. that are American citizens, are still having to face persecution:

  1. I pray for the group of boys that took off a girl’s hijab at Plano East Senior High.
  2. I pray for the students in DeWitt, Michigan that formed a physical wall around the school blocking Latino students from entering.
  3. I pray for street vendor that yelled, “hey guys, at least it will be legal to grab p****” and high-fived a group of men on the street who were laughing.
  4. I pray for the Muslim family that woke up to a sign outside their house that said, “you can leave now.” This was in the Bay Area.
  5. I pray for all the instances that have gone undocumented, and for all the people that are now fearful for their safety.

I feel a disconnect with what is going on in America. As a white heterosexual Christian, I do not have to worry about these same oppressions. However, that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be a part of it. I want to be actively engaged in the current conversations. I believe in civil disobedience. I believe in the ability to express our First Amendment right by peaceful protests.

We, as Americans, have been complacent for too long. The current generation never lived through the Civil Rights Movement, the AIDS epidemic, the Vietnam protests, women’s suffrage, etc.   It is time that we struggle and fight for something that we believe in.

To those that believe that Trump will be unable to create his laws or build a wall, look at the incidents that I have written above. There is already a wall in America. It is important for us to ban together and tear down this wall.

It is fine to mourn. I have been in mourning and using this time to sort through and understand my feelings. Writing this letter became a great way for me to purge/be mindful of my own feelings. However, we cannot become complacent to what is going on in the world. Finish mourning, and use that drive to fuel your hopes and desires for America.

To the young people, get off social media. What laws have ever actually been passed because of it? Nothing. Laws are changed by going to court, protesting, and writing to our elected officials. Not by stating an opinion online to your friends, most of whom have the same opinion as you anyway. We need to change the mind of others, and that is done through education. My hope is that I can go out and enact change, hopefully with you by my side.

I do feel like the government failed me. However, I am a Political Science Major for a reason. I have faith in America and in a government that wants to help its people. And I want to be a part of that.

My hope is that the president-elect, and those coming into power, will not use hate to create new laws. I hope that the country will stay open-minded and that we will help Trump be successful in his presidency. If something happens that we do not agree with, it is our duty as citizens to stand up and enact change.

Although this feels like 10 steps in the wrong direction, hopefully we can use this to take 30 steps forward.

Thank you,


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