Archive for October, 2011
A New Heart and a New Spirit
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
October 30, 2011
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 Matthew 21:23-32 Psalm 25
The Prophet Ezekiel states something that sounds simple. He tells us that if we turn from wickedness we will live. He tells us further that God will judge each of us according to our ways. He enjoins us to get a new heart and a new spirit. We find in the prophet a beautiful statement about God’s love for the whole human race. God says in Ezekiel, I takes no pleasure in the death of anyone.” Our reading concludes with the statement, “Repent and Live!”
This reading is all about personal responsibility. We are to take an active role in our spiritual life. The prophet is very optimistic about human power. He simply says, “Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall.” In this reading there is no suggestion that we may not have the power to turn from our offenses. It appears simply to be assumed that we have the power to refrain from evil.
Many Christian churches would have problems with this passage from Ezekiel. As I have said before, some mainline Christian churches think that faith is what saves us, not good works. They are suspicious of any attempts to do good and practice works as part of our salvation process. I once made a Reformed minister very nervous once when I talked about our understanding of regeneration. I told him that we need to act as if we have all the power to turn from sin and do good. The Reformed church teaches that we have no power to do good. All salvation is done by God without interference from human effort. They are suspicious of any human effort in the act of salvation. This is where the doctrine of predestination comes in. They teach that God has already decided who will be saved and who will not. It’s already done before we are born. And no human effort can change this predestination. Our destiny is written in stone. And Lutherans teach also, that faith is what saves. For those who believe that Christ died for them, Christ’s righteousness is given to them and they are saved. When I mentioned to a Lutheran bishop our doctrine that we need to act as if we had the power to change our direction and turn from sin, he called me a semi-Pelagian. Pelagius was a Christian living in the fourth century AD. He taught that we have the power to save ourselves without divine aid. He was declared to be a heretic. His teachings are called Pelagianism. The Lutheran bishop I spoke with was not far off in calling me semi-Pelagian. In fact, with the qualifying word “semi” I rather accepted this title.
As Ezekiel teaches us, we have to power to turn from evil and do good. God continually knocks at the door, but we must open it. We must respond to God’s call. We cooperate with God in our own salvation. We see our relationship with God as if it were a love relationship. God loves the whole human race. And as with all lovers, God asks us to love Him back. He gives us total freedom to love Him or to turn from Him. Only with free will can our relationship with God be a genuine love relationship. If we were powerless in our relationship with God, as the Reformed teach, then there would be no mutuality in our relationship with God. We would be programmed human computers. We all know that we cannot compel someone to love us who doesn’t. This is a law of love we all know. Think of all the love songs and poems that have been written about lovers being spurned by those they love. God’s love is the same. God wants us all to return His love and to unite with Him. So he gives us the power to reciprocate.
But we also need to keep in mind those two words, “as if.” While it looks like we are turning from evil and doing good by our own efforts, this is an illusion. It is God in us that is giving us that power. Without those two words, as if, we would be Pelagian all the way. We are, however, semi-Pelagian. We acknowledge that God gives us the power to turn from evil and to do good. Unlike Pelagius, we believe that we need God’s aid. But God’s aid comes in the form of personal responsibility. God gives us the water and soap, we need to wash ourselves. That is an image used by Swedenborg to show how we are to turn from evil and do good, as Ezekiel calls us to do.
A person must purify himself from evils and not wait for the Lord to do this immediately; otherwise he may be compared to a servant with face and clothes fouled with soot and dung, who comes up to his master and says, “Wash me, my Lord.” Would not the master say to him, “You foolish servant, what are you saying? See; there are water, soap, and towel. Have you not hands, and power in them? Wash yourself.” And the Lord God will say, “The means of purification are from Me; and from Me are your will and ability; therefore use these My gifts and endowments as your own, and you will be purified” (TCR 436).
When I used this image with the Reformed minister I was talking about, he thought for a moment. Then he said, “But God gives us the soap and water.” “Yes,” I said. That seemed to satisfy him.
