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Living with questions

Five area pastors get ready to launch five-week sermon series


TIMES PHOTO: MILES VANCE - The Rev. Dr. Brett Strobel of Christ United Methodist Church in Cedar Hills will discuss 'Why God, Why?' in a five-week sermon series that will rotate through five local churches beginning Feb. 14.“Judgmental.”

“Homophobic.”

“Hypocritical.”

A list of the three unforgivable curses? Attacks from the latest presidential debate? No. These words are the top three words used to describe Christians, according to Harvard University professor Robert Putnam and Notre Dam professor David Campbell in their book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.”

Those accusations can be painful for Christian leaders to hear, but a group of five Beaverton-area pastors has decided to do something about it.

Those five — Larry Snow of Murray Hills Christian Church, John Shuck of Southminster Presbyterian Church, Mary Sue Evers of Cedar Hills United Church of Christ, Laurie Larson Caesar of Mission of the Atonement, and Brett Strobel of Christ United Methodist Church — will launch a unique sermon series to share their own views of Christianity beginning the First Sunday of Lent (Feb. 14) and continuing through the final Sunday of Lent (March 13).

Beginning on Feb. 14, these pastors will take to the pulpits for five consecutive weeks to preach not only at their home churches, but on a rotating schedule at each other’s places of worship as well, preaching the same sermon to a new audience for the course of the series.

Along the way, that group — all self-professed “progressive Christians” — hopes to dispel some of those negative views of Christians and Christianity by presenting what they consider to be a more modern, more hopeful, more loving, more inclusive, version of Christianity in the 21st century.

“The whole theme of this series is that some of us prefer a flavor of Christianity that encourages questions and is willing to tolerate questions that don’t have answers,” said Snow, the pastor at Murray Hills Christian for 12 years.

Regarding the characterization of Christians as “judgmental, narrow-minded and homophobic,” he adds “Not all of us fit that description.”

The kind of Christianity that these five preachers support has its fair share of detractors in the world, the pastors admit, by setting itself in opposition to conservative Christianity.

“About that image that most Christianity is viewed in a negative fashion,” explained Shuck, pastor at Southminster Presbyterian for just more than a year, “the most conservative form of Christianity is popular and they have the media and they’re good at it.

“But there is a more progressive brand of Christianity out there that is more open to questions ... and open to other beliefs.”

Indeed, it seems that an openness to questions — in short, these pastors don’t purport to have answers for all the questions people might pose about God or faith — is a hallmark of this group and its beliefs and teaching.

“We’re not afraid of the questions,” agreed Brett Strobel, who has served at Christ United Methodist in Cedar Hills for a decade. “We dwell on the questions, we aren’t afraid to ask questions and we live into them.”

The sermon titles — each not surprisingly posed in the form of a question — in the series are these: Laurie Larson Caesar — “Is God Sexist?” And Mary Sue Evers — “Why Bother With the Bible?” Larry Snow — “God?” Brett Strobel — “Why God, Why?” John Shuck — “Cain? Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”

This week, we profile two of those pastors — Strobel and Shuck — and look ahead to their sermons. The remaining three pastors and their sermons will be featured in the Feb. 11 edition of the Valley Times.

Brett Strobel — “Why God, Why?”

Strobel, who served three other Oregon churches in his career before moving on to Christ United Methodist, will focus his sermon on the age-old questions posed by the Old Testament Book of Job.

But he won’t just focus on the question of why bad things happen to good people — Job is described as a righteous man who has his wealthy, successful life turned on its head as the result of a wager between God and Satan.

While that question continues to carry relevance, Strobel will also address Job’s grievances against God. In Job’s world, it was understood that wealthy, successful people became wealthy and successful because of their righteousness. Further, those that suffered greatly — as Job did as a result of the wager — were understood to have “earned” their suffering due to their own bad behavior.

So when Job sees his world wrecked — his family and servants and livestock are all killed and his home destroyed — he wants to take God to account because he’s done nothing wrong. One of Job’s biggest questions is this: If he has a grievance against God, he needs someone greater than God to arbitrate that grievance, but since there is none greater than God, what does he do?

“If Job is the plaintiff and God is the defendant, who will decide?” Strobel asks. “Job is pushing against the envelope of a world of justice.

“That’s why Job is fabulous, because Job is countercultural. He challenges the beliefs of his time,” Strobel said. “His friends operate on the principal that God rewards righteousness and punishes unrighteousness, but Job challenges that conventional wisdom.”

Predictably, perhaps, Strobel promises answers to some of those questions, but said those answers will likely raise even more questions of their own.

“We were meant to ask the big and difficult questions. Even if we don’t get the answers, it’s OK to ask,” he said. “That kind of religious faith is worth the journey and it makes the journey exciting.”

TIMES PHOTO: MILES VANCE - Pastor John Shuck of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Beaverton will discuss 'Cain? Am I My Brothers Keeper?' in a five-week sermon series that will rotate through five local churches beginning Feb. 14.

John Shuck — “Cain? Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”

Shuck, who previously served other churches in New York, Montana and Tennessee before moving on to Southminster Presbyterian, will focus his sermon on the story of Cain in the Old Testament Book of Genesis.

In the Bible, Cain was the first son born to Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Cain also, according to Genesis, murdered his younger brother Abel in a fit of jealousy.

Later, when questioned by God about Abel’s whereabouts, Cain replies “I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Shuck, however, uses that story as a starting point for a more relevant discussion about caring for people in our world, in essence asking again “Are we our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers?”

“A lot of the Bible tells us that we need to have a discussion about ethics and caring,” he said. This story asks “are we supposed to (care for) each other? Why should we care what happens to one another?”

In answer to that question, Shuck and his church are doing their best to show through their lives that they believe the answer is “yes.” His congregation has consistently focused on serving the LBGT community — members at Southminster Presbyterian penned the resolution that altered the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to allow same-sex marriage — worked on building its interfaith partnership with the neighboring Islamic Center of Portland, hosted an MLK Jr. Celebration, shares its building with a Hindu sect, fills Christmas baskets for families at Vose Elementary and does much, much more.

“Living life is what’s important, rather than the doctrine,” Shuck said. “How we behave is more important than how we believe.”