Fighting Narcissism

The Virginia Street Church began as a reading society before the Civil War.  We've been here at this address since 1886, but we were formed as a Swedenborgian congregation since the 1860's.  One of our founders was the third governor of Minnesota, William Marshall.  Why do so few people seem to know about us and why are we still an obscure entity in Minnesota history?

These are questions that I have puzzled over from time to time.  Other questions similar in nature often accompany them in my musings.  For instance, why do we humans overlook essential ideas the Lord has given us?  Why do we assume that they are our ideas, gained from our astute reflection?

I ran across one such idea the other day.  I found a book on our bookshelves at home I didn't know we had.  It's entitled The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.  It was written by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell.  Their book details the study that has been done in American society regarding the personality disorder called Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly called the DSM. Twenge and Campbell identify two types of narcissism, which they roughly define as introverted and extroverted.  Wikepedia lists the following symptoms:

"People with narcissistic personality disorder are characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance. They have a sense of entitlement and demonstrate grandiosity in their beliefs and behavior. They have a strong need for admiration, but lack feelings of empathy."

According to Twenge and Campbell, Narcissistic Personality Disorder was first identified by psychoanalytic theorist Heinz Kohut in 1971. They see the origin of what they call the current narcissism epidemic not occurring until the 1970's.  Is this something new in the history of humanity, this exaggerated feeling of self-importance?  Quite the contrary, I think that viewing this as a discovery of modern science is a typical example of the, if you will, narcissistic view of itself that modern science takes.  In reality the only thing that's new about the idea of narcissism is the DSM labeling it as a Personality Disorder. 

Narcissism is named for the Greek mythological character Narcissus.  According to the myth, Narcissus is an attractive young man who sets out looking for someone to love.  A beautiful nymph named Echo falls in love with him, repeating everything he says, but he rejects her and she fades away.  Narcissus goes on searching for the perfect mate.  Finally, one day he sees himself reflected in a pool of water.  He falls in love with his own image, and unable to pull himself away he gazes at it until he dies.  Twenge and Campbell write "The myth of Narcissus captures the tragedy of self-admiration, because Narcissus becomes frozen by his self-admiration and unable to connect with anyone outside himself - and his narcissism harms other people, in this case, Echo." 

But the recognition of the disease of self-admiration and its effect on both the narcissist and those around him preceded the Greek's myth. 

How far back in the history of human thought do we need to go to find the origin of this idea?

Emanuel Swedenborg wrote extensively about narcissism.  He just didn't call it that.  He called it what it is, self-love.  But this idea wasn't new in Swedenborg's writing.  He was telling us about the inner meaning of the literal text of the Lord's Word.  The Lord has been warning human beings about the evils of Narcissism throughout the entire history of humanity.

The book of Genesis is about Narcissism.  We are not to try to understand religious matters from our own ideas.  That is the message in the idea that we are not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  We are to eat only from the tree of life.  The tree of life is the perception of truth as the Lord reveals it to us.  We cannot find it through our own thinking.  But the conceit that we can pervades human history.

Twenge and Campbell wrote their book about Narcissism because their research showed that there is an epidemic of Narcissism in the world today.  It is particularly prevalent in western societies, especially the United States.

In the introduction to their book they cite some examples of evidence that Narcissism is rampant.  One example they gave was of a sixteen-year-old girl who wanted to have a major road in her city blocked off so that her entrance to her birthday party on a red carpet could be preceded by a marching band. 

Another example is a book called My Beautiful Mommy which explains plastic surgery to young children whose mothers are going under the knife for a Mommy Makeover. 

Did you know that you can now hire fake "paparazzi" to follow you around snapping pictures of you when you go out at night?  These services will even provide you with a faux celebrity magazine cover featuring the pictures. 

Twenge and Campbell attribute the recent home mortgage crisis that threw the country into a major mortgage market collapse on the narcissistic need to buy homes beyond the means of the purchaser.   

There have been numerous cases of high school students having a friend video record them beating up another student and then posting the video on YouTube.

Twenge and Campbell write of these examples, "Although these seem like a random collection of current trends, all are rooted in a single underlying shift in the American psychology: the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture.  Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking.  A popular dance track repeats the words 'money, success, fame, glamour' over and over, declaring that all other values have 'either been discredited or destroyed.' "

There are some myths prevalent in our society today surrounding the presence of narcissism.  One is that Narcissism is just really high self-esteem.

Narcissists do have high self-esteem.  But there is a difference between high self-esteem and narcissism.  That difference is that while narcissists think they are smarter, better-looking, and more important than others, they don't think of themselves as more moral, more caring, or more compassionate.  These traits are not important to them.  Instead they think being a winner or being attractive is what is important.  High self-esteem by itself doesn't rule out caring about others.  Narcissism could care less about others, except how they can serve the narcissist. 

A second myth is that narcissists are insecure and have low self-esteem.  This misunderstanding of narcissism is based on the belief that a narcissistic sense of self-importance is just a cover for deep-seated doubts about oneself.  The reality is that studies have shown that narcissistic people really believe they are awesome.  The problem with this theory is that some believe that narcissism can be cured by building up the narcissist's self-esteem.

This fallacy has been behind the movement in our schools and advice to parents to artificially build the self-esteem of our children by a barrage of unearned praise.  Teachers in one community were required to recognize every student in their class as the hero of the week at some time during the school year. The unfortunate consequence of this kind of fiction has been a steady decline in the actual ability of kids to succeed.  Just showing up has been defined as success.  An example of this is the rise in the average grades of students in our school systems, while learning and skills have dropped.  We are telling kids they are special just because they exist, not because of anything they have achieved.

Another myth is that narcissism is healthy.  It isn't.  But does that mean we should all hate ourselves?  Of course not.  That's like saying that because Americans are becoming a society that is overweight, we should all become anorexic.  The fact is that self-hatred is just as bad as any other hatred.  We can like ourselves just fine without loving ourselves to excess.  Contentment comes from knowing we are living lives of love toward others, and there is nothing wrong with contentment that results from caring about others.   Loving ourselves at the expense of others might be a good definition of narcissism.  It does not lead to contentment.  Such self-love causes us to be constantly angered by little slights we perceive from those who fail to see that we are superior.  Narcissists are not happy people.

Another myth about narcissism is that it is just vanity.  While it is true that narcissists are vain, they are also materialistic, feel entitled, are overly aggressive when they feel insulted, and have no genuine interests in relationships with others. 

You might question whether it is true that narcissism is an epidemic in our society.  The casual observer has probably noticed a growth in self-promotion and in-your-face self-assurance on the part of many younger people.  Self-esteem and self-admiration seem to be a requirement for success in the modern working world.

Twenge and Campbell found a 30% increase in narcissism in the Narcissistic Personality Inventory scores among college students between 1982 and 2006.  They observed that the increase rate seems to be climbing also.  The rate of increase between 2000 and 2006 was especially steep.  The figures also showed that while men are still leading women in narcissistic traits, the women are catching up.  They compare the rate of growth to the obesity epidemic.  Americans seem to have accepted the fact that our eating habits have led to an increase in obesity in our society that can be labeled epidemic.  Well, the obesity growth rate is about the same as that of narcissism.

So if there is, in fact, an epidemic increase in narcissism in our society, what can we do about it?  The short answer is, probably not much relative to the forces working against us.

But the good news is that we don't have to do it alone.  The Lord has always fought against the forces that promote self-love and he will continue to do so.  Our responsibility is not to defeat narcissism in those around us.  Our responsibility is not to engage in narcissism ourselves.  As the apostle Paul told those to whom he ministered, "Be in the world, but not of it."  The materialism and self-promotion of our society are diseases of self-love. 

We can live within the society that adheres to these distortions of reality without participating in them.  We can look carefully at our options and choose those that serve our neighbor as well as our self, not our self at the expense of our neighbor.  The Lord has made clear to us through the writings of Swedenborg and the Word itself how we are to live.  Calling self-love narcissism and defining it in the DSM makes it impersonal.  Self-love is not impersonal.  It is something to which we are all susceptible.  We must continuously guard against it by self-examination.

The Lord gave us two commandments: to love him and to love our neighbor.  He did not command us to love ourselves.  Self-love is our inclination naturally.  To love the Lord and our neighbor we must first be reborn.  We must be given a new will that abhors self-love and seeks to live according to the Lord's plan for us.  Such a new will must come from the Lord.  Contrary to a narcissistic view of our own awesomeness, we cannot obtain it by ourselves. 

So let us pray.  Lord, help us to see our need for you and our need to love one another.  Amen.

Your Unique Faith

A sermon by Gordon Meyer, July 12, 2015

Texts: Mark 12:28-34; Secrets of Heaven 343-344.

 

How many people do you know really well?  If you're married, you probably feel as I do that the person you are married to is someone you know really well.  And my kids, of course.  I see most of them frequently, spent years living with them in the same house, been through their ups and downs with them.  I know them well.  I can predict in a general way how these particular people will behave in most circumstances.  I know I can count on them in many, many ways that give my own life a sense of stability.

Then there are my friends in this church.  I feel that I know many of you better than I know my brothers and the rest of my extended family.  I grew up with my brothers, but we have lived far apart in adulthood and don't even call each other very often.  Yet, when we get together there is a sense of belonging to each other and to each other's families that I don't have with other people. 

But the truth is I feel like I know some of you better than I know them.  We've spent more time together recently and with some of you our conversations have been more meaningful, revealing more of our true self to each other than I have with others, even in my own family.

Beyond that, there are people I've associated with at work or socially, but I can't say I know any of them very well.

So I know a few people pretty well, but only a few.  When you come right down to it, however, there's only one person I really know inside and out.  That's myself.   I'm the only person I'm with all the time.  No matter where I go, there I am.   The same is true of each of us.  Wherever you go, you are there with yourself, but there isn't anyone else who is always with you, except, of course, the Lord.

Ever feel like you'd like to get away from yourself for a while?  Get tired of the silly patter chattering away in your head.  I remember the first time I felt this way consciously.  I was standing in the sunroom of my aunt's huge house, and the thoughts running through my head were a bunch of trivial things, and I just felt sick and tired of it.  That was about fifty-five years ago, and nothing's changed much.  I'm still chattering away.  I've gotten to know me a lot better in those fifty-five years, but, as Paul Simon noted, I'm still crazy after all these years. 

My guess is that most of you, perhaps all of you, feel similarly, at least once in a while.  Maybe, like me, you feel kind of alone and isolated, not in a serious, mental illness sort of way, but just realizing that we are all self-contained and can't really share ourselves, or share in others' lives, very deeply.  We are all in this together, but only sort of.