This process of turning from evil and doing good is a growth process. Swedenborg uses several images about growth to explain our regeneration. At first I had the idea that regeneration was linear. That is, we shun one sin at a time in a series. Thinking that way, I ignored those passages that suggested growth. But I now see that as we turn from evil, heavenly love enters us. The process is actually a separation of evil from our souls so that we can be filled with God’s love and goodness. So as our evil enjoyments are separated from us, we are filled with good enjoyments. Our whole personality is transformed. This is the new hearts and spirit that Ezekiel talks about. “Get a new heart and a new spirit.” Swedenborg comments on that very passage:
A new heart here means a new will, and a new spirit means a new understanding; for heart in the Word signifies the will, and spirit when joined with heart signifies the understanding. It knows from reason that a regenerate person has a new will and a new understanding, because these two faculties make a person, and they are what are regenerated. Therefore every person is such as he is as to those two faculties (TCR 601).
As evils are separated from us, heaven is implanted in us. We receive heavenly loves and enjoyments in exchange for evils loves and enjoyments:
It follows that evils with a person are removed and separated, . . . and that evils, as they are removed, avert themselves, and that this takes place in the same degree in which heaven is implanted, that is, as a person is made new (TCR 613).
All the enjoyments we know flow from the things we love. I love music, and so I enjoy writing it and listening to it. I love Carol, so I enjoy being with her. The process of regeneration is a process in which we grow out of one type of enjoyment into another type of enjoyment. Here, Swedenborg uses words that no one today likes to hear about. He talks about sin and evil. Perhaps it is a reflection of the Lutheran culture he inherited. In fact, Ralph Waldo Emerson was very annoyed by what he called the Lutheran preacher that kept rearing its ugly head in Swedenborg. Maybe today Swedenborg would have used different language. Maybe he would talk about behaviors being changed. Survival behaviors from dysfunctional environments being replaced with healthy bahaviors. However you call it, I agree with Swedenborg that spiritual growth is growth. We move from one state of being into another. We move from one way of enjoyment into another way of enjoyment. This is what is meant by the blessing we hear from time to time–”The Lord keep our going out and our coming in, from this time forth, and even for evermore.” The going out, is leaving behind our old way of being. And the coming in is acquiring the healthier, more heavenly ways of being. The main point, though, is that we come into healthier and more heavenly enjoyments. Our old enjoyments become distasteful, as we feel healthier enjoyments.
All affections have their enjoyments; but such as the affections are, such are the enjoyments. Affections for evil and falsity also have their enjoyments; and before a person begins to be regenerated, and receives from the Lord affections for truth and good, those enjoyments appear to be the only ones; so much so, that people believe that no other enjoyments exist, and consequently that if they were deprived of these, they would utterly perish. But they who receive from the Lord the enjoyments of affections for truth and good, see and feel by degrees the nature of the enjoyments of their former life, which they believes to be the only enjoyments–that they are vile in comparison, and indeed filthy. And the farther one advances into the enjoyment of affections for truth and good, the more does the person begin to regard the enjoyments of evil and falsity as vile, and at length to be averse to them (AC 3938).
As we feel healthy loves that are good, and as we delight in truth, maladaptive ways of life become distasteful to us. We just don’t like them anymore. I think of addictions when I read this passage. Addicts come to a point where they are sick and tired of their addiction and the ruin it causes. Then they become sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. When they reach despair, they put down their addiction. Then they begin to discover all the warm feelings of love and healthy enjoyments. Enjoyments that were masked by the numbing effects of substance abuse.
This is true on the spiritual plane as well. Lutherans and Methodists call this sanctifying grace, and the Reformed call this sanctification. The Reformed minister I talked with called it God shining a flashlight on our lives. We see in ourselves limitations and maladaptive ways of living, and begin to feel the enjoyments of spiritual love. We begin to turn from those areas of self on which God has shined the flashlight. As Paul says, we put off the old self and put on a new self:
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4: 22-24).
And as we turn away from our limitations, we begin to feel the enjoyments of heaven. As we enlarge our hearts to receive life from God, with His love, we are elevated upward into heaven. The whole process is like our biological birth. It is like conception, gestation in the womb, birth, and education. Our conception is when we begin to see our evils, or survival mechanisms that no longer work for us. The gestation, birth and education are like the new heart and spirit we acquire. This biological process is a natural image of our spiritual rebirth. It is what Swedenborg calls a correspondence. The whole natural world corresponds to spiritual realities. And this is the case with the birth process. Swedenborg also compares it to the growth of a tree.
