The Holes In Our Hearts - Jeremy Rose

Part 1: A Time To Mourn

Three years ago, I did the Memorial Day service, and started preparing long in advance, not knowing that 9 days before the service, we would lose our dear friend Jim Erickson. My theme back in 2012 was the role that memory plays in our spiritual lives. 

Months ago, I agreed to do the Memorial Day service once again, and chose the theme of grieving. Once again, I did not know that we would lose another dear friend, Dawn Anderson, shortly before this service. 

Our invocation this morning was the famous passage from Ecclesiastes: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and the official stated purpose of that holiday is “remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.” In my case, I have to stretch far back into the past to find a loved one who died in the military, so I will broaden the subject to “remembering people who died.” But I would say that Memorial Day qualifies as “a time to mourn.”

For people who knew Dawn, or others who passed away recently, mourning is a process we are actively going through right now. For others, Memorial Day may be a reminder of loss from years ago, but I believe that is a valuable thing too. For some people, it may even be what they call “anticipatory grief” – mourning the loss of someone who has not died yet. For others, it may not be about death, it may be about a different kind of loss: loved ones moving away, or the end of a relationship.

Years ago I went to a 3-day workshop on grieving, and the keynote speaker was a fascinating man named Glen Davidson. He was interesting because he was an ordained minister and a medical doctor, and for three days in a row he spoke for hours at a time about the grieving process. And because he was a minister and doctor, he could discuss the spiritual aspects but also talk about medical issues such as the role of the endocrine system in grief or the chemical makeup of grieving tears vs. happy tears. Looking back, I’d have to say it was the most influential workshops I have ever gone to.

He later published the book “Understanding Mourning: A Guide For Those Who Grieve.” The book begins with Davidson pointing out that no one wants to go through the grieving process. “If left to their own designs, most people would ignore mourning, just as they try to ignore other disagreeable experiences in life.”

But no one can ignore mourning. It is a universal experience. Except for those who died very young, everyone on earth has to deal with the pain of losing someone else in their life. The Bible is full of stories of intense mourning, sometimes lasting for days, sometimes for months. These stories appear in almost every book of the Bible, and affect every major character, including Jesus. One that I didn’t read this morning was the story of King David and his son Absalom (2 Samuel 18). Absalom hated his father so much that he was bent on killing him, and despite David’s orders not to touch him, the king’s soldiers killed Absalom in order to protect their leader. They thought David might be relieved to hear that the person who was trying to assassinate him was gone, but when David heard of his son’s death, he wept bitterly and said, “O Absalom, my son, if only I had died instead of you!”

Many times in the Bible, the whole tribe mourned a death – and they did it more dramatically than we do these days: tearing their clothing, covering themselves in ashes, wearing painful sackcloth, fasting, and shaving their heads.

In fact, I think that ancient peoples understood the grieving process better than we do now; we have forgotten how to grieve. There are two specific things the ancient tribes knew about grieving that we don’t necessarily recognize these days: (1) that it is a group process, not something people should have to do alone, and (2) it takes a long time. Our Old Testament reading (Genesis 50:1-11), about the death of Jacob, has both of those features: “The Egyptians mourned for him seventy days” and that was before the burial ceremony. And listen to the description of the burial: “So Joseph went up to bury his father. All Pharaoh’s officials accompanied him—the dignitaries of his court and all the dignitaries of Egypt—besides all the members of Joseph’s household and his brothers and those belonging to his father’s household. Chariots and horsemen also went up with him. It was a very large company. When they reached the threshing floor of Atad, they lamented loudly and bitterly; and there Joseph observed a seven-day period of mourning for his father.”

Our Sunday morning Bible study group has been looking at the Beatitudes, and the second of them is “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Like all of the Beatitudes, that thought seems to contradict common sense – how can mourning be a blessing? What is the value, the benefit of going through that process? No one wants to do it, and as Glen Davidson talks about extensively in his book, everyone wants the process to be shorter than it actually is. In fact, he quotes statistics that show that most people drastically underestimate how long grieving takes: in one survey, the overwhelming majority of people thought that someone should be over the loss of a loved ones in two weeks or less. He goes on to discuss what happens when mourners are still in the throes of grief long after that time period: they worry that others will get tired of hearing about it, or think they are crazy, so they stop talking about it. At that point, it stops being a group process and becomes a very solitary process. But it doesn’t stop.

Instead of lasting for weeks, or even months, most people find that grieving takes years, and in a sense, the pain never goes away. How can Jesus call such a long-lasting pain a blessing? People have been puzzling over the meaning of that statement for thousands of years.

Part 2: Do Angels Grieve?

It is particularly puzzling when I think about angels and the afterlife. Do angels grieve?

Why would they? Grieving is the reaction to someone dying, leaving your life, a relationship ending. If you believe in eternal life, then that’s something that simply doesn’t happen there. There is no death in the afterlife. Swedenborg describes how angels sort themselves into societies, but they can also visit anyone else any time they like.

In our reading from Swedenborg’s book Spiritual Experiences (#108), he says it plain as day: “Therefore no grief touches them as it does here in the world.”

No grief touches them.

How could it? If our spirits never die, we can be with whoever we want to be with, and nothing is ever lost, what is to grieve? Angels may get sad from time to time, but not to the level of what we’d call “grief.”

Yet grieving is something we have to endure on earth. Why is grieving a process we must go through in this world, if angels don’t have to in the next? Isn’t life on earth just a preparation for life in heaven? To put it another way: what does grieving teach us, that we can’t learn another way?

In our discussion of that Beatitude a few weeks ago, the people in our Sunday group all had different views on what the blessing that comes from mourning may be. I think it’s good that it’s left to our own interpretation.

Let me return to talking about what grieving is. And here, my thoughts have been deeply shaped not by a workshop or a book, but by a song. And curiously, it’s a song I’ve never owned, it’s never appeared on any album, and I had never heard it before the advent of the internet. When I finally heard it, I didn’t even particularly like it. How could a song I’ve rarely heard and don’t especially like be so influential to me?

Because of the title. The minute I heard that title, I never forgot it. It’s a song by Laurie Anderson, and the title is “It’s Not The Bullet That Kills You, It’s the Hole.”

Those ten words changed my thinking about what grieving is. When tragic things happen in life, those are the bullets that strike us. Maybe it was an unexpected or violent death, maybe it was a long drawn-out illness. Some people have had to endure many such bullets – what Shakespeare called the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” When those things happen, they command so much attention that of course that’s where our focus goes – that’s what we think is hard about life. We focus on questions like, “Can we survive that kind of bullet?” Or “Does God ever give us things we can’t handle?” That’s a bullet-related question.

