Archive for December, 2011
Peace Amid Chaos
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
Christmas Eve, 2011
The Christmas story is one of peace in the midst of chaos. Sometimes we can get caught up in the frenzy of buying and shopping. We fight our way through crowds, traffic, and parking lots. In all this hubbub we can lose sight of why we are doing all this. We can lose touch with the peace that is at the heart of the Christmas message.
Not too long ago, I was driving on 97th Street. I had two malls to get to in one hour. So there I was panicking, wanting traffic to move faster, hoping that I could find what I was looking for in time to get to the malls before closing. As I was driving, I had my iPod on and was listening to Earl Klugh–a great jazz guitar player. A beautiful, serene song came on. It was such a peaceful and pretty song that I wondered about Mr. Klugh, himself. I wondered what kind of spirituality he was in touch with that such a blessed piece of music could flow through his soul into his practiced fingers. As I listened, my tension dissipated. And for a few minutes, amid my frantic shopping spree, I had a moment of peace as I listened to that serene song, driving down 97th Street on my mission to get to two malls in an hour.
This experience led me to ponder further the Christmas story. I thought about how the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was a moment of peace amid utter chaos. I imagine that the pushing and shoving of Christmas shopping is nothing compared to what was happening around Jerusalem back in the time of Jesus’ birth. The Bible gives us some interesting historical details about that time. Luke tells us that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus for the whole known world to be enrolled. This was what we would call a census. Our history books tell us that Augustus was the first emperor of Rome. Luke provides another historical fact. He adds that this was when Quirinius was governor over Syria. Caesar wanted this census for one very common reason: he wanted a role of all his subjects so that he could tax them. This whole affair was for tax purposes.
Everyone had to go to the city of his family’s origins. Joseph went to Bethlehem because he was a descendant of King David, and David had been born in Bethlehem. Imagine the crowd scene that must have occurred in Judah at this time. We are told that the Holy Family had to sleep in a barn because all the inns were occupied. Can you imagine what was going on in the hotels in Judah? Can you imagine the pushing and shoving that must have gone on as people crowded the hotels in search of the last rooms to be had for the night? How many hotels did Mary and Joseph go to before they resigned themselves to the fact that all the inns were full? Perhaps they counted themselves lucky that they found that barn to sleep in. And they did all this while Mary was pregnant and ready to deliver.
In the midst of this mob scene, Jesus was born. The Prince of Peace entered the world in the midst of all this chaos. And I can imagine that the presence of that little baby brought calm and serenity to the Holy Family as they gazed upon His tender, tiny features. I can imagine the holy awe that God’s infant form evoked, and the sphere of innocence and love radiating from this One Sacred Baby. With the birth of Jesus, Luke’s narrative immediately takes us to the quiet of the Judean night, where shepherds are watching their flocks under a starlit sky. An angel appears to them, announcing the joyful news of the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ. A choir of angels praises God and sings about peace and good will among humanity. In all the crowding and worldly interest concerning taxes and the census, a sacred moment transpired in which peace and good will among humans broke forth from heaven.
This same story plays out in our lives today. We can become overwhelmed with life in this material world. We can become overcome with despondency over the bills we have to pay with an income that barely stretches from paycheck to paycheck. We can become fixated on the material toys we want to acquire: nice cars, a big screen TV, designer clothes, computers with massive memory and light speed, and other worldly goods. We can become lost in the things of this world, which is only a temporary home for us. We can lose sight of what is truly lasting. We can lose sight of the eternal blessings that are always available to us when we turn to them.
The Christmas season reminds us of some of those eternal blessings. We gather around those we love, and celebrate the joy of family and friends. We are filled with the spirit of giving. The interchange of receiving and giving gifts is a symbol of the way love works–the way love flows out from us to others and back to us to complete the circle. These are some of the eternal blessings that make life really matter. These are the blessings we need to pause to remember, however we find ourselves materially.
The Christmas story also plays out in our lives in a still more profound way. There are times when sorrow and turmoil dominate our lives. We may lose a job. We may experience the heartbreak of the loss of a loved one. There are times when a life we have constructed for ourselves and settled into becomes disrupted and everything we thought we could depend on comes crashing down all around us. With a single sentence, the poet Robert Frost captures how vulnerable we are to forces of chaos. In the poem called Home Burial, Frost writes, “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day/ Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.” The life we construct for ourselves is subject to so many forces beyond our control, it is as a fence that can be rotted by three foggy mornings and one rainy day. The good things in our lives can be so tenuous that Martha Nussbaum wrote a book about this whose title is, “The Fragility of Goodness.”
