Piece of the Puzzle

random musings on whatever…

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The Mystic Journey

I’ve always been intrigued by stories of spiritual mystics, who often describe their encounters with the Divine by talking about visions or ecstatic experiences. Sometimes they talk of the Divine as a lover. But what exactly do we mean when we call someone a mystic? One definition we might use is a person who seeks to experience God directly without the church or anyone or anything else as a mediator. A mystic is someone with a thirst for knowing the Divine Presence in their life. Mystics, however, do not typically stand alone but are part of a religious community and every major religion has mystics within its ranks.

The mystic can spend years preparing themselves for this encounter with God through a variety of spiritual practices including reading scripture, ascetic practices such as fasting or a vow of poverty, prayer, spiritual direction, etc. Although mystics may sometimes have visions, a vision does not make one a mystic. Similarly, one could be a mystic and never have a vision. It’s not about a brief ecstatic experience but a journey of transformation. To directly encounter the God of Love is to be transformed.

When we do hear of a mystic having a vision, how do we tell the difference between truth and delusion? Can we trust the experiences of others when they may sound so foreign to our own life experiences? One test is whether the mystical encounter of God results in a transformation based in love or not. If someone is unchanged by their experience or that change is not based in love, then perhaps they weren’t really encountering the Divine. Mystics tend to seek God with their hearts rather than with their intellect but we shouldn’t completely discount the intellect. We must seek God with both head and heart.

Many of the spiritual practices used by mystics are aimed at letting go of their own egos, that part of our minds that tries to control our lives and protect us. In letting go of our egos, we empty ourselves and make room for the awareness of the Divine Presence to enter, often achieving higher levels of consciousness as we become aware of the Sacred in and around us. While we may not all be called to dedicating our entire lives to the encounter with the Divine, everyone can at least open their hearts to the God within. We can all open ourselves to loving and being loved. Perhaps we can start as we go through our normal day by trying to notice where we see the presence of the Divine… in conversation with a co-worker, in a hug, in a flower or sunset… God is everywhere, in us and around us. Opening ourselves to that awareness will begin within us a transformation of love.

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The above reflection is inspired by my sermon from July 8, “Mystic: Journey of Consciousness.” Audio recordings of sermons are posted at www.phoenixchurch.org.

Open letter to my congressional representative

To the Honorable Fred Upton,

As a voter in your district, I want to thank you for your post on Facebook stating your confidence in our U.S. intelligence agencies and your support of the independent Mueller investigation. However, this statement does not go far enough. We need to hear your complete and thorough condemnation of Donald Trump’s presidency, which has been a disaster for our country beyond anyone’s imagination. His constant and brazen lying, narcissism, misogyny, and racism should be enough to disqualify him from continuing in office.

However, we must also not forget his failure to live up to his vows to uphold our constitution. His frequent attacks undermining our free press are attacks on the first amendment. Further, he and his family’s use of the their government positions to promote their business interests are at the very least unethical and are mostly likely a violation of the Emoluments Clause of the constitution. Lastly, Trump’s former policy of separating asylum-seeking families, and now his inability to reunite those families as ordered by our courts, amounts to a crime against humanity as well as a violation of their right to due process as guaranteed by the fourteenth amendment. The dismantling of environmental regulations meant to protect our natural resources and financial regulations meant to protect the people from greed-fueled corruption also do our country a great disservice.

Since the beginning of his presidency, I have been greatly shamed by Trump’s undue criticisms of long time U.S. allies while kowtowing to violent dictators such as Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, and Vladimir Putin of Russia. All of this has been done while undermining U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, CIA and Justice Department by constantly casting aspersions upon their honesty and integrity. Finally, his actions of this past weekend and especially his statements following meeting with Putin on Monday amount to a betrayal of our nation.

Something must be done and we, the people whom you represent, should not have to remind you that it is your job as a member of congress to be a check and balance on the executive branch of government. The President is immoral, grossly incompetent, and a threat to our nation. Please do what is right for our country. I ask you and congress to take appropriate action immediately.

Please also know that I will be sharing this letter. I also pledge to vote forevermore against anyone who supports the treasonous actions of Trump. We must now whole heartedly and vehemently affirm our democracy as standing for the rights and welfare of the people of this great nation.