That a person can be regenerated only by successive steps, may be illustrated by the things existing in the natural world, one and all. A tree cannot reach its growth as a tree in a day; but first there is growth from the seed next from the root, and afterward from the shoot, from which is formed the stem; and from this proceed branches with leaves, and at last blossoms and fruits. . . . They who have a different conception of regeneration know nothing of charity and faith, and of the growth of each according to a person’s cooperation with the Lord. It is evident from all this that regeneration is effected in a way analogous to that in which a person is conceived, carried in the womb, born and educated (TCR 586).
As we are perfected by God, with our cooperation, we become that fruit tree planted by the still waters of Psalm 1. We become the tree bearing good fruit of Matthew 7:17. With the new heart and new spirit in us, we become angels–whether on this earth or in the next life.
The Lord’s Universal Mercy
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
October 23, 2011
Jonah 3:10-4:11 Matthew 20:1-16 Psalm 145
Our Bible selections this morning treat an important religious principle. They treat God’s relationship with the whole human race on the one hand, and on the other hand they treat our own personal feelings about each other. We find a reflection on God’s will and on our will. The readings point to a possible disjunction between the way God governs the world and the way we would like to see it governed.
In the story of Jonah we see that God’s love goes out to the whole human race. In this story we see that God hears prayers of everyone who call upon Him. This theme is first introduced when Jonah is in a boat. God has told Jonah to preach the Word of God to the city of Nineveh. But Jonah rebels against God’s call, flees and buys passage on a boat bound for another city called Tarshish. While he is on the boat a terrible storm breaks out and the sailors cry out to their several gods. The storm grows worse and they ask Jonah about his God. Here we find the first statement of God’s universal power and mercy. Instead of calling Yahweh the God if Israel, Jonah calls Him, “the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.” So here we see that God governs the whole world, not only the people of Israel. Jonah admits that he is fleeing from God, and even tells the sailors to throw him into the sea. Hesitant to do this, the sailors pray to Yahweh and ask forgiveness for throwing Jonah into the sea. When they do so, the sea instantly becomes calm. God has listened to the prayers of the sailors, who weren’t Jews. Awed by this, the sailors offer sacrifices and make vows to Yahweh. God’s power and mercy is recognized by these non-Jews. As we all know, Jonah is swallowed by a great fish who carries him to the shores of Nineveh after all. Jonah preaches to the Ninevites, telling them that God will destroy their city in forty days. The Ninevites believe Jonah and they all repent, fast, and put on sack cloth. When God sees their humility and repentance, He has compassion on them and doesn’t destroy the city. This is the second instance in the story where we see that God’s mercy extends to the whole world, even to the inhabitants of Nineveh. Jonah admits that God loves everyone. He says to God, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
Nineveh was chosen in this story for several good reasons. First of all, the Ninevites were considered idolatrous. They worshipped foreign gods and made statues and idols to their gods. Israelites would consider this breaking the first and second commandmenst. Second, and probably more important, Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian kingdom. And it was the Assyrian kingdom that had conquered and devastated the northern Kingdom of Israel. An Israelite would no doubt cherish hatred for this kingdom.
We see this hatred in Jonah. After he preaches the Word of God’s impending destruction, he sits under a shelter and waits to see if God will destroy this hated city. He already has told God his anger at being called to save the Ninevites. He is so angry that he wants to die. But the conclusion of the story tells us, in a final note, that God cares about the whole human race. God says to Jonah,
Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?
This story teaches us that God loves the whole human race. It teaches us that God can and does save followers of all faiths–Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and all the different forms of Christians we see in the world. This story calls us to see other people and faiths the way that God sees them–as our fellows, as our sisters and brothers, as fellow angels on the path. Swedenborg has a vision of hope that all of Christendom would come together and worship God as one church. He says that if only worship of God and love for the neighbor are held up as principles of faith, then all the theological differences that separate us would be seen merely as differences of opinion. The doctrines that divide us would be seen as varieties of ways to understand the mysteries of faith, which each Christian would leave to the conscience of each other.
In the Christian world the doctrines are what distinguish the churches; and from them people call themselves Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, or the Reformed and the Evangelical, and by other names also. It is from what is doctrinal alone that they are so called; which would not be at all, if they would make love to the Lord and good will toward the neighbor the principal things of faith. The doctrines would then be only varieties of opinion respecting the mysteries of faith, which truly Christian people would leave to everyone according to his or her conscience, and would say in his or her heart that one is truly a Christian when he or she lives as a Christian, or as the Lord teaches. Thus from differing churches there would become one Church; and all the dissentions which exist from doctrine alone would vanish; yea, the hatreds against one another would be dissipated in a moment, and the Lord’s kingdom would come upon the earth (AC 1799).