If we do survive those bullets, that makes us stronger. Learning to cope with tragedy is one of the things that builds character, and forces us to redefine who we are and what we believe.

Hollywood loves making movies about action heroes that are so tough that they don’t grieve when someone dies; they just go out and do something about it, usually in the form of getting revenge. If James Bond ever stopped to grieve about all the death he has seen, he would become a puddle, and never be able to be an effective spy again.

Hollywood also loves survival stories about people who overcome unbelievable challenges. All of these movies and stories reinforce the idea that life is about learning to survive bullets. Bullets help us to become hard.

But it’s not the bullet that really kills you, it’s the hole. You can recover from bullets, but holes last forever. And holes make us soft.

I have had a tragedy-free life; I have faced very few bullets. Looking at my own family, the loved ones who have left have died peacefully, and almost all of old age. Not a single moment in my life would make a good action movie, or survival story.

But I have just as many holes in my heart as anybody else. We all do.

Some of those holes are big, some very small. Here’s an example of a small one: I have been a college teacher for over twenty years, and I just wrapped up roughly my 40th semester of teaching. The reason I couldn’t be here for church last Sunday is because I went to the University of Minnesota commencement ceremony – two ceremonies in a row, in fact. It was a day of much celebration and talk about accomplishments. They printed a thick booklet of the names of all the new graduates. In the lull between ceremonies, I went through that booklet and circled the names of all the students I had taught. I circled 116 names. History has shown that perhaps three or four of those students will keep in touch, but at least 100 of them I will never see again. Many of them I didn’t get to know all that well, but we spent a few months together, and now they are gone from my life. It happens every year: hundreds of small new holes in my heart.

My son graduated from college two years ago, and is living in Iowa. Even though we visit him several times a year, it’s unlikely he’ll ever live at home again, and I’ll probably never be able to spend as much time with him as I did when he was a child. There was no “bullet” involved in him going off to college and becoming an adult. But that’s a huge hole.

My daughters are likewise growing up. Luckily they both chose the University of Minnesota to attend so they are close by, but it still means leaving the nest. Huge holes.

By the way, since then others have also written wonderful songs about holes in our heart. One I discovered in preparing for this service is by a British folk singer who goes by the name Passenger. He has a song called “Holes” that I considered asking the band to play today, but I didn’t give them enough time to learn it. The chorus goes:

“Sometimes you can’t change and you can’t choose

And sometimes it seems you gain less than you lose

Now we’ve got holes in our hearts, yeah we’ve got holes in our lives

We’ve got holes, we’ve got holes but we carry on.”

 

Part 3: The Value of Mourning

So what is the value of having a Swiss-cheese heart? Wouldn’t it be better to have a heart without holes in it?

To me, it is about the value of being soft. If I were a tough guys like those action movie heroes, I don’t think that would be good for my soul. This is not to judge or disparage people like soldiers, who perform a valuable and incredibly difficult function in society. Memorial Day is, after all, about honoring precisely those people. And it is not just the tough job they did that is worth honoring, it is the fact that they had to sever emotional ties in order to do it. They had to become hard in order to do their job, but we are all soft inside.

And when it comes to the purpose of Memorial Day, you could look at it as honoring the sacrifices that those soldiers made, giving up their lives for their country. Or you could look at it as being about the loved ones they left behind, and the holes they left in our hearts.

It’s about the connections we have with them. Even if they have been gone for decades, those holes are still there in our hearts, and that’s a good thing.

Because it reminds us that we are all connected. It reminds us that underneath it all, life is about love. It reminds us of the value of other people in our lives, which is something we can sometimes forget. The time to mourn is a time to also remember not to take anyone for granted. To quote one more song (this one by Joni Mitchell), “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” Perhaps when we become angels, we will have learned not to take anything for granted anymore, which is why it’s a lesson we need to learn on earth, but we won’t need to keep learning in the afterlife.

Here on earth, we need those reminders. We need things that re-prioritize our lives, that give us back perspective when we have lost it. We need to have those times in our lives, and times on our calendar, to think of those connections. It is important that we have a time to mourn.

I believe that grieving is one of the most important experiences that make us human. Human in the soft, imperfect, humble sense of the word. Grieving teaches us compassion, gives us understanding of others, makes us more connected. Sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge our own grief, but it is what makes us better human beings. I would go so far as to say, without grieving, we could not become truly human. So: blessed are we who mourn.

"What Was Esau Thinking?" (A sermon on forgiveness) - Jeremy Rose

NOTE: At the beginning of the service, people in the congregation were invited to take a 5-pound stone and hold it in their lap or against their chest.

Can you feel the weight of that stone? Even a small rock can start to feel very heavy after a while. Imagine carrying it around for 20 years.

Esau did.

His brother Jacob had cheated him not once, but twice. They were twins, but Esau came out first, so he had all the rights and privileges of the firstborn. That is, until Jacob talked him into handing over those rights in a weak moment. At least Esau had to admit that he did actually agree to give over his birthright – he was hungry and said “Look, I am about to die. What good is a birthright to me?” But the second time, Jacob just cheated him – no excuses. Jacob dressed in his clothes, and put wool on his hands to mimic Esau’s hairy arms, and fooled his blind father. He tricked Isaac into giving Jacob a blessing meant for Esau – “May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.”

When Esau and his father found out, they were both heartbroken. It even says “Isaac trembled violently” and Esau “burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, ‘Bless me—me too, my father!” But Isaac couldn’t do it. The best blessing he could come up with was:

“Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.”

That’s not much of a blessing. It’s no wonder Esau “held a grudge against Jacob” and vowed to kill him as soon as his father had passed away. Who could blame him for feeling that way?

Jacob knew this too, and ran for his life. He fled to his uncle Laban, who he went to work for. He married Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel, and had many children. But eventually Jacob got Laban angry at him too, so he had to run away once more. And now the Lord commanded him to “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives.” To most people, that would sound like a simple request, but to Jacob it may have sounded like a death sentence: "Go back to your relative....who vowed to kill you."

How does Jacob feel about seeing Esau again? Well, it says he was “in great fear and distress.” The last time he saw his brother, Esau made it clear he wanted to kill him. So he concocts a whole elaborate plan: send a messenger to Esau saying he’s coming and hoping to find favor in his eyes. And bring lots and lots of gifts: 220 goats, 220 sheep, 30 camels with their young, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 30 donkeys (550 animals, not counting the camels’ young). And even split up his family and animals, so that if Esau does decide to go through with his vow, he can’t slaughter all of them. And he prays fiercely. So we know a lot about what Jacob was thinking.

But what was Esau thinking?

That is never spelled out. All we know is he had decided 20 years earlier: “I’m going to kill him.”

