Archive for May, 2009
The Mighty Force of Mercy
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 17, 2009
1 Kings 8:31-40 Matthew 18:21-35
We work so hard to achieve what we have in life; and we can, at times, struggle so painfully against some of our defects, that we can be tempted to think we deserve the good things we get. Or, still, we may pride ourselves on the fact that we have attained our achievements by our own hands. There is a common phrase about being a “self-made man.” And along these lines we don’t want to be beholden to anyone, but stand on our own two feet.
We don’t want a hand out. We want to earn our keep. We want no one’s pity. But these are all sad myths. And they are the kind of myth that will drag us down into even more misery. In spiritual things, this mindset is dangerous.
The fact is, everything we have is given to us. It is a gift of God, and a gift we haven’t earned. The good things we enjoy are given by God out of pure mercy. The illusion is that we are the agents of our own destiny. The illusion is that we are the sources of our happiness. The illusion is that the very life we have is our own. And when we’re feeling good, when we’re pleased with some kind of spiritual advancement we’ve made, we may not want to thank God for it. We may want to enjoy ourselves without realizing that God gave us the happiness we have. The God gives us the very life we have.
And that idea—the idea that we do it all ourselves—the idea that we have attained the good things we have by our own hand—that idea will be the very thing that drags us down into more misery. That idea of self needs to be broken. We need to know and acknowledge from the heart that we have no power to lift ourselves out of the mire of selfishness and greed. We have no power to give ourselves the happy things of mutual love. All the things that make us truly happy, all the joys of love, all heavenly happiness that we feel here on earth, are pure, unmerited gifts. And when we don’t acknowledge that, we lead ourselves into temptation.
In all temptation there is a state of doubt concerning the presence and mercy of the Lord, and concerning salvation, and such things; for those who are in temptation are in interior anxiety, even to despair; in which they are for the most part kept, to the end that they may be at length confirmed in this, that all things are of the Lord’s mercy, that they are saved by Him alone, and that with themselves there is nothing but evil; respecting which they are confirmed through combats in which they overcome (AC 2334).
Now this is a hard teaching to hear. It is hard because no one likes to hear about their own evil. No one likes to hear about our natural tendencies to the lusts of ego and greed. And no one wants to admit that it is God alone who lifts us out of the hell we would make for ourselves without His help.
But it is through temptations that our ego is deflated. When we find ourselves in a state of misery brought on by our own evil desires—and there is none of us who doesn’t have them—we fall to our knees and ask for God’s help and mercy. It is not that God wants us to feel misery—that is our own doing. But without God, we would be left with the anxieties of our selfishness and greed and the frustrations we feel when the world doesn’t go according to the way we want it.
All right. I’ve said the bad part. Now comes the good part. There is no sunrise without the darkness of night. The fact is, God is all love, all mercy, and all forgiveness. God wants us to be happy. God wants to give us happiness as a gift. Like all lovers, God wants to give us all He has—and God is infinite love and infinite wisdom and to the extent that we are open, we have no bounds as to the depth of joy we can receive from God.
Jehovah, or the Lord’s internal, was the very Celestial of Love, that is, Love itself, to which no other attributes are fitting than those of pure Love, thus of pure Mercy toward the whole human race; which is such that it wishes to save all and make them happy for ever, and to bestow on them all that it has; thus out of pure mercy to draw all who are willing to follow, to heaven, that is, to itself, by the strong force of love (AC 1735).
Let me emphasize those last phrases. God wants to make us all happy for ever; to bestow all that He has on us, and to draw us all into heaven. I really like the last line—by the strong force of love. Swedenborg makes another reference to how powerful God’s love is when he says, “From the mercy of the Lord [we are] withheld from evil, and kept in good; and this with a mighty force” (AC 7206).
All we have to do is to let this happen. And in order to let this happen, we need to realize that this is God’s mighty force, not our own. And when we are feeling good and happy, we need only give God thanks for it.
Yet when we are most in need of God, we most think we can save ourselves unaided. I once knew a man in Florida. As was common for me, I found myself in a religious conversation in the cigar parlor I used to hang out at. I said that everyone, everywhere, could be saved if they are doing the best they know. That remark really set off this guy. He was drunk, and I try to get away from drunks, especially when religion is brought up. But he demanded over and over, “Why do I need to be saved?” This man was very successful and rich, and was driven around in a limousine because his driving privileges were revoked. I got to know him in a little while. One night, when I was riding around in his limo, he was in a fit of desperation, “I’m done. If you can’t tell me why, I won’t be alive tomorrow.” Then he recanted. He said, “No, that’s not fair to you.” This is the man who asked me why he needed to be saved. I’m happy to say that he later joined AA, and even accepted the spirituality of the program.