When Swedenborg speaks of the hatreds among fellow Christians, this is no mere theological speculation. The thirty-years’ war that erupted just before Swedenborg’s birth was largely caused by Protestant rebellion against the Holy Roman Empire. It was a devastating war that ultimately engulfed all of Europe It left Germany decimated and reduced its inhabitants by half. The country of Sweden played a large role in this war. The thirty-years’ war, and other national hostilities based on religion, inspired the philosopher Immanuel Kant to create a system of morality that is based on reason alone–not religious affiliation. Even if war is not the result of intolerance, still Christians are often divided by their faiths. Some even think that other Christians are damned to hell for not thinking as they do. Swedenborg himself writes many damning passages against other Christian sects of his time. While he does want to put forth his doctrines, I don’t think it serves us to judge other faiths according to their beliefs. We can’t see into the hearts of other Christians and know whether they are good or evil. In my experiences with the National Council of Churches and with the Interfaith Centre, I meet such friendly people and people who show such good will. Their actions and spirit speak for themselves. And I am happy to be living here in such a diverse and cosmopolitan city as Edmonton is, in which so many cultures and faiths are represented.
Swedenborg shows a tension in this. In the passage I just quoted, we see Swedenborg accepting other faiths as mere differences of opinion. Then there are those passages in which he denounces what he calls falsities of other faiths. The tension is there. I think our best course is to assume sincerity in other faiths, and to see doctrinal differences just as Swedenborg sees them in the passage above–as “varieties of opinion respecting the mysteries of faith.” This does not mean that we are to give up our own voice and belief system. Not at all. Our opinions respecting the mysteries of faith need to be honored as much as we honor others. The image Swedenborg gives of religious plurality is not a melting-pot. Rather he sees it as complimentary jewels on a king’s crown. He sees,
the church in the whole aggregate, which in itself is one, but various according to reception. These varieties may be compared to the various jewels in a king’s crown; and they may also be compared to the various members and organs in a perfect body, which still make one. The perfection of every form exists from various things suitably arranged in their order (AR 65).
Perfection is in variety that works together, not in uniformity.
The same is true of faiths outside the Christian world. Some Christians think that only those who accept Jesus as their savior can be saved. I have met these Christians–here in Edmonton and in Florida. They refer to John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” This doctrine is stated even more forcefully in John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” I was going to do an internship with a Lutheran Minister in Florida. He did an internet search about our church and studied it diligently. When we met, he had many passages highlighted in yellow. One was our teaching that everyone can be saved who practices their religion as best as they know how. He pointed to that line and said, “I can’t accept this.” For him, it was Christ’s passion on the cross that saves us, and without faith in Christ’s sacrifice, one couldn’t be saved. This is the view held by many Christians. Swedenborg himself is aware of this. He writes,
It is a common opinion that those born out of the Church, who are called heathen or gentiles, cannot be saved, because they have not the Word and thus do not know the Lord, and without the Lord there is no salvation.
Reason alone tells us that God could not, that God would not damn all the billions of other faithful people who worship other religions. What kind of God would do that? We have seen in our Bible reading, too, that God’s love goes out to the whole world. It went out to the sailors on the boat, and it went out to the idolatrous nation of Nineveh. Swedenborg teaches the same God, whose love is universal for the whole human race. In Heaven and Hell Swedenborg writes about those born outside of the Christian faith.
But still it may be known that they also are saved, from this alone, that the mercy of the Lord is universal, that is, toward everyone . . . for the Lord is love itself, and His love is to will to save all. Therefore He has provided that all may have religion, and by it acknowledgement of the Divine, and interior life (HH 318).
So we say in our faith every Sunday, “God is present to save everyone, everywhere, whose lives affirm the best they know.”