And when the messenger comes back from Esau, the news is ominous: “He’s coming to meet you, bringing 400 men with him.” Is that an army? If not, what was it? Jacob didn’t know.

Then the moment arrives: he can see Esau, with 400 men behind him. Jacob puts the plan in action: split up into groups, and he bows down seven times as they got closer. And Jacob is counting on the Lord’s protection, and hoping that all his bribes worked. To put it another way, Jacob is fervently hoping that Esau has forgiven him.

What is going on in Esau’s mind? Has he already forgiven Jacob? If so, when did he do it? Why? Did he do it years earlier? Or were those 400 men actually an army, and his plan was to slaughter all of them, and he changed his mind at the last minute?

Esau has reasons not to forgive Jacob, just as you may have reasons not to forgive people in your life who have “trespassed against you.” It is easy to think of those reasons not to forgive. You can recount the bad behavior, and keep thinking about how awful it was: “Can you believe what they did?”

The first reason not to forgive might be:

1) Justice! They deserve punishment (And if I don’t do it, who will?)

Jacob had done a terrible thing, and he had gotten away with it. His father died soon after, and no one else held him to justice, so Esau may have thought: "It's up to me."

Some religious people like to quote Deuteronomy 32:35 – “Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord! And then they may wreak terrible punishment on someone, perhaps justifying killing them. It is so satisfying, to be the one who gets to mete out that punishment. Or at the very least, gets to predict the horrible things that God will do to that person. But that phrase actually says vengeance is the Lord’s, not ours. And the very next verse says that the Lord is merciful.

We love revenge stories! Think of Hollywood: for every forgiveness movie, I bet they’ve made ten revenge movies. In fact, the story right after Jacob & Esau’s reconciliation is a revenge story. One of Jacob’s daughters, Dinah, is raped by a man in a neighboring tribe, and her brothers Simeon and Levi kill the entire tribe. When Jacob asks why they did that, they essentially say, “Well, we couldn’t just let them get away with it!”

2) You’ll appear weak

Some people think that if they forgive someone else, it will make them appear weak. It will just open the door for further abuse; they’ll become a doormat that anyone can walk over. I recently saw a documentary called “The Interrupters,” about peacemakers in the roughest neighborhoods of Chicago, trying to interrupt violent incidents before someone is killed. In that movie, they show that most of those killings aren’t actually gang related. They are based on personal infractions; someone insulted my girlfriend, or knocked me over, or disrespected me. "And if I don’t do something about that,"the thinking goes, "I’ll lose whatever status I have in the community. Only the tough survive, and the tough never forgive!"

3) Or it may just be about wanting someone else to acknowledge their hurt feelings. They think, “I have been wounded by what you did, and I want you to know that. And if I just forget about it, you’ll never know.”

Esau may have felt all of those things. Maybe he spent 20 years thinking, “I am justified in being angry! And now Jacob has gone to have a better life than me.”

But he didn’t. Esau forgives Jacob.

Why? Let’s make a list to counteract the other list. Esau's reasons to forgive could be:

1)    Esau, as a good Jew, had been instructed by God to forgive. It’s a core element of Jewish law – forgiving others. But the timing doesn’t work. That law was given to Moses, who came later in Genesis. The first use of the word “forgive” doesn’t appear until 17 chapters later in the Bible. Moses gave the law to the “Children of Israel,” and Israel was the name that Jacob was later given. Esau was Israel’s brother, not one of the “children of Israel.”

2)    The gifts worked. Esau sees all those sheep and goats and camel and cows, and says, “Okay, fine – I guess that’s enough.” But that doesn’t fit the story either. Esau doesn’t accept those gifts. In fact, after they reconcile, one of the things Esau asks, “What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met?” Jacob replies, “To find favor in your eyes, my lord.” But Esau brushes it off: “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.”

3)    Jacob said he was sorry, and asked for forgiveness. Except that Jacob never said that. He said he wanted to “find favor,” but there is not one word of apology, no acknowledgement of what he did to Esau, no begging for forgiveness.

So I don’t think it was any of those reasons. But there are two other reasons to forgive that I think could apply to Esau:

4)    Esau didn’t want to be a vengeful person. Maybe he had seen others who lived their life by revenge, and saw what it did to them. Like some of those people in the violent Chicago neighborhoods who look around and say, “This is no way to live.” Or perhaps he had felt the corrosion in his own heart.

Twenty years earlier, his anger turned his heart to stone. It weighed on him like the stone in your lap now. And perhaps he said at some point, “I just don’t want to carry that stone anymore.”

Have you felt that kind of weight? Is there anger in your heart? Something or someone you have decided not to forgive? And have you gotten to the point where you decide, “I just don’t feel like bearing that weight.” Perhaps you read in Ezekiel, “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” And you thought: I want that.

After this sermon, during the musical interlude, I invite you to bring your stone up to the altar and drop it. You can place it down slowly, or drop it dramatically. However way you choose to get rid of your stone, feel the lightness of forgiveness after it’s gone.

But when I read this story, I think Esau’s main reason might have been something else. Maybe he did go with those 400 men with the intent to get revenge. Maybe it wasn’t until the moment he saw his brother for the first time in 20 years that he changed his mind. I like to think that what changed his mind at that moment was realizing what he had missed in all those years.

When he vowed to kill Jacob, Esau lost a brother for 20 years. That’s a huge loss. If someone else had taken his brother away, Esau might have realized his grief over that loss sooner. He might have even vowed to do whatever it took to get his brother back. But Esau’s own anger took his brother away, and that anger blinded him to what he had sacrificed. Until the moment he set eyes on his brother again, and it all flooded over him. Listen to the words of the story:

"But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept."

That is how someone reacts to finding a long-lost brother.

Reading further: “Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” Esau has not only missed out on having a brother, he’s missed out on a whole tribe of relatives. The Bible makes it clear that a large family was the greatest treasure – and Esau had missed out on the fun.

You may be wondering why I’ve brought my bass guitar onto the chancel. I bought it in 1986, and named her Selene (the goddess of the moon) after her silvery paint. What I can’t show you is the two bass guitars that were stolen from me in 1986, while I was living in Tucson. I was a full-time musician at the time, and losing them was a bitter blow. One was a fretless bass, and I knew that hardly anyone in the Tucson area played one of those; so I was pretty sure no one ever benefitted from that one. To this day, that theft is the biggest crime I’ve been a victim of. And if I want to, I can still get angry about it. But if I do, it makes me lose sight of what I have now.

Selene is a better instrument than either of the stolen ones, and it has worked perfectly for nearly 30 years. My point is: the more energy I put into feeling angry about the theft of the old bass guitars, or wanting to get revenge on the thief, the less energy I put into appreciating what I have.

