Posted by: smstrouse | June 14, 2014

Reimagining “Our Father”

romance-and-marriage-fathers-day-2I hasten to say, on this Fathers Day weekend, that I have nothing against fathers. One of my favorite parents was a father.  And I give the guys their due on their special day.

But when it comes to God, it’s a different matter. There are way too many issues involved with calling the Holy One “Father” – at least exclusively.

Cima_da_Conegliano,_God_the_FatherSo, in my congregation, we don’t say “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”  We don’t even use the updated version “Our Father in heaven . . .”  We believe that it’s important to go beyond the attempt to merely update the Old English to contemporary language. And no matter how much traditionalists rant and rave about God not being the same as our earthly fathers and God is not a male, etc., etc., the fact is that the word had become a stumbling block. Even if you have a parent who really is the “Greatest Father in the World,” you need to recognize the difficulties in using the same word for the Ground of our Being.  Again – at least exclusively.

Last year, in my congregation, we revised our inclusive language statement. We adopted a policy of inclusive language when talking about people and a policy of expansive language for God. This means that while we won’t root out all references to Father, Lord, King, etc., we will include a wide variety of other names, words and images as well.)WhirlpoolGlxyThe challenges of the “Our Father” are not only about inclusive language. In the Q&A section of a recent column by John Shelby Spong, a reader expressed other problems with the traditional prayer and offered a version he had written. But when he asked if Bishop Spong thought that such revisions would ever happen in congregations, the response was, “No, I do not think that the churches will ever engage this issue.”

Let me say right away that I’m a huge admirer of John Shelby Spong. I don’t always agree with him, but I often do. And I admire his courage in speaking out for the “church alumni society,” as he calls it. In fact, it was at one of his lectures years ago that I knew I’d passed the point of no return on the path of progressive Christianity.

So when I read his answer, I had to respond.
Dear Bishop,
In response to your latest columns Q&A: our congregation never uses the tradition “Lord’s Prayer.” We are an ELCA congregation, which around 10-12 years ago wrote our own version after a study group led by the late Dr. Robert Smith from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. We use this version for part of the year, but also switch off to others as well. One of our favorites is the one written by Parker Palmer.  Another is the one from the New Zealand Prayer Book. There are others; in fact I have a growing file of them – which is quite encouraging. I get many positive comments from visitors and from others when I use these prayers at other gatherings. Just thought you’d like to know.

I know that First United is unusual. But I also know we’re not the only ones engaged in faithfully reimagining our traditions. I hope this will become more and more widely known and those who are turned off by the language of “Our Father” will know that there are alternatives.

So Happy Fathers Day to all the dads, grandpas, uncles, godfathers  and all the guys who give fatherly care!

But tomorrow when we pray, it will be with these words (from Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Newmarket, Ontario):

God, lover of us all, Most Holy One,
help us to create what you want for us here.
Give us today enough for our needs.
Forgive our weak and deliberate offenses,
just as we must forgive others when they hurt us.
Help us to resist evil and to do what is good.
For we are yours, endowed with your power to make the world whole.

Posted by: smstrouse | June 7, 2014

Pentecost/ Pluralism/ Planning 2014

Acts 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.I’m writing this as I prepare for three converging activities tomorrow. It’s Pentecost Sunday, which is often described as the birthday of the church. I found a really nice painting of the coming of the Holy Spirit to a group of people obviously of many different ethnicities. However, when I checked its copyright information, I discovered that the artist had some rules for its use.

I was free to use it only if I agreed to a list of belief statements, including that “the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God.” I also had to “believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, his vir­gin birth, his sin­less life, his aton­ing death, his bod­ily res­ur­rec­tion, his ascen­sion to the right hand of the Father and his per­sonal return in power and glory. I believe that Jesus alone is the medi­a­tor between God and man.”

Needless to say I didn’t use it.


