Posted by: smstrouse | December 31, 2015

Revisiting Lessons & Carols


It was pretty funny, really. Last year, at the Service of Lessons and Carols, we realized we had to make some changes. Even though it’s a tradition that goes back to 1880, it was time for an update.

When the first lesson (Genesis 3:  8–15; 17–19) was read, you could hear a murmuring from the pews. When God asked Adam if he’d eaten from the forbidden tree and Adam pointed to Eve and said, “The woman made me do it,” I swear there was even some hissing – and it wasn’t the serpent.

I have even further problems with that text. The idea of a “fall,” an event in which sinful humankind fell out of favor with God and therefore needed a champion to get us back into God’s graces, has become untenable for me. So basing the whole progression of texts leading up to the birth of Jesus on this foundation was no longer acceptable.

The next lesson wasn’t much better. The story of Abraham’s willingness to sactifice Isaac as an example of faithfulness portrays God in a way that is highly problematic. Who is this God who sets up a losing scenario in Paradise and then punishes people for falling into the trap? Who is this God who toys with a father’s love for his child? Oh, I know, we’re supposed to look forward in time to Jesus, who would be “sacrificed” by his father. Sorry, I’m not buying it anymore. Time for a change.

Hooray for the folks at! After searching unsuccessfully for an order of service that took these problems seriously, I finally found one. Here’s the introductory paragraph by Jeanyne Slettom, a UCC minister and adjunct professor of theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities:
This service of lessons and carols is based on the traditional set of readings with some changes. It retains lessons 3-9, but shifts the message of lessons 1 and 2 away from original sin toward original blessing. The first reading is God’s creation and blessing of humankind; the second is God’s covenant with Noah.

Yes! Just what I was looking for! To be sure, the Noah story has its problems, too. But I think that most people know that there really was a flood in that region of the world and understand that this story was the ancient Hebrews’ ways of making sense of it. The Abraham story, not so much.

This is just one more example of how we need to pay attention to the theology we’re promoting in the liturgies we use. I’m blessed to be in a congregation that will actually murmur and hiss at non-progressive interpretations. But we should all be on the lookout for these steps backward into ways of thinking that need to be left behind.

We’re celebrating the birth of Jesus into the world through these Twelve Days of Christmas. In the Epiphany season, we’ll be thinking about the implications of that birth. Was it a “divine rescue operation” to save us from our sin brought about in the “fall?”

Or was it something else? I say it was. So let’s revisit our hymnody, prayers and liturgies and make the necessary changes to reflect our theology.

Posted by: smstrouse | December 19, 2015

I’ll Have a Blue, Blue, Blue, Blue Christmas

blue-lights-christmas-treeChristmas: the most wonderful time the year – unless it’s not. Every year, I feel a personal obligation to be an advocate for those of us who can’t get into the holly, jolly of the season.

I have  no gripe against those who love this season. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to condone the commercialism and consumerism that goes along with it. Or the playing of Christmas music in public places. I was in a coffee shop the other day and two very bad versions of the same song blared into my consciousness. I’m a Christian and I’m offended by the ubiquitous carols. I can’t imagine being of another faith or no faith and having to endure the barrage.

OK, end of rant.

I actually love observing the season. I have my Nativity scene set up at home, with my blue IMG_0703
Advent wreath still beside it. No baby Jesus in the manger yet and the Magi are still far off in the distant (well, up on the window sill). Candles are in the windows and today I’ll get some greens to give the place that Christmas-y smell. And I’ll write some Christmas cards, still keeping this dying tradition because I still love getting cards (and those holidays letters too) and putting them up on the piano.

But – there is still a tinge of melancholy about it all. No matter how hard I try to resist the manufactured  expectations of happy family gatherings amid mounds of perfectly chosen presents, I always succumb to it at some point. I’ve learned to find ways to both accept the sadness and find ways to mitigate it (this year, a trip to the beach at Santa Cruz!).

No matter the reasons for my holiday blues. We each have our reasons. Some have lost loved ones at this time of year, which casts a shadow over every year thereafter. Some are far away from families, either physically or emotionally. Some have never had a loving family. There are many reasons.