Some people don’t just carry around a stone heart, they hold that stone in front of their face at all times. They let it blot out the sun.

Things brings up one more point about forgiveness I wanted to make. You may have noticed in that version of the Lord’s prayer [taken from Matthew 6:9-15] we used in this service that it’s conditional: "If you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

In fact, it sounds a little threatening. Don’t we believe that God always forgives our sins? But right there in Matthew it says “your Father will not forgive you.” Would God withhold his love for us until we meet that condition of forgiving others?

Or is that really speaking about the receiving end – our experience of being forgiven by God. Is it that He is constantly sending that forgiveness and love to us, but we cannot receive it until we have forgiven others. Is it saying that we have to become believers in the process of forgiveness before we can really experience what it feels like to receive it? That forgiveness has to pour into a heart of flesh, not a heart of stone. Hearts of stone receive nothing. Hearts that are capable of forgiving others become vessels that receive love.

Think of the sins, the trespasses, others have done to you. Maybe they did it once, maybe it was repeated over and over. Maybe it was something someone didn’t do, instead of something they did. Maybe they asked for forgiveness, maybe they didn’t. Maybe you decided to never let your stone heart soften because of that incident. Maybe you’ve forgiven them already, only to find that the stone crept back into your heart and you need to forgive the same trespass again.

No matter what it was, God wants you to have a light heart. He wants you to see the light and happiness around you. That is why he commands you in Matthew 18 to forgive others not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. It’s a lifelong practice. And think of the joy you will give to those you have forgiven. Perhaps they will say, as Jacob did when Esau turned down his peace offering: “No, please! If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably.”  If you forgive others, maybe they too will see the face of God shining through when they look at you.

"Connecting with the Soil" - Jeremy Rose

Part 1: God’s Continuing Creative Action

In the creation story, when God made the first human being, He “formed a man from the dust of the ground.” The first human being was made out of dirt. And God called him Adam, a name that means “soil” or “ground.” Adam was the first human – and even the word “human” comes from an Old English word for “earth” or “ground.” We see that reflected in a word we still use for a particular kind of dirt: “humus.” It’s also where we get the word “humble,” which means “low to the ground.” Is that an insult to us, to call us “Adam” and “human”? A reminder that we are worthless? I don’t think so.

Another question to ask is, is that creation story literally true? Our church sees it as a metaphor, not a literal account of how the universe was created. So we don’t need to believe that the first human really did come into being by God scooping up dirt and forming it into a human. But in a very real, very scientific level, that is actually true. We really are made out of dirt – the molecules that our bodies are made from were once dirt. And in order to grow, we obviously have to eat food, and which comes from the soil.

Soil is a remarkable substance. In preparation for this sermon, I read three books about soil, and saw a documentary called “Dirt! The Movie.” They all emphasize just how miraculous soil is. For one thing, it didn’t come from our solar system – the minerals could not have come from our sun, which is too young and not hot enough to produce those elements. The ingredients of soil came from supernovas, and apparently drifted through space until settling on our planet. But soil does not appear on any other planet in our solar system, or, as far as we can tell, any planet yet discovered.

What are the components of soil? What is it made of? If you ever played the old game ’20 Questions,’ you may have started with a standard question, “Is it mineral, vegetable, or animal?” In the case of soil, the answer is clearly “All three.” Part of it is minerals—calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus—much of it from volcanoes, and ground up by glaciers during ice ages or broken down by water (so one book pointed out that soil is the product of “fire and ice” – volcanoes and glaciers). Part of it is vegetable, as anyone who has done composting knows. A large part of that “humus” I mentioned began life as rotting vegetation. Composting, as the expression goes, “turns garbage into gardens.” And all of those books have pointed out something we might be a little squeamish in acknowledging: that what we call “soil” is, to a large extent, little tiny animals – microbes, bacteria. A cup full of good soil contains more microbes than there are human beings on earth. That’s why we get nervous when small children put dirt in their mouths – although farmers used to do that on purpose to test their soil.

In case you get too nervous about all those germs in the soil, keep in mind that it’s also where most antibiotics come from. In 1943, some soil scientists at Rutgers University were working on a soil project, but one was distracted by the fact that his wife was dying from tuberculosis. Another grad student asked, “Why is it that when you bury a dead body in the ground, the earth is not poisoned?” In fact, the soil in graveyards is some of the healthiest soil on the planet. That question led to the discovery of streptomycin, a soil-based antibiotic and the first cure for tuberculosis.

Soil is very much a living thing. One of the books I read called it “The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.” An expert in the documentary pointed out the biggest problem with soil: “Soil is living, but we treat it like it’s dead.” It is constantly being renewed – a never-ending process of breaking down minerals and vegetation, and providing the context for new life to begin. The same atoms, the ones from supernovas millions of years ago, get recycled over and over again. Those atoms go from being part of the earth, to being part of the plant life, to being part of us, and then back again. One author called it “God’s continuing creative action.” If you want to see the creation process in actions, there is no better place to look than in the ground beneath your feet.

Another remarkable thing you can say about soil is that it’s organized. That was a word that came up a lot in my research: soil is an organized society. Of those billions of microbes, many cooperate, some compete with each other. Soil organizes different kinds of salts and nutrients, making sure they go where they are needed. Soil organizes water as well – purifying it, retaining it, directing it. One book talked about the city of Los Angeles, which is experiencing water shortages so severe that it is importing water from as far away as Wyoming. But, the author pointed out, Los Angeles actually has all the water it needs. The problem is that it is trapped under layers over concrete and pavement – two thirds of LA has been paved over. The soil can no longer do its job of directing and retaining water, renewing life and organizing the ecosystem. Soil is the connection point between the molten core of the earth and the atmosphere. Soil is Grand Central Station, where all the components of life come together.

This is why the documentary said “Throughout history, we’ve seen civilizations rise and fall based on how they treated dirt.” In our own country, this occurred during the Oklahoma Dustbowl of the 1930, when farmers, not knowing how to treat their soil, basically turned it into dust that blew away with the wind. There are disagreements now about what exactly we should do with soil – how much to fertilize, what to plant in it. But ever since the beginning of time, wise people have recognized that you have to take care of the soil. Soil can be abused, mistreated and neglected, and if so, it can become useless.

So, back to the creation story, once the six days of creation were complete, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” And then one of Adam’s sons, Cain, was referred to as “a man of the soil.” Noah was the next person called a “man of the soil.” Then we have the Children of Israel, about to enter the land of Canaan, and before they went in, Moses had a burning question for the spies who scouted out the land: “How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor?” (Number 13:20). And there was that description I read in this morning’s readings about a king who took the throne at age 16, Uzziah. Many of the kings of Israel in those days were disasters, but the Bible says “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord,” and one of the things it specifically mentions (in 2 Chronicles 36) was that he loved the soil.