Swedenborg points out that we are all unique.  There isn't a single individual who has ever lived who is identical to another individual.  He adds that there never will be.  As all of the human beings the Lord creates are gathered into the spiritual world and to eternity, none will ever be identical.  You are one of a kind.  There will never be another you. 

One of the implications of this is that your faith, however you understand it, is also unique.  No one else has the same understanding of God or the relationship with God that you have.  No one else in the history of creation has ever related to God exactly the same way you do.  For that very reason, you are precious in his sight.  You have a unique place in God's plan for the universe.  Last week I talked about how we all have our place in the spiritual world and how the Lord knew before we were conceived where we would eventually choose to make our home to eternity. 

Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the big picture comes together bit by bit as the pieces are placed where they belong.  Each piece contributes to a larger segment.  In heaven those segments are communities of like-minded angels.  Note that I didn't say they are of the same mind.  They are of such similar minds that they can live together in complete harmony, but each has her or his unique contribution to make.  The addition of each new angel makes the community more complete, more whole, and thus more perfect.

Last week we brought a new member into our midst.  This week we are celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion. 

Each of these events is a sacred event that brings the inner church we share closer to its perfection.  When we gather in this church building we do so as a community.  We share similar beliefs.  To the extent that we practice those beliefs and they are based on a true understanding of our relationship with the Lord God the Savior, Jesus Christ, we are also part of heaven and its larger community. 

Is it strange then, that we don't always agree about what our faith means and what we should believe?  Is it strange that there is not one church in the world, but hundreds, if not thousands, of different churches?  In the United States there are three separate branches of the Swedenborgian faith.  Each of these have significant differences in their expressed beliefs about what the Bible teaches in light of Swedenborg's writings, differences significant enough to cause a parting of the ways between us.  Who is right?  Who is wrong?  Well, obviously, we are right and the other two are wrong.  I wonder if the five members of our church who were born and raised in the General Church would necessarily agree with me on that.

Well, they can be assured that I don't hold to that idea myself. 

The reality is that what is true is different for different people.  There is an absolute truth that is simply what is, but the way each of us understands truth varies with the individual.  The result is that what is a sin for me, may not be a sin for you.  Whether or not something is a sin depends on whether or not it is something that separates us from God.

Take acquiring wealth, for example.  If a person's main interest in life is getting rich, then acquiring money is probably a sin for that person.  But if the interest in money comes from a desire to use it for good, useful purposes, purposes that serve others, then it clearly is not a sin.  It comes down to intention.  Is the person's intent to serve God and the neighbor, or simply to satisfy selfish desires?

What is important to recognize is that these differences in beliefs result from differences in people, and the Lord creates us each to be different from anyone else.  That is part of the plan.  That makes things work and makes perfecting heaven possible.  The fact is that if God created us all identically, we would have no sense of being a human being.  There would be no individuality.  So these differences are absolutely necessary.

The Lord tells us not to judge others or we will be judged. That's because we can't know enough to decide if a person is good or evil.  Only God can do that.  But, of course, we have different understanding because we know some things others don't know. 

So we do make judgments.  At least, we evaluate other's beliefs and decide if they are true or not.  But when we do this we aren't judging the person, only the beliefs, and we understand that differences in beliefs are the result of differences in the persons who hold them and the way they experience life.  Swedenborg says we need to be discerning because we do have to make judgments and decide on courses of action.  We want our actions to be consistent with our beliefs.  So discernment is important.

So here we are, a bunch of individuals, completely separate from each other in some ways, and yet joined together by some commonly held beliefs.  Yet, these commonly held beliefs are a little differently understood in each and every one of us.

That creates an environment that is potentially good soil.  We can grow in an environment like that.  If we approach one another consciously seeking to understand each other, really delving into our differences in a detailed sort of way, we can help each other to be more discerning without being judgmental.  What that does is foster love for one another and it is love that joins together. 

Differences also have the potential to create or destroy relationships.   If we approach each other trying to convince the other that we are right and they are wrong, we drive ourselves apart and destroy the potential for union.  But if we approach one another trying to know each other more intimately, to grow in our understanding of each other's beliefs, then we foster union, we bring to life communion.  In doing so we do not create love, because all love comes from the Lord, but we let that love from him flow through us to the other person and it is the Lord's love flowing through us that joins us and creates the heavenly community that a church is supposed to be. 

We don't need to live alone, isolated in our individuality.  The Lord creates each of us to be unique, but he does this so that we can experience our self as a self.  It is only as a unique self that we can love another and join ourselves to that other.  It is this joining of one to another that perfects heaven and it is the creation of heaven that is the purpose behind the Lord's creating us in the first place.

Our first task is to know our self and to live as a unique creature of God.  Our second task is to join ourselves to the Lord and express the love we receive from him to each other.  When we do this, we take our place in eternity to live forever in the happiness of heaven.

Let us pray.  Lord, we ask you to bring us together into one community woven tightly by your love expressed through each of us to one another.  Amen.

Repentance - Or, Why Being Nice Is Not Enough

A sermon by Gordon Meyer, May 17, 2015

Texts: Ezekiel 18:30-32; Matthew 3:1-2; Luke 15:8-10; True Christianity 509.

 

Emanuel Swedenborg told us that repentance is the beginning of the church within us.  He wrote,  "We are all regenerated when we abstain from things that are evil and sinful" (True Christianity, 510-1).

People frequently share with me their concern that no matter how they try, they cannot stop doing evil things.  Not big evils that would, say, attract the attention of law enforcement agencies.  Not things that are so heinous that everyone, even criminals, would recognize their evil nature.  There is no one in this congregation who engages in such behavior.  After all, we're Minnesotans, and Swedenborgian Minnesotans at that.  If we aren't truly good, we are at least nice.

Minnesota nice.  We hear that phrase all the time.  Does it qualify us as regenerated people?  When John the Baptist cried, "Repent!" did he mean become like a Minnesotan?  Probably not.  He had, of course, never heard of Minnesota, and even if he had, even if he was baptizing in the Minnesota River, he wouldn't have meant for us to be Minnesota nice.  Being "nice" doesn't cut it when it comes to repentance. 

How does being nice fall short of repentance?  The simple answer is that it doesn't go deep enough.  People don't understand this if they don't now about the levels of existence.  We have levels within us.  The deepest level is the heaven within that Jesus spoke about to his disciples.  That is where we receive life from the Lord.  That is where the remnants of truth and goodness the Lord implants in us exist.  These remnants are the necessary ingredients in our regeneration.  Unless our repentance reaches through the outer levels and enters into that deepest level, we cannot be regenerated. 

Practically speaking, this is because it is only in that inmost level of our being that we can actually connect with the Lord.  Unless we connect with the Lord, there is no functional change in our understanding of truth or in our will to do good.  These remain secular in our motivations, even though we think they are spiritual. 

Examples are all around us.  People who display their religion in order to attract business or advance their position are one of the most obvious examples.  Some financial advisors say they are "Christian" financial advisors to make themselves appear more respectable and trustworthy, and perhaps imply that if we invest with them, God will help to ensure the profits.   

Some politicians flaunt their religion to get votes.  These folks speak, often with great feeling and a sense of righteousness, of the goodness of God and the need to accept Christ for our salvation.  They speak ardently of the life to come, of eternity and the dangers of hell.  But some of them don't really believe in eternal life, and they don't even really believe in God.  They say these things to become rich and famous and enhance their egos. 

People like this are hypocritical.  The people they appeal to lack understanding because they are also living mostly in their external self.  They are gullible.  They are concerned with saving themselves.  They are also concerned with acquiring the things of this world.  I'm generalizing and oversimplifying, but I'm doing it to make the point.

The fact is that we humans all have some of this hypocrisy within us.  We are all guilty of worrying about our self.  Much of what passes for repentance is fear.  But fear is only in the outer levels of our thinking and feeling.  Fear does not lead us to a union with the Lord.  That union is only approached in one way and that way is repentance.  To repent, we must look inward and examine ourselves. 

Some people believe that declaring themselves sinners in a general sort of way is repentance.  This is a sort of attempted repentance that arises out of fear.  Its result is a general feeling of contrition.  We have heard that all human beings are sinners and that we can't help it.  This is a frightening idea.

The thinking goes something like this.  Since God is omnipotent, he can do anything.  God created me, but because we humans are the way we are, we can't help but do things against God's will.  But since God is loving he will forgive what we do and save us anyway.  All I have to do is believe in God and ask for his forgiveness and I'll be saved, even though I can't stop myself from doing sinful things. 

If we take this idea that we can't help but be sinful because it is the nature of the human being to be selfish, what happens is that we excuse ourselves and stop trying to love our neighbor.  We may pay lip service to being loving and are Minnesota nice to show we are loving, but in reality our real basic goal is to serve our self.  Obviously, this is not what the Lord means by repentance. 

Swedenborg reinforces this by writing "By itself, an oral confession that we are sinners is not repentance."  The problem with oral confessions is that they are just words.  Our minds are such that we can think and say one thing while intending its exact opposite. 

We hear this sort of thing all the time in commercials.  Often the words make no sense, but sound good.

We can apply that same principle to oral confessions stating that generally we recognize that we are sinners, but in reality, we cannot itemize a single sin within us.  Or if we do identify a sin, we quickly justify it and push it out of our awareness.  This is not repentance.

This sounds pretty bleak.  How can anyone repent if we have to recognize all the sins within us and then stop committing them?  We can't.  But, fortunately, we don't need to.  Swedenborg tells us that if we recognize and acknowledge even one sin and then actively resist it because it is a sin against God, this begins our regeneration.  We are acknowledging that we need God's mercy and cannot save ourselves, but also that we must take an active part in our salvation. 

The idea that we are all sinners comes from the idea that Adam and Eve first sinned and because of that all humanity are born sinners.  It's called hereditary evil.  But Swedenborg explains hereditary evil differently.   

He says that we are not born sinners, but with a tendency to sin.  Like our physical and mental traits that are inherited, we also inherit a tendency toward certain behaviors from our parents.  We can see this in our children and grandchildren.

Other tendencies cannot be recognized so easily.  Many traits that lead to sinful behavior are carefully hidden from the public.  Minnesota nice.  It is often difficult to see these in people.  It is not so difficult to find them in our self, if we look honestly.  We can know our self pretty intimately if we are willing to look.  Sometimes we can see evil tendencies in our self and then, upon reflection, realize which parent or grandparent they came from.

Swedenborg points out that we are not held responsible for these inclinations toward sins.  We are only responsible for the ones we choose to exercise.  In other words, the evil tendencies we have within us, some of which never even come to our awareness, are not attributed to us until we condone them in our self, and intend to act on them if and when we can.

