Posted by: smstrouse | October 29, 2016

My Back Pages

images-1Bob Dylan has finally announced that he will accept the Nobel Prize for literature. Maybe it should also be an acknowledgment of the spirituality of his music. Before “spiritual but not religious” became a thing, Dylan said,
Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light”—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.

I can be as left-brained, systematically theological as can be. But oftentimes it is the poetry of artists like Dylan that speaks to my soul. “Blowin’ in the Wind” was not just a political anthem for my generation; it was a profession of spiritual belief.

But Dylan isn’t the only artist who does this for me. Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be” is a fine anthem, although I am partial to the version by 10,000 Maniacs and David Byrne.

Then there are the songs that were written purely as secular songs, but I have derived much spiritual meaning from them. For example, Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt’s duet,  I Don’t Know Much But I Know I Love You, Michael Bolton’s (I know, but listen to the lyrics) When I’m Back on My Feet Again, Bruce Springsteen’s Hungry Heart, and The Beatles’ In My Life.

There are lots more. Leonard Cohen lyrics are trying to get a word in here. Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and so many others fill my back pages.

I’m sure there are many contemporary songs that tap into that spiritual space. I’d love to hear your favorites.



Posted by: smstrouse | October 22, 2016

Tribute (no, not obituary) to John Shelby Spong

10435394_738971892823266_204175467777320157_nMany of you know that John Shelby Spong had a stroke back on September 10th. Thankfully, he’s expected to make a good recovery. According to Bishop Spong’s Facebook page, “at minimum, the expectation is for almost 90% physical and 95%+ cognitive recovery”.

For many years I’ve been receiving weekly columns written by Bishop Spong. Along with his books and lectures, these have been  a source of immeasurable value in my own continuing exploration of what it means to be a progressive Christian. (You too can subscribe here)

While Bishop Spong continues to recuperate from his stroke, the task of writing some of
these columns has been given to guest authors. Last week, I was 41oaa1ffy3l-_sx386_bo1204203200_pleased to see that Fred Plumer, the Acting Executive Director of, was the featured writer.  You can read his entire essay when you subscribe, but I’ll share a taste of it here. Fred echoes much of my own story of moving away from the Christological paradigm I had been taught, then wandering in the wilderness and wrestling with my beliefs and unbeliefs, and finally coming into the Promised Land of a Christianity that makes much more sense – while also including the awareness of Mystery. If you’ve never read his book Christpower, co-authored withLucy Newton Boswell Negus, I recommend it to you.

Here’s the excerpt from Fred Plumer:
When I graduated from Seminary and few years before this incident, I had already dissolved my belief in the old paradigm of Jesus dying for our sins. Between the fact that I had attended a liberal seminary and my very early relationship with the Jesus Seminar, I really had little or no Christology left. As a pastor, I talked about the man, Jesus, who gave us many moral, ethical and spiritual lessons about how to live our lives. I knew he was a Jew and a Galilean, which was a minority of a minority. Yes, he was a special man and he had laid out a fairly simple way to live in harmony with self, with others, and with Abba, even in the most difficult times. But, like the great line in the famous musical, Jesus Christ Super Star, “he was just a man.”

But over the years Bishop Spong started filling in the blanks for me that gave both life and purpose to the Jesus I had studied for ten years at that point. Although I did not realize it at the time, I had a pretty one dimensional and no colors in my portrait of Jesus. I now realize what Bishop Spong provided for me is something like “a paint by the numbers” portrait of Jesus. As I read each of Jack’s books, I would fill in more of the painting, year after year. I read lots of other books, of course. I would guess in that twenty-five year period, I read three to four hundred books or more, many of which were helpful and some were great.

But it has been Bishop Spong’s books that gave my “portrait” color, depth, and life.

I really couldn’t have said it any better.

Posted by: smstrouse | October 15, 2016

Christa vs the Alpha Males


Two news stories this week caught my attention.

First, there was Eric son of Donald defending his father’s so-called “locker room banter” as “what happens when alpha personalities are in the same presence”.

Second was the re-installation of “Christa”in05cathedral3-master768 the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. The sculpture created by Edwina Sandys appeared there first in 1984 but was removed amidst a swirl of controversy over its depiction of a crucified woman. This time, it has been installed as the centerpiece of “The Christa Project: Manifesting Divine Bodies,” an exhibition of more than 50 contemporary works that interpret — or reinterpret — the symbolism associated with the image of Jesus.

How timely could this be?! Not that misogyny didn’t exist in 1984, but it 57fd4b2f1a00006e145b8bb7wasn’t on center stage in the same way that certain “alpha males” have recently made it.  The body language and expression in this picture appears to be saying, “Whaaat?! C’mon, boys will be boys.”