Swedenborg’s vision of churches all uniting together in love of God, and appearing as beautiful jewels on a king’s crown is in reach. Movements like the National Council of Churches of Christ, movements like the Edmonton Interfaith Centre, and celebrations like the Parliament of World’s Religions are all testimonials to a greater unity in worship of the One God. Our church has a proud history in this. It was a Swedenborgian, Charles Bonney, who was president of the World’s Congress Auxiliary in 1893, of which the Parliament of World’s Religions was one convocation. It was no doubt his Swedenborgian faith that taught him God’s love for all peoples of good will and devotion to God. As always, Swedenborg’s theology is founded on the Bible. And the story of Jonah teaches us that God loves the faithful of the whole world. Will we be like Jonah and protest against God’s compassion for those we personally don’t approve of? Or will we embrace our fellows–Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians of other faiths. I think the answer for us is clear.
Complacency, Thankfulness, and Compassion
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
October 9, 2011
Leviticus 23:33-36, 39-43 Luke 17:11-19 Psalm 118
We celebrate Thanksgiving Day this time of year because it is harvest time. In ancient Israel, the fifteenth day of the seventh month was the date of their festival called Sukkot. We translate this Hebrew word as the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles. In ancient times, Israelites would fashion huts of branches in which they would live for a week.
This festival represented several things. One was the wandering in the wilderness that the Israelites did for forty years after their liberation from Egypt. Living in the huts was a reminder of the primitive conditions that the Israelites underwent in their wanderings. But more importantly, the Sukkot Festival was a celebration of thankfulness for the crops that had just been harvested. The very life of the Israelites depended on the harvest season. A bountiful harvest meant survival and prosperity, while a lean harvest threatened their very survival. In our urban society, we are quite removed from the harvest cycles. We go to supermarkets and Superstores whose shelves are never empty. Our only real connection with the fall harvest may be a slight annoyance at a price increase from a certain produce. Farmers do depend on the harvest in their own fields and in the fields of the global market for their livelihood. But we in the city take it for granted that there will always be food on the supermarket shelves.
It’s easy for us to get complacent about all manner of things in our lives. If we have worked hard, we may find ourselves in a comfortable retirement. If we have a good job with benefits, we feel secure in our lifestyle. So we may not realize just how much we have to be thankful for. It is holidays like this that make us pause and think, and take the time to realize that we do need to give thanks to God for all the good things we enjoy.
In our complacency, we may not realize that we need to give thanks for even the basics of life. We have food, shelter, transportation, clothing, and recreational activities and services. In our complacency we may complain that we do not have enough of these things. We may want more money, more luxurious foods, designer clothes, luxury automobiles. When we think this way we become discontent. We meditate on what we don’t have. The opposite of this discontent is humility and gratitude. When we are tempted to grumble about our lot in life, we will be well served to make a list of things we have to be grateful for. This list can be very basic. Food, a roof over our heads, transportation, clothing. When we consider these things from a grateful heart, we will find ourselves in a much more peaceful and tranquil state of mind.
All that we have is a gift from a loving and generous God. We cry out to God when we are in need. Why not give thanks to God for what we have, as well. In our New Testament reading, ten lepers cry out to Jesus when they are sick. But when they are healed only the Samaritan comes back to Jesus to give thanks. In this story, Jesus again calls attention to the hypocrisy of the Jews of His time. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews. And Jesus uses this despised race to demonstrate what genuine gratitude is, while pointing out the complacency of the Jews of His time.
Giving thanks for what we have, and living in contentment with what God gives us is a spiritual quality. Swedenborg says that those who are in heavenly innocence,
live content with what they have, whether it is little or much, because they know that they receive as much as is useful–little if little is good for them and much if much is good for them (HH 278).
The person who is in heavenly innocence doesn’t bother him or herself about tomorrow, or worry about the future. They know that God is watching over us and provides for our needs.
They have no anxiety about the future, but refer to anxiety about the future as “care for the morrow,” which they say is pain at losing or not getting things that are not needed for their life’s useful activities (HH 278).
To live this way may be hard for us. We may dwell only on what we want, but don’t have. We may be consumed with ambition to rise to the top of our business or work. Of course there is no harm in wanting to better ourselves in life. The problem comes when that is our only concern. While we are striving for a better life, we must also remain content with what we have. Only by maintaining this tension will we know true peace of mind. Living content in the present–the day, or moment–is ancient wisdom that goes back as far at least as Jesus. In Matthew 6:34, Jesus says,
Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
Twelve Step programs use this wisdom to great effect. One day at a time. Thinkers of our day have capitalized on this wisdom. For instance, Eckhart Tolle a while back rose to great acclaim by teaching us to live in the moment.