He goes on to say some things that can give us hope where all might seem hopeless.  Repentance is possible.  He even tells of an easier way to repent. 

He writes, "Therefore here is an easier kind of repentance: When we are considering doing something evil and are forming an intention to do it, we say to ourselves, 'I am thinking about this and I am intending to do it, but because it is a sin, I am not going to do it'.” (True Christianity 535)

This does not require examination ahead of time.  It does require paying attention to our self in the immediate moment and recognizing that what we are thinking of doing is wrong.  I've tried this and it works.  Sometimes.  What I've noticed is that it depends on whether I truly want to refrain from doing something sinful, or I'd rather go ahead and do it. 

It is not easy to repent.  But it is possible.  The first thing we have to do is want to.  Wanting to begins with understanding why it is better to stop doing sinful things.

Repentance means changing.  We can't stay the way we are and repent.  We have to give up some things we think we love or need.  We won't choose to do this until we understand why it is important.  So the key to repenting is to begin to understand. 

Our conscience is in our understanding.  If our understanding is only from the physical world and not from the truth the Lord implants in us, we will never choose to repent.  We must look within, examine our selves, seek the truth and the truth will make us free to choose the good that comes from repenting. 

The Spiritual Meaning of Motherhood

A Mother’s Day sermon by Gordon Meyer 

Texts: Genesis 3:20; John 2:4; 19:26; True Christianity Sect. 102.3

Mother's Day is kind of an exception among secular holidays because there is so much overlap between the secular and the religious involved in giving birth and nurturing children.

For one thing, among the many nurturing things mothers do, teaching about the religious beliefs of her faith is certainly one of them.  Of course, the main tenet of the Swedenborgian faith after love for the Lord, is charity or love for one's neighbor.  The first encounter children have with charitable activity is the caretaking they receive from their primary caregiver, and that is usually their mother.   

Human babies are unable to care for themselves at all.  Unlike most animals, human children are dependent for the first several years of their lives.  If they aren't given the care they require, they cannot survive.  Studies have been done that show that the necessary caregiving extends beyond providing for the maintenance needs of a human child.  Children require both physical and emotional stimulation as well.  Children need loving attention.  Women tend to provide this needed nurturance to very young children more than men do. 

I have noticed that my grandchildren don't respond to me like they do to my wife.   It may just be the way I am, but I've watched my granddaughter, Elsa, especially in this regard.   She and her two older brothers have all been clingy kids.  For a short time Elsa would not even go to her father.  If anyone tried to hold her but her mother, she screamed.  That changed fairly quickly with regard to her father, and then gradually to the other women around her.  She began letting the women hold her at length, but if I tried to take her in my arms she would immediately reach for her mother and start squirming.  If I didn't give her to her mother instantly, she'd start screaming.  I tried to take it in an understanding way, remembering that her brothers had behaved similarly at that age.  But I wanted to hold her, and I couldn't. 

She's getting better about it.  She's toddling now.  When I saw her last, a few days ago, she actually came to me when I called her.  She even held up her arms when I asked if I could pick her up.  It lasted all of ten seconds and she wanted to get down again and make a beeline for her mother.  But at least we're making progress.

She is simply more comfortable with women than she is with men.  I've noticed this with all of our grandchildren, both the girls and the boys.   Maybe it's something hereditary.  Or maybe it's because the women in our society have always done most of the child rearing.   

But things are changing.  Our oldest son is a stay-at-home dad.  In their family he does most of the mothering.  He's very good at it, too.  It's interesting to watch him care for his kids.  He knows who ate what at their last meal, who slept well or didn't, which clothes are clean and available and which are in the dirty clothes, who has a game, a lesson, a practice, an event after school, where the lost baseball mitt or ice skate or hockey stick probably is.  He volunteers at their schools and chaperones field trips with the other moms.  He does all the shopping and cooking and cleaning and laundry and dishes.  In short, he is a great mother.   

So mothering is being defined a little differently than when I was a child.  It is no longer necessarily the woman's job in a marriage. 

But whether it is a woman or a man providing this nurturing it is clear that it takes a lot of concerted effort and perseverance to do a good job of raising kids.  It is perhaps the fundamental form of charity among human beings, and in this way it spans the gap between the secular and spiritual life.

This is reflected in scripture when we examine how the word mother is used in the inner meaning.  In the inner meaning of the Word, the term "mother" means the church.  Eve, the fictional first mother, presented in Genesis as the matriarch of the human species, really stands for the Most Ancient Church.  "Eve" refers to the church that preceded all the ensuing churches presented as her descendants, beginning with Abel and descending all the way to Lamech and Noah. 

These sons of Eve symbolize the various doctrines that developed in the course of the church's history.  Doctrinal differences foster new churches and so the generations following Eve symbolize new churches formed from differences in people's beliefs. 

In the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, we find that the relationship between Jesus and his mother appears somewhat problematical.   Although the Gospel writers refer to Mary as Jesus' mother, Jesus himself is never quoted as calling her that.  In fact, when he does refer to his mother, he always calls her "woman."  To the casual reader this seems rather rude, coarse, and impersonal of Jesus.  But this would be so uncharacteristic of Jesus that we must assume there must be more to it.  And there is. 

At the wedding at Capernaum when she approached him about the lack of wine for the wedding, the Lord said to his mother, "O woman, what have you to do with me?  My hour has not come yet".  What does he mean?  I  believe she is asking him to do something she knows he can do, but that he is not yet really prepared to reveal to others.  Here Mary is "woman" not "mother" because the child she bore is the Lord God the Savior.  God has no mother.   

But if we think of this in terms of the inner meaning, it appears to be saying that in calling his mother "woman" Jesus is representing that the church he is bringing into the world has not yet been established.  The fact that he follows this statement by saying, "My hour has not come yet," seems to support that interpretation.  He then proceeds to turn water into wine.  That means he turns earthly truth, symbolized by water, into spiritual truth symbolized by wine.  The fact that this occurs at a wedding where the steward in charge of the wedding proclaims Jesus' wine to be far superior to that served before further supports this interpretation.  Finally, the symbolism of the wedding itself gives credence to this understanding, since weddings symbolize the joining of Divine Love and Wisdom, or what is called the heavenly marriage. 

When he was on the cross, his mother and the disciple whom he loved stood before him.  Jesus said to them, "Woman, behold, your son!"  And then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!"   

What Jesus is telling them is that the church he is founding is the "mother" of the religion he is bringing us.  That church is based on charity.  Charity is good works and the disciple Jesus loved symbolizes love expressed in good works.   

In the inner meaning of the Word, the disciples each represent some aspect of faith, and the disciple referred to as the one Jesus loved is the disciple who represents the works of charity, or spiritually good works.  This, of course, refers to the second great commandment, the one we are to live by, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, " which lies at the heart of the doctrine of the Christian church. 

So motherhood carries a meaning for us from a spiritual perspective far beyond that of the bearing and nursing of children.   

What "child" is it that our mother the church produces and raises up?  We are born in a purely natural state.  We have a spirit in which the Lord plants life, but as we develop on the earth we are predominantly natural beings. 

Our natural father and mother conceive us and nurture our natural self as it grows.  We also receive remnants of spiritual truth implanted in us by the Lord.  These come to us internally and in the teachings we hear from our parents, the church and in reading the Word. 

When love of and concern for the Lord becomes our predominant love it is the church that becomes our mother.  Spiritual conscience is developed within us from ideas that come to us from the Lord.

So we have two mothers.  We have our earthly mother through whom we are brought into these physical bodies and by whom we are nurtured physically, and hopefully also spiritually, and we have our spiritual mother, the church within the regenerated person.  

What we need to realize is that we can all act as spiritual mothers to each other and to those outside the church.  Everyone who has the church within also has the mother within.  

So on this mother's day, let's remember our earthly mothers and show them the love we have for them.  But let us also remember the Lord and his church, the mother we can experience within bringing us to the Lord and to eternal life.

Let us pray.  Lord, make us mindful of your work within us and lead us all into your heavenly kingdom.  Amen.

Anger and the Self - Gordon Meyer

Have you ever noticed how anger can be used as a tool?  When I was teaching children with behavioral problems, one of the things that became apparent to me was that many of them seemed to use angry outbursts as a means for meeting their needs.  They didn't know how else to get people to pay attention to them.  Very often the parents of these children were behaving a lot like their kids.  There were no adults in the family.  This resulted in angry power struggles.  When these became severe enough to require professional intervention, the child had been sent to live in a residential treatment center, and that's where I worked as a teacher and where I got to know these kids. 

I remember one little girl in particular.  She was the only child of a divorced couple.  Her mother was attempting to raise this little girl, but the mother herself was a very conflicted person with a strong narcissistic streak.  The only way this little girl could get her mother to pay attention to her needs was to make her mother so uncomfortable that she was compelled to attend to her daughter. 

Let's call her Maggie, since I'm sure that wasn't her real name. 

Maggie was about seven or eight when she came to us.  She was a physically attractive child with curly brown hair and cute little dimples in her pudgy cheeks.  She could be sweet as long as she was content with her circumstances, but that didn't last long. 

Most kids, coming into a situation like a residential treatment facility and its school go through a period of adjustment we called the "honeymoon period."   Like newlyweds, these kids would be on their best behavior while they scouted out the lay of the land.  Once they discovered they were safe, they would begin to show their true personalities.

With Maggie, that didn't take as long as most kids.  As I recall, she was being physically restrained by the second day she was in school and the classroom was in an uproar most of the time because of her behavior.

After a couple of days of this, my assistant and I decided that our usual response to this kind of acting out wasn't going to work.  Maggie was clearly as determined as we were to control the classroom.  We decided on a different approach.  Whenever Maggie began to protest, we would simply ignore her until she asked appropriately for what she wanted.  Since she didn't tear the place apart, but rather tended to scream and cry and accuse us, we were able to refrain from restraining her. 

We had a very large classroom with no windows.  It had once been an industrial arts room.  My assistant had her desk at one end of the room and I was at the other, facing her.  We decided that when Maggie began acting out, we would either be working with other students at their desks or be seated at our own desks working with students one-to-one.  We would keep tabs on Maggie, but not pay attention to her. 

Of course, her acting out increased markedly.  She began having real tantrums, screaming and crying, laying on the floor kicking.  The kind of thing you expect in a two-year-old.  She kept it up all one afternoon until I thought I was going to lose my mind.  At one point, I took the rest of our students to the gym while my assistant remained in the room with Maggie. 

The next day Maggie seemed fine for the first few minutes.  Then she found something to complain about and we were back into the crisis mode.  The other students, fortunately, were very willing to cooperate with us.  They were experiencing her self-centered behavior both at school and in the residence and they understood what we were doing. 