“Christa”, however, expresses the Christian story in away that speaks particularly to women. She gives voice to the suffering of those usually left out in the patriarchal hierarchy. She gives lie to the power of the “alpha male,” even those within the Church.

I just returned today from the ordination of Mary Alice Nolan, Roman Catholic Womanpriest. She14666283_10154664456053628_574688765262278110_n joins over 100 other women and men ordained through the RCWP movement (and before you shoot off that comment about how these aren’t valid ordinations, let me say that RCWP receives its authority from Roman Catholic bishops who stand in Apostolic Succession; see their website for more details about that).

ELCA Lutherans (my denomination) has been ordaining women since 1970. I was ordained in 1989 and while there were more women pastors by then, there were no women bishops yet. We’ve come a long way, but participating in this ordination today reminded me of how far we still have to go. But it also reminded me of the powerful Spirit that creates change and brings about the transformation of even institutions like the Church.

I felt privileged to be a part of this historic gathering. “Christa” and the women and men of RCWP give me hope that the clueless rhetoric of misogynistic dinosaurs will eventually be drowned out. In fact, I can hardly hear them now. They’re fading . . . fading . . . fading . . .


Posted by: smstrouse | October 8, 2016

Gender: Pope Francis Fail

images-1Everyone’s up in arms (rightly so!) about Donald Trump’s despicable self revealed yet again. This time, though, his offensiveness goes beyond mere lewdness into actual sexual assault. My question is: who’s surprised? Sexual abuse and power have gone together since the first caveman dragged the first cavewoman off by her hair. Some men haven’t evolved past that stage.

The problem, though, is that in a patriarchal society, all men have power. A study has shown that one in five women surveyed said they’d been raped or had experienced an attempted rape at some point. One in four reported having been beaten by an intimate partner and one in six have been stalked.

I would bet that because of underreporting the numbers are actually higher. I’d also bet that if you added in questions about sexual harassment the numbers would skyrocket. I can remember incidents from as far back as elementary school. It started on the playground and on the walk home from school – just boys being boys. It continued in middle school as some of the boys figured out that a penis could be used for intimidation. Walking to the store meant averting my eyes and ignoring the catcalls from gangs of hoods in passing cars. It’s just the way it was. As a young girl, I learned the way of the world. And the crazy thing about it is that I also learned that somehow I was too blame. Just being a girl brought on shame that then led to vulnerability to full-on sexual assault.

So even before the latest Trump revelation, I was dismayed to read about Pope Francis’ concern about gender fluidity. Especially after coming through the Season of Creation last month, extolling his encyclical letter Laudato Si’ (“On Care for Our Common Home”). I thought he really got how interconnected we all are, how our dualistic thinking about humanity and the rest of the natural world must disappear.

But obviously he’s not able to extend that thinking to the realm of gender. And if he thinks that conducting a study on the acceptability of female deacons in the Catholic church is as progressive as he needs to be, he’s got a long way to go.

If he thinks that by accepting gender fluidity we will bring about the “annihilation of man as the image of God,” I say, Bring it on!” Yeah, I know, “man” means all of humankind. I’ve been hearing that argument for decades. It got old a long time ago.  And it continues to uphold the power differential of patriarchy, which allows the rampant sexual mistreatment of women, girls, men, boys, transwomen, transmen, those who identify as genderqueer, intersex, gender fluid – in other words, any of us.

“Man”as the defining term for the image of God has got to go.



Posted by: smstrouse | October 1, 2016

The Hard Work of Becoming Transpartisan

imagesI read The Reunited States of America while I was on vacation at the beach. It’s easy to forget about politics when you’re contemplating the meaning of life while jumping waves. But the book kept calling me back to that other reality: the extreme partisanship of our country and our seeming inability to bridge that divide.

51lRMs9372L._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Mark Gerson, whose book was the Charter for Compassion’s global read this summer, also led a call-in discussion on September 17 (listen to it here). I was interested in hearing more because, while I agreed with everything he wrote about this unsustainable condition in which we find ourselves, I found myself balking at some of his suggestions for getting out of it.

Maybe it’s this election. I find myself thinking “I’ll become trans-partisan once Donald Trump is a pathetic footnote in American history” – even though I know it’s this divisiveness that’s enabled him to get this far.

The book keeps niggling at me. So I finally took the plunge and took one simple, non-threatening action. I checked out the website for a startup that Gerson recommended called AllSides, which presents news stories from the left, right, and center.

Don’t be fooled by bias. Think for yourself.
See news and issues from multiple perspectives, discuss like adults.

