Archive for July, 2009
The Sure Foundation for Your Times
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
July 12, 2009
Isaiah 33:2-16 Luke 13:22-35
When Jesus looked over Jerusalem, he lamented. He said, “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate.” The people of the Holy City were too involved with temple sacrifices and purity rituals to hear the message of love that goes way back to the foundations of Israel. And in our reading from Isaiah, we read that the highways of Israel “are deserted, no travelers are on the roads . . . The land morns and wastes away.”
I thought about our own society when I read these passages. Across denominational lines, attendance at church on Sunday morning is in decline. Even the mighty Catholic Church is closing its doors. There are a few pockets of Christian prosperity in the Fundamentalist denominations, which to me is even more alarming. Jesus’ words seem applicable to today’s world. We long to gather the children of the world together, but they are not willing. The houses of religion are left desolate.
This is not a message of doom and gloom, though. I do not fear for the future of the church. And despite our small numbers, we are holding our own. I do not fear for the extinction of this denomination in particular, nor do I fear for Christianity in general.
What really prompted me to think about the current state of religion in the world was an AA meeting I attended. The organizations of AA and NA are growing across the world. They number in the millions. I wondered why these organizations were growing. They ask very hard things of their members, much harder, I thought, than religious institutions do. AA asks a person to relinquish a drug with powerful addictive properties. Before a person does anything in AA, they have to give up something they love, crave, and have become physically addicted to. Then, after the addictive drug is put down, AA asks a person to change radically. They teach, “If nothing changes, nothing changes.” This means that the same person, if they don’t radically change, will drink again. Part of this personality change is to create an exhaustive moral inventory of themselves, and then to ask God to remove all their defects of character. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the members of AA need to find a Higher Power. From being a hopeless drunk, AA asks its members to put down their powerful addiction to alcohol, change their personality, and to find spirituality.
Now that’s asking a lot. I think it’s asking more than churches ask. All you need to do in a church is come to church, listen to Bible readings and a sermon, and sing some songs. In fact, you could even daydream in church, and fall asleep during the sermon. Of course religion asks more than this, and we will talk about this later. And churches that ask only that are sure to fail. But still, at the bottom line, one could get away with these few things at church.
I asked Rich this question. I asked him why the very hard programs of AA and NA are growing. He said that people get beat down and tired of their lives when they suffer from addictions. Nobody comes to AA when they are on top of their game. Usually, people come to AA when they start losing things: their job, their family, their house, self-respect. When life becomes painful enough, a person will want it all to stop. There is often, maybe usually, an element of desperation in a person who comes to AA. They become willing to do anything to stop the pain.
But what about people whose lives are going good? What about people whose lives are going great? What about people who are wealthy and powerful? What about people who are succeeding in life? What about people who think they have enough? These questions seem to me to capture the trouble religion has today. People are complacent with their lives and in their complacency don’t see the need for God.
Our society is structured to provide rewards to successful people. Society recognizes those who have made it on their own. The self-made man or woman is a cultural icon. Sadly, I think society honors the rich and powerful. And the rich and powerful seem to have all that they need. Their very success seems to close the door on God, as they pride themselves on standing on their own two feet. And even the average person of ordinary means also feels that they have enough. We have iPods, television, computers, Facebook, Twitter, u-tube, and an endless array of distractions. As T. S. Eliot puts it, we are, “distracted by distraction from distraction.” Society seems to equate faith with weakness. Society feels that needing God is a sign that they can’t make it on their own. Accepting our human finitude is a blow to the self-made man or woman. The Christian virtue of humility is buried beneath the social norm of self-confidence. Our leading intellectuals are primarily atheist. I’ve been reading a book by the great philosopher Charles Taylor. When a person reads Taylor, one feels his Catholic beliefs just below the surface of his philosophy. You know he longs to speak religiously. But as an academic philosopher, he knows he can’t. In fact, his latest book is called A SecularAge, and it is an analysis of this world we now live in. The depth to which we are secular, Taylor maintains, is unlike anything the world has seen before. Most people today don’t have that desperation that an alcoholic feels. Most people don’t cry out for a change in their life.
So Christ’s words are apt today. “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” Fuelled by successes, our world sees no place for God in their lives. I am not saying that church is the only place where a person can find God. Indeed, people do find God outside church buildings. Perhaps in a forest, or a garden, or watching a sunrise, or in some other special place where God’s presence fills the air. But if that were the case, I wouldn’t mind. I think that back in the sixties people were finding God everywhere. But I don’t think that this is the case today. I see Charles Taylor’s secular age as the leading norm today. I don’t think that the spiritual quest is as alive. Rather, I think that God has simply been sloughed off.
But there are turn who do turn to God today. Usually only after they have been through some personal challenge in their lives. When the complacency that infects this world has been broken, people find that they need help. They find that they need God. They may even find that they need the spiritual support of church. Then, God gives people strength. The church gives people community. And religion gives people hope. Swedenborg states that spiritual growth usually begins after sorrow or misfortune. He speaks of “temptation, misfortune, and sorrow, that cause the things of the body and the world, thus of man’s own, to become quiescent” (AC 8). So when the successes of the world fall through, a person sees just how thin they are as a source of identity. After those misfortunes and sorrows, a person begins to have some of that desperation the alcoholic knows.