I am blessed. I have learned to enjoy the season in a spiritual way. In fact, I’ll be keeping the blue candles on my Advent altar all through the whole Advent/ Christmas/ Epiphany cycle. So, yes, I will be having a blue Christmas in the best sense of the word. And to those who still struggle with the season and long for it to be over, I say that you can create the kind of holy-day that you want it to be. You don’t have to be jolly. You don’t have to spend a ton of money on presents. You don’t have to have a tree in your home if you don’t want to. You, too, can have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas – and it will be just fine.



Posted by: smstrouse | December 12, 2015

Maybe We Should Be Afraid

There arFear-Not-600x400e over 100 places in the Bible that encourage us to “fear not.” These are words to bring to mind again and again as we are bombarded with news of terrorist attacks, mass shootings, climate change and political chaos. I truly believe that this should be our mantra, not only for our own way of being in the world, but as a model for the many people who succumb to fear and even vote against their own best interests. Some politicians ad religious leaders use fear as a tactic to further their own agenda. And we must resist their ploys and present an example of faithful living in a dangerous world.

There’s no doubt about it; there are dangers out there. And I’m beginning to wonder, despite what I just said above, that there are times when we really should be afraid. There are people of whom we should be afraid. Need I say more than: “Donald Trump?”

Yes, for a while, he was a source of amusement, e.g. David Letterman’s running commentary about “that thing on his head.” Back in July The Huffington Post made the decision to relegate news about his campaign to the Entertainment section, stating “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”

But things have changed. In the aftermath of Trump’s call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” the headline read: “We Are No Longer Entertained.” Referring to the ‘sideshow’ comment, Arianna Huffington wrote, ” . . . Trump’s campaign has certainly lived up to that billing. But as today’s vicious pronouncement makes abundantly clear, it’s also morphed into something else: an ugly and dangerous force in American politics.”

Responses from abroad have also called out Trump for his behavior. A petition was submitted to the United Kingdom Home Secretary to bar him from entering the country because he’s  violated their hate-speech laws. The GlobalScot network, which promotes Scotland’s businesses abroad, has stripped Trump of the ambassadorial role he has held since 2006. And Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen has revoked an honorary degree because of “statements that are wholly incompatible” with the values of the university.


Here at home, journalists, bloggers and politicians have been sounding the alarm about the disturbing nature of Trump’s rhetoric. Making comparisons to pre-World War II fascism which brought about the Holocaust, they remind us of our promise of “Never again.”

Many have been circulating the poem by Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, who was imprisoned in concentration camps from 1937 to 1945 for his opposition to the Nazis’ state control of the churches:220px-Martin_Niemöller_(1952)

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

We are right to be afraid of the dangers of hate language being spewed by political candidates. We have seen the evil consequences of nationalistic, xenophobic pandering to the fears of people who feel threatened by “the other.” And lest we think we are immune, let’s not forget our own country’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Healthy fear lets us to know when we’re in danger. People who suffer from a rare kind of brain damage that prevents them from experiencing any kind of fear can fail to respond appropriately to life-threatening situations. At this time in our history, we can’t afford to succumb to that kind of brain damage. We need to be afraid of hateful language of any kind.

But – and here’s the big difference – we act fearlessly against it. Whether it’s commentary from a politician or a comment by a friend or relative. We cannot stand by and allow ourselves this country to be co-opted by hatred and unhealthy fear.

“Fear not” can still be our mantra. As long as we also face the very real dangers ahead. Because, remember: Never again!

Posted by: smstrouse | December 5, 2015

Prayer-Shaming: A Time-Honored Tradition

2015-12-03-1449146466-479747-image-thumbThe latest battle between religion and secularism is the issue of prayer. In the wake of San Bernardino, the front page of the New York Daily News screamed, “God Isn’t Fixing This” in response to statements by several GOP presidential candidates, who offered thoughts and prayers for the victims. The point was that prayer isn’t enough; it’s time for these politicians to take action.