The real spiritual meaning of living in the moment, and of being content with what we have, is a profound realization. It means that we are content with the way God is leading us. God is always looking toward our spiritual welfare. We can often see only our state in this world. But God is always looking at our spiritual condition. And God will always give us what is good for our spiritual condition. So trust that God is taking care of our spiritual needs is what gives us the power to rest content with what we have in the world. When our consciousness is on eternity, as is God’s, then the affairs of this world become less important. God knows what is good for our souls; we don’t always see what we need. So, once again, those in heavenly innocence say that, “they do not know what is best for themselves–only the Lord knows; and in His sight everything He supplies is eternal” (HH 278). Trusting that God is leading us ever toward Himself and ever into heavenly happiness will give us a contentment and a happiness even in this world. Our happiness may indeed be darkened somewhat by our worldly needs, but it is there nevertheless. Swedenborg discusses this issue.
As regards the happiness of eternal life, the person who is in affection for good and truth cannot perceive it when he is living in the world, but a certain enjoyment instead. The reason is, that in the body he is in worldly cares and in anxieties thence which prevent the happiness of eternal life, which is inwardly in him, from being manifested in any other way at that time. For when this happiness flows in from the interior into the cares and anxieties that are with the person outwardly, it sinks down among the cares and anxieties there, and becomes a kind of obscure enjoyment; but still it is an enjoyment in which there is a blessedness and in this a happiness. Such is the happiness of being content in God (AC 3938).
Everything we have in this world is a gift from God, and everything we receive leads us toward greater heavenly bliss. When our hearts rest secure in God’s leading, then we see that what we have in this world is enough. I keep coming back to a line from Walt Whitman’s poem “The Sleepers.” In that poem Whitman writes,
It seems to me that everything in the light and air ought to be happy;
Whoever is not in his coffin and in the dark grave, let him know he has enough.
But our contentment in God’s providence should not make us indifferent to the world around us. Once again, we can become complacent in the gifts we have in this country or in the lives we live in Edmonton. We have food; many do not. In some developing nations starvation and thirst are common. In some nations the water from nature is so polluted that people have to buy bottled water. And if you are poor, as many are in these nations, this means that water is unavailable to you. Here in Canada, the bad economy has caused many to struggle for the basic necessities in life. And here in Edmonton, there are those who line up for sustenance in food pantries and soup kitchens through no fault of their own. In the light of these issues, we can be very thankful for the food we have. But our thankfulness means nothing unless it is colored by compassion for those who don’t have.
Compassion is a noble feeling that signals a solidarity with our brothers and sisters in need. Those who hunger; those who thirst are fellow humans with lives just as important to them as our lives are to us. In Buddhism, there is a class of worshippers who take a vow to postpone their final entry into bliss until the whole world is relieved of suffering. There are two cardinal virtues in Buddhism: wisdom and compassion. Some make compassion to be the core virtue of the whole Buddhist religion. I think that Jesus calls us to a similar compassion. The suffering of others is our suffering. We cannot be complacent while others hunger and thirst.
We are not all in a position to give to charities. Some of us can barely make our own ends meet. We don’t have the fortune of Bill Gates. But when we are able, we need to be ready to respond with compassion to the world around us. We can support humane legislation when our government proposes it. We can respond with humanity when we see those less fortunate than we are. Some are in difficult straits through no fault of their own. I heard an inspiring story about a friend of mine who had been homeless a year and a half ago. This friend now has a union job. With a heart overflowing with compassion, and in an effort to give back from all the help that she had received, she offered a ride to two people in need. One ride took her 2 hours out of her way to bring an acquaintance to a job he needed to get to. The other ride was for a down and out girl seemingly abandoned by society. She also gave this girl personal counsel about overcoming addiction. There are all around us ways for us to make our feeling of compassion tangible. We don’t need to be a Bill Gates to do a good turn in the world around us. If we keep open eyes, we will see opportunities to act on our compassion.
Well this sermon has turned out rather preachy. But please know that I am talking as much to myself as I am to you. I care deeply about these issues. And what I am saying, I believe, is what Jesus asks us to do. I am proud of all that this church does to help those in need. Food Bank Day today is just one such example. In this holiday season, let us all just take a few moments and give thanks for the good things we have, trust that God is giving us everything that our souls need for eternal happiness, and let us keep a compassionate heart and continually seek opportunities to show our compassion in loving deeds.