But it takes such states of grief and despair to break that illusion that we do it all ourselves. And the real kicker here, is that we do indeed have a responsibility in this process. God gives us heavenly joy out of pure love and mercy, but we have to respond to God’s call and live a Godly life.
Divine mercy is pure mercy toward the whole human race to save it, and it is likewise with every person, and never recedes from any one; so that whoever can be saved, is saved. And yet no one can be saved but by Divine means, which are revealed by the Lord in the Word. Divine means are what are called Divine truths; these teach in what manner man is to live in order that he may be saved; . . . So far therefore as a person abstains from evil, so far the Lord out of pure mercy leads him by His Divine means, and this from infancy to the end of his life in the world, and afterward to eternity (HH 522).
Our part is to clean the inside of the cup, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 23:25-26,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
This process is called reformation in Swedenborg and as we heard just above, it begins in infancy and proceeds to the end of our life in this world, and then, he goes on to say, afterward to eternity. Not only does this reformation process go on into eternity, it can happen in the next life if it hasn’t happened here. I found a really interesting quote in Swedenborg as I was preparing for this talk. It is in a passage about the despair a person goes through in temptation. It goes as follows:
That they who are being reformed are reduced into ignorance of truth or into desolation, even to grief and despair, and that they then first have comfort . . . They who are such that they can be reformed, if not in the life of the body, yet in the other life are led into this state of reformation . . . and are at length taken away into heaven, where they are instructed among angels as it were anew in the goods and truths of faith (AC 2694).
So reformation can happen in the next life even if it hasn’t happened here. This makes me think of those unfortunates I see who it looks like they haven’t gotten a fair break. They come from abusive parents, or drug abusers, and they follow the circle of dysfunction in their own life. They don’t seem to have been given a fair start in life, and seem to have no one to fall back on. I think of these cases in relation to this passage from Swedenborg. Perhaps these are the ones who are reformed in the next life, taken up into heaven, and instructed anew by angels.
How much misery and grief we go through ultimately depends on how tough a case we are. How much is it going to take to break that ego that tells us we made ourself in our own image? What is it going to take to realize that every good thing we have is a gift, from a God who loves us immeasurably. How much will it take us to be genuinely thankful at heart, and humble. I think the blues musician Roy Buchanan has some fitting words to conclude this talk,
Thank you God, saw your sun rise today
Bless you God, got to see my little children play
It may not be the right way to pray
But I want to thank you anyway
Thank you God
A Mother’s Wisdom
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 10, 2009
I like the New Testament passage for this morning because it shows an interaction between mother and child that we all can relate to. Jesus’ mother knows her son’s abilities, and prompts him to do something he apparently wants to get out of. This interaction becomes Jesus’ first miracle. Mary, Jesus, and His disciples are at a wedding feast and the host has run out of wine. Mary tells this to Jesus, and He says, “Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not come yet” (John 2:4). Mary ignores Jesus’ comment and tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” She doesn’t let Jesus get out of it. Essentially, Mary pushes Jesus into his ministry which he takes up from that point forward.
Sometimes, perhaps often, our mothers know our capabilities better than we do. They also know what is good for us to do. And they sometimes, perhaps often, get us to do the right thing, when we might not feel like it.
From the moment we are conceived, we are constantly on our mother’s mind. We grow in her womb, she nurses us when we are born, and has our interests close to her heart all our lives. And even when we don’t, our mothers know what is best for us, what is best for us to do, and she will get us to be and do our best.
A mother’s love is perhaps the closest thing we will know to unconditional love. She is always ready with open arms to help us when we go through trials. And no one is prouder, and more happy in our successes. There are a few lines form a Robert Frost poem that capture this unconditional love well. There is a discussion between husband and wife about home. The man says, “Home. The place that when you have to go there they have to take you in.” The wife says, “I should have called it a place you don’t have to deserve.” Our mother’s home is just that. It is a place you don’t have to deserve. In many areas of our life, perhaps most areas, we are measured by what we do and how we do it. We constantly have to prove ourselves. In the job world, we have to show ourselves competent to perform our task. And advancement depends on how good we are. In many of our friendships we are judged by what we bring to the relationship. Are we funny? Are we good company? Do we have good manners? But whether we are a success in this world or not, we will always have our mother’s love. Home is truly a place we don’t have to deserve. And a mother’s love is so generous, that we can never make it up. No matter what we do, flowers, cards, visits, phone calls, we will never do enough to deserve the love our mother’s give us. It is the closest thing we have to God’s love. It is like grace—freely given without our meriting it. It is the closest thing we will know of God’s grace. For a mother’s love is given freely, without our needing to earn it—just as God’s love and grace is.