The aim of the site isn’t merely to line up MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN side-by-side. Their stated goal is to help us end our polarization:
News, social media and even search results have dramatically changed in the last several years, becoming so narrowly filtered, biased and personalized that we are becoming less informed and less tolerant of different people and ideas. AllSides exposes bias and provides multiple angles on the same story so you can quickly get the full picture, not just one slant.




I must say I’m intrigued. I’ve been going to the website every day (after consulting The Huffington Post first, of course). But I have to admit that I’m becoming more aware and less tolerant of biased reporting on both sides. So maybe AllSides is onto something.

Thus far, I’ve done the easy stuff. I’ve signed up for the Story of the Week and AllSides updates. I’ve ‘liked’ their Facebook page, so I assume more transpartisan communication will be seeping into my consciousness.

On their little “Rate Your Bias” quiz, I come out (no surprise) thoroughly on the Left. But I truly do want to be part of a society that embodies the transpartisan values listed above. Am I willing to do what it takes to make it happen? Let’s just say, I’m open to the possibility and leave it there for now.

Posted by: smstrouse | September 25, 2016

Season of Creation 4: Veriditas

Season of Creation 4    September 25, 2016
Jeremiah 32: 1-3a; 6-15; Luke 16:19-31
A Reading From The Mystics: From St. Hildegard of Bingen, “Symphonia Armonie

lois_lovecanal-jpgforblogpostLet me tell you a story about a neighborhood about 4½ miles from where I used to live in Niagara County, NY. It was called Love Canal. By the time I lived there in the late 80’s early 90’s, it was a ghost town. What happened? In a nutshell, an entrepreneur named William Love bought the land at the turn of the 20th century, believing that a canal there could be used to generate electricity. Technology outpaced Love’s dream and in the 1920s the canal was turned into a dumpsite for toxic chemicals. In 1953, Hooker Chemical covered the canal with dirt and sold it to the city of Niagara Falls for $1 and homes and schools were built on the site. Over the decades, the containment barrels rusted and the chemicals inside escaped into the clay and seeped into the earth. Spring floods helped to spread them. In the 1970s, people began to discover black sludge in their basements and pools of chemicals in their backyards. Rising numbers of miscarriages, cancer and birth defects finally caused the story to go national. Local government denied there’d ever been any negligence, but President Jimmy Carter finally took action. More than 800 families were evacuated and reimbursed by the federal government for the loss of their homes.

I thought of all this when I read the Jeremiah passage. I knew Love Canal was one of the first Superfund cleanup sites. And although complete streets had been permanently bulldozed around the canal, those immediately north and west were refurbished following the $230 million cleanup that involved capping the canal with clay, a plastic liner and top-soil. Beginning in 1990, homes were given new vinyl siding, roofs and windows and sold at prices well below market value. The neighborhood was renamed Black Creek Village; people began moving back in. Optimism was high in the depressed city of Niagara Falls.

This reminded me of Jeremiah because the Old Testament prophet of doom and gloom himself had taken an uncharacteristically optimistic action. He bought some land in Jerusalem, which in his context would have seemed like a very foolish thing to do. Babylon had overtaken the city leaving a trail of death and destruction in its path. Buying property would be pointless when the entire population was about to be killed or deported.

Yet Jeremiah’s action of buying land symbolized hope – the kind that is visible only to those who have a vision beyond the present reality. Jeremiah saw it as a sign that God would some day reverse Israel’s fortunes. God had neither forgotten them nor left them to their own devices. Putting his deed safely in a clay pot, he took steps necessary to assure that it would outlast war and destruction.

So I saw the return of property owners to Love Canal as a sign of hope. It had taken a long time to clean up the mess, but recovery was possible. But it turns out I was wrong. Return to Love Canal has been as problematic as the return of the Israelites from exile. In their case, the land had simply been neglected; their troubles were more with the people who had moved into their homes and with their religious beliefs and practices. And, of course, disputes over that land continue to this day. In the case of residents of Black Creek Village, toxic sludge has appeared and physical maladies are again being reported.

The history of post-exilic Jerusalem and post-toxic Love Canal would seem to warn us that having land is not a simplistic thing. There are implications and complications, struggles and controversies. Take the squabble over the Dakota Access Pipeline. Oil companies and their supporters claim the project will create greater energy independence for the US. and create thousands of jobs, and millions of dollars in state and local tno_dapl-holding_the_line-courtesy_honor_the_earthaxes.

Protesters, including representatives from 280 Native American tribes, say the pipeline
will contaminate the water supply, as well as destroy sacred lands. The encampment at Standing Rock is being called the largest, most diverse tribal action in at least a century. In all of these stories, land is central. Who owns it? Who gets to say how it’s used?