But there is one Source of stability that will hold us up in the midst of any chaos the world can threaten us with. That one Source of peace and comfort is that baby born in the midst of the Judean crowds. No matter what we experience in life, Jesus is with us. When we celebrate joy, Jesus redoubles our joy. When we are troubled, Jesus comforts us. When we feel abandoned, Jesus is our friend. Having come into this world, Jesus walks with us in this world. In whatever way we are walking, we never walk alone. In whatever we face, we face Jesus. Jesus tells us that life in this material world may not be quiet and comfortable all the time. In John 16:33 He says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
In Jesus we have peace. In Jesus we have love. In Jesus we have life. In all the rushing around of the season, let us be mindful of why we are celebrating. As we sit down for Christmas dinner, let us be mindful of the love of our families and friends that gather together for the season. As we exchange gifts, let us remember the circle of love that we are surrounded with even after Christmas–the giving and the receiving. In our celebrating and in our trials, let us remember that one night in the Judean countryside when peace came to this troubled world. And let us ask that peace into our lives. Tonight, throughout the season, and in our lives forever.
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 18, 2011
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 Luke 1:26-38 Psalm 89
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2). So the prophet Isaiah speaks of the time of Jesus. Jesus came in the night, in the darkness. He came in the darkest season of the year. And He came at a time in human history that was equally dark. So the Apostle John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). That one birth, in the darkness of night, in the darkest season of the year, in a dark time in human history, that one birth shone so brightly that now, 2,000 years later, His light still enlightens those who receive Him.
Jesus is called the Messiah. Messiah is a Hebrew word. The Greek translation for Messiah is Christ. So Jesus Christ isn’t just a first and last name. It means that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. We Christians immediately think of Jesus when we hear the name Messiah. We may think of Handel’s wonderful composition, “The Messiah,” which contains many Isaiah prophesies about the coming of the Lord.
But to fully understand who the Messiah is, we need to go back into Jewish history. Then we will better understand the hopes of the Israelites for the Messiah to come. And we will understand how dark the world appeared to them at the time of the incarnation.
In Hebrew, the word “Messiah” means “anointed.” Specifically, a messiah is a king in Israel, who is anointed by a prophet when he is chosen by God. Each time a new king was chosen by God, a prophet would anoint the new king with oil. Since all Israelite kings were anointed in this fashion, you could say that all the Israelite kings were messiahs. They were all anointed ones.
But there was one special Messiah, one special king, that we mean when we talk about The Messiah in capital letters. That king is David. A whole mythology developed around King David that no other king had. God made a special promise to King David that was not made to any other king. We heard this promise in our Bible reading from 2 Samuel this morning. God promises to King David that there will always be one of his descendants on the throne in Judah forever. Forever. The prophet Nathan tells King David,
The LORD Declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. . . . My love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul . . . Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever (2 Samuel 11, 12, 15, 16).
When God says that David’s house and kingdom endure forever, and that David’s throne will be established forever, God is saying that a descendant of David will always be ruling on the throne in Judah. This is called the Messianic promise. We see the Messianic promise in our Psalm reading this morning, too. Psalm 89 reads:
I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant,
‘I will establish your line forever
and make your throne firm through all generations.’” . . .
I will maintain my love to him forever,
and my covenant with him will never fail.
I will establish his line forever,
his throne as long as the heavens endure (Psalm 89:3-4, 28-29).
But history didn’t cooperate with the Messianic promise. First, Babylon conquered Judah in the sixth century BC. Jerusalem was pillaged, and the Israelites were deported to Babylon. There was no longer an Israelite king on the throne in Judah, let alone a descendant of King David. But this wasn’t all. Alexander the Great conquered Israel in the third century BC. In his wake, all the territories he conquered adopted Greek ways. At a particularly bad time during the Greek rule, things got so bad for Israel that the ruler of that province actually sacrificed a pig to Zeus on the altar in Jerusalem. Then came the Romans, who overthrew the Greeks in the second and first centuries BC. For hundreds of years, there was no Israelite king on the throne in Jerusalem, no descendant of David. It appeared that God had broken His promise. We see this in the Psalm we read this morning:
You have renounced the covenant with your servant
and have defiled his crown in the dust.
You have broken through all his walls
and reduced his strongholds to ruins.
You have put an end to his splendor
and cast his throne to the ground.