Happiness on the Natural Plane
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
October 2, 2011
Genesis 25:19-26 John 15:1-12 Psalm 148
This Sunday I would like to follow up on my talk about bearing fruit. Last Sunday I talked about how love flows forth into good works. This Sunday I would like to emphasize why good works matter. I will discuss first why good works matter, then how good works flow into us from God, then the benefits that come from doing good works.
Jesus says in the Gospel of John that he is the vine and we are the branches. He says further, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John15:5). The fruit that Jesus is talking about are all the good things that we do from a heart of love. Last Sunday we saw that willing good is internal and doing good is external. Swedenborg tells us,
Charity and good works are distinct from each other like intention and action, and like the mind’s affection and the body’s operation; consequently, also, like the internal person and the external . . . therefore charity, because it is of the internal person, is to intend well; and the works, because they are of the external person, are to do well from intending well (TCR 374).
The external person that Swedenborg speaks of is also called the natural level of our personality. So we can also say that doing good is an activity of the natural level of our personality. Let me take a moment to discuss the levels of our personality.
There are three levels to our personality: the internal, the rational, and the natural. The internal is our spirit, and it lives in the spiritual world. Most of us are not conscious of this level. The Rational level is the highest reaches of our mind. It can see what we are doing and make decisions about whether our emotions and actions are in keeping with God’s precepts. In our rational mind are all the teachings that we have learned about God’s kingdom. In it also are all the good feelings of love that God gives us. The natural level is the part of us that communicates with the world. In that level are all our worldly desires, attentions to the needs of the self, and the actions that we do in the world.
All of these levels need to receive life and love from God. The process by which we grow towards God is called regeneration. This is a life-long process. Over the course of a lifetime, we let more and more of God’s love into us and we learn more and more truths about God and what His will for us is. We are first regenerated in our higher levels. Our internal and rational level are regenerated before our natural level is. That is because our rational level needs to know what God wants for us before it can direct our natural level to do these things.
But regeneration needs to continue into all the levels of our personality. This means that our natural level needs to be regenerated too. The part of us that lives in the world needs to become oriented to heaven. All of our knowledge about God’s ways and all of our feelings of love for our neighbor and love for God need to show themselves in our behavior. It is important for all of our higher feelings and thoughts to become rooted in our actions. Unless the higher levels of ourpersonality shine forth in our natural level, we are like a house without a foundation. Swedenboerg is very clear about this. He says,
The natural, which is external, must be regenerated; for unless it is regenerated, the internal has neither foundation nor receptacle; and if it has no foundation nor receptacle, it altogether perishes (AC 6299).
Swedenborg uses an analogy to explain this doctrine. Spiritual thoughts and feelings without spiritual actions are like a head detached from the body.
Good will and faith are only mental and perishable unless they are determined to works and coexist in them, when possible. Has not man a head and a body connected by the neck? Is there not in the head a mind which intends and thinks, and in the body power which performs and executes? If therefore man were only to intend well or were to think from good will, and were not to do well and perform deeds from it, would he not be as a head only, and thus a mind only, which cannot exist without a body? Who does not see from this that good will and faith are not good will and faith while they are only in the head and its mind and not in the body? (TCR 375)
So this is why good works matter: without a life of good works, our spiritual loves and thoughts have no foundation and they will dissipate.
Swedenborg suggests that bringing our good will and faith into our natural level may be difficult. Our rational mind is an image of heaven, while our natural level is an image of the world. In our natural level are all the knowledge and emotions that are oriented toward success in the world. Thus in our natural level are desires for self-gratification, desires for worldly success, desires for income, and the knowledge to bring these things about. These things are not necessarily opposed to heavenly desires. We need to take care of ourselves or we will be a burden on society. But if our natural level is not rendered open to heaven, then we will become interested only in these worldly things. Then it will be difficult for God and heaven to flow into our lives. These worldly desires must be rendered compliant with heavenly and God-centered beliefs and loves. So Swedenborg teaches,
in order for a person to become spiritual, his natural must become as nothing . . . for the natural has drunk from infancy nothing else than the things of selfish and worldly lusts, thus contrary to charity. . . These evils cause that good cannot flow in from the Lord, . . . But it should be known that it is the old natural that must become as nothing; . . . and when it has become as nothing, a person is then gifted with a new natural, which is called the spiritual natural–spiritual from this, that the spiritual is what acts through it, and manifests itself through it . . . and when this comes to pass, a person receives good from the Lord; and when he receives good, he is gifted with truths; and when he is gifted with truths, he is perfected in intelligence and wisdom; and when he is perfected in intelligence and wisdom, he is blessed with happiness to eternity (AC 5651).