To answer these questions, we can go in one of two directions. We can go the route of the Enlightenment philosophy of the 18th century, which is still largely in operation today. Now, there were many good aspects of the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, which sought to illuminate human intellect and culture after the “dark” Middle Ages. Concepts such as reason, liberty and the scientific method were elevated. Enlightenment philosophy was influential in ushering in the French and American revolutions and constitutions.

However, one aspect of Enlightenment philosophy has not been so helpful. That is its dualism and hierarchy, which sees a separation between us and our environment and claims that human beings are in charge of the environment; we have the right to shape, control and use nature for our own purposes. As Francis Bacon wrote, “Let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest.” That dualism included the relationship between men and women. Bacon likened nature to a wild and untamed woman who must be tamed by man and become obedient.

That philosophy, which also became part of our theology, might sound pretty antiquated, but it survives to this day. Conservative Christian Ann Coulter quoted herself in her book, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’” Appalling, yes. But the seeds were sown in the Age of Enlightenment. Thankfully, many evangelical Christians have been joining the ranks of those who care for creation, but this theology has been hard to replace.

We must take a different route of answering the questions of who owns the land; who gets to say how it’s used? Although if we do that, it gets more complicated because there won’t be a hierarchy of power or a one-size-fits-all answer. Of course, the question of who owns the land is a silly one for indigenous people, who would say that no one owns the land. Although, in a broader sense of ownership, they would assert cultural claims to their ancestral lands and say that there are rights and responsibilities that go along with occupation of the land.

We’re familiar with quotes such as:
“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourish-ing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” – Massasoit
“One does not sell the land people walk on.” – Crazy Horse

We’re finally beginning to think about creation in a way that is much more aligned with the wisdom of indigenous people. How long will it take until that becomes the philosophy that informs our political decisions, governmental polices, and our individual practices? I don’t know, but we have to start somewhere. The Dakota Access Pipeline protest just might be a watershed moment in the movement away from human domination of nature. It may be our return from exile – not to a perfect place where there are no problems, conflicts, or where there are simple solutions – but still a place of hope, a place where God works with us as we work together.

Way back in the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen coined the word “veriditas” and used it as a guiding theme in her writings, poetry, and music. And it’s an excellent word for us on our evolution from domination of the land to respect for it. Veriditas has been variously translated as freshness, vitality, fruitfulness, creative power of life, growth. But my favorite word for it is “greening” from its joining of two Latin words: green and truth. This “greening” runs through our being, As a metaphor for our spiritual and physical health, it’s what enlivens us and enables us to make wise choices as co-inhabitors of the land.

You might remember Kermit the frog famously singing, “It’s not easy being green,” and he’s right. We all have some big adjustments to make. But when our spirituality and our philosophical view of the world become green, the rest will follow. And there’s hope, as Hildegard wrote, “even in a world that’s being shipwrecked.”
But hope often has to be a participatory event.

I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the man, who was a firm believer in the power of God. And one day, when it began to rain very heavily and the water began to rise very quickly, he climbed up on the roof of his house, trusting that God would save him. It kept raining and the water reached his waist. A boat came by and a guy said: “Jump in. We’ll take you with us.” “No thanks”, said the man. “God will save me.” The boat went away.
It kept on raining and the water reached his neck. Another boat came by and a woman in the boat said: “Jump in; we we’ll take you with us”.
“No”, said the man. “I’m a firm believer that God will save me.” The boat left.
The water had now reached his mouth when a helicopter flew over and someone in threw down a rope and said: “Climb up. We’ll rescue you”.
“No”, said the man. “I know that God will save me. ”The helicopter flew off.
Finally the man drowned. When he died, he went to heaven and stood before God. He asked: “Where were you. I waited and waited. I was sure you would save me. I’ve been a firm believer all my life. So where were you when I needed you?”
God looked confused and answered: “I don’t get it either. I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more were you looking for?”

Just like that man, we have to get on board: theologically, philosophically, spiritually, and practically. Veriditas – in the words of Hildegard, when she prayed –

“O most honored Greening Force,
You who roots in the Sun;
You who lights up, in shining serenity, within a wheel
that earthly excellence fails to comprehend.
You are enfolded
in the weaving of divine mysteries.”

This is the greening spirit that will enable us to do so.


Jeremiah 32: 1-3a; 6-15
The word that came to Jeremiah from YHWH in the tenth year of Zedekiah ruler of Judah, which was also the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar:

At that time the army of the ruler of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was imprisoned in the court of the guardhouse attached to the residence of the ruler of Jerusalem. Zedekiah the ruler imprisoned him after demanding, “How dare you prophesy the way you do?