Think Progress also jumped in and published the names of numerous congresspeople who had tweeted their “thoughts and prayers,” along with the amount of money they’d received from the NRA and their voting records against gun reforms.

Naturally, there’s been a backlash to what has become known as “prayer-shaming.” Some Christian leaders have called for the firing Daily News editor responsible for the story. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention said, “If the news media want to be atheists, that’s their business. But how dare they now ridicule people of faith. This kind of anti-religious bigotry is precisely what fuels Islamic terrorists’ hatred toward Americans.” Others want to teach us that prayer is action, but atheists just don’t understand that.

Once again, the battle lines get drawn between believers and atheists. But this is a false dichotomy. Not all Christians would join the outcry against this so-called attack on the faithful.

dr-martin-luther-king-jr-we-speak-we-pray-we-scream-but-without-action-there-will-be-no-revolutionFirst: prayer-shaming isn’t new. The prophets of old were famous for their condemnation of empty words and rituals. Isaiah himself might weigh in on this issue today:
These people come near me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. – Isaiah 29:13 

There’s nothing wrong with offering “thoughts and prayers.” Sometimes we  don’t know what else to say and our words convey our compassion. But I do not see anything wrong with calling people who claim to offer “thoughts and prayers” to account for their actions which belie their purported beliefs.

a0a6e6c3571d02dfc12c15f26c15273cSecond: I don’t believe the purpose of prayer is to get God to come down here and fix this – whatever ‘this’ is. Prayer is an active way to engage with the dynamic power of the Divine within and around us. Prayer can strengthen, encourage, comfort, teach, inspire, amaze and humble us. It is powerful. But I don’t think that its purpose is to call on God for what John Shelby Spong calls a ‘divine rescue operation.’

I have this argument with prayers in many worship resources. They ask God to come and bring peace, heal the world, save us from danger – come and fix this. The truth is that it is up to us to “fix this.” Prayer empowers us for the work. So if you’re praying for the victims of gun violence, good for you. But also tell me your actions on behalf of them and all future victims. As Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.”

I hope that other Christian voices are heard in this latest fray. It’s not a war on Christianity. It’s not an atheistic attack on prayer. It is a challenge against hypocrisy. And it is a call – to all of us – to action.





Posted by: smstrouse | November 24, 2015

I Ain’t Shopping Anymore

With apologies to the late, great Phil Ochs, here’s my annual anti-consumerism protest song. Watch the video if you don’t know the melody (or the original words).

“I Ain’t A-Shopping Anymore”

Oh, I shopped to the battle of the Cabbage Patch dolls
In the decade of the 80’s Christmas war.
When the toy store got them back in stock,
I joined the lines around the block.
But I ain’t a-shopping anymore.

For I’ve stomped my share of shoppers in a thousand different stores;
I was there at the crack of dawn.
I heard many sales clerks sighing; saw many more a-crying.
But I ain’t a-shopping anymore

It’s always the rich who lead us to the mall
Always the poor to fall
Now look at what we get – to our ears in credit debt
Tell me is it worth it all

For I stole a Beanie Baby from another mom’s hand;
And I fought for a Sony XBox score.
Yes I even shoved my mother and so many others.
But I ain’t a-shopping anymore.

For I shopped to the strains of “Silent Night”
In a season of peace and love for all.
But when Apple gadgets filled the land,
I fought to get them in my hands.
But I ain’t a-shopping anymore

It’s always the rich who lead us to the mall
Always the poor to fall
Now look at what we get – to our ears in credit debt
Tell me is it worth it all

For I rushed from the table after pumpkin pie,
To get ready for Black Friday’s mighty roar.
When I saw my Visa burning, I knew that I was learning
That I ain’t a-shopping anymore

Now the politicians tell us shopping makes our nation work;
Patriots will head out to the stores.
Call it “Sense” or call it “Treason;”
Call it “Wisdom,” call it “Reason,”
But I ain’t shopping any more.
No I ain’t a-shopping any more.

