Posted by: smstrouse | February 12, 2015

Can Progressive Christians Also Be Mystics?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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













Posted by: smstrouse | February 5, 2015

What’s Up with Faitheists and Atheists?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Posted by: smstrouse | January 29, 2015

Jonah vs. American Sniper

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

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

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

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

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Posted by: smstrouse | January 29, 2015

Jonah vs. American Sniper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by: smstrouse | January 24, 2015

Remembering Marcus Borg


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by: smstrouse | September 11, 2014

A Lament for 9/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by: smstrouse | September 6, 2014

The Intra-faith Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bay_Bridge_reflections_at_nightI guess this dinosaur isn’t extinct just yet.

Posted by: smstrouse | August 30, 2014

Goodbye (Interfaith) Summer!

I can insigoodbye-summerst all I want that summer isn’t officially over until September 22nd. But it won’t do me any good. For all intents and purposes, another wonderful summer season is coming to a close.

At First United, that means our second summer of interfaith encounters is also at an end. Just one more guest speaker and “Deeper Connections:  an interfaith exploration of our relationship with the earth” is history.

It seems like I was just working on setting it all up again. I was wondering if I’d be able to convince people to come to a little Lutheran church on a Sunday evening and share their perspectives on ecology from their particular tradition. And now I’m looking back at the visits – from representatives of Judaism, Hinduism, Wicca, Buddhism, Humanism, Islam, Brahma Kumaris and Naturalist Freethinking (and Baha’i closing us out tomorrow) – with much gratitude. 

Each and every one of our guests gave us a thoughtful, insightful and personal take on the subject. It’s obvious that caring for our environment is part of all the great traditions. And since I know we’ll get criticized again for having people who are not Christian speaking at our church, let me say that part of the summer series was also thinking about what Christianity has to say about caring for creation. Members of the congregation were asked to fill out questionnaire each week: 

  • What did you hear that you didn’t know before?
  • What did you hear that was similar to Christianity (as you understand it)?              
  • What did you heat that was different from your understanding of Christianity?      
  • How do you answer the question: how does being a Christian inform your thoughts about creation care? Your practice?

As I hear and read about the damage we’ve done to our environment, dire warnings about climate change and the seeming unwillingness of world lclimate_street_art_1eaders to do what is necessary, I look even more to the spiritual/ethical traditions to lead the way. If we’re going to motivate people to hope and to care and to act, it will have to come from the place deep within our shared humanity – whether you call it God, the universe, the Tao or our cosmic consciousness. We’re all in this together. 

Politicians discussing global warming” – Isaac Cordal

I read the news today, O boy.

The Westboro cult ( I refuse to call them a church) is coming to San Francisco on August 12. They plan to protest at tech companies in San Francisco and Silicon Valley which, they say “cram sodomite propaganda down everyone’s throats.”

BG2RainbowSo here’s what I say: Let’s not get ourselves all a-Twitter and Google-eyed about this. Instead, let’s declare a Summer of Love in their honor. For every ounce of blasphemous vitriol, we will respond with a ton of unconditional love.

Sound impossible?

Not easy, to be sure. Much easier to respond to hate with hate – or at the least, righteous anger.

But what if we could see this as a real opportunity to put the teachings of Jesus into practice:Love-Your-Enemies
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. This will prove that you are children of God.

And of the Buddha: Hatred will not cease by hatred, but by love alone. This is the ancient law.

And of Mahatma Gandhi: It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.

I also like these words of wisdom from Maya Angelou: Love is like a virus. It can happen to anybody at any time.

If we can be so steeped in these teachings and so spiritually grounded that we can withstand the hatred of these people, who will be gone in a blink of the eye, maybe we can also learn to act in love towards the ones in closer proximity – the ones in our families, at work, in other churches. You know who they are. Maybe you’ve written them off as lost causes, far beyond meaningful dialogue.

And maybe they are. But they’re not beyond love. And love is like a virus. It can spread. The Buddha would advise being non-attached to any outcome of such love. Maybe they’ll never change.

But we will.