The word of YHWH came to me and said, “Hanamel, the son of your uncle Shallum, will come to you and say, ‘Buy my field in Anathoth. As next of kin you have the right of redemption to purchase it.’” And just as YHWH foretold, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guardhouse and said, “Buy my field at Anathoth in Benjamin. You have the right of redemption to purchase it as next of kin. So why not purchase it?” I knew that that this was the word of YHWH.

So I bought the field in Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money— seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed and sealed it, had it witnessed and then weighed out the money on a scale. I took the copies of the deed of purchase—both the sealed copy containing the terms and conditions and the unsealed copy—and gave them to Baruch ben-Neriah ben-Mahseiah in the presence of my cousin Hanamel and of the witnesses who had signed the deed and all the people of Judah who happened to be in the court of the guardhouse. I gave Baruch these instructions in their presence: “Thus says YHWH Omnipotent, the God of Israel: take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and the unsealed deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so that they may be preserved for a very long time. For this is what YHWH Omnipotent, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields and vineyards will once again be purchased in this land.”

From St. Hildegard of Bingen, “Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum” (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations)

O greenness of God’s finger
with which God built a vineyard
that shines in heaven
as an established pillar:
You are glorious in God’s preparation.
And O height of the mountain
that will never be dispersed
in the judgment of God,
you nevertheless stand from afar as an exile,
but it is not in the power
of the armed man
to seize you.
You are glorious in God’s preparation.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit.
You are glorious in God’s preparation.

Luke 16:19-31
“Once there was a rich man who dressed in purple and linen and feasted splendidly every day. At the gate of this man’s estate lay a beggar named Lazarus, who was covered with sores. Lazarus longed to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table, and even the dogs came and licked Lazarus’ sores. One day poor Lazarus died and was carried by the angels to the arms of Father Abraham. The rich man likewise died and was buried. In Hades, in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance, and Lazarus resting in their company.

“‘Father Abraham,’ the rich man cried, ‘have pity on me! Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am tortured by these flames!’ But he said, ‘My child, remember that you were well off in your lifetime, while Lazarus was in misery. Now Lazarus has found consolation here, and you have found torment. But that’s not all. Between you and us there is a fixed chasm, so that those who might wish to come to you from here can’t do so, nor can anyone cross from your side to us.’

“The rich man said, ‘I beg you, then, to send Lazarus to my own house where I have five brothers. Let Lazarus be a warning to them, so that they may not end in this place of torment.’ But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’
‘Please, I beg you,’ the rich man said, ‘if someone would only go to them from the dead, then they would repent.’
‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets,’ Abraham replied, ‘they won’t be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead!’







Posted by: smstrouse | September 19, 2016

It’s the Economy AND the Environment, Stupid

A Sermon for Week 3 of the Season of Creation
September 18, 2016
Amos 8: 4-12
A Reading from the Mystics from Meditations with Meister Eckhart
Luke 16:1-13


It’s definitely crisis time. This Parable of the Dishonest Steward is about a man who’s in big trouble. He’s about to lose his job in an economy that doesn’t provide unemployment benefits or career retraining programs. In all likelihood, “digging ditches” meant slavery. But Jesus, who as we know liked to tell parables about how life is like in the realm of God, uses this imagined crisis to show how reversals are possible in even the most dire situation.

Not that the message is readily apparent. This is one of the more difficult parables of Jesus; it defies easy interpretation. Do we really hear Jesus commending these corrupt people? We want to be careful not to allegorize them and see, for instance, the wealthy landowner as God. That takes us down a convoluted path that leads to a dead end.

Instead, we want to read this as a parable about the economy of 1st century Galilee. You see, in those days, wealthy landlords were loan sharks; they would charge exorbitant interest rates in order to dispossess peasants of their family land and amass more property for themselves. So those who heard this parable would know that the rich man and his steward, his debt collector, were both exploiting the desperate, debt-ridden poor.

Now these practices were in direct violation of biblical law. Torah expressly forbids charging interest on a loan. But then, like now, wealthy landlords found ways around this and other prohibitions. All the way back in Amos’ day (750 BCE), the poor were targets of greed and corruption: Listen to this, you who live off the needy and oppress the poor of the land, you who say, “If only the new moon were over so we could sell our grain,” and “When Sabbath is over, we will sell our wheat charging higher prices for smaller portions, thus tilting the scales in our favor. That way, we can buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals – and even make a profit on the chaff of the wheat.” 

So this parable, like Amos’ prophecy, was an indictment of the economy of the day. When the steward reduced the payments, he may have been simply forgiving his own cut of the interest, which had been rolled into the principal. Or he may have just been doing what Torah commands, namely forgiving all the hidden interest in the contracts, changing the amount they owed to exactly the amount they borrowed. And the landlord, knowing the teaching against interest, maybe suddenly recognized that he needed at least to appear to be observing Torah, and commended his steward for his shrewdness.