Posted by: smstrouse | November 19, 2015

The Politics of Terror in the Realm of God

“Conservative Christian Leader Blasts Anti-Refugee Rhetoric, Calls For Compassion”1blog-compassion-286x300

Holy cow! I find myself in an odd place: agreement with the Southern Baptist Convention. Granted, we would still disagree on finer points of evangelism, but we’re on the same page when it comes to compassion and religious liberty. In the article, the president of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission spoke out against the dangerous anti-refugee rhetoric of certain high-profile politicians after the terrorist attacks in Paris.

It’s definitely been a tough week for immigration rights, interfaith understanding, and peacemaking. We’ve been hearing the pounding drums of Islamaphobia and the cries for retribution against those responsible for the attacks.

We of short memory forget that our response after 9/11 to the outpouring of the world’s compassion was the creation of “terror alerts,” a new “Homeland Security” beuaracracy, erosion of civil rights and the invasion of a country that had nothing to do with the Trade Center attacks.  9/11/2001 began an era of fear under the politics of terror.

I’m not naïve. I understand the dangers of today’s world. There are some really bad people out there – some of them of our own creation – and sometimes they’re us. But as a follower of Jesus, I cannot abandon the ethical, moral, spiritual, and yes, political implications of those teachings when the going gets tough. Jesus lived in a time of political occupation and oppression, so he wasn’t naïve either.

In another interesting article, “Presidents Can’t Follow Jesus,” Kurt Willems said, “It’s impossible to be the president of the United States and to follow Jesus.”2

beatitudes-1I’d like to add that it’s really impossible to be anybody and to follow Jesus. By that I mean totally, completely, at all times aligned with the ethics of the Beatitudes and other teachings. Jesus has given us a clear vision of the way of life in the realm of God – here and now. Did he think we could always attain that level of   ? I don’t think so. But was he giving us the model, the bar, the paradigm by which to judge our actions? Most certainly.

I met with a high school student last evening who needed to interview a Christian for her world religions class. She asked me a question about how I live out my faith in my daily life. That might seem like a no-brainer for a pastor; after all I get paid for being a professional Christian. But after giving that smart-alecky answer, I gave my real response. I am called – as every Christian is – to follow the teachings of Jesus in everything I do: what I eat, where I shop, who I love, how to respond to those I find hard to even like – and how I vote.

So, while it may be that the president can’t completely make the mark ( and neither can we), it doesn’t mean he/she/us shouldn’t try. (To be fair to Willems, this wasn’t the actual point of his article, but the title was intriguing.)

The question then becomes: how can we follow Jesus in a world in which the politics of terror hold sway? In all the many articles and blogs, Jim Wallis from Sojourners has one of the best (how interesting that I’m finding all this inspiration from evangelicals!). He says, “Fear is our vulnerability. Instead, we must learn the spiritual discipline and habit of the scriptural command, BE NOT AFRAID.”3

Amen, I say! We have got to resist all fear-mongering tactics. And not only resist – we have to speak out whenever fear threatens to drive our opinions and policies. This applies to politicians, memes on Facebook, rants by relatives at Thanksgiving dinner, wherever. Of course, we do it in love. We do not succumb to the same kind of behavior.

I keep thinking of the song by John Michael Talbot, Be Not Afraid. The refrain is:
Be not afraid. I go before you always.
Come follow me, 
and I will give you rest.

This video is the best I could find.4  I wish someone would make one with more photos of people who have shown courage in the face of great odds. We’re going to need holy courage for the days ahead.








Posted by: smstrouse | November 7, 2015

Why I’m Spiritual AND Religious

thAs I write this, I’m taking a break during the Jesus Seminar on the Road event called “Does God Have a Future?” It might seem to presumptuous to ask such a question. Especially since, as someone reminded me, God lives outside of time, therefore has no past, present – or future.

OK, that may be true. Perhaps the seminar should really be called “Does Our Current Construct of God Have a Future?” But that’s a much less sexy title.

That is what it’s about, though. It’s been good to be reminded of how our Western construct of God has been formed by Greek philosophy – and how that construct is not necessarily the same as that of the Hebrew Bible. And today, in our post-modern era, many people are asking different questions. For example, they’re not asking about the truth of religion, but about whether or not it performs. Does it have value? Does it contribute to the world?