They ignored her and went about their business.  Maggie kept up the screaming and demanding through the morning.  Her endurance was remarkable.  When it came time for lunch, I stayed behind while my assistant took the class to the lunchroom.  She brought Maggie's lunch back on a tray that Maggie promptly dumped on the floor. 

By mid-afternoon I was beginning to question the wisdom of our plan when things changed.  Maggie was standing in the middle of the room where she had been sitting on the floor screaming for the last several minutes.  Suddenly, she stopped and stood up.  I was watching surreptitiously.  She looked around with an angry scowl.  Then she burst into tears, stomped her foot, threw up her hands and yelled at this cruel world, "I'm real angry and nobody cares."  Then she collapsed in sobs on the floor.  She cried for a few minutes, but when no one reacted, she stopped and sat up.  My assistant went over to her and asked if she was ready to do her work.  Maggie nodded and went to her own desk with my assistant and began working.

That was the end of it.  We certainly had some relapses to deal with over the next weeks, but her need to control us by her negative behavior was gone.   What was most interesting to me was that her mother continued to report the same old routine at home during home visits.  It made it quite clear to us where the real problem lay.  But we had little control over that, and Maggie was learning to behave appropriately away from her mother.  She rarely displayed anger by the time she left our school and when she did, it was due to something that happened between her and another student. 

Incidents like this have made me aware of how anger can be used as a tool.  We use anger to get what we want or to protect our interests in some way.  Swedenborg wrote that anger is always an expression of self-love.  Whenever someone makes a generalization like that, it is good to look closely at it.  The old adage that "no generalization is worth a damn, including this one" applies. 

But perhaps this is the exception that proves the rule.  This generalization may be true.  Can it be that all anger is an expression of self-love?  Does anger only occur when our self-love is thwarted or threatened in some way?

Perhaps the answer lies in how we define self-love.  As a little girl Maggie was confronted with a caretaker who was so self-absorbed that she didn't provide for the young child's needs very well.  Maggie wasn't  seriously neglected to the point that removal from her home or loss of parental rights was considered.  Her mother wasn't a druggy or a criminal.  Nor was she insane.  She was just self-absorbed and put her child's needs second to her own. 

As a result, Maggie developed a coping mechanism that made quieting her tantrums one of her mother's needs.   We changed her behavior by showing her that her tantrums wouldn't get her what she wanted, but appropriate behavior would. 

Was Maggie's anger justified?  It would appear so, under the circumstances.   Was her anger an expression of self-love?  I think the answer is also yes, even though the circumstances dictated the behavior.  Broadly defined, self-love includes any behavior designed or intended to meet our personal needs.  In Maggie's case, her efforts to get her needs met were so thwarted that angry outbursts became the most effective means of meeting them. 

Are there other circumstances when anger as an expression of self-love, is justified?  I think so.   On the personal level, we can see that it is permissible and necessary to defend ourselves against people or animals that pose a threat to our lives.  Protecting others by violent means may also be necessary under the right circumstances. 

How does anger fit into these situations?  Typically, when confronted with danger a human being's first reaction is fear.  Fear can be immobilizing.  A deer in the headlights of a car is frozen by fear. 

Anger can be the motivating stimulus to gear us into action when confronted by something dangerous.  Certainly protecting ourselves is an expression of self-love.  But it is necessary self-love. 

This is a distinction we need to be able to make.  What self-love is necessary and what is just selfish?   We have to eat to live. And violence to defend against violent threats is also sometimes necessary. 

So when does anger cross the line and result in unnecessary selfishness?

In our reading from Matthew today Jesus tells us that if we are angry with another person we are liable to judgment.  He prefaces this by saying that we have heard the Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill."  But he is pointing out that killing means more than putting someone to death.  It is harboring any resentment against another, or having someone holding something against us that is unresolved.  This isn't about physical survival, where anger might actually be beneficial.  This is about love between us and our neighbor, where any kind of anger is destructive.  This is what Swedenborg had in mind when he said that all anger is an expression of self-love. 

We cannot allow anger to stand between us and another person if we are to truly love the neighbor.  Even if that person is an enemy who seems bent on doing us harm, we are not to be angry with that person.  We are to love them and seek to be reconciled to them. 

These teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount show us just how detailed we need to be in our examination of our self.  He says that we have heard the Ten Commandments.  Don't kill, don't steal, don't commit adultery.   These big headings have long lists under them of detailed behaviors that are not acceptable.  For the most part they play out in our lives as little feelings we have, mostly hidden and unexpressed. 

We feel minor irritations at something someone is doing or saying that we don't like.   We feel irritated by this other person and it barely enters our awareness.  Yet it is an expression of very mild anger and therefore also an expression of self-love that we imagine being thwarted. 

How subtle that is.  So subtle we don't even pay any attention to it.  Yet it is there.  It distracts us briefly from loving our neighbor.  Like Maggie's mother, those little irritations comprise a large part of our psyche and or character is formed by them.  We become a generally angry person. 

It is not uncommon for someone to be angry nearly all the time and not be aware of it.  If someone asks them how they feel about something, they are likely to respond with a description of what they think about it.  Another way of avoiding our anger is to project our feelings onto others, imagining them to be angry with us, when, in reality, we are the angry ones.

So is our anger a tool?  Do we use it to get what we think we want?  Do we use it unconsciously, out of habit, like putting on a jacket before going out in the cold.  Anger is a defense.  It is our ego's way of protecting itself.  Most of the anger we feel is under our radar.  We don't notice it.  It flits by and we move on to the next situation.  Some of us indulge in it more than others.  But almost all anger is destructive.  Spiritually speaking, it is the murder the sixth Commandment tells us not to commit.  The only way to overcome it is to recognize our anger when it occurs and then ask the Lord in prayer to help us overcome this habit.  If we truly desire to be a loving person we must resist being angry. The Lord can remove anger from us, and he will to the degree that we truly want him to. 

Let us pray:  Lord help us to see our anger and allow you to cleanse it from our hearts.  Amen.

Freedom and Love

As a kid I was known as someone who liked to argue.  I never thought so.  I just seemed to have a lot of opinions about things.  Anyway, when I got to high school, I found an acceptable way to be argumentative.  I was on the varsity debate team.  Actually, everyone who went out for debate was on the varsity team.  That was because it took four members to make a team.  Gives you an idea of how popular debate was.   

My position on the team was called batting cleanup.  I was fourth man, except half the team were girls.  But anyway, I was fourth, which meant I went last and mopped up, so to speak.  It was my job to drive home the team's position.  Hence the term batting cleanup. 

My teammates called me the anchor.  I was very proud of that designation until I discovered that they meant I was dead weight. 

Debate wasn't a popular extra curricular activity.   There were few of us in the debate club and no one ever came to hear us debate.  Not even our parents, as I recall.  I liked to think that was because the debates were always held on Saturday mornings.   I guess our folks preferred to sleep in their beds  rather than sleeping through our meets.

There were two reasons for its lack of popularity, I believe.  One was that it was the most nerve-wracking sport out there.  I would get so nervous before a debate that I'd be sick to my stomach and afterwards I always needed a shower more than after a basketball game.  Then there was the amount of preparation needed.  Playing on the basketball team required a two-hour practice every afternoon.  Debate required research into the wee hours of the morning, after our other homework was done.  A lot of high school students like to argue, but not many like it so much that they are willing to prepare like that for it.   

On top of all this, a judge wrapped up each debate by telling us we either won or lost, and giving us details about why.  It could be a very humbling experience. 

So after high school I didn't pursue it.  I kept on arguing whenever the opportunity presented itself, but only informally.  It was the sixties, Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.   I didn't have to look far to find a good argument. 

What is arguing all about?  At its very basic roots it is about exercising our freedom of choice, isn't it?  What is that freedom of choice?  We take it for granted.  We are so used to choosing we don't even notice we are doing it most of the time.  Yet it is at the core of our humanity.  Without the ability to choose and everything that goes into that ability, we would simply be animals.   We would not be human and we would not be aware of being an individual except in the rudimentary way animals experience their selfhood.

Animals are like machines.  They are programmed to function a certain way and only that way.  They don't have to make choices, although at times it appears they are doing so.  But a predator doesn't kill unless it is hungry.  Animals that are prey have a sense of this.  I have seen videos taken on the plains of Africa showing antelope and other prey grazing within sight of a pride of lions.  Neither group of animals is paying any attention to the other.  But when the lions get hungry and begin to organize for a hunt, the antelope become alert to their actions and respond accordingly.  The antelope "know," so to speak, when the lions are dangerous to them and when they are not.

Human beings aren't programmed like this.  We respond to hunger, it's true, but we also choose to eat snacks even when we aren't hungry.   We even choose to eat snacks that are actually harmful to us.  For humans, once basic appetite is satisfied, we continue eating by choice.

People hunt for sport.  We also choose to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and use other drugs.  We choose to make war on each other, or commit murders.  We steal, lie, bear false witness, commit adultery.  As a species we break all of God's commandments.

We have free choice because God gave us free choice and throughout our history we have used that free choice to create the evil that exists.  So why did an omnipotent, omniscient, loving God decide to create a being that produces evil?   

The answer to that is that he didn't really have a choice.  Does that sound strange, even ridiculous?  Of course God has a choice in everything God does.  God is omnipotent and omniscient.  He can do anything and he knows everything. 

But God is God.  He says it.  I am that I am.  In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God and all things were made by him and through him and nothing was made without him.  He is and was and will be forever.  God is reality itself.  God's life is the only life that actually exists.  We are nothing but vessels into which he pours life.  That is why we live. 

So why would God create us if he knew our existing would lead to the existence of evil? 

This is one of those very complicated issues that Swedenborg explores at great length.  He does this because understanding it is essential to understanding why we are the way we are and what we need to do. 

So let's start at the beginning of this thorny question.  Why did God create us in the first place?  He did it because God is Love itself.  You have heard of and perhaps read about Divine Love and Wisdom.  Divine Wisdom comes from Divine Love.  Wisdom is not wise without love, because wisdom comes forth from and is made of love.  Without love wisdom is really nothing.  It has no substance.  Love is the substance in wisdom. 

This is not a figure of speech.  It is literally true.  In our service last week I read from Swedenborg's little book called The Lord that everything spiritual consists of a substance.  This substance is the spiritual equivalent of matter in our physical world.  They correspond.

Since everything is essentially made of the substance we call Love and since God is that love itself, God cannot help but love.  He doesn't have to do love.  He is love.  Love is innate in God.  It is God's essence. 

