Archive for February, 2011
To Truly Call Him, “Lord, Lord”
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 27, 2011
Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28 Matthew 7:21-29 Psalm 31
Jesus tells us that not everyone who calls Him, “Lord, Lord” will enter His kingdom. Not even those who perform miracles of healing and who proclaim their faith in prophesy, are sure of entering His kingdom. Jesus tells us that only the person who, “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who builds his house upon a rock.” In Swedenborg’s system of correspondences, a rock signifies truth. And only a person whose life is grounded in spiritual truth can withstand the temptations and allurements of selfishness and the world’s seductions. It is not enough to call out, “Lord, Lord.” By this I understand those outward forms of religion such as attending church, reading the Bible, saying prayers, and even those who may know and study religions. These outward forms of religion are all good. And they can be very helpful in developing a spiritual life. But to truly be a spiritual person, it is not enough to only know about religions. It is not enough to only attend church. It is not enough to only confess being a Christian. No, to be a truly devout person, one needs to hear Christ’s words and apply them to life.
We hear a similar message in our Deuteronomy reading for this morning. The teachings in Deuteronomy are the same as those Jesus gives us. In Deuteronomy 11:18 we read, “Fix these words of mine on your hearts and minds.” God’s laws are to be internalized; they are not just to be known. No, Deuteronomy tells us to fix God’s commands on our hearts. This means that they are to be so intimately internalized that they are in our hearts, and hence all our thoughts and deeds. Since God’s laws are in our hearts, then they will be with us, as Deuteronomy says, “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you get up” (11:19). That pretty much covers all of our lives.
What Jesus and Deuteronomy are talking about are spiritual truths. The rock on which the wise man built his house symbolizes building a life that is centered around spiritual truth. There are many places one may turn to in seeking spiritual truth, but I believe that church is one very important source of spiritual truth. Churches represent faith traditions. And I don’t mean just our denomination. Most churches, be they of the different Christian denominations, or of world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Taoism to name a few, most churches are based around a tradition that has grown up over years of practice and reflection.
There are good things and bad things about a tradition. The good thing about a tradition is that it collects the wisdom of spiritual masters over a long period of time. In this respect, we can benefit from those who have gone before us. We can learn from wisdom that has been added to over time by those who have experienced spirituality in its depths and have struggled with spirituality in their own souls. We can benefit from those who have had the time to study spiritual texts in depth and who have shared the results of their study. Spiritual traditions can light our way as a lantern in the night.
The bad things about a tradition stem from the very things that make them good. Sometimes the words of humans are added to the words of sacred texts in such a way as to obscure the purity of the sacred texts. Sometimes human interpretations can cover over the sacred texts of a tradition. In a tradition, it is possible for human words to replace God’s Word. Then, the teachings of humans can mislead followers of a tradition, or distort God’s true message.
But I still affirm the need for a tradition. Some seekers today make up a brand of spirituality a la carte. By that, I mean they may pick something from Buddhism that they like, perhaps some Sufi poetry, a smattering of Taoism, and maybe the words of Jesus. While I am open minded about other wisdom traditions, there is a problem with this approach to spirituality. Spirituality a la carte can end up merely reinforcing the self. It is the self that chooses what the individual will take or reject. This is a problem, since a good deal of spirituality is the negation of self. Spirituality has as its goal the transformation of the individual from a self-oriented life to a God-oriented life. Spirituality also teaches the subordination of self to service to others. Spirituality levels pride and teaches humility. So without a faith tradition, one can end up only reinforcing the self that spirituality seeks to moderate. In many places, Swedenborg talks about, “How contrary to heavenly love and how filthy is the love of self” (AC 2040). On the other hand, if a person is firmly committed to a faith tradition, I do believe that faith can be expanded by reference to other great works of spirituality.