In the weeks leading up to the service, I’ve talked to many members of this congregation about soil. And it’s clear to me that many of you love the soil, and know more about it than I ever will. Here I am, talking to a room full of experts! And that is very good, because all of my research has led to the same conclusion: we need as many soil-lovers as we can get.

Part 2: Soil = Country

            Another thing that we take the time to acknowledge at this time of year is that it’s important to love your country as well. And if you hadn’t noticed, that ties in with my topic. Soil is so important that we use it as a stand-in to represent the entire nation. We go to war to “protect American soil.” If you were born on American soil, you are automatically a citizen of the country. I heard rumors that in the days when British sea captains were exploring the world, some would take containers of soil with them – a small piece of their own country, so they could visit every corner of the globe but never leave home, bringing England with them.

            So I hope you had a good 4th of July celebration, and took the time to be thankful for what your country has provided for you. Your country = your land = your soil. I was born in England, and grew up in Canada, so national celebrations like the 4th of July are a little different for me than for some of you. I have loved all three countries, so I don’t like to participate in “My country is better than yours” arguments. For one thing, national boundaries change so much, and are obviously arbitrary: if you were born in Texas, you could have been part of six different nations, depending on when you were born. Or maybe you used to be from Yugoslavia, and now it’s Slovenia. In the grand scheme of things, from God’s perspective, it doesn’t matter what country it was called at that time. That is why it says in Isaiah 40:15, “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales. All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.”

            But you don’t have to compare countries in order to be grateful for yours. It has nurtured you, provided for you, given you much that you should try to give back. And, of course, we can say exactly the same thing about soil. Soil is different everywhere across the globe, just as countries are different. We were all born somewhere, on a particular part of the planet, and have all benefited from wherever that was.

            One last thing about being automatically a citizen if you were “Born on American soil.” It’s just an expression, isn’t it? It’s highly unlikely you were born on any “soil” at all – you were probably born inside a hospital or maybe a house – and there were many, many layers of flooring and concrete and steel and asphalt between you and anything you could actually call “soil.” Imagine if you went to the hospital to deliver a baby, and said to the doctors and nurses, “Actually, can I move out into the garden? I want my baby to be born in the dirt.” They would never allow that. Imagine giving birth in a stable, with a dirt floor, flies hovering around, manure in the corner and who knows what in the air. How unsanitary!

            Yet that is where Christ was born, according to the Divine plan. We don’t know the actual details of the birth, of course, but I imagine Mary lying on a dirt floor when she gave birth, with perhaps a few layers of cloth or blankets beneath her. Baby Jesus was born closer to the soil than any of us. The lesson I take from this is that God himself isn’t afraid of a little dirt.

Part 3: Don’t Treat It Like Dirt

            Dirt. That has very different connotations than “soil,” doesn’t it? Soil is the source of life and food, rich with nutrients, living, dynamic, precious. Dirt is just an annoyance that you are always trying to get rid of. The stuff that must be removed in order for anything to be clean. Soil is priceless; dirt is worthless. What expression do we use to represent something or someone that we treat poorly? “Treat it like dirt.”

            Even the Bible, with all its positive references to soil, has nothing good to say about dirt. In Isaiah (57:20), it says “The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest – whose waters cast up mire and dirt.” King David brags about defeating his enemies and how we “trod them like dirt in the streets.” In the New Testament (1 Peter 3), baptism is referred to as “the removal of dirt,” not from the body but from the spirit.

            The phrase “cleanliness is next to Godliness” is not actually from the Bible (although it was apparently an ancient Babylonian saying), but there are many, many references in the Bible to the need to “wash you, make yourselves clean.” In the New Testament, if you want to be a good host, what is the first thing you should do when travelers (like Jesus and the disciples) show up at your house? Wash the dirt from their feet. There are many references in the Bible to people who allowed themselves to get filthy, who symbolized their pitiful state by rubbing dirt into their hair, face, and clothes.

            And it’s not that we are schizophrenic in our attitude toward dirt / soil – sometimes loving it, sometimes hating it. It’s not a mental defect on our part; it’s the fact that sometimes “soil” is tremendously valuable, and sometimes it isn’t. Some soil is useless for growing anything in, as the Parable of the Sower teaches. Many times, dirt is what has to be removed in order to get at the thing of value.

            I got very curious about this distinction between priceless soil and worthless dirt, and did a little more research. Are they actually the same thing, or is there a difference between “soil” and “dirt”? One source explained it clearly: the word “soil” implies a multilayered system of different substances, connected to the earth, and useful. But once you take it from its home, take one layer away from the rest, and remove it from anywhere where it could be used to grow anything, that’s when it becomes dirt. Dirt is displaced soil.

            When it’s in your garden, it’s soil. Once it gets on your shoe, now it’s dirt.

            It’s about connection. Soil is valuable because it connects growing things to nutrients and water, it keeps things in place, it provides a home for plants and animals. In our modern society, it is easy to lose that connection. We may forget where our food comes from, we might mistreat soil because it doesn’t seem valuable – maybe even removing good soil in order to get at gold or diamonds, thinking that’s what has real value. So, this time of year, it’s important to remember that connection to the earth. Remember that we “humans” are literally named after the soil, and come from it. And remember that that connection is sacred.

            Moses was reminded of that, in his very first conversation with God. Before he was a great religious leader, he was just a shepherd tending a flock on Mount Horeb. He saw the burning bush, and went over to investigate. There, God called out his name, and began a conversation that changed the course of history. But before God said anything about what Moses had to do to free the Israelites, he gave him a simple instruction. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

            Before Moses could go on to do all the great things he was destined to do, the first thing God asked was for him to feel the soil beneath his feet – to connect directly with the ground.

            After this service is over, I invite you all to do the same thing: go outside, take off your shoes, and feel that sacred soil beneath your feet. And praise God for it!

 

POST-SERMON PRAYER: Let us pray. Oh Lord, remind us that we are rooted it in the soil. Remind us of the value of connection, bringing heaven down to earth, as the soil connects the air and water with the core of the earth. Teach us to be good soil; not hard as stone, but open, and flexible, and living. Keep us grounded, so that we do not drift away with the wind. And may your truth and love grow within us a hundredfold. Amen.

 

BENEDICTION:

Soil is the darkest and coldest of all living things. The most widespread. And the most receptive. Warmed, it blooms. So may I in my darkest moments be attentive to the penetrating rays of the sun that finds the seed. (William Bryant Logan, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, 1995, p. 202).