And following from that: does God have value? What do we mean by God in light of these concerns? Is the  construct of God we’ve received from antiquity the only one possible? And if not, what form, if any, does God take for us today?

All this philosophy is making my head hurt! But the good news that’s coming through for me is that we are in a time of questioning and openness to ways of thinking about these matters. Religion doesn’t have to be the doctrine-bound, institutionalized bugaboo that is so maligned these days. Religion can be a container in which we can hold all the good ways we perform in the world. It can be a place where we explore questions of meaning and value. Of course these can happen in places other than within religion. But my hope is that those who think that all aspects of religion are to avoided at all costs will come to see that one can be a thoughtful, questioning, evolving, spiritual and religious person. The two are not are mutually exclusive

The institutional church is changing. That’s just a fact. Younger people are looking for and practicing their faith (there’s another word for consideration another time!) in different ways from previous generations. And this is good! Something creative and transformative is happening. Maybe the way we think about, understand, call God will be completely different from the way we were taught in Sunday school or by Monty Python. Old ways of thinking about God: Father, Master, Lord, Warrior, Omnipotent, Judge,etc. have already been giving way. Maybe we’ll finally learn from the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching that “the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.”  Whatever “God” may be is more than our constructs.

I like being religious, if this kind of edgy conversation is what we’re talking about. The anxiety of the institutional church will eventually give way to the new thing being born.

I also like being spiritual, although this isn’t the event for that; I have to find that experience elsewhere. I hope that I succeed in bringing the two together in the worship services that I put together. But it’s a ongoing process of learning and unlearning, growing and accepting my limitations, letting go and letting – God? Hmm, that remains to be seen.

There is still one more session to go in the seminar: “The Post-Modern Critique of God” which will “explore atheistic accusations against, and theistic defenses of, God. It will then move to an examination of post-atheistic and post-theistic thought, both of which express similar ideas on the question of religion and its future.”

Oh, my head! This will probably generate more questions than answers – which indeed is the whole point!

Posted by: smstrouse | October 31, 2015

Honoring My Ancestors – Even the Difficult Ones

When Facebook asks you to post your relationship status, one of the options is “It’s complicated.” That is exactly my feeling on this All Hallow’s Eve as I prepare for All Saints Day.


Celtic spirituality teaches us that this is a “thin time,” when the gossamer veil between the worlds of the living and the dead becomes even more diaphanous. This is the time to honor our ancestors and all loved ones who have died – to recognize that they’re not really all that far away from us after all.

It’s a lovely way of believing. I’ve been planning to create an altar of remembrance with photos and memorabilia from my parents, grandparents, and others who have shaped my life. But here’s where it gets complicated for me. My memories of my immediate ancestors are a complex web of love, anger, guilt, understanding, acceptance, longing, sadness – well, you get the pictugossamer_web_by_printsilike-d2xsr21re. Complicated.

Unexpected tears have welled up even as I contemplate digging out photo albums. Happy memories drift up from my unconscious: my father taking me to get my first pair of ice skates, the bus trip to Atlantic City with my grandmother. Other memories, not so happy, jostle with them for my attention: wounds forgiven but not forgotten.

I truly believe that in death we become whole. My parents, with all their own complicated histories, have received the ultimate healing – whatever and wherever that may be. The wounds they carried are healed. The ones they inflicted are forgiven. That is how life is on the other side of the veil. It’s not complicated at all.

On this side, however, healing is still incomplete. The witch’s brew of emotions roils within me. And yet  it’s not really a bad concoction, although it is rather bittersweet. On this side of the veil, I relate to the verse of the hymn For All the Saints that reminds me “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” Some of the theology and wording of the hymn may be outdated, but the struggle language definitely resonates.

I’m going to go and build my altar now. It will hold mementos of imperfect people who did the best they could with what they had. My own memories will go into the creation, the whole mixed up mess. There may be some tears shed, probably some smiles and laughter, too.