With the intimacy of mother’s love, it is strange that in Protestant Christianity there is so little feminine imagery. When I was looking through the hymnal for this church service, there was only one hymn that mentions mothers specifically. It was our opening hymn, Mother Dear Jerusalem. There are many hymns about fathers, since in Protestant Christianity, God the Father and Jesus assume such a prominent place in our religious symbols.
Catholicism venerates Mary, and her elevated status elevates motherhood and the feminine in religion. Catholics pray to Mary as their spiritual mother and implore her mother’s tender care. Jesus has a feminine side, and there are a few feminine references in the Bible associated with Jesus. One is his sorrow for Jerusalem. He presents Himself as a mother hen to the children of Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Luke 13:34). This is a poignant and touching side of Jesus. But it is still Jesus the divine-man speaking. He is not a mother, as Mary is.
Some of our ministers try to include God’s femininity in their prayers. They pray to Father and Mother God. There is Biblical support for this kind of prayer, as both man and woman are created in the image and likeness of God. I take a different approach to the question. I think of God as the divine human in the glorified risen Jesus Christ. For me, the feminine side to Jesus is his soul of love and his masculine side is his form as truth. But even with this formulation, it doesn’t capture that intimate love I found from my mother. Seeing a motherly God might change my perception of God’s love and how I interact with God in my prayer life.
In Swedenborg’s system of correspondences, the church is called our spiritual mother. In the book of Revelation, the establishment of the New Church is symbolized by a mother giving birth. This is because the church nurtures our spiritual development in a like fashion as our natural mothers nurture our growth and development. We turn to the church as we do to our mother. We grow up spiritually in the church. The church teaches us religious truths that lead us into spiritual life. The church gives us some of our most tender religious feelings, as our mothers home gives us tender feelings of family. The holy feelings of love we find in church serve us as an emotional cushion throughout life’s harsh realities. These holy feelings are called remains in Swedenborg and are God’s connection with us. When we go through emotional trials, we turn to our church community for support as we would our mothers. In the great life stages we go through, we turn to the church. We are baptized in the church. We are married in the church. Our children are baptized in the church. And our memorial service is given in the church.
Another aspect of motherhood is receiving much needed attention these days. I mean Mother Earth. We think of the earth as our mother because mother earth provides us with all our needs. Mother earth gives us plants and foods to eat. We are nurtured by Mother Nature. We need especially today to take care of this wonderful and precious mother. Global warming from pollution is threatening Mother Earth, and she is turning from a gentle, nurturing mother into a raging, stormy home. We can’t keep disrespecting our natural mother and expecting things to be alright. Mother Earth will continue to nourish and provide a home for us if we respect the forces that govern her. Recycling, biodegradable materials, and renewable energy sources are ways our 21st century technologies can take care of our dear Mother Earth. We celebrated Earth Day recently, and I would include caring for Mother Earth in this Mother’s Day talk.
Many mothers today are self sufficient. They can take care of themselves. But that does not mean that they need our love any less. It is fitting that we set aside a special day to honor our mothers. Too often in our hectic lives we don’t take time to touch base with mom. Often a phone call from time to time is all a mother wants. For however old we get, we will always be our mother’s child, and our mother will want to know how we are doing and what is going on in our lives. Our mothers may know that we love them, but we need still to tell them. So it is fitting that this special day be set aside to honor our mother’s love and to complete the circle of love by giving her back our love. On this Mother’s Day we honor not only our own mothers, but that special contribution mothers everywhere make to life on this Mother Earth.
Crisis and Faith
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 3, 2009
Numbers 13:17-20, 26-33 Matthew 8:5-13
Today I selected two Bible passages that treat the issue of trust in God. The Old Testament reading represents a failure to trust God. The New Testament reading represents astonishing trust.