The problem is that, no matter how you read it, neither of these characters is commendable. Wrong has been done. So where does Jesus wants us to side?

And now we notice that there are other characters in the story: the debtors. They are not minor players because in any reading of the gospels, we can’t help recognizing the concern Jesus has for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, those burdened by debt. Those who heard this parable would know that debt contracts included exorbitant hidden interest. We can easily find analogies today: high-interest student loans, predatory payday loans, or harsh austerity measures imposed on countries whose citizens had no role in agreeing to a debt. The Lutheran World Federation calls oppressive debt terms imposed on Honduras and other Latin American countries “illegitimate debt” and likens it to “violence,” because of its crushing effects on people’s futures.

So the focus of the parable is not on either of the two main characters. And it’s not even on the debtors. Rather, as a strategist for the first President Clinton’s campaign famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” And in this Season of Creation, we would add, “It’s the economy and the environment” because our care for creation is inextricably tied into our economic systems – where it gets very complicated.

In June, the City Council of Oakland voted to ban the storage, handling and export of coal traveling from Utah to Asia through a proposed new marine terminal at the defunct Oakland Army Base. Along with concerns about health and safety, broader environmental concerns about climate change were a large part of the public debate about the issue.

But the decision did not come without cost. The council voted for the ban despite the fact that in doing so they would forfeit 1,000 construction jobs and 120 permanent jobs at the terminal. Backers of the proposal, including some churches, maintained the proposal would bring badly needed jobs to an impoverished area. City leaders had the unenviable task of weighing the environmental dangers of bringing millions of tons of coal through the area with the economic benefits of good-paying jobs.

How would Jesus vote? The poor, who are disproportionately victims of ecological racism, living in areas that are environmentally hazardous, seem to get the short end of the stick either way in this decision. Clean air or jobs? Mayor Libby Schaaf, who backed the ban said that the choice between jobs on the one hand, and health and safety on the other, was a “false choice.” And while the prospect of 1000 jobs is nothing to sneeze at, she’s right in avoiding a choice between care for the unemployed for and all those who would be affected by environmental degradation. “It’s the economy, stupid” – but not built on the backs of the poor, marginalized, and oppressed.

There’s a folksinger named Peggy Seeger, half-sister to Pete. And there’s song that I heard her sing years ago at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. It’s called “For a Job” and I remember the discomfort it raised in me at the time because it portrays this “false choice” we so often buy into.

He’d give the world for a job
‘Cause the job’s his world
The earth’s his oyster, he’s the pearl
Gives him something to do, money in hand
Without a job a man’s not a man

A man needs a job
Man on a mountain
Tearing that mountain down
Man in a forest, building another town

The world is his wherever he goes
To do what he wants with
‘Cause the world owes every man a job

What would he give for a job?
His heart and his lungs
Mutilate his body; father mutant sons
Silicon and lint, espestis and coal
The world wants life, man wants control
But he’d give up life for a job

Environmental justice or jobs? That can’t be the choice. There has to be an overhaul of our economic system that attends to the truth that you can’t worship God and money. Not that I’m advocating overtly religious economic policies. But subversely – oh, yes. Worshipping God includes care for “the least of these” and care for the Earth. Our advocacy, voting, and civic engagement should come right out of our religious foundation, whether or not we ever call it that.

Pope Francis gets it. In Laudato Si he wrote: “. . . it should always be kept in mind that “environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces.”  We need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of eco-systems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor.”

Neither money nor the economy is not the root of all evil; making an idol of either one is. As the parable illustrates, you can use money (filthy lucre) for good, even within a corrupt system. Even those two disreputable characters did good in spite of themselves. And so can we. We can work within politics, the economy, the social structures of our day – with all their imperfections – and work for good. In the confusing, conflicting claims put upon us, we have these teachings of Jesus that we can look to for our priorities. And then we do the best we can under the circumstances.

Finally, we look again to the mystics for good news in our environmental crisis. People in the 13th century didn’t face the same ecological issues that we do, but Meister Eckhart’s words are still relevant. As we take with us the admonitions of Amos and Jesus, may we also take his advice to “apprehend God in all things.”

May we take his message that “every single creature is full of God and is a book about God and every creature is a word of God” as a literal spiritual directive. This week, can you find a creature on which to meditate – a caterpillar, a puppy, a kitty, a fish, a bird, a flower (dahlia garden) – and allow it to teach you the ways of God?

Such a simple-sounding practice. Yet it may be just what Mother Earth needs us to do in order to care for her and all her creatures.