Especially since tomorrow we’ll also be celebrating Pluralism Sunday, in which we “affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.”
(from the 8 Points of Progressive Christianity

We’ll be using the Global Mass, put together by our music director, Orion Pitts. He’s gathered chants, hymns and songs from many different traditions to create a liturgy that expresses the diversity of our world.

This will also kick off another summer of interfaith engagement with members of our community from other religions and from no religion, who will be invited to share how their tradition informs how they care for the earth.

And then it’s also the day of our annual meeting. I hasten to add that our annual meetings are not the usual fare. We take just a brief time to conduct necessary business, and then move into a time of exploration and discussion about our congregation’s ministry.

This year 141_spiritualnotreligious_widewill be interesting because it’s been just a year that we voted to enter into partnership with St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church to do outreach ministry to the “spiritual but  not religious” folks of our community. I also hasten to add that we’re not doing this as a way of getting people into our doors to fill up the pews. We are offering a space for people, wherever they are on the spiritual spectrum, to talk about their hopes and hurts. We expect that a new community will emerge from this, but we don’t know what that’s going to look like. To me, it sounds just like the early church in the days after the first Pentecost.

So we’ll be talking about that – celebrating the year past and planning for the year to come.

Pentecost Flamming Cupcakes '11
I’m not too big on the birthday of the church idea.  After all, it’s the institutional church that brought us things like “the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, his vir­gin birth, his sin­less life, his aton­ing death, his bod­ily res­ur­rec­tion, his ascen­sion to the right hand of the Father and his per­sonal return in power and glory. I believe that Jesus alone is the medi­a­tor between God and man.”

However, I am very big on Pentecost. I love the imagery of fire and doves and rushing wind. I love the color red splashed throughout the sanctuary as members sport their red socks, shoes, shirts, earrings – however the Spirit moves them! It’s a fun day!

We sound have more like it.


Posted by: smstrouse | May 23, 2014

What to Do for Pluralism Sunday 2014???

Interfaith-4-people-clipartHow do we top last year? In 2013, instead of Pluralism Sunday, we had Pluralism Summer – twelve weeks of guests from traditions other than our own. This year, the official day for Pluralism Sunday was May 4, but because it was so soon after Easter we decided to wait until Pentecost on June 8. And that’s coming up fast! So what to do?! Not that it’s a matter of having to ‘top’ ourselves. But it was such a positive experience for both congregates and guests, I can’t help wanting to keep the momentum going.

I do know that if I had to do last year over again I’d make some changes. I would be more specific in asking our guests to speak about what they personally love or appreciate about their tradition. Many of them did that anyway, especially when I starting asking that question about halfway through the summer. Although people are interested in hearing about another religion’s history, beliefs, etc., I think they’re much more interested in personal stories.

progressive_soup That’s why I would also build in some time for our own folks to share their stories of what they love or appreciate about being Christian. I find that those from other religious perspectives are interested in hearing about us, too – especially the perspectives of progressive Christians. Not only that, we have to get better at telling our stories if we want to have an impact on how the rest of the world sees Christianity.

So I’m back to my dilemma: what to do, not only for Pluralism/ Pentecost Sunday, but for the entire summer. One suggestion was to have guests from other, more conservative, Christian churches. I have to admit that the idea doesn’t thrill me – not because I don’t think progressives and conservatives shouldn’t be talking and worshipping together, but because I’m not sure that I could be objective or non-attached enough to pull it off. I find it much easier to play with my interfaith friends than with my more traditional sisters and brothers and others within the family.

images Another idea (from my friend Sridevi Ramanathan, our Hindu guest from last summer) is to have interfaith speakers again, but to have each one speak on the theme of ecology – how does your tradition inform the way you think about and care for the Earth? I kind of like that.