In the Old Testament passage, the Israelites sent out spies to explore the land of Canaan. They came back afraid of the tribes in Canaan. They said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Numbers 13:31, 35). Only Caleb trusted in God’s power and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can surely do it” (Numbers 13:30).
In the New Testament reading, a Roman Centurion has a paralyzed and suffering servant. He asks Jesus to heal him. Jesus is about to go to the home of the Centurion, but the Centurion says that that wouldn’t be necessary. He says, “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8). He trusts Jesus that much. He doesn’t need a demonstration of power; he doesn’t need Jesus to perform a healing ritual. He trusts Jesus’ power so much that he knows Jesus needs only say the word, and he needs no other proof of Jesus power to heal.
I bring up this issue because I have been going through a crisis personally this week. I have been so immersed in worldly concerns that I have found it very difficult to concentrate or ponder theology. I’d like to share what I went through, because I think the best theology comes from experience. I assure you, I will get to the theological point eventually in this story.
You may have noticed that the big, old red van isn’t parked outside the church this morning. And if you are a keen observer, you may have noticed a new, white Honda Civic parked in front of the church. Over the past week I have been in the process of buying a new car. Between when I started shopping for the car until I finally drove it out of the dealership parking lot has been a nightmare.
I went shopping for a Honda Civic upon the advice of Nikhil, who knows a lot about cars. I found a beautiful ’07 Civic that looked like new. I immediately put down $500 to hold it for me while I made up my mind if I was going to buy it. Meanwhile they called a bank and told me that a loan had been approved for me. Midway through the week, I called the dealership and told them I wanted the car, that I would put down another $1,000 and could they have it ready by Saturday. They assured me there would be no problem. The mechanic at the Husky gas station on the corner of 82nd Street and 127 Ave wanted to buy the van and offered me $100 more than the dealer would have. My plan was to pick up the Civic, sell my van, and drive my new Civic down to Calgary, where I was preaching that Sunday.
Saturday arrived. I drove my van to the Husky gas station and sold my van to Chong, the mechanic. Carol and I drove in her car to the dealership with the license plates from the van. My salesman was there. He asked me, “Are you excited?” “You bet,” I said. He took me into the finance office. The finance officer asked me, “Are you excited?” “You bet,” I said. He then said, “Oh, we never got your ID, can I photocopy your driver’s license?” “Sure,” I said, and handed him my Florida driver’s license. He looked at it and said, “I’m not sure if we can use this.” Then came those words, “Just a minute.” He left the office for a while and then came back. “We need a Canadian driver’s license,” he said. I told him that I couldn’t get one because I was here on a Visitor’s Permit. “Do you have an Alberta Health card?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, “But it’s not with me.” “We can take an official Alberta ID card from the Registry and your Alberta Health card as ID.” They called over to the Registry, and the Registry told them that I couldn’t get an official Alberta ID card with a visitor’s permit. And, since ministers don’t need a work permit, the Canadian Government won’t give me a work permit. I told the dealership that my own bank had approved me for a loan and that if I had known that I was going to run into this, I would have taken out a loan from them before today, and that now the bank was closed and wouldn’t open again until Monday. I also told them that I had already sold my van because they said everything was in order and my loan was approved. They said, “Just sit tight, we’ll work something out.” Two hours went by while I sat tight. Then Carol said, “If I get involved, can we get this resolved?” I asked them. They said Carol could be a cosigner if her credit is approved and I could drive out of the lot in my new Honda Civic that afternoon. Carol’s credit was approved shortly. She was at home while all this was going on, because she needed to get groceries for her son. They said for Carol to come to the dealership with a voided cheque and we could drive away today. Carol showed up, and they told us how it would work. The car would be registered in Carol’s name, and automatic car payments would be deducted from her bank account. At this point, Carol said, “Just a minute.” Carol and I had a talk in her car and decided that that was no solution. I told them to hold the car, I would talk to my bank on Monday. After sitting around the dealership for two hours over a car sale that they said would be OK, I wasn’t feeling, or acting, very ministerial. So I went back to the Husky station, and asked Chong if I could buy my car back. He looked upset, but said, “Well, what can I do?” So I gave him back his money and drove my old, red, Chrysler van down to Carol’s house so she could pick up her things for our trip to Calgary.
