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.






Posted by: smstrouse | July 19, 2014

Becoming Jewish Again for the First Time

jesus-in-hebrewJesus was a Jew.  “No duh,” you say.

The disciples were all Jews.  Again, “No duh.”

The earliest Christians were Jews.  No doubt you’re tired of these obvious observations.

They might seem obvious, and yet I have come to see the error of this assumption.  For the past week I’ve been listening to lectures and discussions led by Bishop John Shelby Spong. The summer session class at the Pacific School of Religion was Bishop Spong’s latest book,  The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. The title of Tuesday evening’s public lecture was Biblical Literalism: a Gentile Heresy.

The main point of it all was that we cannot read the gospels except through Jewish eyes. This isn’t a brand new idea. But in recent years, it’s been getting more attention. And I say it should get all the attention it deserves.IMG_0453

My awakening to the roots of anti-Semitism in Christian scripture, liturgy and hymnody began at a funeral I attended with a Jewish friend. The text from John, which I had read countless times at funerals and in church, hit me between the eyes with its exclusionary message: No one comes to the Father except through me.
Thus began my problems with what was once a favorite hymn, I Am the Bread of Life. Some of the lyrics are:
Unless you eat
Of the flesh of the Son of Man
And drink of his blood,
And drink of his blood,
You shall not have life within you.
Then there’s the “bidding prayers” in the Good Friday liturgy, which include this prayer for Jews: Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God. Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and your teaching to Moses. Hear our prayers that the people you called and elected as your own may receive the fulfillment of the covenant’s promises. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
I guess I should be grateful that the language has been softened from what it used to be (and I won’t even stoop to print it here), but I’m not. The prayer has to go.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to deal with the scriptural basis for what Spong (I think rightly) calls a heresy. How can we read the references to “the Jews” in the gospels, as well as words put on Jewish lips by gospel writers, such as  “His blood be upon us and on our children” without putting them in their proper historical context of an inter-religious polemic?

Spong’s book is a good place to start. He’s done his academic homework, but it’s not an academic book. Like his other books, it’s very readable.
I will say that I don’t agree with all of his conclusions. Nor would he expect everyone to agree with everything. Except for one thing: that Jesus, the disciples and the first Christians were Jews. We should treat them as such. And we should recover our own Jewish eyes if we are to see the non-exclusionary message of the life and death of Jesus and the power of the living  Christ (in the fullness of what that means) for all people.


Posted by: smstrouse | July 12, 2014

25+ Years of My Love/Hate Relationship with the Church

July 9th was the 25th anniversary of my ordination. I’ll admit that it felt great to receive words of congratulation and appreciation from members of the four congregations I’ve served and from assorted friends and family. But it also felt weird – and not just because of the fact that it reminds me how old I am. It took me on a trip all the way back to the beginnings of what would become my life’s work.

People often ask when I knew I wanted to go into the ministry or if there was one specific moment of feeling “the call.” Those are difficult questions to answer because the process was so convoluted. There were bright and shining moments of clarity, but there were also dark days of struggle and despair. But I can’t wish that none of it had ever happened because it has all contributed to the person and pastor I am today.

Some of those bright/shining and struggle/despair moments came from the church. Like a parent, the church has the power to both love and affirm, but also to shame and abuse. I’ve experienced all of that.  And I believe that it is important to remember the painful parts of the story because they obligate me to reach out today to those who have been hurt by the church and tell them that healing and maybe even reconciliation is possible.

I also believe that it’s important to remember the good stuff because it obligates me also to remind us all of the good that we can do through this imperfect institution.

There are days I think I should just kiss the church good-bye. When I hear about a colleague getting emotionally battered by her congregation. When I see a young colleague burning out in her first year of ministry. When I get frustrated with the business of running an institution.

And then there are the days when the church is what the church is supposed to be. When compassion trumps doctrine. When justice trumps policy. When gospel trumps law. Those are the days I live for. And why I’ve stayed.

25 years! Unbelievable. But what a joy to hear from a kid from my first congregation, now with children of his own, to learn from another young man that it was because of me that he stayed in the church and now is there with his wife and kids, to hear stories of faith from so many people I love and admire.

Has it been worth it? Oh, yeah, it has.

Will I still get frustrated with the church at times?  No doubt.

Will I continue to work for reformation, healing and reconciliation? You betcha!




Posted by: smstrouse | July 5, 2014

Forget Hobby Lobby; How Can I Boycott SCOTUS?

hobby-lobby-justicesA lot of metaphorical ink has been spilled since the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case last week. Those who are outraged at the decision are calling for a boycott of the craft store chain. I’d have to drive 40 miles just to get to one of their stores. But the more I think about it, the less angry I am with Hobby Lobby. My outrage is directed at the Supreme Court (actually the 5 justices who think it’s appropriate for the government to make decisions that favor one religion over others or no religion at all) and I want to know how I can boycott them.