Amos 8: 4-12
Listen to this, you who live off the needy and oppress the poor of the land, you who say, “If only the new moon were over so we could sell our grain,” and “When Sabbath is over, we will sell our wheat charging higher prices for smaller portions, thus tilting the scales in our favor. That way, we can buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals – and even make a profit on the chaff of the wheat.”

YHWH swears by the pride of Jacob: “I will never forget a single thing you have done.” Will not the land tremble because of this and all who dwell in it mourn? Will the land not rise up like the Nile, rising and sinking like the river of Egypt?

“That day – it is the Sovereign YHWH who speaks – I will make the sun set at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation. I will have your loins in sackcloth, your heads all shaved. I will make the land mourn as one would mourn for a dead child – all of this on that bitter day!

“The time is coming – it is the Sovereign YHWH who speaks – when I will send famine on the land: not a famine of bread or thirst for water, but a famine of not hearing the words of YHWH. People will stagger from sea to sea, and wander from north to east seeking revelation from YHWH, but will not find it.”

A Reading from the Mystics
From: Meditations with Meister Eckhart
Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.
Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God.
Every creature is a word of God.
If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature –
even a caterpillar –
I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God is every creature.
Luke 16:1-13
Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a wealthy landowner who, having received reports of a steward mismanaging the property, summoned the steward and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? Give me an account of your service, for it’s about to come to an end.’

The steward thought, ‘What will I do next? My employer is going to fire me. I can’t dig ditches. I’m ashamed to go begging. I have it! Here’s a way to make sure that people will take me into their homes when I’m let go.’“

So the steward called in each of the landowner’s debtors. The steward said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my employer?’
The debtor replied, ‘A hundred jars of oil.’
The steward said, ‘Take your invoice, sit down quickly and make it fifty.’
To another the steward said, ‘How much do you owe?’
The answer came, ‘ A hundred measures of wheat,’ and the steward said, ‘Take your invoice and make it eighty.’“

Upon hearing this, the owner gave this devious worker credit for being enterprising! Why? Because the children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light. So I tell you: make friends for yourselves through your use of this world’s goods, so that when they fail you, you’ll be welcomed into an eternal home. If you can trust others in little things, you can also trust them in greater, and anyone unjust in a slight matter will also be unjust in a greater. If you can’t be trusted with filthy lucre, who will trust you with true riches? And if you haven’t been trustworthy with someone else’s money, who will give you your own?

“Subordinates can’t have two superiors. Either they’ll hate the one and love the other, or be attentive to the one and despise the other. You can’t worship both God and money.”







Posted by: smstrouse | September 17, 2016

Can We Talk About the Real Issues, Please?!

4772158-144080583718121-pngCNN admits “We got played.”

Reporters showed up at the opening of a new hotel owned by the candidate who shall not be named. Said candidate had promised that he would also make a statement about the birthplace of President Obama. If they expected that he’d apologize or admit he’d been wrong to make such a big non-issue of the president’s citizenship, they were quickly disabused of that fantasy.

Instead of making a genuine (or even true) statement, he declared: “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”

The good news in this ridiculous story is that the media is finally beginning to push back . CNN panelists called out the claims of statement for what they were: outrageous lies.

Well, good. Mainstream media is getting tired of being played. I hope CNN and other news sources also get that we’re tired of getting played, too. Inside of hearing candidates’ in-depth answers to the crucially important questions of the day, we’re subjected to endless speculation about Hillary – from her pantsuits to her pneumonia. And we’re fed a continuous diet of bombastic rhetoric that goes unchallenged by most news outlets.

Until now. Maybe. We’ll see. Will we begin to pay attention to the real issues of the day? As climate change continues to affect our planet, will we hear debate moderators ask about that? As the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, will we see in-depth coverage of that? As racism and sexism continue to permeate national politics, will we get insightful thoughts about that?

C’mon CNN. Lead the way.

Posted by: smstrouse | September 10, 2016

Is Trans-Partisanship Possible in Politics Today?”

51lRMs9372L._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Mark Gerzon gets it right. For at least three-quarters of the book, he tells it like it is. And I don’t think “it” is anything we don’t already know. We are a polarized nation, living in our silos of left, right, democrat, republican, conservative, progressive, etc., etc.

We bemoan this situation, which has caused troubles from governmental gridlock to hostilities within families and broken friendships. It’s so much easier to talk and Facebook with those who think like us than to try to enter into a conversation with those who don’t. And believe me, I get it. Even though in theory I think it’s important to dialogue with those of differing views, the actual practice is another story.

I have a good friend who (gasp) is a life-long Republican and (double-gasp) an admirer of Donald trump. We’ve learned to avoid political discussions. But at a dinner a while back, she bemoaned the fact that she isn’t able to have those kinds of discussions with her liberal friends. Again, I got it. But I wasn’t ready to go there.