Sincerely,
Rev. Kenneth Arthur
Kalamazoo, Michigan

A Radical Welcome

Providing a radical welcome to marginalized people, especially the LGBTQ community, was a founding goal and principle for Phoenix Community Church. Of course, to welcome folks is about more than tolerance. Radical welcome is about providing a place of belonging, compassion and support. A radical, inclusive welcome remains as important as ever as we see renewed attacks not only on LGBTQ folks, but on many marginalized groups. Immigrants in particular have become a scapegoat for our nation’s problems and insecurities and are regularly demonized and persecuted. A recent public letter from the national officers of the United Church of Christ denounces governmental persecution of immigrants and reminds us that we are called to respect and honor the humanity and sanctity of all people.

It is important that we stand up and speak out, especially in this current stormy period in history that feels increasingly dangerous. As we more and more see the ugly shadow side of humanity on display in places of power, it is easy to feel frightened and panicky, much like the disciples who were caught at sea in a storm in Mark 4. In their fright they wake a sleeping Jesus who calms the storm and then challenges them: “Have you no faith?”

In their panic, the disciples reveal their lack of trust in God. On the other hand, Jesus in this story models faith for them by displaying the courage and audacity to confront the danger. His question “have you no faith?” implies the disciples should have handled the situation themselves. One might think the disciples had faith because they turned to Jesus in a time of trouble but by looking to Jesus to solve their problem for them, they actually showed how much they doubted God. Faith doesn’t mean trusting God will swoop in and perform miracles for us like Superman or the Lone Ranger. Faith means that God is already with us, guiding us, empowering us, ready to perform miracles through us.

But, how do we remain centered like Jesus and find the courage and audacity to act when the world feels like a deadly storm bearing down on us? How do we find the courage and audacity to stand up in the current climate against racism and homophobia? How do we find the courage and audacity to stand up for the rights of immigrants who are the beloved children of God as much as we are? Another way to ask the question is, what reminds us of God’s presence in a time of trouble? When panic, fear, and unfocused anger threaten to overwhelm us?

Unfortunately, we each have to answer that question for ourselves. One suggestion might be to choose an image we have for God and then picture that image merging with our own body. Perhaps the image is Jesus or a bright light or a flame. It doesn’t really matter what image we use for the Divine, but focus on that image (which is, of course, a symbol for God and not actually God) merging with us so that we become one with it. If we fix the merged image in our mind then when our seas are feeling too stormy we can call this image again into our minds to remind ourselves of the Divine that resides within us always, to remind ourselves that we are worthy and sacred, that through this Spirit of God within us we have the courage and audacity to perform the miracle of facing our fears, that we have the courage and audacity to stand up and speak truth to the powers of this world as we seek justice for all people.

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The above reflection is inspired by my sermon from June 24, “Stormy Seas.” Audio recordings of sermons are posted at www.phoenixchurch.org/sermons.php for about 6 months.

Thoughts on incivility, restaurant service and homophobic bakers

The issue of civility in no way compares to human rights violations. I also have no interest in hearing complaints about civility from Trump supporters as such complaints are completely hypocritical. On the other hand, there are good reasons to try to remain civil and respectful. Rude behavior can also demean one’s humanity. Perhaps the question is what constitutes incivility versus truth-telling, because truth-telling is dearly needed right now and to the oppressor it is going to sound like rude behavior. I despise everything Sarah Sanders and Trump stand for but I still believe that they are children of God worthy of love and respect. Of course, I also believe I have a responsibility to challenge their dishonesty, their constitutional violations and their crimes against humanity. But, incivility also widens the divide. In reading anecdotal articles about those who have made inroads and helped transform people who were white supremacists, it seems to happen through showing compassion and love, not getting in their face about the evil of their ways. I might also note that Jesus challenged religious authorities over their corruption but was also known to go to their houses for dinner. Is it possible to challenge immoral behavior and still remain respectful of their humanity (i.e. be civil)? If we not, then we put ourselves in danger of becoming them – incivility is a major tool of Trump and his followers. Kicking Sanders out of a restaurant could be construed as some dramatic truth-telling rather than incivility but what if, instead, the manager had pulled a chair up to Sander’s table and started engaging in a little verbal truth-telling, face-to-face? Maybe there were better ways to handle it (and maybe not).

Regarding the baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding, I’m not convinced the situation is really different. Both were refusing service based on their personal sense of morals. The only difference I see is that I agree with one of them and not the other. I’m also probably in the minority of gay people because I’m also not totally convinced that he should be forced to bake that cake (although I understand the arguments for that and don’t oppose them). Frankly, if a baker doesn’t want to make me a cake, I’d rather know that up front. I don’t want to eat a cake made for me by someone who despises my very being. What if, instead of suing the homophobic baker to force him to bake cakes in the future, folks engaged in protests and boycotts instead? I think we always have options on how to react to injustice. It’s not always easy to figure out the best way.