So, while declaring a Summer of Love may sound like a hippy-dippy thing to do, I’m totally serious. Let’s welcome Westboro with open hearts. Don’t get me wrong: I am not condoning anything they do or say. All I’m saying is that we don’t have to agree with someone in order to love them.

Still sound impossible? At the very least, it’s an opportunity to test our faith. Are you with me?


autocompleteI didn’t even know what Google Autocomplete was until I started reading a bunch of recent articles about it – starting with a little paragraph by Arianna Huffington in the Huffington Post. It seems  that if you type in the words “why am” on Google, the Autocomplete genie will immediately offer you suggestions to complete your question. So I tried it. The first suggestion was: “why am I so tired?” The second: “why am I always tired?”  Hmm, what does that say about us?

But the article that really piqued my curiosity was Yasmine Hafiz’ Google Suggest Reveals the Internets’s Offensive Religious Stereotypes. So I started Googling. Naturally I began with my own denomination. I typed “Why are Lutherans” and immediately got: #1 “Why are Lutherans in the upper Midwest?” and #2 “Why are Lutherans wrong?”

Hmmph! #1, as a Lutheran from Southeastern Pennsylvania, I’m offended. And #2, as wrong as we can be sometimes, is that really the second most asked question?

So I continued and found:

  • Why are Episcopalians . . .
    #1 rich?
    #2 leaving the church?
  • Why are Presbyterians . . .
    #1 called the frozen chosen?
    #2 different?
  • Why are Methodists . . .
    #1 called Methodists?
    #2 wrong? (wrong like the Lutherans or their own brand of error?)
  • Why are Mormons . . .
    #1 so nice?
    #2 so weird? (is it weird to be nice?)
  • Why are Jews . .
    #1 persecuted?
    #2 so rich?  (as rich as the Episcopalians?)
  • Why are Muslims . . .
    #1 so angry?
    #2 countries so poor?
  • Why are Catholic  . . .
    #1 countries so poor?
    #2 churches closing?
  • Why are Atheists . . .
    #1 so angry?
    #2 so rude?  (maybe they can learn something from the Mormons)

But the one that really got to me was one thaimagest didn’t even get two suggestions, just one (as if it’s the one and only definitive answer:
Why are Christians . . .  so mean?

Oh, I get it; I really do. We have a lot of repenting to do for a lot of bad stuff. And if you listen only to the rantings of the Christian right, you’d have every reason to think that Christianity is one mean-spirited religion. Take, for instance, this quote from Ann Coulter: “I’m a Christian first, and a mean-spirited, bigoted conservative second, and don’t you ever forget it.” It’s hard for me to believe she and I profess the same religion.


But seriously, is “mean” the only suggestion Google can come up with? Yeah, I know; it’s nothing personal. “Autocomplete predictions,” according to Google, “are automatically generated by an algorithm without any human involvement based on a number of objective factors, including how often past users have searched for a term.”

So does the blame falls on all the people who went on line to find out why the religion based on the teachings of a humble, non-violent, compassionate, inclusive, boundary-breaking, spirit-filled Jewish peasant has become . . . mean?

Does the blame fall on those so-called followers of Jesus who somehow have forgotten those teachings?

Does the blame fall on progressive Christians who have allowed our religion to be defined by the meanies?

Or should the question be: does the responsibility lie with progressive Christians being proactive in getting out the message of the humble, non-violent, compassionate, inclusive, boundary-breaking, spirit-filled Jesus we follow? And if that’s the question, then how do we become more proactive?

I suppose the first step is getting on Google and typing in the words: Why are Christians so  . . .

  • humble
  • non-violent
  • compassionate
  • inclusive
  • boundary-breaking
  • spirit-filled
  • and every other positive thing we know we can be.

No, it doesn’t mean that each and every Christian will exhibit all of those characteristics all of the time (we probably should add the word “human” to the list). But even with all our faults and errors, all of us aren’t mean all the time either.

So I say we go after that algorithm and teach it a thing or two. Why are Christians so . . .

Tag, you’re it.






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