 

"Brighten Up Your Corner" - Claudia Wendell

What did you hear on the news lately? About earthquakes, plane crashes, starving children, war, cruelty, mudslides, death? How many rude people did you encounter? How many hurting people? It’s hard to feel bright and cheerful with all that’s going on around us.

There’s so much around us that we don’t like, but do we really want the news or other people to dictate our day? Dictate our moods, control our emotions?  So again I think of my sister reminding me—she thinks I never listen her—that we can’t take on the whole world, we can only brighten our own corner. We can become aware of the exact moment we’re in. She’d say, “Can’t you just live in the moment for a change?”

Where is your corner of the world? Is it your country? Your state, your city, your block, your house and family? Or is it the spot you’re occupying in the moment? Can you change the world, your country, state, city, block or family right now? Or can you brighten that one little spot you’re in? We want to change the world, but the place to start is in each of us.

Today I want to talk about the little things. We don’t have to spend time looking for nice things to do. There are a multitude of opportunities to brighten our corner every day even though they may seem insignificant.  Did you call someone today to simply say, “Hi, I was just thinking about you,’’ instead of making the excuse that you don’t want to bother them?

Sometimes when my sister calls and I am, shall we say, less than cordial, instead of saying, “Well you’re a real treat!”, she’ll say, “Oh do you have company—is Bina there?” Bina is short for Crabina—as in crabby-- her lighter way to point out the attitude in my voice. We can accept and help people on their down days and be sure that includes those closest to us.

Let’s run to the store for a minute. One the way, did you incessantly complain about the poop-along drivers in front of you—I’m guilty of that—or did you give yourself a little extra time and enjoy your CD along the way or, better yet, have a few word with your Maker?

I don’t know if you ever listen to Joyce Meyer—she’s a fundamentalist preacher—she likes to talk about all she’s learned just going to the grocery store. When you found that cart in the parking place you wanted, did you move it over in front of someone else’s car so that the original perpetrator has now managed to annoy two people—maybe more depending on the action of the next car owner? Or did you take it with you into the store—you’re going that way anyway.  Did you grab another one along the way or did you tell yourself you’re taking someone’s job? Did you barely make it through that closing door without ever looking behind you to see if it was going to close in someone else’s face? Did you pick up that piece of paper on the floor or did you tell yourself, “I didn’t throw it there.”  Before you left, did you take a few minutes to find a manager to tell him about the exceptionally nice and helpful employee? Or did you find one to complain about? Did you drag someone down or lift someone up?

Even in the littlest things we are setting an example. And while we’re at the grocery store:

A few decades ago I was at the supermarket. Prominently displayed right next to each other were bags of potatoes, 5# bags and 10# bags. Except for the weight they appeared the same, both were russets, same brand—and oddly the price was the same—99 cents (I told you it was decades ago). I started to wonder if it was a mistake or a social experiment when I watched nearly everyone choose the 5# bag. The only reason I could think of that they would take the smaller bag was they didn’t think they could use all of the 10# bag. Which one would you buy? If you didn’t need 10 pounds wouldn’t you buy the 10# bag and give the other half away? Did you notify the manager that possibly a mistake had been made?

Having a bad day? Change your perspective. Turn your attention. As I was writing this, I glanced out the window to see snow—March 24th snow. Oh, great. More snow. Haven’t we had enough?  Instead, I started focusing on it. Wow, the big snowflakes! And it wasn’t even that windy snow, it was coming straight down, like beautiful Christmas Eve snowflakes.  I was reminded of the crystalline structure of every flake, God made every single solitary one different. Besides, I told myself, it’s not the 17 inches I remember us getting in late March in the past. Sitting in my warm little house I sometimes take for granted. Beautiful snow.  I know this sounds Pollyanna-ish, but life if so much easier if we habitually see all the things there are to be grateful for.  In the moment find something we DO like. The more I got into writing this message the more I realized I was writing to myself.

Some of the otherwise nicest most gentle people lose it in traffic. Maybe it’s because we need to vent somewhere along the line and spewing forth in the privacy of our own car accomplishes that. Unless of course you believe, as some do, that thoughts and words are “things” that they actually have substance, that they go out into the Universe. So just in case, are you able instead to yell, Hey, have a nice day!”—with enthusiasm--even if no one can hear you? Did YOU make a stupid driving mistake yourself and then got all huffy when someone laid on the horn? Try smiling and waving next time, you’ll find yourself laughing out loud.

Do you insist on taking the time to make a better world? Did your write or call your council person or state representative or congressman? If you have a little extra stature in the community did you meet with him in person? Or did you decide that it won’t make any difference anyway?  Did you check on your elderly neighbor when it was 95 degrees? Did you ask her if she wanted anything at the store—oh no, what if she wants to come along?  Did you offer to give someone a ride—but only if they were going your way?  Did you drive around the block to see if that person really was in trouble or were you more concerned that you’d be late for work?

Did you show the neighbor kids that big fat harmless garden spider in her miracle-of-nature web? Did you take the time to explain how she repairs it or re-spins it every single night? Or did you kill her and take it down because you don’t happen to like spiders?

I remember the little 4 year old neighbor boy out in front of his house, stomping on ants and exclaiming, “Kill kill, I have to kill the ants!” I sat down with him and explained how industrious they are and how hard they work, how they take care of each other. A few days later I heard him out there telling someone else what he’d learned. If I remembered all these years later I like to think an impressionable child is now, as an adult, at least a little gentler because of it.

All of these things are so elementary and as I looked at the list I thought none of them likely apply to any of the nice people I know.  But they do illustrate the tiny things we can do to make a better world.

Those who know me well know that I am a work in progress—but then we all are. Some are farther along than others--but that is not our business it is God’s business. Everyone has their own foibles and challenges. I fall short every day.  We live in a world of imperfect people--we are all imperfect. Once we remember that, it is easier to work on removing the log in our own eye before looking for the speck in our brother’s eye. When my sister or I want to point out to the other she’s being a bit judgmental, we have that abbreviated to, “Oh yeah, that speck/ log thing.”

In one of his sermons Eric Hoffman said, “Every imperfect person we meet gives us the opportunity to do the counterintuitive thing—respond to them with active love.” For me that may be simply not reacting in the moment.  Truth is we can’t be bright little bulbs all the time...and there will always be plenty of people we don’t like, in situations we don’t like or can’t control. It’s harder to brighten the corner occupied by difficult people. Ask for help.

God is alive and busy in our lives. In the words of one of our church’s own singer/song-writers, “We struggle and we stumble ‘til finally we cry, let go, let God.”  Now, how much easier is it to brighten your corner when you know you don’t have to be in control?

How can I brighten my corner today?  These words, commonly attributed to William Penn:

"I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."