As we were talking, though, we also got onto the subject of integrity. When is it proper to use prayers, rituals, etc. from another tradition and when is it cultural or religious appropriation? We both think that this is an important issue as more and more people claim to be interfaith or interspiritual. to-be-one1We’re not saying these are necessarily wrong, but would like to see a deeper understanding of the cultures and religions being appropriated. In fact, we may try to write an article together about this. As this interspirtitual movement grows, it would seem to be a timely topic.

Still, I’ve got to come up with something for Pluralism Sunday. We’ve moved beyond “let’s all be friends” and “hey, isn’t it cool, we’ve all got a version of the Golden Rule!” But there’s obviously much more work to be done – even in our Bay area bubble. What’s the next phase? Where should we go from here?

What do you think? Your comments are always welcome.


imagesIf you’re looking for a simple answer to this question, you’re going to be disappointed. However, I can give some advice on how to work with it.

This verse has come up every time I’ve worked with Christian groups on interfaith matters. Sometimes it’s quoted as a rationale for an exclusivist position: Jesus is the only way. Mostly though, it’s raised as a concern: I want to respect my neighbors of other faiths but I don’t know how to reconcile that with what the Bible says.

However it’s presented, my advice is to take the question and the questioner seriously. This is a faith issue, and while you may have moved into a different understanding of the text, others need time to possibly catch up. I’ve heard well-meaning people respond to the question with words like, “Jesus is just the way for Christians; it doesn’t apply to others.” I once saw a young man, who had fairly conservative leanings, turn away after a response like that. I don’t know how he felt, but I felt that the abrupt answer was not respectful – and it ended any possible further dialogue. So again, my advice is to honor the question.

After all, it is in the Bible. We can’t (or shouldn’t) simply ignore the parts that cause us discomfort. Remember how we had toimages-1  go back and work with the so-called “anti-gay” biblical texts, looking at their contexts and digging more deeply into what the authors were trying to say? It’s the same with the seemingly exclusivist passages like John 14:6.

My second piece of advice is that if you haven’t done any biblical work with the text – and you want to know how to respond to questions about it – now’s the time to find some good resources to get up to speed. A good place to start is Diana Eck’s book, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, especially the chapter called “The Faces of God”. Within that chapter, there’s a section called “I Am the Way: Inclusive Love” which is really well done. Dr. Eck comes at the passage as a pastoral response to an anxious question.

Another nifty little book is a new one: Truth, Testimony, and Transformation: A New Reading of the ‘I Am’ Sayings of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel by Yung Suk Kim. He takes a quick and easy-to-read look at John’s concept of the Logos and how it applies to the “I am” texts. The last chapter, ‘I Am’ Sayings of Jesus in Today’s  Pluralistic Life Context, really gets down to the question. I recommend these both highly.

A-Day-in-LifeI do not recommend simply handing a book to someone who asks you this question. Once you’ve come to your own conclusions, then be ready to engage questioners in conversation – not to teach ‘the right interpretation’ or convince them to change their minds, but to open up a space for exploration. You could ask questions, too. Like: in light of the whole story, what do you think Jesus was trying to convey? You could also ask if you could share your take on the story. Again, not to listen politely and then give them the ‘correct’ interpretation, but to get at the good news of the text – together.

There’s a lot of good scholarship being done on problematic texts like this one. The challenge is in getting it down to folks images-2who probably won’t ever see it. It’s up to us to convey the good news of the inclusive love of God shown to us in Jesus – even in “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to Abba God except through me.”


Posted by: smstrouse | May 10, 2014

Am I Still a Christian?

37353_130716663615900_100000327023697_234786_5182971_n“I don’t know if I could still call myself a Christian.” Before you call my bishop, please note that this was not a statement said by me. It was said to me by an elderly man who’d asked for spiritual guidance.

That it was not said by me might come as a surprise to those who have already judged me to be outside the Christian fold. I’ve been called a heretic and accused of leading my congregation down a slippery slope into relativism. I’ve been asked why I don’t just join the Unitarians and be done with it. My work with interfaith organizations has made me suspect in some camps. For others, the fact that I have high regard for other “heretics,” such as Bishop John Shelby Spong, certainly places me beyond the pale.