Lord, where is your former great love,
which in your faithfulness you swore to David? (Psalm 89:39-40, 42, 44, 49)
In this darkness, in this time when it appeared that God had broken His promise to the Israelites, hope persisted. Throughout the prophets remains the hope that one day, a descendant of King David would return and assume the throne in Jerusalem. The hope persisted that one day, the Israelites would be redeemed, and the glory of King David’s kingdom would be restored. The hope persisted that the Messiah would come.
Over the centuries the mythology of the Messiah grew. In time, the Messiah was conceived of in terms so grand that no human could fulfil these expectations. Consider the Psalm this morning. In it, we see that the Messiah is, in fact, the Son of God:
He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father,
my God, the Rock my Savior.’
And I will appoint him to be my firstborn,
the most exalted of the kings of the earth (Psalm 89:26, 27).
Not only is the Messiah the Son of God, he will be the most exalted king in the whole world. It is hard to imagine a mere mortal who could fulfill these expectations. In the darkness of God’s broken promise, with the land promised to Abraham now under foreign rule, the Israelites waited for the coming of a divine king who would redeem Israel.
From our Swedenborgian perspective, we, too see the time of Jesus as a time of great darkness. Indeed we see it as the darkest time the world had ever known. It was a time desperately in need of Jesus’ redeeming light. It was a time in need of God’s incarnation.
Our theology teaches that the forces of darkness threatened to overwhelm heaven and earth before the incarnation. We believe that without God’s incarnation, humanity would have been lost. But with the advent of Jesus, God’s power came to humans. And through the Divine Humanity of Jesus Christ, God could come to humanity in a new way. Swedenborg writes,
in order that hell might be cleared away, and this impending damnation be thereby removed, the Lord came into the world, and dislodged hell, subjugated it, and thus opened heaven; so that he could henceforth be present with men on earth, and save those who live according to his commandments (TCR 579).
Jesus is that divine Messiah of Psalm 89, who calls God His Father. This is clear from His very birth, when the angel Gabriel tells Mary,
The holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. . . . (Luke 1:35, 32-33).
And both Matthew and Luke are careful to trace Jesus’ genealogy through King David. But Jesus was just as much a human–fully God and fully Man. Let us think back to those days. Let us imagine what it must have been like in that special part of the world, when Jesus walked among us. Let us think about the disciples on the road to Emmaus walking next to Jesus. Walking next to a God so human that they saw Him as an ordinary man. But in retrospect, they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32) I would speculate here that the burning hearts of the disciples gave rise to the Catholic devotion of the Sacred Heart, in which the heart of Jesus is the focal image.
With the incarnation, God became present to humanity in a way that had not been possible before. Throughout His life on earth, Jesus grew progressively closer to God and God grew progressively closer to Jesus until ultimately God and Man became one. So Jesus says in John 10: 30, “I and the Father are one.” Jesus explains this to Philip,
If you really know me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him. . . . Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me (John 14:7, 9-10).
This intimate union of God and Man is expressed in the Nicene Creed, as well. It says that Jesus is, “of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” Now God comes to us through His Humanity as Jesus Christ. It is through Jesus’ Divine Humanity that He can say, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And because Jesus is of the essence of the Father, because Jesus is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, of one substance with the Father, He can say, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
With wonder I think back on those days when Jesus walked–O happy day! With awe I think back on those who felt their hearts burn within them in Jesus’ presence. With amazement I think of those holy feet dusty with the sand of Palestine. But Jesus is with us still. Jesus is with us in His Divine Humanity. So the question is, “Do you walk with Jesus?” Does your heart burn with a holy fire? Is the Messiah present in your life? I think it was with these questions in mind that the poet William Blake wrote of his own country and his own place,
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
It isn’t only a matter ancient times. If we are but open, we can see those feet in Edmonton’s pleasant river valley or city streets.
Living from Love
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 11, 2011
Isaiah 61:1-4, 6-11 Luke 1:39-55 Psalm 126
Today we consider the third of Swedenborg’s “3 R’s”. The three “R’s” are repentance, reformation, and regeneration. This Sunday we look at regeneration. Swedenborg’s terms can be a little confusing because he uses the same word for two ideas. Regeneration in a general sense means the whole process of rebirth, which takes a lifetime and even continues into the next life. But regeneration in a specific sense means the third of the three “R’s”. In its specific sense, as the third of the three “R’s,” regeneration means a final state which we achieve in our spiritual growth. It is when our struggles are over. It is when we act from love freely. It is a time when temptation ends and we are at peace. We live eternally in heaven’s joys, no longer burdened with vexations from the world and our lower selves. When we reach the stage called regeneration, then God is fully born in our hearts. The coming of the Lord is complete.