The way our natural level becomes compliant with our higher level is by removing the things that block God’s inflowing love. We need to let go of worldly attachments that concern only selfish ambition or worldly wealth. Then, when we have let go of these impurities that block God’s love and wisdom, we can feel heavenly joy even in our natural life.
The impurities of the natural man are all those things which are of selfishness and love of the world; and when these impurities have been washed away, then goods and truths flow in, since the impurities are all that hinder the influx of good and truth from the Lord; for good is continually flowing in from the Lord (AC 3147).
Swedenborg tells us that washing away the impurities in the natural level can be a struggle at times. He writes that, “before these two are conjoined, the person cannot be an entire person, nor be in the tranquility of peace, as the one contends with the other” (AC 2183). One contends against the other when we try to hold onto the things we love too much from this world.
But when we have reduced our natural level to compliance with the rational level, all our spiritual loves will flow from God down into our natural degree. Our behavior then will conform to what we know to be God’s will. Then our natural degree will become transparent and heavenly good will flow from our rational degree through our natural degree into our behavior. We will be living good lives. And then we will become truly happy and at peace.
I remember when I was learning jazz trumpet. I had a solid foundation in classical trumpet and I went to a jazz musician in Detroit to learn about jazz. My teacher of classical trumpet was very strict. If I started to play and my pitch was slightly off, or my articulation wasn’t solid enough he would shout, “No! Stop! Start over!” This gave me a fear of making mistakes that I took to Jimmie’s when I went to learn jazz. Jimmie taught me a song, and invited me to try to improvise in it. Things didn’t work that well. I sounded stiff and regimented. I didn’t have that free-flowing jazz sound. I was nervous playing in front of him and my girlfriend who had come with me. I felt inhibited. I still had that fear of making mistakes that my classical teacher had instilled in me. I was trying to apply those classical methods of perfect pitch and rhythm to the jazz I was trying to play. Well Jimmie talked with me for a while. He gave me some pointers about my breathing. He set me at ease and made me feel comfortable in his house and in this new musical format. Then he said, “Let’s try it again.” It worked. I was improvising freely and coming up with some really inventive melodies. My heart flowed freely through my horn into a free flow of sound. We stopped after a while and Jimmie said, “Yeah, you were blowing jazz. You can play jazz after the blocks get removed.” Jimmie hadn’t taught me anything new, he just relaxed me and got the blocks out of the way. He got rid of the inhibitions that were blocking my emotions and my creativity. He set me at ease and took away my fear of making a mistake. I blew jazz when the blocks were removed.
I use that as an example of regeneration on the natural level. We need to take action and remove the blocks that would interfere with God’s inflowing joy and love. In theological language, this would be called removing the evils that stand in the way of goods. This discussion has been to illustrate how good works flow into our natural degree.
When we do this spiritual work, then God can flow into our lives and give us all the blessings of heaven. So Swedenborg writes, “There is nothing, therefore, that can make a person blessed and happy, but that his natural should be conformed to his rational and both joined together (AC 2183). The heavenly life is not a drudgery. It is enjoyable and fun. It feels good to be good. All the anxieties from worldly care are dissolved. And all the frustrations that come from selfishness fall away. The heavenly life is meant to be enjoyed. This enjoyment of life occurs when our natural level conforms to the heavenly loves and truths of our higher levels. Swedenborg tells us that,
Truths of the good of doctrine are the doctrines of love to the Lord and of good will toward the neighbor, which are said to be conjoined with good in the natural man, when to know them for the sake of doing them is a pleasure and an enjoyment (AC 3709).
This is the fruit of spiritual growth. The fruits of spiritual growth are blessed happiness, pleasure, and enjoyment in the life we are living. When our natural degree is regenerated, we enjoy life in a much more full way than is the case before. Then, heaven’s joy and blessings make up the life we enjoy in our day to day living. These, finally, are the benefits of doing good works–a happy life.