 

“Come Out of Hiding” - Jeremy Rose

Hiding From Human Enemies

            When Amram and Jochebed gave birth to their son Moses, they hid him for the first three months of his life. If they had not done so, he would have been drowned in the Nile river along with all the other Hebrew male babies, according to Pharaoh’s decree. After three months, the Bible says she could “hide him no longer,” so she put him in a papyrus basket and hid it among the reeds along the banks of the Nile, where the baby Moses was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. This second act of hiding was also crucial to Moses’ survival – but so was his discovery by Pharaoh’s daughter. If Moses had not survived, the tribes of Israel may have stayed slaves in Egypt forever.

            Centuries later, Jesus faced a similar fate. This time it was Herod who sought to kill the baby, since he had heard the prophecies that a ruler would come out of Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, where they hid the Christ child until Herod was dead. If they hadn’t hidden away in Egypt, the baby Jesus would have been killed and Christianity would not exist.

            In 2 Kings, there is a lesser known story with similar overtones: during a period of turmoil, the king of Judah was a 21-year-old man named Ahaziah, who was killed in a rebellion. His mother, Athaliah, found out he was dead, and proceeded to “destroy the whole royal family.” While the mother was on a rampage, Ahaziah’s sister took her son Joash and “stole him away from among the royal princes, who were about to be murdered. She put him and his nurse in a bedroom to hide him from Athaliah so he was not killed. He remained hidden with his nurse at the temple of the Lord for six years while Athaliah ruled the land.” So the grandchild had to be hidden from the insane grandmother, who was queen of the land. It doesn’t say how old Joash was, but the fact that the nurse hid with him suggests he was a baby.

            Three mothers who knew their babies were in grave danger, and did the only logical thing: hide the baby away. In all three cases, the source of the danger was the ruler of the land. There was no way to fight against the powers that be, no way to defend themselves but to hide. In all three cases, the child who was hidden rose to be a powerful man whose influence outstripped the person who tried to kill him. (Joash was king of Judah for 40 years). It reminds you of Anne Frank, doesn’t it? She too was hidden away, and although she died young, her diary is still read all over the world 70 years later.

            And it’s not just babies who got where they were due to being hidden away for a time. Perhaps the most famous hider in the Old Testament is King David. While Saul was king, David slew Goliath, and Saul became so jealous of him that he wanted to kill David. Saul’s son Jonathan, David’s best friend, told him, “My father Saul is looking for a chance to kill you. Go into hiding and stay there.” (1 Samuel 19:2) That began Saul’s long vendetta against David, trying for a long time to kill him.  

            Saul gained allies in his quest to kill David, including a tribe called the Ziphites. Saul said to them, “Find out where David usually goes and who has seen him there. They tell me he is very crafty. Find out about all the hiding places he uses and come back to me. Then I will go with you; I will track him down.” (1 Samuel 23:22-23). But the Ziphites weren’t very successful at finding all of David’s hiding places. There is the story of Saul, while he is hunting for David, going into a cave to relieve himself. It turns out to be the very cave David is hiding in, but Saul doesn’t notice him, and David cuts off the hem of his garment without Saul realizing it. A few chapters later, the same thing happens again: Saul and the Ziphites are again on the hunt trying to find David. This time David, who had been hiding in a cave, comes out while Saul is sleeping and takes his spear. Later David wrote the Psalms, so it may not be a surprise that there are 29 different Psalms that refer to hiding.

            Over and over in the Bible, there are stories of hidden armies surprising their foes, or spies scouting out the territory. And of course, outside of the Bible there are even more stories: the Trojan horse which the Greek soldiers hid inside, thus winning a 10-year war against the city of Troy. An ambush is one of the most effective military strategies, and it depends on hiding a whole battalion. Snipers, who are only different from other shooters in that they shoot from a hidden location, have been crucial in many wars.

Camouflage, clothing that is intended to hide the soldier (or hunter), is such a common technique that it is surprising to hear about armies that didn’t wear camouflage. For example, the “Red Coats” – the British soldiers in the American Revolutionary War who wore bright scarlet uniforms, which seems reckless. You’re just making yourself an easy target! A soldier who does not know how to hide is simply not a good soldier.

Where did humans learn these military tactics? From animals, who are equally skilled at many different hiding techniques. Predator and prey, hunter and hunted: both are adept at finding hiding places, blending in, disguising themselves, creeping silently, or in the case of squids, creating your own ink cloud to hide in. From the lowly insect that disguises itself as a twig to the majestic tiger silently lurking, its stripes blending in with the grass: most animals depend on hiding in one way or another.

            And it’s not just predators that people and animals hide from. You may not have noticed, but we’ve had a long, cold winter. Luckily, everyone I know has managed to survive the cold, but that’s only because we’re able to stay indoors most of the time. Many times I’ve sat at my computer, looking out the window at the deep snow, and sent emails or Facebook postings to people far away bemoaning how cold it is. “Look, here’s a screen shot showing that it’s -20, with a windchill of -39!” What I don’t mention in those messages is that I’m sitting inside a warm room wearing a T-shirt, and I didn’t have to go outside at all that day. Still, the sound of the rattling windows and the sight of the blowing snow makes me not want to go anywhere. I think I can speak on behalf of all of us when I say that we all feel like we’ve been in deep hibernation for months.

            And the reason no one I know has suffered from serious hypothermia is because we Minnesotans all know the truth: you can’t fight the cold, you can only protect yourself from it. Bundle up in thick layers of clothing, leaving as little exposed skin as possible, or even better, stay inside. You may get a bad case of cabin fever, but you’ll survive. Like Pharaoh or King Herod or tiger on the hunt, there’s no defeating a Minnesota winter – just try to make sure it doesn’t find you. When you are outgunned, you don’t fight: you hide.

Spiritual Hiding

            But this is a sermon, so let’s turn to spiritual matters. The Bible, we are told, is the story of our own spiritual development. So the question is: What role does hiding play in your spiritual life?

            In doing research for this service, I not only looked up all those stories about Joash and King David, I also searched Swedenborg’s writings for references to hiding. The contrast is remarkable. Although hiding played a very important positive part in the life of Moses and King David and Jesus and many others, almost every reference to hiding in Swedenborg’s writings is negative. Most of the passages are about falsities and lies. People conceal their evil intentions, they hide behind lies, they bury their sins.

            For example, the book Apocalypse Explained is an explanation of the book of Revelation. Revelation 6:15 reads, “Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne!’” Apocalypse Explained #410 reveals the spiritual meaning of this: “’Hid themselves in caves” signifies “those things destroyed by evils of life and by falsities,” and goes on to talk at great length about how hiding in caves represents hell.