Our Psalm reading captures the happiness we know when we are fully regenerated. It is a time, when, as the Psalm says, “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.” We fully acknowledge that God has worked salvation in us, and we say, “The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.”
The stage of regeneration is also captured in our reading from Isaiah. The prophet speaks for us all when he says,
I delight greatly in the Lord,
my soul rejoices in my God.
For He has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels (Isaiah 61:10).
When we have reached the stage of regeneration we have been saved. So we are clothed in garments of salvation. We are filled with love for God, so we rejoice greatly in the Lord. Filled with holiness and heavenly loves, Isaiah captures our regenerated condition, “You will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God.” Priests and ministers mean those who are filled with heavenly love and whose minds are filled with heavenly wisdom.
The processes of repentance, reformation, and regeneration go like this: First, we see sin in ourselves. We fully recognise our shadow and accept that it is in us. This is the process of repentance. Second, we learn the path that God would have us walk. We gather truths from many different sources. We learn teachings that instruct us about who God is, and what the heavenly life is. Then we work on our thoughts, our emotions, and our behaviors, and bring them in line with the way we have been taught. This is the stage called reformation. Finally, a great shift takes place in our personality. Instead of acting from what we know, we act from what we love. In this stage our heart takes the first place, not our thinking. We have trained ourselves to feel heavenly loves, and these are all we desire. Now, thought becomes subordinate to love. From what we love, we know what is true. Our hearts can feel truth when we hear it. We no longer have to figure things out with our minds. We have so learned what heavenly love is like that we instinctively do it and follow our hearts. We no longer need our minds to tell us what to do. As Swedenborg says, “the first is a state of thought from the understanding, and the second a state of love from the will” (TCR 571). This is the stage called regeneration.
I found this process well illustrated in a passage from Confucius. He describes this process excellently. In his analects, he writes,
The Master said, At fifteen I set my heart upon learning. At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground. At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities. At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven. At sixty, I heard them with docile ear. At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right (Confucius, Analects, Book II, no. 4).
The Master begins his faith journey with a desire to learn. Learning the Way and how to walk in it is the beginning. This is at the age of fifteen. Then, learning all the while, it isn’t until he reaches the age of fifty that the Master can say, “I knew what were the biddings of heaven.” He has spent his life learning what the ways of heavenly life are. His faith journey implies struggle in applying what he knows about heavenly life to his own life. It isn’t until the Master gets to sixty that he hears the biddings with a docile ear. I take this to mean that he hears heavenly truth without resistance from his lower self and the ego and selfishness that can sometimes dominate our lower self. Then at the age of seventy, the Master enters the stage that Swedenborg would call regeneration. Confucius can follow his heart freely. He can do this because he has learned the biddings of heaven first. Then he has implemented them into his life and formed his life around what he has learned. Then, after training himself to love what he has learned about heaven, he can follow his heart. He says, “At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart, for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.”
So the stage of regeneration is a stage of love. We act from love, not from teachings about love. The stage called regeneration is also a stage of freedom. For we act freely from our hearts with no constraint or compulsion. We are no longer restraining our dark side, because we have overcome it. We are no longer compelling our feet to walk in God’s commands because we do them willingly. Our minds no longer tell us what to do. Rather, our hearts tell us what to think. We love doing what is good. And from our good feelings, we see what it true. Swedenborg writes of this process as follows,
When this latter state begins and is progressing, a change takes place in the mind; the mind undergoes a reversal, the love of the will then flowing into the understanding, acting upon it and leading it to think in accord and agreement with its love; and in consequence so far as the good of love comes to act the first part and the truths of faith the second, man is spiritual and is a new creature; and he then acts from charity and speaks from faith; he feels the good of charity and perceives the truth of faith; and he is then in the Lord, and in peace, and thus regenerate (TCR 571).
Love, after all, is the primary thing of religion. We do indeed seek out teachings and religious truths. But for Swedenborg, the point of spiritual truth is only to lead us into love and into a good life. He even says that truths fall away from us and dissolve like fall leaves if we haven’t incorporated them into our lives. For Swedenborg truth serves one function only–to lead us into love.
Ralph Waldo Emerson took issue with this aspect of Swedenborg’s theology. Emerson admired Swedenborg’s mind and intellect. He was impressed with Swedenborg’s philosophical and scientific accomplishments. And he was also impressed with how rational Swedenborg’s theology is. He felt that Swedenborg cheated his own mind by subordinating intellect to feeling–mind to heart. And as a philosopher in his own right, Emerson wanted mind to be preferred over heart.