So let me be clear. I am a Christian. I’m a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who showed us in words and in actions what living in the commonwealth of God is all about. I’m also a believer in the mystic presence of the Cosmic Christ, who existed before time began and was exuded so magnificently in Jesus.

I could go on and on about what that means to me, but I’d rather talk about my elderly friend who is questioning about what it means to be a Christian. Here’s someone who was baptized and raised in the Christian tradition, but rejected it long ago. From what I can determine, this was for several reasons. One of them being that for his very logical, intellectual mind many of the claims, creeds and doctrines just didn’t make sense.

In our ongoing conversations about religion and spirituality, we laugh about how I’ve turned him into a heretic by exposing him to progressive Christian writers like Spong, Elaine Pagels, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. My detractors will shudder at the path on which I’ve  led this lost sheep astray. But I would venture to guess that he’s been thinking and talking about Jesus more now than ever before.

Still, he knows what traditional Christianity is and so reflects, “I don’t know if I could still call myself a Christian.” Only he can answer that, but in my mind there is no reason why he could not. In fact, I see progressive Christianity opening the way for many of us to be able to still make that claim with honesty and integrity. In fact, I wish with all my heart that those who have been turned off by exclusivistic doctrines, outdated biblical scholarship and problematic creeds could know that there is an alternative.

I’m eternally grateful that I discovered it. My faith and my commitment to the church has been stronger because I did. And I’m grateful that I can minister to those, like my elderly friend, who is longing for spiritual guidance – as well as intellectual conversation.

Thank you, Jesus (and I do mean that) that we are able to do both!


Posted by: smstrouse | May 3, 2014

Speak Up Progressives! What DO WE Say about Baptism?

baptism.confusionI hesitate to even mention her name because it gives her more attention than she deserves. But the statement by Sarah Palin linking waterboarding to baptism has caused outrage in many Christian circles. Faithful America, an online organization that encourages Christians to put faith into action for social justice, has responded by initiating a petition to send to the media denouncing her use of a Christian sacrament to advocate the use of torture. 

However, as I signed the petition and groused about the politics of certain individuals, I also realized that something was missing (and missing from a lot of ‘progressive’ or ‘Christian left’ communiqués): a clear declaration of what we believe, rather than just a refutation of what we do not believe. 

water_drop_ripple123This is not  a criticism of Faithful America or any of the other responders, not at all. It is a rallying cry for us to speak up about why we see the water of baptism as sacred, life-giving and love-affirming.

Maybe the challenge for progressive Christians is that we’re not sure how to do that. We’re clear about what what we don’t want to say: that baptism is something you have ‘done’ in order to get your ticket to heaven punched; that it’s a way of determining who’s in and who’s out, that it’s about original sin and the depravity of being human.

images-1Some have rejected it altogether as unnecessary and meaningless. But I’ve always been opposed to throwing out the baby with the bath water (OK, pun intended). Just as sacred symbols, such as the cross and church-y words, like salvation need to be reinterpreted and reclaimed, so does baptism. And we’re slowly beginning to produce liturgies, hymns and prayers that express a progressive way of believing.

I’ve had several baptisms in which there was an interfaith component to the family. With each I talked about the sacred meaning of water in their tradition and how the baptism of their child can be something meaningful for all of them. And in conversations with ‘spiritual but not religious’ folks, I’ve come to understand that their request for baptism for their children is not simply a way to placate grandma. They truly do crave an encounter with the Sacred.imagesWhen I’ve talked with them about original blessing and the baptized way of life, they are grateful. These have been some of the most profound discussions about baptism I’ve ever had.

So I say we take our sacrament back from people like Ms. P., who obviously doesn’t get it. She’s tried to pollute our water, which of course, she cannot do. We, however, have an opportunity for pouring out and expressing our joy, delight and gratitude. Or, as the old John Ylvisaker song calls it, “Walking Wet.”  