            And even in the Bible itself, hiding is not always a good thing. A moment ago I described how often David hid from Saul, but Saul himself was no stranger to hiding. There is the almost comical story in 1 Samuel 10 where all the people gather for a great occasion, the crowning of their very first king – and they can’t find him! They have to ask the Lord, “Is Saul here?” And the Lord replies, “Yes, he has hidden himself among the supplies.”

Later, when Saul’s army of 600 men was fighting the Philistines, who had “six thousand charioteers and soldiers as numerous as the sand on the seashore.” The Bible says “When the Israelites saw that their situation was critical and that their army was hard pressed, they hid in caves and thickets, among the rocks, and in pits and cisterns.” (1 Samuel 13:6). That seems to be a good example of a situation where you are outgunned and the appropriate response is to hide. But Samuel, the spiritual leader of Israel, didn’t think so. He scolds him severely. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.” Ironically, that “man after his own heart” was David, and we have already talked about how David’s success depended on his hiding skills. The lesson? There are times to hide, and times not to. And it might not be easy to tell the difference between the two.

The story from John that I read is about Jesus’ brothers telling him to go to the Festival of Tabernacles. They can’t understand why he won’t go, and Jesus’ reply is, “It’s not time yet.” Jesus does go, but in secret. Think of all the times in the New Testament where Jesus performs a miracle, and the people say, “Let’s tell the world about this!” And Jesus replies: “No, don’t tell anyone. Not yet.” Even Emanuel Swedenborg followed this philosophy: most of his theological books were published anonymously, in England, far from his native Sweden. Only the last few books had his name on the cover. Timing is an important factor.

            A more important factor is what you are hiding, and why. The mothers of Moses, Joash and Jesus were hiding an innocent baby. That is a whole different thing than hiding your sins, such as Moses and David both did when they were adults. A few years ago, I gave a service about Moses killing the Egyptian and hiding his body in the sand, and King David trying to hide his adultery with Bathsheba by having her husband killed in battle. Hiding a baby that needs protection and hiding a dead body are not the same thing at all.

            So we need to look at our own lives and the things we are hiding, and the reason behind it. Are we hiding a truth because it is not safe to reveal it yet? Swedenborg says that Moses and Jesus represent the truth, and he also talks about why the Bible is written the way it is. In the Bible, not everything is laid bare – much of it is hidden in symbolism and parables, and its meaning only becomes clear to us when the timing is right; when we are in the right state of mind to be ready for it. The book of Revelation itself is perhaps the best example. On its face, it is a confusing book about a series of bizarre visions. It was not until centuries later that the Lord directed Swedenborg to write that book I mentioned a minute ago: “Apocalypse Explained,” and the shorter version, “Apocalypse Revealed.” In the same way, Jesus was able to reveal the inner meanings of the Old Testament. The lesson is the same: the truth needs to be concealed, until people are ready to hear it.

            The trouble is, we also conceal lies, and addictions, and sins, and shortcomings. That too may have an important purpose for a while. After all, humans are given the ability to lie, which the Lord didn’t need to give us. And most of us are very bad at detecting when someone is lying to us, even with all of the most recent research and techniques available to us. Angels don’t have the ability to lie: everything is revealed right there on their face. But while we’re still here on earth, God has decided in His wisdom that we should have the ability to conceal our thoughts and feelings.

            There are times when hiding your fears, your anger, your resentment and hurt, can be useful. When someone asks you “How are you doing?,” your instinctual reaction may be to avoid telling them anything real. Like a witness on the stand in a trial, you may not be covering up any crime, but you still feel the urge to “plead the 5th amendment” anyway. It’s a way of keeping yourself out of trouble—why tell them what you don’t have to?

            Maybe this was a crucial survival tactic at some point in your life. Maybe you learned the hard way that keeping your mouth shut and hiding your feelings was the only way you could protect yourself. There is no shame in that. Just like Moses and Jesus, there is nothing wrong with hiding in order to survive. Especially if the forces you are hiding yourself from are far more powerful than you are. When you are outgunned, hiding is the appropriate response.

Time to Come Out of Hiding

            But here’s the thing: hiding is not a good long-term strategy. It may be an appropriate response to danger, but only for a limited amount of time. It is sometimes important to go into hiding, as King David did. But it is equally important to come out of hiding. If David had never left the cave, he never would have become king.

            Imagine if Moses had spent his whole life in those bulrushes. It might have been possible to do so – creating a dwelling place in there, coming out only at night. He might have survived a long time that way. But what kind of life is that? Compare that to later in his life, when he confronted Pharaoh – a different Pharaoh, but still an incredibly powerful ruler. That must have been terrifying for him, but he knew that he wasn’t outgunned this time. Why? Because the Lord was on his side. He didn’t have the power to fight the leader of Egypt on his own – but he knew he did have that power with God.

            Likewise, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt while Jesus was a baby, knowing that King Herod wanted to kill him. But eventually that king died, and it was safe to come back. There was no reason to stay in hiding. Jesus not only came out of hiding, but in the last years of His life, he was not afraid to directly confront the powers that be. Those authority figures had far more worldly power than he did – but Jesus knew he had the power of the divine, so he wasn’t outgunned. And he had work to do, work that could not be done from a hiding place.

            Military strategists know the value of hiding for a while. But in order to win the battle, you have to come out sooner or later. Imagine a soldier joining the army, being trained in all the necessary military skills, and being shipped to the front. When he is on the edge of the battlefield, he ducks into a nearby woods and finds a hollowed out log, where he hides for the duration of the battle. He survives, which is a good thing. But no one would call him a good soldier. Just as you can’t be a good soldier if you don’t know how to hide, you also can’t be a good soldier if you don’t know when to come out of hiding.

            Hibernation is a good survival skill for many animals – but they need to come out of the cave once winter is over. When the danger is passed, it’s time to stop hiding, and live a life outside of the cave.

            The trouble with humans, on a spiritual level, is that we get stuck. The survival tactics that we needed for a while become habit. And the habit can become so ingrained that you don’t notice when the danger is passed. We stay in the cave in hibernation mode for so long that we don’t realize spring has come, and the coast is clear. And it’s time to get out there and do what we need to do.

            It takes courage to come out of hiding. But maybe not as much as you think. You may say to yourself, “I’ve been hiding the truth for so long that I can’t tell it now.” But you may be wrong. You might have been in a past relationship in which it was not safe to reveal your true self and show what you’re feeling and thinking. But that relationship might be long over. And you don’t notice that the person in front of you now, asking you “How are you doing?,” is a safe person – a person who cares, and wants to see the real you. If you hide from them, you are depriving yourself of the joy of life.

            And maybe you still feel outgunned, still feel that the dangers are too great and you can’t win the battle. But don’t forget: this time, the Lord is with you. He is leading you out of darkness into the light, and he wants the world to see your glory.