Turning to God out of desperation, though, is not where spiritual growth ends. When the desperate straits pass, complacency can set in again. Rather, spirituality takes root in the soul when a person turns to God because she or he wants God in their life. Real faith is chosen, not used as a fallback under difficult times. One sees how vast and beautiful the truths of religion are, and from a love for truth a person seeks out a greater understanding of God’s works. One finds a heart that is moved by God’s love, and one seeks to cultivate that love. Spirituality enters a person’s soul to stay when he or she realizes the words of the prophet; that God is the sure foundation for our times, not our own worldly successes. To a person of faith, religion is an attractive proposition. The life of religion is richer and of more value than a life lived for materialism alone.
How this view of religion comes to a person, I can’t say. I can’t rightly say just how it came to me. I can say that when my aspirations of university teaching fell through and I was left for years without any intellectual stimulation, I did begin to turn inward. My true heart emerged, which had been buried under religious theories and cultural studies of the religious experience. When all that intellectualizing stopped, I found my own personal faith. God came to me and I came to God. Then, all that I had learned became like so many mirrors reflecting God’s splendor. And I finally came into this profession of ministry as if I had come home after a long wandering.
I guess the call to faith is finally God’s. God says that he continually stands at the door and knocks. Sometimes I wish He would knock a little louder, though. This is why I don’t fear for the future of Christianity, nor for the future of this church. God comes to people in the way that is right for each individual life. God makes Himself known at the right time, in the right way. And if the church is truly alive with God’s Spirit, people who are searching will know it. We still need to take every measure to reach out to the world by every means we can. And we need to embody those principals of religion that give true life. But finally I know that God wants to gather his children together as a hen does her chicks even more than we do. And finally, it is God’s call. Let us all be ready when He calls us. And with a faith that is truly alive in our hearts, we will be that person in Isaiah “who will dwell on the heights, whose refuge will be a mountain fortress. His bread will be supplied and water will not fail him.”
What We Don’t Know about Heaven
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
July 5, 2009
2 Kings 2:1-12 John 14:1-4
One of Swedenborg’s extraordinary claims is that he had visions of the afterlife. And what is extraordinary to me, is that he was able to describe these visions with the precision of the scientist that he was. This claim is not all that extraordinary, though. There is a visionary tradition in the history of Christianity, in fact it is even Biblical. The New Testament records accounts where people heard voices from heaven and saw heaven opened. Paul had a vision of Christ which left him blind for three days and his companions heard the voice of Jesus. Peter, as well, had a vision of heaven. The Apostle John recorded his visions in the book of Revelation. There is a visionary tradition among the Natives of North America, in Hinduism, Buddhism, and in Islam. Then there are those near death experiences that some have which come with visions of the next life.
From Swedenborg’s writings, we think we have a fair idea of what the afterlife is like. Swedenborg talks about the spiritual bodies angels have—and all angels come from the human race, he talks about communities in the next life, and about functions and occupations we have in the next life. But then there are all those times when Swedenborg says that what he experiences is ineffable. That is, his experiences are beyond anything words can express.
The very language of angels—that is, good people who have crossed over—is beyond human speech. We all come into this angelic language, according to Swedenborg, and it is so natural that we don’t know that it transcends all language from this world. To convince newly arrived spirits just how superior their language is, Swedenborg conducts an experiment. He asks the spirits to go to their society, think of an idea and try to tell it to Swedenborg, who is still in the natural world. Swedenborg tells us then what happened:
They entered, thought of a subject, retained it, and came out; and when they tried to give expression to it they could not; for they could find no idea of natural thought adequate to any idea of purely spiritual thought, and thus words to express it (TCR 280 .
The spirits are convinced then about how superior spiritual thought and language is to natural thought and language. As Swedenborg says,
Spiritual ideas are supernatural, inexpressible, ineffable, and incomprehensible to a natural man; and they said that being so supereminent, spiritual ideas or thoughts in comparison with natural are ideas of ideas and thoughts of thoughts, and therefore by them the qualities of qualities and the affections of affections are expressed; . . . and from this it is evident that spiritual wisdom is the wisdom of wisdom, and is therefore inexpressible to any wise man in the natural world (TCR 280 ).
So we don’t have the first idea of what angels think and talk about. It is so filled with wisdom that the best of our natural thought isn’t able to understand a single angelic idea.