So because God is love he needs something to love.  This is an important point and one we don't normally seem to recognize. It is like God has a limit.  In a sense he does.  He cannot help but be loving because it is his essential nature.  If he didn't love, he wouldn't be God.  He cannot choose to stop loving any more than you could choose to be something other than a person in a physical body.  That's what you are.  Love is what God is.  So God is limited, or perhaps we should say, defined in this way.

Because this so-called limit exists in God's nature, he must have something to love.  If he didn't have something other than himself to love, he would be guilty of self-love and there cannot be a single trace of self-love in God.  So he has to create something to love, and that's us and this universe we live in.  God created it and saw that it was good and loved it. 

But God in his omniscience saw that in order to love us and be in a loving relationship with us, the loving had to be reciprocal.  Anyone who has been in a situation of unrequited love knows how unsatisfying, and even destructive, it can be.  Unrequited love eats away at the soul of the loving person.  We feel love as a frustration if it is not returned.  While our lack of love for the Lord does not destroy him, does not even reduce him in his essential self, it is something that saddens him.  In his love, which is also his mercy, he never gives up on us, but it hurts the Lord when we turn away. 

So why didn't he simply create us to always love him?  The answer is that if we didn't have the ability to choose to love him, it wouldn't be something that was truly ours and the relationship between us and God would be like that of a young child with a doll.  As long as the child is young and innocent, meaning ignorant, a doll can provide a satisfying relationship for the child.  But as the child grows older and realizes that the doll is really just an object, the imaginary relationship disappears.  In order to feel satisfied and loved, the child needs a relationship with a real person who loves in return.

God is not ignorant.  God knows everything.  For us to provide a satisfactory relationship of love for God, we have to be real individuals.  We can't be dolls. 

What makes us real in this sense is the fact that we have the ability to know and understand truth and to choose it.  We have the ability to learn about God and to choose to love God freely, without being compelled to do so.  

Swedenborg says that "every special gift the church has to offer that comes to us in freedom and that we freely accept stays with us; what comes to us in other ways does not."

In other words, only that which we freely acknowledge and believe becomes part of our true self.  Everything else dies with our physical body.  What we freely believe is part of our real person.  This is where the life the Lord pours into us exists in us, and the character we form there by our choices between good and evil determines the kind of person we become. 

The Lord is constantly showing us the way to become good, loving persons.  At every turn we have opportunities to learn what goodness is and to practice it, to make it our own and become goodness. 

We are to love God and our neighbor as our self.  This is the grand design by which everything works.   Let us choose to live so as to rise up one day as angels, capable of expressing the love to others that the Lord pours into us every moment of our lives.  

Sermon for Sept. 21, 2014

Have you ever noticed how often people take the name of the Lord in vain?  It happens constantly.  There is even an abbreviation for doing so in emails and text messages.  OMG.  For those of you who, like me, aren't very literate in that new lingo, I investigated and found out that OMG stands for Oh, My God.  Kids nowadays say Oh My God like we used to say gee whillikers, or Oh Golly, or Geez, or Criminy, or gosh darn....well you get the idea.  All of these are variations of ways to say Jesus or God without actually saying them.  Our language is full of these not-quite-swear words.  Of course, we've always included the more direct use of the Lord's name when cursing. 

Damn it has become darn it.  We shorten some phrases up to disguise them.  The phrase "damn it" drops the name of God, but the implication is still there.  Who else but God can damn anyone?  The fact is, though, that this just displays our ignorance of God's nature, because in fact, God never damns us.  Nobody else can damn us, either.  We damn ourselves, and we do it by violating not only the commandment not to take the Lord's name in vain, but also all the other Ten Commandments.

Now, if you're like me and most of the population, you believe that you do not violate the Ten Commandments.  The truth is that we do violate them and we do so without thinking about what we are doing, because we don't take them seriously enough and we don't understand what they really mean, in their inner spiritual and heavenly senses.    

Swedenborg writes that the Ten Commandments are the most important thing in God's Word.  Why does he say that?  He says that because the Ten Commandments establish the covenant between God and us and they are the testimony to what that covenant contains. 

In the inner meaning of the scriptures a covenant means a partnership, a contract, and a testimony means something that confirms and witnesses to an agreement. 

That the Ten Commandments are unique and uniquely important to us is shown in the way they were received from God by the Israelite nation.  This event is surrounded in mystery and miracle.  It was not an ordinary, everyday occurrence. 

When Moses went up on Mt. Sinai, no one was allowed to go with him.  Even Aaron, the chief priest, was prohibited.  A fence was placed around the mountain to prevent anyone from straying onto the mountain because if they did they would die.  The tablets were written in stone, that is, permanently.  They were a permanent contract between God and people.  That contract continues today. 

The Ten Commandments are written on two tablets, which represent the two sides of the contract.   One side describes God's part in the contract, the other describes ours. 

Our side of the contract contains things that are present in every civilization.  Everyone knows that murder is not acceptable.  Everyone knows we should not commit adultery, steal, not bear false witness, or covet what is our neighbor's. 

These things are part of every nation's laws. They are common knowledge.  With or without laws, they are universally recognized as morally correct.  Why then the need to include them in the Word of God as the Ten Commandments?  The reason is that God wants us to know that these are not just civic laws or moral laws, they are sacred laws, laws established by God himself. 

The penalty for failing to abide by these laws isn't limited to the justice system of the community in which we live.  Indeed, some of these laws are broken so regularly in our communities today that the application of punishments of a civil nature have been tossed aside. 

For the most part, not only taking the name of God in vain, but idolatry and adultery and coveting have become acceptable behaviors legally.  Stealing goes on in the form of usury, or false representation in contracts like mortgages and other tricky methods of investment and so forth that get around the law and make it legal. 

Morally, these practices are frowned upon, but seldom effectively punished other than by the emotional pain it can cause, or the murder it sometimes leads to.  Coveting others' belongings has risen almost to the level of a pastime with some people, a way of life with others, and as a society we seem to accept that as inevitable.  We even envy some people's ability to pull these things off.   We seldom notice that we are coveting when we do it. 

But to God these are unacceptable behaviors.  And within their external, literal meaning, these Commandments carry deeper levels of meaning that make them even more restrictive than they appear to be.  The real covenant, the real partnership with the Lord that is created by our adherence to these divine laws, is present in their internal meaning. 

The first four Commandments tell us what the Lord will do if we follow the remaining six.  In the Book of Revelation he tells us, "Behold, I am standing at the door and knocking.  If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and dine with them and they with me." 

This is written in the Book of Revelation, the book that foretells the coming of the New Jerusalem.  To be able to open the door and let the Lord enter we must follow the Ten Commandments that comprise the covenant and create the partnership between us.  There is no other way. 

The Lord also told us that he is the door.  We must enter by him and not by trying to climb up by some other way.  There are no exceptions to the Ten Commandments.  If we are to open the door to the Lord and become the New Jerusalem, we must accept the conditions of the covenant as they appear in these laws of God. 

So what do they tell us?  The first commandment says, "There is to be no other God before my face."  This is Swedenborg's translation.  We are more familiar with the translation that says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."  In its earthly, literal meaning this means that we must not worship idols or other people.  It is an admonishment against the worship of anything we hold dearer than God.  It can be money, reputation, power, or it can be saints or even Mother Mary.

In its spiritual sense the First Commandment means that we are to worship no other God than the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is Jehovah of the Old Testament and he came into the world to reveal himself to us and bring about redemption.   

There is a third level of meaning even deeper than the spiritual level.  In that meaning we can understand that the Lord God is infinite, immeasurable, and eternal. 

He is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, or always everywhere with unlimited wisdom and power.  He is love itself and wisdom itself, which means that he is goodness itself and truth itself.  Because of this, he is life itself.  He is the only life there is.  We exist because his life is poured into us.  All things come from him and without him we would simply not exist.  So we owe the Lord everything.

The Second Commandment is that we are not to take the name of the Lord in vain, because he will not hold guiltless someone who takes his name in vain.  Swedenborg writes of this commandment that "in its earthly meaning, which is the literal meaning, taking the name of Jehovah God in vain includes abusing his name in various types of talking, especially lies and deceptions, swearing and oath-taking for no reason or to avoid blame, and using his name with evil intent, which is cursing, or in sorcery and magic spells." 

This seems to let those who use God's name as a somewhat meaningless exclamation off the hook.  The habitual "Oh, My God" is perhaps not what the commandment refers to, if it is used simply as an exclamation of surprise or emphasis.  But I would venture to say that its use in this frivolous manner diminishes in us our feeling of worship toward God, and we should avoid such phrases in our speech. 

By the same token, taking an oath or swearing by God's name in an inauguration or some taking of vows is not a violation of the Second Commandment unless it is done insincerely.  Then it falls into the category of using God's name to deceive others. 

On the spiritual level the Lord's name carries with it everything that saves us.  It represents to us everything about the Lord and our partnership with him that makes it possible for us to have eternal life. 

On the heavenly level we discover why the use of the Lord's name in vain condemns us.  It is ultimately a rejection of God.  If we reject God, we cannot form a partnership with him and without being joined to the Lord we cannot exist in heaven. Taking his name in vain trivializes that partnership and excludes us from it.  If we become confirmed in our trivialization of God and our relationship with him, we are lost. 

The Third Commandment is to keep the Sabbath Day holy.  We are to do this because the Sabbath represents the Lord.  It represents in its literal meaning the six days that the Lord battled evil and the seventh day when he rested after his victory over evil.

In its spiritual sense the Sabbath represents our reformation and regeneration, because these parallel the way in which the Lord confronted evil and glorified himself in his Divine Humanity.  In the highest, heavenly sense it represents our connection to the Lord after we are regenerated.  Life in heaven is without conflict, peaceful, and joyful. 

The Fourth Commandment is to honor your father and your mother.  In its literal sense it means to honor and obey our parents, to be devoted to them and to be thankful to them for what they do for us and give to us. 

In the spiritual sense, father and mother refer to the Lord and the church.  This is because in the heavenly sense Father is the Lord and we are to love, honor and obey him as our true father and creator.  The New Jerusalem that is established in heaven and is coming into being on the earth is our true mother and family. 

The literal meanings of the fifth through the tenth commandments are apparent to us and I won't delineate them here.  And rather than discuss each of the spiritual and heavenly meanings of the fifth through the tenth commandments, which none of us is likely to remember when I've finished, I want to give an example of how each of these has an internal meaning and an inner meaning, as well as their obvious literal meaning. 

There is one Commandment, the sixth, about which the Lord mentioned one of its spiritual meanings specifically.  He said that if we look at someone with lust in our hearts we have already committed adultery.  We can see in this that there are deeper meanings to all the Commandments, and these are discussed by Swedenborg at length and in detail.  