Spirituality teaches us to put God first, and the neighbor on equal footing with ourself. This teaching is not what society tells us. Society teaches us to seek self-affirmation and to get ahead at all costs–even if that means getting ahead by stepping on the heads of our neighbors. Society teaches us to seek social status and to get ourselves in a position to feel superior to others. Everwhere in shopping malls we are presented with images of the ideal person. Clothing stores show us what the perfect body and well-dressed individual should look like. They also show us what the ideal business person should dress like. Usually this means buying expensive designer clothes. We are shown pictured of health enthusiasts with sculpted abs. Posters and movies show boney models or actresses with body types that I consider unhealthy. Where can a person turn to find an alternative image from these icons? Where else but to a faith tradition?
Spiritual practice requires effort. We need to ask God into our lives, and we need to act in such a way that we admin the divine rays into our lives. I found some very provocative passages about this in Swedenborg. The rock on which the wise man builds his house signifies truth. And it is through truths that we learn what is good and what is evil. When we apply truth to our lives, we open ourselves to God’s love. The Swedenborg passages I found suggest that God is always there–but we can block God’s inflowing life and love. We use truth to get evils out of the way that stand between God and us. Swedenborg tells us that
There are loves of three kinds that constitute the heavenly things of the Lord’s kingdom; these are marriage love, love for infants, and the love for society or mutual love. . . . Whatever covers up, obstructs, and defiles these loves [must be removed] (AC 2040).
Note the language that is used here. We must remove whatever, “covers up, obstructs, and defiles.” This means to me that we have those heavenly loves in us already, and the problem comes when we block these loves. Swedenborg makes this even more clear. He writes,
so far as the evils of the lusts, and the falsities from them, are removed, the person is purified; and so far heavenly love can appear” (AC 2040).
So heavenly love appears when we remove what Swedenborg calls evils and falsities. Apparently, these things cover over heavenly loves that are in us. When we purify ourselves by removing those lusts, then heavenly love appears–there is nothing blocking it anymore.
It is truth that teaches us what is blocking the heavenly love that is in our soul. This is what is signified by the stone on which the wise man built his house. The stone is that truth that we can use to purify ourselves from the lusts of selfishness and worldliness. Swedenborg writes, “without knowledges of truth there is no purification. . . . a stone signifies truths” (AC 2040). As the wise man built his house on the rock, we need to form our lives upon truths. It seems to me that the church is the most fruitful place to learn spiritual truths. In a church one has the power of tradition–both living and historical. We are a community, and we can all benefit from the spiritual experiences of each other, as we sojourn in this life. Then there is the history of wisdom that church traditions provide. Now I am well aware that there is bad religion out there that drives thinking people away from the church. and I am well aware that we can find God outside the church. We can access wisdom traditions on our own. But I think that when we seek the truths that make a strong foundation for our house of life, the church is an invaluable resource. The people in it, and the people in its past are a solid support for our spiritual development.
The Lord Comforts His People
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 20, 2011
Isaiah 49:8-16 Matthew 6:24-34 Psalms 130, 131
One of the verses from this morning’s Psalms is, “Like a weaned child I am content.” Contentment with the Lord’s guidance and providence is also the message we heard from Matthew 6. With beautiful nature imagery, Matthew tells us not to worry. God knows what we need and will provide. We hear this teaching also in our Isaiah reading for this morning, “For the LORD comforts his people.”
The Isaiah reading has a number of beautiful images about how God will restore the land and His people. We hear about feeding beside the roads, pasture on barren hills, mountains being leveled into roads, no more hunger or thirst. We are told that the Lord will never forget us. Isaiah asks, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast?” The Prophet uses hyperbole. He says that even if a mother can forget her baby–which we know can never happen–God will never forget His people.
But this isn’t the whole story. In this morning’s Psalms, we hear a different voice. We hear the voice of waiting. The Psalmist is waiting for God’s redemption:
I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love (Psalm 130: 5-7).
When I hear these words, I hear a man who is waiting for the promises we heard in Isaiah and in Matthew. The Psalmist says, “I wait for the LORD.” Then for emphasis, he repeats an appeal to God, “I wait for the LORD more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” When I hear these words, I hear a voice saying, “Where is that restored land in which I will no longer hunger or thirst?” I hear a voice saying, “I am seeking God’s kingdom, why are not all those other worldly things being given to me?” Isaiah and Matthew promise that God will take care of us, and so does the Psalm. Psalm 130 says, “Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love.”