I do believe that within this process the veil between them and me will shimmer. And in so honoring them, I will be a bit further along in my own healing. May it be so.


Posted by: smstrouse | October 23, 2015

My Top 10 Parliament Moments

photo2-224x300Now that the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions is over, I’m reflecting back on the whole experience. There were so many facets: seeing old friends, making new connections, having fun, being inspired, feeling awe, experiencing hope, being challenged to work together for the good of the whole world.  Here are my Top 10 Moments which include all of the above:

10.  Orion in a turban (Orion Pitts: music director & administrative assistant at First United Lutheran Church)


9.  Meeting these young whirling Dervishes





8. Joyful dancing with the Hare Krishnas and Journey Dancing on my birthdayIMG_0582
(See my Hare Krishna video at





7. Jane Goodall!!!






6.  Workshop: “Kill Them (Qur’an); Do Not Spare Them (Torah); and CasKaren-Armstrong-520t Them into Everlasting Fire (New Testament): Context of Difficult Religious Texts.” Panelists addressed the “texts of terror” in the Abrahamic traditions. Karen Armstrong and Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb were great, but the best quote was from Jonathan Brown, director of the Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He wisely advised us on how to deal with all these problematic passages: “Stop taking them literally!

5.  The presence of women . .



IMG_0572and the indigenous people of Utah









4.  Workshop:  #Black Lives Matter with Rev. Michael McBride (The Way Christian Center in Berkeley), Rev. Francis Davis (Calvary Baptist, Salt Lake City) and Rev. Jim Wallace (Sojourners)2015-10-19-1445252541-6725089-blacklivesmatterpanel-thumb





3.  Langar: what more can be said about the hospitality, generosity and spiritual wonderfulness of the Sikh people? IMG_053910463889_10207819092860312_8127650248499207495_nA beautiful experience!!



IMG_05582.  Making connections with people doing the same kind of work I want to do in intrafaith theology: Moses Penumaka (Pacific LutheranIMG_0612 Theological Seminary) and Shanta Premawardhana (Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago)




1.  Having the opportunity and privilege of presenting my workshop, “The Intrafaith Conversation: How Do We Talk Among Ourselves about InterfaithMatters?” to around 40 people and receiving wonderful affirmation for my forthcoming book.


Next Parliament will be in two years. I’m going to start saving now. I wouldn’t miss another experience like this for the world!

Posted by: smstrouse | October 19, 2015

PWR: Final Day

Big panic! Late yesterday afternoon, I discovered that my workshop no longer appeared on the Parliament app. The app was now the only way to keep up to date on schedules; the print version was hopelessly out of date. I rushed to find a volunteer to help find someone who could restore me to virtual life. I came upon a group of  young people in green volunteer shirts, but they were getting ready to leave for the day. But one kind young man offered to take me to the volunteer center to see what we could do about my problem. As the staff person there tried to figure out what had happened, I leaned that my new young friend was a Hindu who was studying Christianity in his world religions class. So I asked him if he had any questions – and he asked me to explain the Trinity!!!

So I did – at least my version of it.

The app problem did get resolved and my workshop on the Christian intrafaith conversation
went great. There were about 40 people in attendance, mostly all Christian. But there were a few from other traditions – including the Hindu student!

Then, on to the next workshop. “Christian Theology Facing Challenges from Religions: LeaIMG_0611rnings from a Seminary Course” was the perfect follow-up to mine. Seminary students from Chicago were at the Parliament as part of their course work. One of their teachers is Manuel Friere, descendant of Paolo.

IMG_0612Another is Parliament board member, the Rev. Dr. Shanta D. Premawardhana. The students spent their week meeting and interviewing members of different traditions and then reflecting on the questions and challenges they found to their own traditions and beliefs – what I’ve been calling “passing over and coming back.” I came away with a vision of having a course like this at the Graduate Theological Union!

Even though the Parliament is officially over, it’s really not. I just got a call from First United member, Orion Pitts, who has met an imam at the Salt Lake City Amtrak station. The iman’s PhD thesis: Islam’s influence on Martin Luther. So stay tuned for more interfaith and intrafaith news.





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