The Family of God and LGBTQ Pride

In the early morning of Saturday, June 28, 1969, the New York City police raided a bar called the Stonewall Inn. This was a bar that catered to marginalized people: drag queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, and homeless youth. But the raid didn’t go as planned. Those marginalized people fought back against persecution that night. Riots developed and the modern liberation movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons was born. One year later, on June 28, 1970, Christopher Street Liberation Day marked the anniversary of the Stonewall riots with the first ever Gay Pride march. The New York Times reported that the parade of marchers stretched for 15 blocks.

48 years after that first march, we still celebrate Pride. Although the world is much different than it was for LGBTQ people in the 1950’s and 60’s, it is still important to celebrate who we are and to stand up and declare that LGBTQ lives matter. I feel blessed to live in a city that is relatively liberal and accepting but we don’t have to stray very far into the world to know it’s not that way everywhere. Even here in Kalamazoo, there is still much work to be done. Because of that Pride shouldn’t be a once a year party. We need to live with pride in who we are every day, affirming our self-worth to ourselves and to the world.

Our culture would rather that those who are oppressed and marginalized be invisible. Humans fear what we don’t understand. The world would rather we deny our authentic selves rather than challenge their notion of how the world is supposed to work. But, to deny who we are is, in religious language, a sin. To deny who God created us to be – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, cis, gender-bending, queer, straight, etc. – is a sin. Denying who we are separates us from the Divine Presence within us and around us. It creates a barrier between us and the sacred and that barrier is what we mean by sin. In Jesus’ words found in Mark 3:20-35, it’s a serious sin, an unforgivable sin, a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

When the religious scholars accuse Jesus of working for the Devil, they are accusing him of being something he is not. Jesus responds by telling them that they know better than that. They know his power comes from God but they deny it. They know the truth and yet they deny it. And he goes on to declare that denial a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In other words, to hear and understand the voice of the Divine within and still deny it is an unforgivable sin. To use the word unforgivable is a bit misleading, however. It’s clear from all of Jesus’ other teachings that there is nothing that cannot be forgiven. Or in the apostle Paul’s words, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Perhaps Jesus here is engaging in hyperbole, exaggerating to make a point. Perhaps he’s trying to stress the seriousness of denying what we know to be true. For if we deny who we are, how does one recover from that? For those who are LGBTQ, we all have experience with what we call being in the closet. We know firsthand how damaging it is to our mental and spiritual well-being to deny who we are. The only way to recover from that denial is to embrace who we are. That’s not always easy.

We may need to work on discovering ourselves. We may need to overcome internalized homophobia. We may need to deal with hostility from friends or family. We may need professional help. We certainly need the support of good, healthy relationships. These things are not always going to be easy, especially if we lack the support of family. In scripture, Jesus’ family wasn’t so sure about him, either. We’re told they thought he might be losing his mind. Religious leaders were accusing him of working for Satan. He was constantly being mobbed by crowds of marginalized people, those needing healing, those thought possessed by demons. It was all beyond his family’s understanding. So his mothers and brothers went to try and rescue him, but Jesus wasn’t having it.

Jesus redefines family as what I’d call the Family of God – family defined by love, not blood. Anyone who lives with and by God’s love is our sister, brother, mother, and father. Jesus is teaching about community. To live an authentic life we need loving community, the support of family, of people who love us for who we are, as we are. That may include our birth family but it certainly includes the Family of God, those who love us for our authentic selves, who will support us in our times of need, who will forgive us when we mess up. It is this Family of God that we are called to be. It is this Family of God that can change the world.

One of my seminary professors interviewed people about what changed their minds regarding their acceptance of LGBTQ people. What he found was that it actually had little to do with their understanding of scripture. Discussions about how to interpret scripture and apply it to their lives didn’t matter nearly as much as getting to know someone who identified as gay. Relationship and love – these are the things that change people. Welcoming people into this Family of God is where the hope lies for this world we live in. That doesn’t mean converting people to Christianity. It simply means loving people unconditionally, for who they are, as they are. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Note: The above reflection is an edited version of my sermon from June 10, “Family of God.” Go to www.phoenixchurch.org/sermons.php to listen to the entire message.

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