So we have two messages from this morning’s readings. We are told to put our hope in God and not worry. But we are also told that this may mean waiting for the good things we are promised.
I think that we can all relate to the Psalmist. In this difficult economy, we may all feel want and privation. We may only just barely make ends meet–or maybe not even that. While the Psalmist seems to keep up his hope as he waits on God, I suspect that we may sometimes fall into despair. We may ask, “How can Jesus tell us not to worry?” “How can Jesus tell us that our heavenly Father will take care of us?”
There are a few comments I can say about this. One comment is about how God gives us the Kingdom. The other is about how we can live while we are waiting.
First of all we need to listen to the words of Isaiah. The passage we heard begins with these words, “In the time of my favor I will answer you.” I read this line to mean that God will hear our prayers and attend to our needs in His time, not our time. We have a tendency to want things right now. We want things to come to us in the moment we ask for them. But Isaiah tells us that the things we want come to us in the time of God’s favor. Good things come to us when it is good for us to have them. Just reflect on some of those celebrities we hear about. Money and fame come to them–sometimes at a young age. What more could we want than money and fame? Yet we see lives ruined by this money and fame granted too early in life. We hear about celebrity rehab and drug abuse. We hear about child custody battles with the courts. And it doesn’t have to be all that early in life. Look at Charlie Sheen. In his mature years his life is still consumed with drug abuse and prostitutes. He has been in and out of rehab countless times and just doesn’t seem to get it. He stars in a comedy show, and the irony is that his own life is a comedy. A comedy or a tragedy. Living a simple life with a modest income may not be all that bad after all.
This brings us to the Matthew passage. Jesus tells us not to worry. He says that the birds are fed by God, and that we are more important than birds. God will take care of us. He tells us not to worry about clothing, the lilies of the field are clothed in more beautiful garb than was King Solomon himself. One thing I take from that passage is how Jesus is talking about worrying about the future. “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear?” Then as a summary, Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow:
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Eckhart Tolle has gotten a lot of millage out of living in the present. But we see from Matthew that Jesus spoke these words way before Tolle. Tolle just reminds us of Jesus’ eternal truths.
I worry a lot, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. But when I think about it, most of my worrying is about the future. It’s about something I want that I don’t have yet, or something I have that I’m afraid of losing. Will I have enough money to get through the week and buy all the needs and treats I want? How much money is left in my checking account and how much will I be spending? These questions rise up in my mind especially when I have free time to sit and think. This often means sit and worry. This worry is about what I don’t have and what I want. And notice that this worry is all about the future.
Then there are those times when I worry about losing something good I have. Let me give you one extreme example of this. Since I came to Edmonton, I’ve been trying to learn how to ski. I’ve never skied before in my life. Carol loves to ski and got me out on the ski hill. I took a lesson and learned how to do the snow plow. But even though I could snow plow my way down the ski hill, it wasn’t really fun for me. I was terrified. It’s so easy to lose control that it felt more like work for me. So skiing for me was a combination of work and fear. I didn’t really see the fun in it. But I did believe that it could be fun. I would talk with ski enthusiasts and they all assured me that the time of fear would go away eventually and I would find fun in it. Well, I’m happy to say that that did happen for me. I had a breakthrough! It just happened last time I went out skiing. I took another lesson and moved beyond the snow plow. I learned how to stand, how to hold my arms, and how to keep up enough speed to make turns correctly. Make no mistake, when I began this lesson I was terrified. But the fear went away and I got that control the instructor was trying to teach me. As soon as the lesson was over, I forgot to apply half or what he told me. But I remembered what he said, and I knew what I was supposed to do. After a few runs down the hill, I started having a ball. I was actually having fun skiing. In fact it was a riot! I went to visit Carol after I finished for the day all excited to tell her about how much fun I found skiing–finally! But later that night, would you believe what my mind did to me? I started worrying. You just wouldn’t believe what I worried about. I worried that I would forget how to do what I was doing, and that I would lose that feeling of fun next time I went skiing. I actually worried that I wouldn’t have fun next time I went skiing. Now this is pretty ridiculous. But I think it illustrates an important point. This was a fear of losing something I had. And notice in this case too, I was worrying about the future.