I see so much humility in Swedenborg to make this statement. Here was a man who is credited as one with the highest of geniuses in the history of the western world. And yet, this ponderous genius claims that intellect can only go so far. He lays aside his intelligence in favor of a loving heart. He lays aside all his knowledge, to valorize a good life as the goal of knowing.
I think that our society, sadly, agrees for the most part with Emerson. I think that we value intelligence too much. We flatter a mother’s child when we say that he or she is smart, or intelligent. We look up to smart people. But how often do we praise others for being loving? Do we give kindness and gentleness the same praise we do intelligence? Would a mother be as flattered should someone say of her child, “He or she is so loving and kind.”
But love is where it’s at. Jesus tells us this plainly and simply, “My command is this: Love each other” (John 15:12). I am reminded of a story that one of the ancient church Fathers told. It was about the Apostle John. John was very advanced in years. He was so old that he had to be carried wherever he went. On one occasion he was asked to speak at a dinner of early Christians. All he said was, “Little children, love one another.” Someone spoke up, “Is that all you have to say? I have heard you before and that is all you ever say.” John replied, “That is all I remember, resting my head on Christ’s breast, and if you do that, it is enough.” Love is where it’s at. Little children, love one another.
Baptism with the Holy Spirit
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 4, 2011
Isaiah 40:1-11 Mark 1:1-8 Psalm 80
In both our readings this morning we see the topic of reformation. Reformation is the second step in spiritual rebirth, or what Swedenborg calls regeneration. Last Sunday we talked about repentance. This Sunday we will look at reformation. And next Sunday about regeneration. These are the Swedenborgian 3 “R’s”.
In our reading from Mark, John the Baptist says that when Jesus comes He will baptise with the Holy Spirit. This means that Jesus will regenerate us. In the baptism services of this church, we talk about regeneration. We say that baptism symbolises the spiritual cleansing of regeneration. For we are born for this world by our biological birth, and we are reborn for heaven by the spiritual cleansing of regeneration. Jesus tells us that we need to be reborn in order to enter heaven. He says, “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). For some Christian denominations, being reborn is an instantaneous act when a person takes Christ into their life. For us, it is a lifelong process of character reformation. Swedenborg calls this process regeneration, which in Latin means “rebirth.” The process of regeneration is the same as letting God’s Holy Spirit into our soul, so that we are living in Jesus, and for Jesus. Jesus talks about this in John 15:5, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.”
To see how our passage from Isaiah treats regeneration we need to look at the internal sense. We are told to, “prepare the way for the Lord.” This means that we are to make ourselves fit to receive God. Then Isaiah talks about the process of reformation. He says,
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain (Isaiah 40:4).
The valleys are the lower things of our personality. They are external knowledges and, in general, our lower self, or natural person. Raising up the valleys means that our natural person will be raised up from worldly interests into heavenly interests. It means that our lower self will be filled with heavenly goods and truths and that it will accord with the loves and truths of our higher selves. Making mountains low signifies lowering of self-interest or pride. Mountains mean pride when they are said to be lowered. And our spiritual washing means a breaking up of self-will and the desire to make everything go our way. So our Old Testament reading also treats the subject of reformation.
We saw last Sunday that repentance is the identification of sin. Reformation is when we act on the truths we know. Reformation is when we form our actions and thinking in accordance with the spiritual principles we know.
Repentance and reformation are essentially the same process. When we get to regeneration, though, things are quite different. Repentance and reformation are when we act on the truths we know to form our lives into an image of heaven, and into a likeness of God, our Creator. The stage of regeneration is when we are no longer acting from truth, but we then act from love. When we are in the stage called regeneration, we are no longer applying truths to our lives. Rather, we are acting from heavenly love because we have formed ourselves into a vessel that can hold God’s Spirit. These are two distinct stages. Swedenborg breaks these two stages down for us.
There are two states that man must enter upon and pass through, when from being natural he is becoming spiritual. The first state is called reformation, and the second regeneration. In the first man looks from his natural to his spiritual state and longs for that state; in the second state he becomes spiritual-natural. The first state is formed by means of truths, which must be truths of faith, and through these he looks to charity; the second state is formed by means of the goods of charity, and by these he enters into the truths of faith. Or what is the same, the first is a state of thought from the understanding, and the second a state of love from the will (TCR 571).