Posted by: smstrouse | April 26, 2014

Net Neutrality on the Divine Web


images-2So we may soon have to pay extra for better service on the Internet. The Federal Communications Commission is hoping to implement a plan that would offer some websites the ability to provide faster traffic. Naturally this ‘preferential option’ will cost extra, driving up the cost for users down the line.  This flies in the face of the principle of Net neutrality, which holds that service providers should treat all data on the Net equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, etc.  images

Sounds like the Internet version of “All are welcome here!

I see this attempt to whittle away equal access to information and expression as a perfect example of the difference between the way of the world and the way of the Basileia tou Theou (usually translated as Kingdom of God or, more recently, Realm of God to avoid the male language, but I prefer John Cobb’s Commonwealth of God, in resistance to hierarchical and imperial language).

WebDrops In the Commonwealth of God, we exist as equals in interconnected and interdependent relationships. We are in a web of life, which includes all of Creation, not just humans, where the needs of all are taken into consideration. This is the Divine Web, where there is no hierarchical power and privilege, where there is neutrality, not in the sense of being disinterested or disengaged, but of being impartial, unbiased and equitable.

Does the church always fulfill this ideal? Nope. But is this the ideal to which we should attain? Oh, yes!

For those of us who choose to hang in with the church as a way to live into the Basileia tou Theou, we strive to define what it means to be ‘spiritual and religious.’ As far as I’m concerned, net neutrality on the Divine web is a primary characteristic – right up there with Divine Love. If either a spirituality or a religion professes anything different, then it’s not for me.

The church will never be perfect; it will often fail to live up to Jesus’ vision of the Basileia tou Theou. But as long as this is the vision for which we live and work, then count me in. We have a lot of work to do to counteract those who will always strive for their vision of power and privilege for a few. And the work is best done – together.



Posted by: smstrouse | April 18, 2014

“Being at Cross Purposes”

24BCINTEL1-articleLargeOn a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame . . .

Every month, driving on Highway 24 to see my spiritual director, I pass by these rugged crosses. Not one rugged cross, thousands of them. They are the Crosses of Lafayette. They began to appear in 2006 to commemorate battle deaths in Iraq. Later, they included those from Afghanistan. Among the crosses are also stakes topped with crescent moons, pentacles, the Star of David and dharma wheels. Also tiny crosses, indicating children, and atomic symbols, marking the deaths of US service members and Iraqi citizens from depleted uranium. Morning is an all-inclusive activity.

images-4Many of the crosses have names on them. When it began, organizers would  put up a cross for each new casualty. But they ran out of room in 2011 with 4000 markers. Now they maintain the site as best they can and update the sign with the current death toll from the Department of Defense.


For some, this memorial is a tribute to those who’ve sacrificed their lives for their country. For others, it is a giant protest sign. For me, it’s both. I reject the dualistic thinking that says that either we show support for our service mean and women or we reject the war they’ve been called upon to fight.

images-2On this Good Friday, I mourn the loss of life that is represented on this hillside. I respect those whose names are scratched into these markers and those who are known here only in the tally of war dead. I also grieve for the untold thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians who have suffered and died in these protracted wars.

We’ve been carefully shielded from the horrors of these wars. Those who wage war learned theirLafayette Crosses3 lesson well in the Vietnam era, when we saw horrifically vivid pictures on the nightly news. No more. We’ve been able to go our merry way, pondering truly important issues such as Kim Kardashian’s weddings and Miley Cyrus’ tongue.

But the Crosses of Lafayette do not allow us to forget what we have done, what we do, the price we pay when we go to war or resort to any kind of violence as a solution to our problems.

images-6Today, I honor Jesus, who was killed by an imperial power. In his death, I see a tribute to one who went to death to lead us into a way of peace. Not sacrificed by God in some kind of cosmic courtroom drama, but willing to go all the way to a cross in full commitment to the integrity of his counter-culture teaching.