The Sixth Commandment is against committing adultery.  Again it goes further in the spiritual sense than the physical act of adultery.  Any intention, whether carried out or not, is already adultery in a person's heart, as the Lord said.  We are not to lust.  That says it all.  Lust of any kind consumes us in evil cravings that destroy us by turning us away from God. 

In the spiritual sense adultery refers to contaminating the good things of the Word and falsifying its truths.  Note that this is not about our actions in the outer world, but about our understanding at the intellectual level of our being.  The heavenly meaning takes this one step further.  It goes even deeper into our being.  It deals with the relationship we have with the Lord.  It means we are not to desecrate the Word or deny its holiness.  Since the Lord is the Word, we are not to desecrate our relationship with him. 

This is the briefest of summaries of the Ten Commandments.  We can see that each of these Commandments has three levels of meaning that correspond to the three levels of our being. 

Swedenborg said they are the most important thing in the Word of God.  If that is the case, we should probably be taking them seriously.  Do you know what they are?  Can you name all ten?  Being able to say what they are is a good start toward being aware of when we violate them.  Then the real work begins.  Awareness of the Ten Commandments can help us to resist breaking them.  And keeping the Ten Commandments can result in some wonderful changes in our lives.

Let us pray.  Lord help us to be obedient to your Word and to live by your Commandments.  Amen.

Sermon for Sept. 7, 2014

To begin, I'd like to ask everyone to look into your heart of hearts and ask yourself a question.  The question is this.  Am I a good person?  Try to be as objective as you can and ask yourself as sincerely as possible. 

 

We are told in the Word that no one is good except God, so if you answered that you are a good person, you may need to look a little deeper.

 

Perhaps you mean that in a relative way you are good.  Relatively speaking, you are better than many human beings.   Is that what you mean?  Or perhaps you consider everyone to be good because God doesn't create junk.  This was the theme of sermons and discussions I heard a lot when I was in seminary at the height of the women's liberation movement.  I remember being told angrily by one of the women, "Dammit, I am good!"  She meant it, too.

 

What God creates is good.  This is true.  Read the first verses of the Book of Genesis.  But the fact that God only creates good things doesn't necessarily mean that we are good.  We must consider that while the human being may be a good creation, the wear and tear of history has turned what was originally a good thing into something less than good.  The accumulation of human experience passed on from generation to generation has resulted in the less-than-good condition of humanity today.

 

According to Emanuel Swedenborg, we are born evil.  It is the nature of the human being to love him or her self and to behave accordingly as much as the law and public opinion will permit. 

 

So if we get to thinking, "Hey, I'm basically a good person," it might be well to take a closer look.   We may be missing something. 

 

Swedenborg tells us that there are three steps we must take in determining our true state.  We must first examine ourselves.  Then, having finally opened our eyes to what we are really like, we must pray and we must confess. 

 

This isn't easy.  Our egos resist.  They don't want to see the truth about themselves.

 

Gurdjieff says that we are all machines. He calls us machines because we act mechanically, out of habit or by stimulus and response, not by choice and free will.

 

Our real person is our soul.  In our soul there is the potential to share in the Lord's goodness, to become actually good by forming a partnership with the Lord.

 

The actions of that machine we experience as our self are basically selfish. Selfishness turns us away from God.  The reason selfishness turns us away from God is that we can only make our love for God real by expressing that love toward others.  Without acting out our love it remains only an idea in our minds.  It doesn't exist as something real. 

 

We can't really do anything for God.  God is never sick, so we can't take dinner in to him when he's bedridden.  God is not blind, so we can't help him across the street.  The fact is, there isn't anything God needs from us, except our obedience and our love, and the only reason he needs these from us is that he wants to save us and the only way we can be saved is to love and obey him.

 

The biggest problem we have is that these egos fight for their lives. Their biggest effort is against being observed.  They want to remain anonymous.  They want to continue to pose as our real self.  If we discover them, and see how they hurt us constantly, we will want to destroy them, or at least contain and control them. 

 

Actually, we need these machines to be able to live in the physical world, but they must be under the control of our soul, the true living self within us.  In other words, we need to live from the inside out.  We mostly live from the outside, while inside we are asleep.

 

The Lord has told us that there is only one way to enter into his kingdom, by the door.  The door is the Lord himself.  Swedenborg writes that in the Gospel according to John the Lord is telling us that we must enter by our belief in him, not by climbing up by some other way.  Swedenborg says that by the "other way" the Lord means worshipping God in God's essence, not in his manifested self in Jesus Christ.  Trying to worship God in God's essence is beyond the ability of our finite minds to comprehend.

 

Trying to worship God in God's essence is perhaps what Stephen King was driving at in the excerpts I read a few weeks ago from the Dark Tower, where he talks about finding at the nexus of all creation a tower with a room at its top.  If we dared to approach that room, he asks, would we find God there, or emptiness? 

 

Swedenborg's answer is that if we dare to be so bold, so egotistical, as to think we can approach the Divine itself, we will not be able to see anything there.  It will be empty.  It will be only nothingness.  But remember, that earlier in the Dark Tower King wrote that nothingness is an impossibility.  There cannot be nothing.  God must exist, but God is beyond our comprehension, and so, we cannot see him, understand him.  Swedenborg points out that such worship leads to denying God and either worshipping nature or simply believing there is no God.  The idea of God dissipates into nothingness.

 

If our puny little egos think they can climb up the stairs of our Dark Tower and approach God, we are lost.  We will arrive ultimately in an empty room called hell.

 

To save us from this, God the Father, God's essential self, made himself known in a way we can comprehend.  He came into this world as a human being, in the body of Jesus Christ.  As The Lord he confronted and defeated all evil from within himself, from his own soul, which is God the Father.  As he told Philip, "The Father and I are one."  Having defeated all evil, he rose from death and ascended into heaven, where he reigns as our King.  We are to worship and adore this visible, tangible manifestation of God the Father, which we call God the Son, though he is one and the same, both Father and Son. 

 

 Why can we not worship God the Father directly?  Why is worshipping God the Father climbing up by another way?

 

The answer is that we cannot form a partnership with a God who appears to us as invisible.  We cannot know the reality of the Divine itself anymore than we can know the mysteries of the universe.

 

I need to comment on this in terms of those whose beliefs are not from the Christian tradition.  Some will question how those outside of Christianity can be saved if their religion does not worship the Lord.  As Swedenborg explains, God provides for all who believe in him as they understand him from their own religion and live a good life in relation to their neighbors.   Those of us who are blessed to know of the Lord, and especially, it seems to me, those who have been shown his further revelation in Swedenborg's works, have a greater responsibility to the truth than those who have not, and more is expected of us. 

 

The real goal of self-examination, then, is discovering what we really believe about God.  We must dis-cover that belief.  We must uncover it. 

 

When we have eventually come to an understanding of how much, or perhaps how little, we actually do believe in the Lord, a realization of how much we depend on our machine instead, we are ready to begin to change. 

 

To change, to be re-formed, we must pray and confess.  Our prayer must be for the Lord's mercy.  Our ego balks at asking for mercy.   It wants things, not mercy.  We pray the Lord will be gracious unto us and grant us what we ask for.  Asking for mercy is admitting we are lost without the Lord.  Our ego doesn't want to admit that it has any shortcomings.  Ultimately, many egos believe that they are God, or at least that they are more important to themselves than God is.    

 

So praying for mercy is a big step in the right direction.  For many people the first time they pray for mercy they can actually feel a physical reaction, a resistance in their gut.  If you truly want to be saved by the Lord, you have to be willing, no actually desiring, to receive his mercy and acknowledge that you need it.  There is no other way that leads to partnership with him.  His mercy alone is the door by which we can enter.  We cannot climb up by any other way.  We cannot climb the stairs to the upper room in the Dark Tower.

 

The Lord grants his mercy to anyone who seeks it.  Having been granted the Lord's mercy we must then begin to confess to him everything we find of evil in our self.

 

Examination.  Prayer.  Confession.  These lead to genuine love to the Lord and its expression in the world.  Without this, we are lost.  With it, we do not have to climb up by another way, imagining we know some ethereal God.  We enter by the door and live in partnership with the Lord, Our Savior and Redeemer.  Let us pray.

 

Lord help us to see that we must form a partnership with you out of love for you and obedience to your will that we should be saved.  Amen.

 

Sermon for April 6, 2014

Sermon for April 6, 2014

 

We are in the midst of the Lenten season.  It is a time for examination and contemplation of our lives and the state we are in.  The new year in the Jewish calendar begins at this time of year.   The spring equinox marks the new beginning of growth.  The frost thaws and new life springs up.  The frozen ice and snow that have locked the land in their wintry grip melt away, releasing the potential energy held in their frozen waters to nourish the new plants and transform the earth.  It is a time that corresponds with new birth within. 

    We resolve to change in some small way during this time, giving up something of our external loves as a token of our recognition that our true life is spiritual.  It is in our human selves that the physical and the spiritual meet. 

    Rev. Edward Craig Mitchell, was a former pastor of this church. While he was here he wrote a book entitled Scripture Symbolism.  In it he explained the relationship between the natural world and the spiritual world. 

    He wrote:

"There are two worlds, the natural and the spiritual, which are distinct and different in kind.   They are.....different conditions of life.

     Substances are of two kinds, natural and spiritual. The spiritual world is all that part of the universe which is composed of spiritual substances.  And the natural world is all that part of the universe which is composed of natural substances.  Everything which is spiritual in substance, is necessarily in the spiritual world; and everything which is formed of natural substances is necessarily in the natural world, the material world.......

 In man these two worlds meet, for all that is spiritual in him is in the spiritual world, and all that is natural or material is in the material world." 

     What Rev. Mitchell is saying here is that it is no further from the natural world to the spiritual world than it is from our bodies to our minds. 

     Our physical bodies are material, but we have a spiritual body within it.  Sometimes, if a person is in deep meditation, it is possible to see one's own spiritual body.   Our minds are spiritual, but they reside within our bodies.  However, our minds have different levels.  The outermost level of mind is really in the natural world, because it consists of knowledge and memories that we have acquired in this world.  This is what Swedenborg and others refer to as the natural or external mind. 

    Maurice Nicoll, a well-known Jungian psychiatrist who was a student of Swedenborgian thought called this our feeling of self. 

    How do you feel yourself?  Another way to understand this might be to ask, "How are you oriented to life?"  Do you feel yourself as a person in the external world?  Or are you oriented within?  Do you feel yourself from your spiritual self?  I might be wrong in saying this, but I will venture to say that all of us in this room feel ourselves from the external most of the time. We are oriented to external life.  We grew up from infancy becoming more and more oriented to the physical world, and spend almost all of our time feeling our self from that perspective. 