But Gerzon doesn’t let us off the hook. He paints our sorry picture, then gives us ideas for changing the frame. And that is when it gets really hard. Becoming transpartisan won’t be easy. Even something as simple as accessing news sources that give a different pshe-likes-itoint of view from mine (e.g. Fox), is a huge stretch.

As uncomfortable as Gerzon’s recommendations made me, though, I couldn’t help noticing the similarities between what he’s proposing and what I talk about in The INTRAfaith Conversation (oh, how I hate it when I have to practice what I preach!) He even uses a resource that I discovered this summer at the North American Interfaith Network gathering: The Difference Between Dialogue and Debate. For example:


  • assumes there is a right answer – and I have it.
  • is combative – participants attempt to prove the other side wrong.
  • is about winning.
  • entails listening to find flaws and make counter arguments.
  • I defend my assumptions as truth. I critique the other side’s position.
  • I defend my own views against those of others.
  • I search for weaknesses in others’ positions.
  • I seek a conclusion or vote that ratifies my position.


  • assumes that many people have pieces of the answer and that together, they can craft a solution.
  • is collaborative – participants work together toward common understanding
  • is about exploring common good.
  • entails listening to understand and find meaning and agreement.
  • I reveal my assumptions for re-evaluation.
  • I re-examine all positions. I admit that others’ thinking can improve my own.
  • I search for strength and value in other’s positions.
  • I discover new options.

This makes so much sense to me – in the interfaith / intrafaith arena. But when it comes to bridging the partisan divide, I admit that I’m having trouble getting past “debate” mode. Especially in this election season. So much is at stake. So much is wrong and frightening. I believe there is a right answer, at least in terms of voting.

And yet. There are those thoughtful people on the “other side,” like my friend who is willing to dialogue. And I know there are conservative Christians who have complained that we on the religious left are unwilling to dialogue with them.

Perhaps the first step – before I can manage to turn on Faux News – is to examine my own intractability, my need to be right, my inability to listening be open to changing my opinion. If it is the same process as in interfaith / intrafaith conversations, then in the same way my religious identity has become even stronger, while being open to the beliefs of others – the same should be true of my political identity.

Mark Gerzon has issued a challenge we can’t ignore. As difficult as his suggestions may be, they’re now in my consciousness, niggling at me like stones in my shoes. I thought I could dump them out until after the election, but they’re still there, making me very uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s the only way it can be for now.

Posted by: smstrouse | August 4, 2016

Can We Bridge the Partisan Divide?


Mark Gerzon thinks so. Or so he claims in his book  The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide. 

Here’s what caught my attention:
The U.S motto is “E Pluribus Unam”–“out of many, one” – but you’d never know it now, says activist Mark Gerzon. The United States seems hopelessly divided. In the past, Americans could disagree without demonizing each other. But now healthy partisan debate has been replaced by brutal political brawling, where nothing but winning matters. Loyalty to party has replaced love of country. The solution, says Gerson, is to become transpartisan. This doesn’t mean adopting a new set of political beliefs. “Transpartisan” is an adjective, not another “ism.” You can be a transpartisan Democrat, a transpartisan Republican, or a transpartisan independent. It is about the how, not the what, a way of conducting politics and solving problems that is the opposite of the hyperpartisanship destroying our country.

imagesThat paragraph arrived in my Inbox from the Charter for Compassion, promoting their new global book study. The idea is to read the book individually, host book clubs, form discussion groups, etc. Then there will be an on-line discussion led by the author.

I didn’t think too much about it until I had dinner with a friend a few nights ago. Margaret (not her real name) is my polar opposite on the political spectrum. We’ve dealt with that mostly by staying away from political topics. That’s getting pretty hard to do, though, in this election cycle. What struck me in our conversation was Margaret’s longing for a respectful dialogue with those of differing opinions. But we both acknowledged that those kinds of discussions don’t happen anymore. And if they do happen, they need to be carefully moderated by someone able to maintain a safe space for everyone.

she-likes-itThat’s the same process I describe in The INTRAfaith Conversation! Maybe it’s the beginning of a movement. I decided that I needed to join the book study and ordered The Reunited States of America. 

I hope he does have some good advice. God knows, this country needs some help – not to become great again or to boast about how great we already are, but how to talk to one another again in a civil manner.

The presentation and discussion led by Mark Gerzon will be September 17 at 9:00 am PDT and you do have to register.

But give it some thought. Join me in at least maybe the beginning of a bridge building project across our partisan divide. I guess you could call it the INTRApolitical conversation. Who knows? Maybe at our next dinner Margaret and I will finally be able to talk about politics.

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