I do believe that God will provide. Jesus is telling us that our lives will be more content if we just keep our minds on today. The future is in God’s hands, not our hands. Our task is to do the best we can in the present. Then we need to let go of consequences. The consequences of our actions are in God’s hands. And when we want control over consequences, we are going to end up worrying and making ourselves miserable. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Let’s not burden our minds with worrying about what is coming down the road.
Finally, all these remarks can be tied together with a line from Isaiah. In Isaiah, the Lord tells us, “He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them to springs of water.” If we want to be content with our lives, we need to let God guide us. If we try to make things happen the way we think they should go, we will become frustrated and worrisome. When we worry about the future; when we want things to come out the way we want them to come out; when we are afraid to lose something we think we should have; we are not open to God’s guidance. We are taking the world into our own hands. And I assure you, our hands are not big enough to hold the world in them. Trust that God is leading us to springs of water is the key to contentment. This we heard in the Psalm today. “In his word I put my hope.” When the future looks grim, we need all the more to hope that God will provide. When we worry about the future, we need to remember that the future is in God’s hands. We will only find true contentment when we rest in God’s guidance. God will guide us to springs of water. But God will guide us in the time of His favor. When we are in periods of difficulty, we need to repeat the words of the Psalmist: “I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.”
Divine and Human Love
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 13, 2011
Genesis 29:14-20 John 15:9-17 Psalm 33
With Valentine’s Day coming up, it seems fitting to reflect on the subject of love. We heard Bible stories that treat three forms of love. In the Gospel of John, we heard two forms of love. We heard of Jesus’ love for humanity, and we heard the injunction for us to love each other, which can be called brotherly love. Then in a beautiful love story in Genesis reading, we heard about the love between Jacob and Rachel. Jacob served Laban seven years to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage. And we are told that it seemed like only a few days so great was his love for her. When we experience love, we are often transported out of the realm of time and space. In all three forms of love, divine, brotherly, and romantic, time has no meaning as we are transported into eternity by the experience of love.
I think of these three forms of love as a triangle–with divine love at one corner, brotherly love at another, and romantic love at the third angle. I like the triangle image because these three loves are interconnected. Divine love is the highest form of love, and without it we would not have the other two. All the holy loves we know are from God’s unbounded love flowing into us. Jesus tells us, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” We need to receive God’s love and wisdom in order to do good and to be filled with the loves for each other and for our partners. Jesus tells us,
No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me (John 5, 4).
Our love for God must come first. Jesus tells us to
Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength (Mark 12:30).
We love God by learning His ways and then by incorporating His precepts into our lives. Only when we apply God’s loving laws to our lives are we able to practice the other two loves. For without the love that flows in from God, we are not able to love our brothers and sisters, or our partners.
While love for God is the highest form of love, I put brotherly love and romantic love on a similar level. Some might say that universal love for the whole human race is a higher form of love than romantic love, but I disagree. The experience of being in love with one special person is just as divine as is the universal love for each other. In fact, there are suggestions in Swedenborg that in marriage love couples feel the highest blessings of heavenly joy. Swedenborg writes of this love,
The states of this love are innocence, peace, tranquility, inmost friendship, entire confidence, and mutual desire of heart and mind to do each other every good; and from all these come blessedness, happiness, joy, pleasure–and from the eternal fruition of these, heavenly joy.
Swedenborg is in love with repeating all these adjectives about marriage love as he explains why God instituted marriage love.
He from the inmosts infused into persons marriage love, into which He might gather all the blessedness, happiness, joys, and pleasures that together with life proceed and flow in only from Divine Love through His Divine Wisdom . . . Innocence, peace, tranquility, inmost friendship, entire confidence, and mutual desire of mind and heart to do each other every good are mentioned–because innocence and peace are of the soul, tranquility is of the mind, inmost friendship is of the bosom, entire confidence is of the heart, and mutual desire of mind and heart to do each other every good is of the body from these (CL 180).