    What that means is that we have some work to do.  Lent is a good time to start.  These weeks leading up to the celebration of the Lord's glorification on the cross and his resurrection from the tomb symbolize for us the journey we must make if we wish to learn to feel ourselves from the spiritual reality in which we are intended to live. 

    This period of forty days of Lent represent the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula.  God did not lead them directly from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Egypt, if you remember, corresponds with the natural self, the self in which we normally feel ourselves.  While we are in this self we are enslaved.  The things of the physical world enslave us.  Moses corresponds with divine law.  The five books he wrote called the Pentateuch, delivered the law of God to the Israelites.  Chief among these laws are the Ten Commandments.  If we choose to live by these laws, by God's design, we are able to find our way out of the desert.  We can begin to feel ourselves as spiritual beings rather than physical beings. 

    The Passover is the Jewish celebration that occurs from the fourteenth to the twenty-first day of their first month.  This coincides with the last week before Easter, when our Lord had entered Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.   If you recall, the first Passover happened when God had warned Pharaoh that if he did not let God's people go the firstborn of every household in Egypt would die.  To signal the angel of death to pass over a house where the Israelites lived, the Israelites were told to prepare a meal of lamb roast with fire and to sprinkle the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintels of their houses.  A lamb corresponds with innocence which Swedenborg tells us is to "know, acknowledge, and believe, not with the mouth but with the heart, that nothing but evil is from one's self, and that all good is from the Lord." 

    This innocence is what we must attain if we are to be able to feel our self from the spiritual.  Innocence means harmlessness.  What makes us harmful?  We hurt others when we defend our self.  When we put our self first, when we feel our self above all else in order to be sure we are getting what we want to satisfy the yearnings of our natural self, we destroy our innocence.  The Israelites were told to roast the lamb with fire.  This means that innocence must be practiced with love, since fire corresponds with love. 

    That is what Swedenborg is referring to when he says it must be done with the heart, not the mouth.  Lip service to innocence is nothing but words.  Our words must be works.  Put your money where your mouth is, the saying goes.   We must live from innocence, not just preach it. 

    The Israelites were to eat unleavened bread because leavening in those days was a bit of leftover sour dough.  Leftover sour dough corresponds with old, false ideas, those ideas that we hold when we feel our selves from the external in us.  These ideas lack any understanding of God and his design.  If we are to become spiritual we must think in a new way.  That's what it means to repent. 

    The word used in the Bible that means to repent is metanoia.  Literally it means to think in a new way.  To become spiritual we must change our minds.  We must think in a new way.  To do this we must feel our self differently than we are in the habit of feeling.  Krishnamurti told people to "look inside."  Turn around in yourself and look inward to see what is there.  The instant you turn around in yourself and look inside you will feel yourself differently.  

 

    The Israelites spent forty years after the first Passover wandering in the wilderness.  It was a case of hurry up and wait.  They were to leave Egypt immediately.  They were to eat the Passover meal with their loins girded.  This was to symbolize the need to be ready to go immediately.  They were not to tarry any longer in Egypt.  They were told to ask the Egyptians for gold and silver jewelry, which the Egyptians were glad to give them if they would only go away and take their plagues with them. 

    This gold and silver jewelry corresponds with that which we learn in our natural self that is useful or valuable to our spiritual self.  We are to take those ideas that are useful, innocent and harmless to others, but beneficial to our spiritual self, into our new feeling of self.  Then we are to set out immediately.

    It does not help us to put off turning around in our self because we are busy with the things of our natural life.  The fact is we don't need to.  We can function perfectly well in the physical world while thinking in a new way.  It takes more mindfulness.  But wherever we are, whatever we are engaged in, we can be turned to the Lord.  We can be tuned to the Lord.  We can be listening to what the Lord has to tell us about how to be innocent in what we are doing, how we can do what we need to do without harming others.  Or, if that isn't possible, we can avoid doing things that are harmful to others.  This is what the bitter herbs in the Passover meal represent.   

    The bitter herbs they were to eat correspond with the temptations we face as we strive to become spiritual beings.  Here's where the hurry up and wait comes in.  No one is born again in a moment.  Some religions preach this.  Some believe we can announce our desire to believe in the Lord and be born again and that somehow that takes place immediately, with no further effort on the part of the convert.  The Bible warns us that this is not possible.  The Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness before they were led into the Promised Land. 

    The Lord cannot change us miraculously.  We must work at it.  We must gradually set aside our natural desires and take up spiritual desires.  We must begin to love the Lord more than our self.  If the Lord miraculously changed us into spiritual beings in an instant there would be nothing left of us.  We are natural through and through.  It takes a long time for the Lord to bring to our awareness all the things we love that are not good for us and encourage us to want to give them up.  As we do this he is able to replace them with things from himself that are good for us.  But this takes a long time.  It cannot happen instantly. 

    During the week between his entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion the Lord instituted the Last Supper when he celebrated the Passover with his disciples.  They went into an upper room and ate bread and drank wine.  The upper room corresponds with our higher self.  It is the spiritual within us.  The bread corresponds with the Lord's love for us and the wine corresponds with the wisdom he can impart to us to bring us into communion with him.  Just as the Passover represented the deliverance of the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt, the Lord's Supper corresponds for us with our deliverance from the bondage of the hells. 

    So this is what the Lenten season stands for.  This is a time to renew our determination to live according to God's design for us.  Let us seek to develop a stronger sense of the spiritual inside us and turn ourselves to God.  Let us keep in mind the symbol of the Paschal Lamb, the innocence that leads to selfless, loving behavior in keeping with God's design for our lives.  As we approach the celebration of the Lord's resurrection let us remember the sacrifice he made to make our salvation possible and strive to live lives worthy of his sacrifice and his love for us.  Let us pray.

 

O Lord, turn us to you and give us the strength and understanding to live harmless and loving lives, ever mindful of your love for us and the need for us to return that love by the way we treat our neighbors.  Amen.

 

 

Sermon 5/5/14 What Was I Thinking?

Sermon for 5/4/14  What Was I Thinking!

I was looking for something to brighten my spirits in the midst of all the cold, rainy weather we've been having, so I made a date with my delightful six-year-old grandson Trygg.  We went out shopping and had lunch before he had to go to his afternoon kindergarten.  He's started playing baseball.  Little League, I guess.  I asked his mom if there was anything Trygg needed in the line of shoes or clothing.  The only thing she could think of was a new pair of baseball cleats.  For those of you who aren't baseball literate, those are shoes with knobs on the soles to help keep a player from slipping.  So, anyway, we took off for the sports store to find some cleats. 

   A nice young man at the store helped us get the right size and Trygg quickly picked out the pair he liked.  Then I asked if there was anything else he needed.  Without hesitation Trygg explained that he couldn't find his good glove and was having to use an old one that didn't feel good on his hand. 

Another clerk directed us to the baseball gloves in another part of the store.  Trygg liked the gloves we were looking at.  Especially their pink trim.  In my naïveté I didn't understand why all the gloves seemed to be trimmed with pink. 

The nice young fellow reappeared at my elbow and said quietly, "These are the girls' mitts.  Come with me."  He took us to another shelf in a different aisle where Trygg picked a glove that would catch the ball just as well, but might not catch as many funny looks from his teammates.  As you might guess, it was trimmed in blue.  Some things never change. 

 Babies change, though.  They also have to be changed, but that's not what I mean.  Trygg's little sister, Elsa, is just three months old.  We think she is a redhead, which delights her grandpa.  Her mom, Josie, told me that she has just recently "discovered" her daddy.  Josie said Elsa had wanted nothing to do with Geoff until lately. 

Suddenly that has changed and she seems to be very aware of Geoff and wanting to be held by him.  She is broadening her horizons, becoming more aware of her surroundings.  This is what happens with babies.  We all went through it.  It's the way our minds gradually develop. 

When we are born we have no sense of the external world.  Our eyes won't even focus on external objects.  Babies sense their mother's presence, but most of their psyche is a blank slate.  Gradually, their experience of the external world causes it to take shape in their growing minds, and in the process the external mind is developed and gradually becomes the center of our awareness. 

 At some point we begin to differentiate between self and other.  Some people have a very distinct experience around the age of twelve which some psychologists have dubbed the existential moment.  It is a moment of realization of one's separateness from everything else.   We think of this as experiencing our self.  The reality is that it isn't really an experience of self.  It is more an experience of other, that which is outside of our true self.  We experience other people and the objects and events of the world, but we don't really experience being.  We do, however, differentiate our self from other things.

   This is a strange phenomenon.  We have the idea of being and take our being for granted.  I am Gordon.  I know me.  I think I experience me all the time.  But Gordon is not really me.  Gordon is a fictitious person constructed out of the habits of  consciousness that developed as my natural mind developed.  I am stuck in habits of thought and behavior that I take to be me.  Gordon is the way I habitually feel myself and experience my interaction with the world around me.  Gordon consists of what I think and feel about myself and the world.  But during all this experience of Gordon, I do not experience actually being.

David Loy is a professor and author and teacher of Zen Buddhism.  He will be the featured speaker at this year's annual meeting of the Swedenborg Foundation.  In a recent interview with the Swedenborg Foundation he summed up some of his thoughts on the similarities between Buddhism and Swedenborg's writings.  Regarding our sense of self he said,

"A central idea in Buddhism is that our usual sense of a self—that we are separate from each other and from the world generally—is a delusion that causes suffering. Different Buddhist traditions explain this in different ways, but the way that Mahayana Buddhism talks about shunyata, the “emptiness” of everything, certainly resonates with Swedenborg’s notion of an “influx.”

A bit later he adds: " Perhaps Nisargadatta said it best: “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that’s love. Between these two my life turns.” . Just as my physical body is composed of the food I eat, so my character is basically composed of my habitualized intentions. So karma isn’t something the self has, it’s what the sense of self is. And both Swedenborg and Buddhist tradition emphasize how important that is—how much our habitual motivations determine what happens to us, here and perhaps hereafter.

 What is important to recognize is that our habitual intentions are mostly unknown to our external mind.  What Loy is saying is that we are what we intend.   The problem is that we do not normally notice our true intention because our level of consciousness is so low in our being that we are unaware of our true self.  We live in an illusory self we take to be "me." 

The only way we can recognize that our habitual experience of being is an illusion is to actually experience being and realize the difference.  It's like trying to explain a color to a blind person who has never seen it.  No explanation can capture the reality.   

Still we are born to be born again of water and the spirit.  This involves a different focus from a higher level of our being.  As Swedenborg has shown, we have levels in our minds.