That passage implies that one reason for the transcendence of spiritual lang is because the experiences in the next life are beyond what we can experience here. I was intrigued by the statement that in angelic speech the “affections of affections” are expressed. All our delights come from our loves. When we are enjoying what we love, we are in our delights. And the heavenly delights of loving God and the neighbor far exceed any other joy we can know. We feel joy here when we do good to others. And we feel a peace and joy when we think about God. But the happiest we can ever be in this world is nothing compared to heavenly joy and happiness. We feel only faintly the joy that awaits us in heaven. This is one of those heavenly promises that is pleasant to contemplate. Swedenborg writes,
. . . a man who is in love to God and in love toward the neighbor, as long as he lives in the body does not feel the manifest enjoyment from these loves and from the good affections which are from them, but only a blessedness that is hardly perceptible, because it is stored up in his interiors, and veiled by the exteriors which are of the body, and defiled by the cares of the world. After death, however, the states are entirely changed; . . . the obscure enjoyment and almost imperceptible blessedness which had been with those who are in love to God and in love to the neighbor, is then turned into the love of heaven, which is in every way perceptible and sensible; for that blessedness, which was stored up and lay hid in their interiors when they lived in the world, is then revealed and brought forth into manifest sensation, because they are then in the spirit and that was the enjoyment of their spirit (HH 401).
What strikes me about this passage is how good it feels to live in mutual love with one another here in this world. There are times when we seem to be lifted up into heaven here on earth. And yet even these feelings are but a “blessedness that is hardly perceptible” compared to heavenly joy. Even though human language is inadequate to express what spiritual reality is like, Swedenborg tries to give us some idea of just how great heavenly joy is. And the source of heavenly joy comes from God Himself, who wants to save everyone and make everyone as happy as He can.
Heaven in itself is such that it is full of enjoyments, so that viewed in itself it is nothing but what is blessed and delightful, since the Divine good proceeding from the Divine love of the Lord makes heaven in general and in particular with everyone there, and the Divine love is to will the salvation of all and the happiness of all from inmosts and in fullness. Hence whether you say heaven or heavenly joy, it is the same thing (HH 397).
And everyone in heaven wants to share their happiness with everyone else. Heaven is immense and so heavenly joy is equally immense. Once again, Swedenborg tells us that sharing joy comes first from God, who wishes to give everyone all that He has.
How great the enjoyment of heaven is, may be evident only from this, that it is an enjoyment to all in heaven to communicate their enjoyments and blessings to others; and because all are such in the heavens, it is manifest how immense is the enjoyment of heaven; for, as was shown above, in the heavens there is a communication of all with each, and of each with all. Such communication flows forth from the two loves of heaven, which, as was said, are love to the Lord and love toward the neighbor. These loves are communicative of their enjoyments. That love to the Lord is such, is because His love is the love of communication of all that He has with all, for He wills the happiness of all. Similar love is in every one of those who love the Lord, because He is in them (HH 399).
We think of heaven as being a place of deep peace. There are moments in this world when we feel tranquil and at peace. Perhaps at sunrise, or in a quiet natural setting. I remember skiing up in Jasper with Carol. We stopped and looked down at the beautiful valley and Carol said to me, “Listen—it’s totally quiet.” There was no road noise, no clamor from traffic, no sirens. There was just the forest, the valley and each other. That was one of those moments of peace that we feel here on earth. But even moments such as these fall short of the kind of peace that awaits us in heaven. I spoke with a man who had actually died for several minutes before being resuscitated. He had an experience of the afterlife. He told me that there is a peace and tranquility beyond anything we feel in this world. Swedenborg says the same.
Man also, as long as he lives in the body, cannot receive the peace of heaven, thus cannot perceive it, because his perception is in what is natural. In order to perceive it, he ought to be able as to thought to be elevated and withdrawn from the body and kept in the spirit, and then be with angels. Because I have in this way perceived the peace of heaven, I am able to describe it, yet not by words as it is in itself, because human words are inadequate, but only as it is in comparison with that rest of mind which those enjoy who are content in God (HH 248).
And once again, this peace flows from God Himself. God is the source of all heavenly peace and joy. And what amazes me, is that God Himself feels joy in being united with us all in heaven. God feels joy that we are happy, and He feels joy in being conjoined with everybody in heaven. This Divine joy is shared with everyone in heaven and our joy in God and God’s joy in us becomes a loving circle.
The Divine of peace in heaven is from the Lord, existing from His conjunction with the angels of heaven, . . . From this it may be manifest, that peace in the heavens is the Divine inmostly affecting with blessedness every good they have, and giving all the joy of heaven; and that in its essence the Divine joy of the Lord’s Divine love, from His conjunction with heaven and with every one there. This joy perceived by the Lord in angels, and by angels from the Lord, is peace. From this by derivation angels have all that is blessed, enjoyable, and happy, or that which is called heavenly joy (HH 286).
These passages are a reminder about just how little we can really know about heaven here on earth. Visionaries from all traditions can point to heavenly realities. But they can only point. The actual experience is beyond what we can know here on earth. We cannot know the wisdom in heaven, we cannot know the joy in heaven, and we cannot know the peace of heaven. I think that spiritually inclined people find a more joyful life in this world than those who are consumed with worldly things. I think that spiritually inclined people find deeper experiences of peace. But our best days here are but “a blessedness that is hardly perceptible” compared to what awaits us in heaven. Meanwhile, let us try to do a good turn to our neighbors, and to try to make this one day happier for the lives we touch. And let us be mindful and give thanks to God, who gives us every good thing we know. And we can live in the peace and joy of this life, and hope for good things to come.