I remember a debate I had with someone about this. He vehemently disagreed with my views about marriage love, or romantic love. His opposition was because in marriage love we want our love to be reciprocated. He thought that because we wanted to beloved back by our partner, we were not loving purely. He thought that we should love unconditionally, without any thought of being loved in return. However, my position, and the position of Swedenborg, is that all love wants to be loved in return. Not only to be loved in return, but to be conjoined with those we love. This is equally true of brotherly love or of marriage love. Swedenborg writes of the three essentials of love in his work True Christian Religion, “The essence of love is to love others outside of itself, to desire to be one with them, and to make them happy from itself” TCR 43). I think that loving someone outside ourself is pretty clear. And when we look at parents, for example, we see how much love wants to make their children as happy as they can. This is equally true of marriage love and of brotherly love. But what about wanting to be one with the beloved? Swedenborg explains the nature of divine love, and how much God wants to be conjoined with the human race,
Love also, viewed in itself, is nothing else than an effort to conjunction; therefore that this object of the essence of love might be attained, God created humans in His image and likeness, with which conjunction may be effected. That the Divine love continually intends conjunction is manifest from the words of the Lord, that He wills that they may be one, He in them and they in Him, and that the love of God may be in them (John 17:21-23, 26) (TCR 43).
There’s another striking line from that John passage that I would like to share with you. Jesus says, “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am” (John 17:24). Indeed, it is God’s will to have us be with Him, where He is in heaven. This is the kind of love that flows into us from God. And as God’s image and likeness, we, too wish to be united with those we love.
It is true that we are told to love our enemies, from whom we would not expect reciprocity. But in this case, we would still stand ready to accept our enemy into friendship, should their heart change. This brings us to the third corner of the triangle of love: love for our brothers and sisters. As God does, we are called upon to love the whole human race. We are called upon to do good to everyone with whom we come in contact. We are called upon to wish well to everyone. But I don’t think that this means that we are to befriend everyone. We all have different dispositions and peculiarities. There are some people that we click with, and others that we just don’t seem to connect with. I don’t see this as a problem. Friends are made of shared experiences, similarities in disposition and likes and dislikes, and other particularities. I think it is a plain fact of human existence that we will find some with whom we get along better than with others; some with whom we will enjoy friendship, and others with whom we won’t. But universal love is still a strong force. Even with those we don’t befriend, we can enjoy making happy. Even to those we don’t befriend, we can do good. Even to those we don’t have a mutual bond of connection, we can wish well. In many cases, we may find that Christian love is strong enough to forge a bond of connection with people very different from ourselves.
Universal love for our brothers and sisters is not always exercised the same way. We need to express our love with discretion and wisdom. Sometimes we need to show what is called “tough love.” We don’t want to give a drug addict money so that they can score more drugs. We may have compassion and give them food. Or we may try to find them shelter on cold nights. But we wouldn’t want to enable destructive behaviors. This means destructive behaviors of any kind. A parent who disciplines his or her child is still showing love. Or sometimes we may need to confront acquaintances of ours whom we think are doing hurtful things. It is a true test of friendship to endure criticism and to feel comfortable to give criticism. None of us like confrontation. But as Swedenborg would say it, love needs to be given with wisdom. There’s a line to this effect. It goes, “Doing good to the evil is doing evil to the good.” Should we find ourselves in a position of discipline or correction, though, our words must be respectful, courteous, and loving. Gandhi said, “Whenever you have truth, it must be given with love or the message and the messenger will be rejected.” Our object in healthy confrontation is amendment, not judgment or superiority.
With God in our hearts, our love life will be happy on all three angles of the triangle of love. God comes first, perhaps we will find supreme delight in marriage or romance, or maybe we will find love for the whole human race fulfilling for our souls. However and wherever we find it, love is at the very heart of Christian life. May we all remain open for opportunities to feel and to express Christian love in all our affairs.