To successfully be regenerated we need to become spiritual and this involves moving to a higher level, a spiritual level, in our self.  To do this we must learn to think in a new way.  Metanoia.  We must learn to break the habits of natural thinking and begin to actually experience being by watching our feelings and thoughts and actions from a higher level in our self.  But our habits of thought have us trapped in this lowest level of our being.  As we are, we can do nothing.  Without the Lord's help we cannot change. 

We can see a parallel to what must happen in us in what happens to a baby when it is born into the natural world.  This is a movement from one level to another higher level.  When a baby is born, he or she moves from one level of being, in his or her mother's womb, into a far different environment, the outer world.  The process of becoming conscious in that world is very gradual, taking several years before the child becomes fully conscious and several more before the thinking capability of the external mind has been fully developed.  Some experts say the human mind is not fully adult until around 28 years of age.  Those of us who have raised a few kids know how true this is.

If we take life seriously and realize that it is preparation for an eternal existence in a world superior to this one, then we can recognize that we need to change, to keep growing even after we reach adulthood.  This requires recognizing what has gone wrong in our development, what intentions we have that are not good ones, what choices we habitually make that lead us to behaviors that distract us from life's true goal, union with God.  If we take life seriously and realize we aren't perfect, and in fact, aren't nearly as good as we think we are, we begin to recognize the need for change, for repentance.

 The Lord brings us to this repentance, but we must act on it.  We must choose to change.  This takes conscious effort on our part.  We need to begin to actually do God's will.  But what does that mean?  How do we know what God's will is?  Well, we don't.  We all have hidden agendas, that is, agendas that are hidden from our selves. 

   To see our internal, hidden habits, we must wake up internally.  We must step back in our minds, find that higher level for observing our self, and begin to take note of what we are thinking and feeling.   This leads to repenting.  This is thinking in a new way.  This is getting a new feeling of oneself.

When we live in pros and cons, two sides to every issue, we live in the extremes.  I don't mean left wing and right wing politics.  I mean love and hate, courage and fear, hope and discouragement.  When we live in these extremes we are constantly feeling we are owed something.  Life is never fair.  Something or someone is always wrong.  We keep a mental record of what we are owed and set out to collect our debts. 

   Living on a spiritual level in our self eliminates these extremes.  Mentally, we stand back or above these petty thoughts and feelings and refuse to judge or blame others.  The effect is that there is no turmoil within.  We live in peace.  If we are not at peace within, if there is some conflict we are brooding over, some negative thought or feeling toward someone else, then we are not repenting, we are not thinking in a new way.   

Thinking in a new way is always peaceful.  This is doing God's will that we should love one another as he has loved us.  It takes work on oneself and help from the Lord.  He is there ready to help.  We need only to ask him to help us and then sincerely try to live accordingly.

Gradually, we will be reborn if we look inside and try to feel our self in a new way, a way that allows us to actually experience being while we are doing it.  Let us pray. Lord, help us to pay more attention to what is going on inside us.  Amen.

 

Sermon for Easter Sunday April 20, 2014

Sermon for Easter 4/20/14

Spring is a fickle season.  One day it reminds me of a white Christmas and the next I think of June bustin' out all over.  Spring is snow melting and birds singing.  It's also flooding season.  And potholes.  Who'd ever think that little holes in the ground could be headline news?  They are, though.  The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had a full-page article devoted to pothole haiku.  I guess they intended these for use in worship services because they titled the article Hole-y Haiku.  My favorite was this one. 

                                                There's one new pothole

                                                that I heard about last week

                                                that has a Starbucks.

I was listening to Minnesota Public Radio the day I wrote this sermon and one of the stories being covered was pothole repair.  Like everything else we do in government, it turns out that for every dollar we refuse to tax and spend for road repair, we tax and spend seven dollars on temporary maintenance that doesn't last.  When will we ever learn?  Most people know that when your car's repairs start to cost too much it's time to buy a newer one.  Why don't we understand that about maintaining our roads and the rest of our infrastructure? 

The official being interviewed on the radio news story regarding pot hole repair said that every year in Minnesota we spend over a billion dollars maintaining our roads, but that every year we are a billion dollars short for doing all the needed maintenance.  Yet we can build a billion dollar football stadium.   This shows me how skewed our values have become. 

But I got to thinking about that and realized that I'm guilty as charged.  I'll think hard about making a donation to a food shelf, but I don't give a thought to spending the same amount of money on a dinner at a restaurant.  Our feelings govern our thoughts.  We act according to what we love.  If we stopped to think about everything we do, we'd do things differently a lot of the time.  What's that got to do with Easter?  The connection may not seem obvious, but it has everything to do with Easter.   Easter is the realization of potential.

Before Jesus was born into the natural world, the Son of God did not actually exist. Did you know that?  I didn't know that until I read Swedenborg's explanation of why this is true.  Until Jesus was born, lived his life, was crucified, and resurrected himself, the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit was only a potential in God.

God chose to be born into a human nature in the natural world in order to be able to be present with us.  In his essential nature, what we call God the Father, God cannot be present with us because we cannot perceive him.  By becoming a human person in Jesus Christ, he came into our presence and therefore into our perception.  This is why Emanuel Swedenborg insists that we must worship God in the person of Jesus Christ our Savior.  It is only in Jesus Christ that we can see and know God.  Just like your soul is in your body, Jesus Christ is in the Father and the Father is in him. 

Up until the time of Jesus' appearance on the earth people could not see God.  There are, of course, incidents such as the one in our Old Testament reading where Jacob understood himself to have wrestled with God and seen God face to face and lived.  Swedenborg explains that until the Lord appeared on earth and took on a human nature, his appearances to people were actually in the bodies of angels. He caused the angels to believe they were God.  The people to whom these angels appeared understood they were interacting with God. (TCR 109.2)

The result of Jesus' process of fulfilling all the scriptures, even to being crucified on the cross, is called his glorification.  This was the process of making his human divine.  In his glorification we can see the regeneration that happens to those of us who choose to be made spiritual beings.  It is also called being born again.  Jesus said we must be born again of water and the spirit.

In other words, we can be changed, resurrected.  Just as God changed his physical self into a divine self in Jesus Christ, we can be changed by God into a spiritual self.  The big difference is that in Jesus his soul was already divine, being directly from God the Father, or God's essence, while in us there is no life or divinity that belongs to us.  We must be changed by God and can only become spiritual, not divine. 

Another interesting and little known fact that Swedenborg points out regarding Jesus' human and therefore physical nature, is that without his taking on a truly human nature it would not have been possible for the Lord to be crucified.  Only a physical body can die.  The spiritual body does not die, even in us.  God's divine body certainly cannot die, and in his final act of dying physically on the cross, Jesus had made himself divine even to the extent of his physical body.  It is in this that we can understand how it became possible for God to be present among us.

We live in a created universe that has levels.  These levels exist inside of us, in our minds.  We can rise, transcend, from one level to another.  We can transcend this natural level and enter into the spiritual level. 

Earlier I said that Easter is the realization of potential.  In Jesus Christ, God realized his potential to be in the natural world in a way that we humans can see and understand.  His doing so also sets an example for us of how we can be alive in the spiritual world with God.  In this way Easter represents the possibility of the realization of our own potential. 

Most of us say that when we die we want to go to heaven.  That is our stated intention.  But there is a difference between intention and realization.  The difference is effort.  Effort is the means.  It is the way we can do it.  Jesus said "I am the Way."  The way is the means in the trinity, both the Divine Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in the trinity that creates everything.  That trinity mirrors the Divine Trinity.  The means is the middle of each.  In everything that exists there is purpose, means and result.  The purpose is the goal, the means is the way it can be achieved and the result is the outcome.  Just as Jesus is the means by which we can know God, the spiritual level in our minds, our thought and learning, is the means by which we can come to understand and recognize God.  Learning involves effort.  Changing our orientation or feeling of the life within us involves that effort.

We all understand that no effort of ours can earn paradise for us.  By our own efforts we cannot become good enough to be in heaven.  This is simply because our efforts from our self are limited to our natural state and incapable of rising to a spiritual level.  Besides, it is one thing to recognize that we need to change and quite another to work at it.  We can talk all day about becoming spiritual beings and in the process actually slip further away from being spiritual. 

This is because our habits of thought rob us of the energy we need to develop different habits of thought, a different, more spiritual, feeling of self. 

To help us understand just what this means, let's take a look at the role of Judas Iscariot in the story of Jesus' crucifixion.

Judas was a thief.   According to John 12:6 he kept the moneybox for Jesus and the disciples and he was inclined to take what was in it for himself.  Judas loved money, which represents the things of this world.  When the opportunity came he sold his chance for eternal life, represented in Jesus Christ, for thirty pieces of silver.   Remember, silver represents truth, but in this case it represents false truth.  Judas betrayed Jesus, but he also betrayed himself.

We each have a Judas within us.  Our Judas robs us constantly.  It steals the energy of real truth by which we could change our level of being.  It does this because it loves the falsity of evil ideas, that is, ideas that keep us from God.  When we respond to our evil desires and our Judas betrays the Lord we deliver Jesus for crucifixion once again. 

When this Judas within us starts stealing our mental energy to serve his evil loves we identify with him.  We become Judas.  We lose track of our true self and identify with his evil passions.  Then we believe his lies as if they were our own. 

What happened to Judas?  He caused the Lord to be crucified and he got his reward.  30 pieces of silver.  When he realized what he had done he tried to return the blood money, but he couldn't.  It was too late.  The devils who paid him wouldn't take it back.  He threw the silver down and went and hanged himself.

Nobody killed Judas.  He killed himself.  Nobody else can kill us spiritually.  If we choose to die spiritually, we do it alone.  The Lord will not condemn us.  We make the choice.   We must choose while we are in this world, because it is here that we have the freedom to choose.  It is here that the equilibrium exists between good and evil, permitting us to choose. 

Our choice isn't so much in big, obvious things.  It lies more in the little things that keep us awake at night, and asleep during our waking hours, stewing about how unfair everything is to us.  

Of course, there is the one big debt we all have.  We owe the Lord everything. Without God and his sacrifice on the cross we could not exist and there would be no possibility of eternal life in paradise. 

Can we realize the potential of Easter in ourselves?  Can we learn to stop frittering away our mental energy on internal accounting and holding others responsible for our unhappiness?  Can we begin to live to repay the gift of life God has given us?  Can we make the effort it takes to live according to his will that we should live so as to love one another even as he has loved us?  Let us pray:  Lord give us the strength and determination to recognize the evil in our own minds and seek to change the way we think so that you can resurrect us to new life with you.  Amen.