I find it quite interesting that we don’t need to finish the work of reformation in this world. Swedenborg tells us that, “The man who while in the world has entered upon the first state, after death can be introduced into the second” (TCR 571). The stage of reformation is when we look from a natural state to a spiritual state. This means that we have a sense of what spiritual life is. In order to see what spiritual life is, we need to know about it. This calls for instruction. Spiritual education forms our understanding. There are two basic parts to our psyche: our will and our understanding. Our will is composed of all our feelings and emotions. The understanding is composed of all the things we know and think. The process of reformation draws on our understanding, in that our understanding tells us what spirituality is like.
that a person may be regenerated, it is necessary that his regeneration be effected by means of the understanding as the mediate cause; and this is done by means of the various kinds of instruction that the understanding receives, first from parents and teachers, afterward by reading the Word, by preaching, books, and conversation . . . The things which the understanding receives from these sources are called truths; it is the same, therefore, whether reformation is said to be effected by means of the understanding, or by means of the truths which the understanding receives; for truths teach man in whom he ought to believe, and what he ought to believe, also what he ought to do, thus how he ought to will; . . . so long as anyone sees and mentally acknowledges that evil is evil, and good is good, and thinks that the good ought to be chosen, he is in what is called the state of reformation (TCR 587).
Our understanding is formed from a variety of sources, as said above. It is formed from parents and teachers, from Sunday school, from personal reading of the Bible, from books, from conversation, and a whole host of other sources of input.
Forming our understanding into an image of heavenly truth is the first step in the process of reformation. Our higher self is where we are first made into a form of heavenly truth. Then, our task is to let this higher self shine down into the lower self. In Swedenborgian language, this would be called letting out internal shine forth in our external.
Swedenborg says that this process of making the internal external may not be easy. Our external person has been created as an image of the material world and to satisfy all that we need in the material world. Two great drives emerge in our external person: love of the world and love of self. These two loves can grow to unhealthy levels. Love of the world can turn into greed. And love of self can grow into a selfishness that looks down upon everyone else in the world. Love of the world needs to be transformed into a love for our neighbor. And love of self needs to be transformed into humility before God, who is to be loved above all.
Transforming our natural drives into spiritual loves can cause conflict. Our worldly self may rebel against heaven’s loves. Swedenborg describes this process in language that suggests Paul. Last Sunday we reflected on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul writes,
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. . . . For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8: 5-6, 13).
This contrast between flesh and spirit finds its way into Swedenborg’s description of spiritual temptation,
A conflict then arises because the internal man is reformed by means of truths; and from truths he sees what is evil and false, which evil and falsity are still in the external or natural man; consequently disagreement first springs up between the new will, which is above, and the old will, which is below; and as the disagreement is between the two wills, it is also between their delights; for the flesh, it is well known, is opposed to the spirit and the spirit to the flesh, and the flesh with its lusts must be subdued before the spirit can act and man become new (TCR 596).
God is unceasingly in the act of reforming and regenerating us. And it is comforting to know that everyone can be regenerated. The processes that we all go through are as different as are our faces and personalities. Everyone has their own unique way of walking from the world into heaven. But all can make this journey–even those who grow up in hostile environments and have learned survival skills based on hatred and abuse. Swedenborg promises that,
Every person may be regenerated, each according to his state; . . . those who are principled in natural good from their parents, and those who are in evil; those who from their infancy have entered into the vanities of the world, and those who sooner or later have withdrawn from them; in a word, those who constitute the Lord’s external church are regenerated differently from those who constitute his internal church, and this variety, like that of men’s features and dispositions, is infinite; and yet everyone, according to his state, may be regenerated and saved (TCR 580).
I find it comforting to hear that even those who are in evil and those who are deeply immersed in the vanities of the world–even these can brought into God’s kingdom of love.
Our Bible passage from Mark this morning looks forward to the coming of the Lord, as does our reading from Isaiah. Isaiah tells us that “The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it.” He tells us further to shout, “Here is your God!” As we work through the process of reformation, we are letting the divine rays of light into our hearts and actions. We are piercing the gloom of the material world and are looking into heaven’s dazzling light. As we let the baptism of the Holy Spirit fill our personalities, we will grow closer to our Lord and our love for Him and our neighbor will intensify. The glory of the Lord will be revealed in us and to us. God will “gather His lambs in His arms, and carry them close to His heart” (Isaiah 40:11). We will go up onto the high mountain and shout, “Here is our God!”