“When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”




Posted by: smstrouse | April 12, 2014

Holy Matrimony! Jesus Was Married?!


I won’t believe it until I see the wedding album. Show me the video of the couple’s first (professionally choreographed) dance together. Where’s the picture of Mary looking pensive as she put finishing touches on her makeup in the the bride’s room? And the one of the groomsmen smoking in the parking lot?

And – I want to know – who did the premarital counseling?


The news this week that “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” a tiny, credit-card sized fragment of papyrus, which has Jesus calling a woman “my wife” and “able to be my disciple,” is not a modern day forgery has set the universe humming. Some scholars are still harrumphing about it and declaring it a fake, while others are accepting its authenticity but scrambling to explain away its importance.

But I think it’s fabulous! I heard an interview with Professor Karen King from Harvard Divinity School on Thursday on my way to the office. She said that, while the controversially-dubbed “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” doesn’t prove Jesus was married, it does shed light on early Christian thinking about women, marriage, sexuality, celibacy, etc. – in other words, issues that could turn some current church teachings on their heads. 

So even though there’s no proof – no videos, wedding album, leftover cake – this is an important little piece of papyrus.

In fact, I don’t even care whether Jesus was married or not. We’ve made too much of that institution already as being “instituted by God.” I am totally in favor of all people having the right to marry – or not. So either way is OK by me for Jesus.

What does interest me is the hope that churches who denigrate the role of women in ministry, fuss about sexuality and elevate celibacy as the better lifestyle will have a change of heart. There will surely be a lot more scholarship to come on this little ancient tidbit. I eagerly await it and the opportunity to join in the discussion.


Nathan Gunn and Sasha  Cooke in SF Opera’s The  Gospel of  Mary Magdalene
Papyrus fragment with writing in Egyptian Coptic that includes the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…'”

Posted by: smstrouse | April 5, 2014

McCutcheon vs. Beatitudes


183654819 Words cannot express my dismay at the Supreme Court ruling in the McCutcheon v. FEC case, which has struck down overall limits on campaign contributions.

The rationale that contribution limits do not act to prevent corruption is ludicrous. And the idea that imposing such limits infringes on the right of free speech of the very rich is beyond absurd. I can only wonder at the motivation of the members of the Court who agreed with this inanity. The dissenting justices must have wept after the ruling.

To put it into a spiritual framework, there is only one place to turn: the Beatitudes.images-1
Yes, I know. In the face of such an endorsement of plutocratic power and might, the alternative outlined by Jesus looks utterly ridiculous. Blessed are the poor? The meek? The peacemakers? McCutcheon and his ilk laugh in our faces.

But I say to McCutcheon (and Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito) that it’s time to claim it and support it and work for it and vote for it. How can we, as followers of Jesus, not?

Yes, we’ll sound naive, crazy to those who don’t understand the upside-down wisdom and power of God, who loves all equally, without regard to the size of our bank accounts. But if we hear the words of the Beatitudes as the vision that God has for us, then we know we are on the side of righteousnes.

Then there’s also the Canticle of Mary. Here is no schmaltzy, over-spiritualized Mary, but a truth-teller of the most powerful kind.

My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you.
You have looked with love on your servant here and blessed me all my life through.

Great and mighty are you, O holy One. Strong is your kindness evermore.

How you favor the weak and lowly ones, humbling the proud of heart
You have cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplifted the humble of heart.
You have filled the hungry with wondrous things and left the wealthy no part
Great and mighty are you O faithful one. Strong is your justicestrong your love.
As you promised to Sarah and Abraham, kindness for evermore.

My should proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you
You have looked with love on your servant here and blessed me all my life through.

Between the lyrics of this song and the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes, we have our marching orders. Weeping and wailing is not enough.

The realm of God is now – claim it!

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