Piece of the Puzzle

random musings on whatever…

Tag: love Page 1 of 5

Do We Know What We Want?

Have you ever struggled with a difficult decision, perhaps a major change in life such as whether to move or quit a job? We’re faced with decisions all the time and sometimes we’re not sure what would be best. When we make difficult life changing choices, we often look for meaning and a sense of inner peace. But, if we ask for meaning and peace of heart, do we know what we are asking for? Do we seek meaning in the accumulation of things as in the story of the rich person who wasn’t able to give up their wealth to follow Jesus? Do we believe that winning a huge lotto jackpot will bring us peace? Or maybe we seek meaning in status, having people look up to us and think we’re important. Or maybe we seek peace in power, thinking, “if only I had more control…” Even in the church we look to the world’s definitions of success, thinking to follow Jesus “successfully” means bigger churches and bigger offerings. We think that is what measures how meaningful we are, whether our efforts are “worth it” or not.

When James and John came to Jesus in Mark 10, asking to sit beside in him glory, maybe they were wondering if following Jesus, with all his talk of death and persecution, was really worth it. Maybe they were seeking a sense of meaning. But like many of us they thought meaning was found in glory, power, and wealth. But Jesus responds that in God’s eyes to be great is to serve. This is where we find the natural harmonies and rhythms of life that bring peace. God created us as interdependent beings, not to be competitors for empty glory but to be companions meant for relationship and community. To be great, to find meaning and peace, to find what makes it all worth it, is to serve, to help each other, to support each other, and to love each other.

Jesus asks if we can follow in his footsteps and give up our pursuits of wealth, power, and glory to serve? Can we help each other, support each other, and love each other even if the world around us is threatened by it and despises us for it? That isn’t an empty threat either. Right now in our own times, journalists who are seen as threatening the power of so-called leaders are being denigrated and even killed. If we as Christians do as Jesus did and stand up to oppressive power, we too may put ourselves at risk. There can be a cost to following Jesus. We often think James and John didn’t realize this, that they wanted glory with no effort. But, I wonder if they just wanted to be reassured it was worth it. I believe it is. We will get resistance when we live for justice. We will get pushback. But we were created by God to be companions, not competitors.

I also believe in resurrection, in God’s promise of new life. In every discouraging lie told, for every degradation of the poor, of women, of immigrants, of LGBTQ people, I see more and more people standing up and saying this is not acceptable. In standing up for each other we plant the seeds of hope. We begin to nurture new life – a life that acknowledges that to serve and support each other, to love, is the order and motion of God’s Creation. This is where we find true, lasting meaning and peace in life: in God’s unconditional, everlasting love flowing through us and into the world.

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This reflection is inspired by the sermon, “Do we know what we are asking for?,” from October 21, 2018. The audio of the sermon can be found on the Phoenix Community Church web site.

Making America Great Again

Have you ever wanted to be important? We want to feel needed. We want to feel like we are making a difference in the world. As kids we might dream of being the best at our favorite sport, sinking the winning shot in the championship game. Maybe we dreamed of being admired like a doctor or lawyer or maybe we dreamed of being president, someone with a lot of power. Maybe we achieved some of our dreams of importance and maybe those dreams still linger with us. As adults we still want to matter and make a difference in our lives.

But when we think of importance, when we dream of greatness, we also have to ask ourselves what exactly that means. How do we measure greatness? Is the wealthiest person great? Or is power and influence the critical factor? And who benefits from our desired greatness? Do these dreams come from pure selfishness or do we want to help others? Greatness and its motivations seem to be a hot topic in our country. Some people say they want to “Make America Great Again” but then act out of racism, sexism, homophobia, and a disregard for the poor and disadvantaged. Does being great mean making everyone else miserable? Just what does it mean to be great, to be important?

In the ninth chapter of the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ disciples were debating this very question, arguing amongst themselves about who was the most important of their group. And Jesus tells them how to be great in his eyes: become a servant for others. Greatness has nothing to do with wealth or power. The greatest are those who put the welfare of others first. Cultivating peace and justice; being kind, considerate, and compassionate; acting in the interest of others and the common good… these are the things by which we should measure greatness.

This is the way we are called to live if we choose to follow God’s path and live by God’s wisdom. True greatness is measured by love. We can say God is great because God is love. God loves each one of us without condition. If we want to be great, Jesus tells us, then share that love with those around you. Be a servant and welcome the children and the vulnerable. Love. By welcoming the vulnerable we welcome God. When we love others, we love God.

What if we used love as a measure of greatness everywhere? What if “Make America Great Again” meant: let’s see how loving we can make our country? What a great place that would be! Imagine people outdoing themselves to help others. Imagine people competing to see who can create the most efficient and impactful programs. Not to put money in the hands of the rich but to feed people and provide health care, to end racism, to help victims of abuse instead of blame them… and on and on. What if the greatness of our country and our government was measured by love? Not military power or wealth, but how much it helped people – all people, but especially the vulnerable and oppressed. That is the place I want to live in.

Let’s all have a great (loving) day!

Note: This reflection was originally published in my church newsletter. The church website is www.phoenixchurch.org.

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.

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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