I know that’s a silly question. But the sentiment is real. What can we do when the highest court in the land has clearly gone off the rails? Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 35-page dissent says it all. For example: Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention. One can only wonder why the Court shuts this key difference from sight.

birth-control-gumball-hobby-lobby-scotus-638x424As upset as I am about the Hobby Lobby decision, I see it as just another symptom of the dangerous turn this country has taken away from the democracy envisioned by our founders, as well as the advances made in the lives of citizens not originally covered in those founding documents, i.e. anybody who’s not a straight white man.

Consider that on Tuesday, a group of religious leaders wrote to President Obama on Tuesday asking for exemption from a pending executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discriminating against lgbt people in hiring practices. And so it goes.

I’ve been thinking about all of this at the same time that I’m hearing about my friend who has become the target of attacks by a small group in the congregation she serves. Hearing about the tactics of this group – the lies, skullduggery and the unwillingness to hear any facts that would refute their prejudices – I had to say, “They sound just like the Tea Paanxietyrty.” The sad thing is that this kind of behavior is happening in churches throughout the country.

Here’s what I think is going on, in our church as well as the whole country. Change is happening. Power is shifting. And those who have been in power do not like that. I don’t necessarily mean power of political office; I do mean power of privilege. As soon as African-Americans, Latinos and Latinas, and women and lgbt people of all races began to claim the right to be part of the decision-making process of our culture, the anxiety level of the old structure went way up. To be fair, that’s to be expected; change does that. What is not fair when this anxiety goes unacknowledged.

Consider this definition of anxiety: an emotional state in which people feel uneasy, apprehensive or fearful. People usually feel anxiety about events they cannot control or predict, or about events that seem threatening or dangerous. There is a feeling of vulnerability. Severe anxiety can persist and become disabling.

Severe anxiety can persist and become disabling. Gee, does that sound like our government?

In the situation in my friend’s church, it is a group of fearful, anxious people who see their church changing. They don’t understand that all the good things about what a church is supposed to be will remain the same. On the other hand, they absolutely do understand that they won’t be the ones calling all the shots anymore.

The big question is how will we confront this climate of fear and anxiety crippling our institutions? Here are some thoughts:

#1  Name it for what it is
#2  Acknowledge its power
#3  Refuse to be held hostage by it
#4  Deal with it in our own psyches (nobody’s immune, so self-awareness is key)
#5  Work tirelessly for inclusion, justice and transparency
#6  Speak out against abuses of power
#7  Support leaders who understand that democracy – as well as the realm of God – is for everybody
#8  Don’t give up; live in hope
#9  Support one another because this work can get tiring
#10  Be a part of “climate change” in any way you can (iow: be the change you want to see)

Now how will I personally translate these thoughts into a response to the Hobby Lobby decision? Probably not by preaching to the choir and posting snarky cartoons about conservative Christian employers. Hobby Lobby is what Hobby Lobby is.

Accountability must lie with those who are supposed to be governing and making decisions on our behalf. So my protest, activism, vote and financial support has to be directed there in order to help bring about the change I want to see.

So – kudos to RBG! Thanks for speaking out for us. You give us courage to fight the good fight.

And fight it we will!






Posted by: smstrouse | June 28, 2014

In Solidarity With Kate Kelly

477Oh, church. How you abuse your children. I get so angry with you, even as I defend you against those who lump all your daughters and sons into categories like judgmental, delusional and masochistic. I’ve often wondered (in the questioning sense) myself why I’ve stayed, why I’ve put up with some of the abuses I’ve both witnessed and endured.

But I’ve also wondered (in the being awed sensed) at the times of compassion, justice-seeking and community-building I’ve witnessed and experienced in far greater numbers. Just this week, the oldest member of our congregation died. As we come together in love and solidarity with his his widow and daughter, I marvel at the blessing of our little community.

Tomorrow, some of us will march in the San Francisco Pride Parade. For a number of years now, my bishop has lead the Lutheran contingent and will do so again this year. We’ll be among a larger group of other open and affirming congregations – putting denominational differences aside in unity under the rainbow flags.

Church can get it right. Sometimes it takes a while. It took twenty years for my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to catch up to the stand that my congregation took for the full inclusion of lgbtq clergy. First United was put on trial and expelled for calling an openly gay pastor against church policy at the time. When I was called as pastor, they’d been independent for a long time. When the ELCA changed the policy and invited us to come back into the fold, we took a long time to make the decision to return. We decided that it was important to affirm the progress the church had made and to continue to work for changes still to come.

Which is why I stand in solidarity with Kate Kelly, the Mormon activist who has been excommunicated from the Mormon Church this week. Kelly is the founder of Ordain Women, working to reform the all-male leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

While certainly not in the vanguard, Lutherans in the US have been ordaining women since 1970 (the Lutherans in Denmark began in 1948; the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod still does not). But I’m old enough to remember the controversy over it and the struggle for acceptance, even after the battle had been won.

The church moves slowly. But it can move, although sometimes we have to push it along. So I have hope for Kate Kelly and the women of the LDS. There may be tough times ahead, but ultimately justice will prevail. We who are further along in that particular struggle, should all be standing with them in solidarity. After all, we’re the church, too. The all-male leadership just hasn’t gotten the memo: their days of power and control are over.

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