When I got to Carol’s house, the battery in my van died. Now on top of everything else, I didn’t know what was wrong with my van—the battery or the alternator. And I really didn’t want to put more money into a car I was going to get rid of. It was now 6:00PM and too late for a bus to Calgary. Carol heroically volunteered to drive us down in her 2001 Civic. By now I was hating the dealership, my van, the whole Chrysler car company, and all American cars in general. On the way down to Calgary all this was churning around in my head. My own bank never asked me about my Florida driver’s license. Would they be able to give me a loan? Would I ever get my new Civic, or was I stuck with the old, big, red Chrysler van that seemed to break down about every month and a half.
I found it very hard to focus on the church service I had to give the next morning. In fact, I wasn’t feeling very spiritual at all. All I could think about was that car. Furthermore, we had plans to hear Lorrie Lipski sing Bach’s B-minor Mass after church. I love the B-minor Mass, and even own 2 recordings of it. And I didn’t want to spoil the concert with anxiety about the car deal. None of the theological doctrines I preached about seemed to make sense in this whirlpool of materialism.
Then it came to me. A single line from the Lord’s Prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread.” To me, that line meant that our daily bread is given us this day—not tomorrow, not Monday when the banks open, not into the distant future, but this day. I remembered what we learned from Ekhart Tolle about living in the moment. The moment is all we have. So the moment is where I dug in. I also remembered a phrase I’ve heard over and over again, but it had a special meaning in this day. “Let go and let God.” There was nothing in the moment I could do about the loan, the Civic, or the broken down red van. So I let them all go and focused on what I had. I had Carol’s love, the service, and the concert. And that is where my life was in that moment. The church service went well, I enjoyed the concert immensely, and, finally I got my new Honda Civic and dumped the van on someone who could take care of it, Chong, my mechanic.
These kinds of things can be extremely valuable in our spiritual development if we react to them well. What I went through fits well with Swedenborg’s idea of temptation. Temptation isn’t just an inner debate about eating a chocolate bar or some fresh fruit. Temptations are visceral struggles in which our self-will is ground down, and our soul is made more flexible and open to receive God’s love. Temptations change us from saying, “I want,” into saying, “Thy will.” And I’ll tell you, those two hours when I was sitting in the dealership, “I want that car, and I want it now” was all that filled my mind. But those two gems of theology helped me through my struggles: “Give us this day,” and “Let go and let God.” Crises like the one I went through grind down our worldly desires and our self will. We learn that what we want isn’t always going to be what we get, and we need to give up that desperate attachment to, “I want.”
There’s a long passage from Swedenborg that talks about temptations and how they soften our self-will. I ran into it 30 years ago, when I didn’t really understand it. I even asked my minister about it. Now, I think I’m getting a feel for it. With your kind permission, I’d like to read it for you at length.
Man is nothing else than but an organ, or vessel, which receives life from the Lord . . . The life which flows in with man from the Lord, is from His Divine Love. This love, or the life therefrom, flows in and applies itself to the vessels which are in man’s rational and which are in his natural. These vessels in man are in a contrary position in respect to the inflowing life because of the hereditary evil into which man is born, and of the actual evil which he acquires; but as far as the life which flows in can dispose the vessels to receive it, so far it does dispose them. These vessels in the rational man, and in the natural, are those that are called truths . . . . When therefore these vessels . . . are in a contrary position and direction in respect to the life, as was said, it may be evident that they must be reduced to a position in accordance with the life, or in obedience to it. This can in no way be effected so long as the man is in that state into which he was born, and to which he has reduced himself; for the vessels are not obedient, being obstinately resistant, and opposing the heavenly order . . . for the good which moves them, and with which they comply, is of the love of self and the world . . . . Wherefore, before they can be rendered compliant and fit to receive anything from of the life of the Lord’s love, they must be softened. This softening is effected by no other means than by temptations; for temptations remove what is of self-love . . . .When therefore the vessels are somewhat tempered and subdued by temptations, then they begin to become yielding to, and compliant with the life of the Lord’s love, which continually flows in with man. . . . he is afterward gifted with another genius, being made mild, humble, simple, and contrite in heart (AC 3318).
When we get really shook up—and all of us have in one way or another—we become more accepting of things. Everything doesn’t have to be the way we want it to be. This is what Swedenborg means by saying that temptations soften the vessels in our rational mind, and grind down love of self and of the world. When we are filled with self-will, we rage against everything and everyone who doesn’t go our way. But as Swedenborg says, after temptations we receive a new personality that is mild, humble, simple and contrite. That is when crises become crises and faith instead of crises of faith.