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Archive for September, 2015

Being a Winner in God’s Eyes
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 13, 2015

Isaiah 50:4-9 Mark 8:27-38 Psalm 116

Was Jesus a winner or a loser? Of course from our perspective, with Christianity being the dominant religion in Europe for the past 2,000 years, we would say that Jesus was a winner. But let’s think about Jesus Himself, during His life. In one respect He was certainly a winner. He was popular. He had a large following. But in another respect He was a dismal failure. He wasn’t a success in terms of religious authority. The priests and the teachers of the law never let Him into their ranks. Jesus never attained a place of authority in the official ranks of religion. In this respect He was an outsider, who only appealed to the uneducated mob. Worse still, the religious authorities even opposed Jesus. They considered Him a blasphemer, an outlaw, a criminal. Rome agreed. Jesus stood trial for treason and was executed in a shameful way as a capital criminal. Seen this way, Jesus was a dismal failure.
So it is possible to be both–a winner and a loser. We live in two worlds. We live in the material world. And we live in the spiritual world. And we need to conform to the rules of both worlds. Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). We need to be concerned about our success in both worlds. But we need especially to be concerned about our success in the spiritual world.
Whatever success we attain in this world will pass away when we die. The things of this world perish in time. So we call them by the Latin word for time, “temporal.” But spiritual success lives on forever. We call spiritual things, “eternal.” While we live in this world, we need to care for ourselves and for our families. But we need devote only as much attention to this world as our basic needs and some degree of comfort require. It is the eternal things that truly matter. Eternal things carry over into the next world and make us blessed forever. So Jesus says, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life” (John 6:27). This idea is developed in greater depth in the familiar passage from Luke,
And he said to his disciples, ‚ÄúTherefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? . . . And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well” (12:22-25, 29-31).
This passage doesn’t mean that we needn’t care at all about the things of this world. I take it to mean not to worry excessively over the things of this world. They will all pass away in time. There’s a clever line from a blues song I like, “I ain’t never seen a hearse with luggage on top!”
We are tempted by society to think that the good things of this world are all that matter. More severely, we are tempted to think that we need to be a colossal success in this world. Some actually crave fame, power, and fortune. On a lesser scale, some want status symbols like a Mercedes or BMW car to drive, designer clothes, and a large home. I know of people who are mortgaged to the hilt and are working two jobs because they have spent so much money acquiring the things of this world.
Our society doesn’t have a very healthy view of success. In ancient Rome, a victorious general would parade through the streets displaying all his plunder. But behind him, holding a laurel wreath over his head, was a man chanting, “Success is fleeting.” Even at the height of his glory and power, the Roman general was being reminded that the things of this world are temporal and not eternal. In the middle ages, people spoke of the wheel of fortune. They compared fortune to a wheel. At times, the wheel would turn and you would be on top of things. But the same wheel would continue to turn and at another time you could find yourself at the bottom of the wheel with all your fortunes reversed. A song has come down to us from the middle ages about the wheel of fortune. Carl Orff wrote a piece of music about it called Carmina Burana. The lyrics to this dismal song about fortune go as follows,
O Fortune
Like the moon
You are changeable
Ever waxing
And Waning
Hateful life
First Oppresses
And then soothes
As fancy takes it
Poverty
And power
It melts like ice
God is concerned about the things that last forever and that bring us into His kingdom of love. Swedenborg tells us that, “The divine providence regards eternal things and temporal things so far only as they accord with the eternal” (n. 214). When I first read this I took it to mean that God regards only eternal things. I didn’t see the second part that says God regards temporal things “so far only as they accord with the eternal.” That means that God does regard temporal things if they are in agreement with the things that last eternally.
Eternal things don’t always agree with temporal things. Temporal reasoning tells us to be the greatest, the best, the most popular, the most powerful. Eternal reasoning tells us to be the least, to be humble, to be a servant to all, to love others as much as ourselves. Temporal reasoning tells us to self-promote, to advertize, to get our name out, to let the world know how great we are. Eternal reasoning tells us not to take credit for the good things we do, to do good secretly, to put God first, to subordinate self to God and the neighbor.
But we are citizens of both worlds. When it comes to our job, we do need to let our superiors know the good things we are doing. They, also, need to know this as part of their job. We need to divide our consciousness. In the world’s eyes, we have obligations to our job, and we need to follow the reasoning of worldly success. But personally, we need to follow eternal reasoning and separate work from self.
I think this applies especially to our career aspirations. I was disappointed when I lectured at a humanities class that was comprised of business majors. I asked the class what matters in life. The response was that achieving wealth and power were what matter. How different this was from my own youth. I grew up in a culture that valued peace and love above all.
We do need to tend to our material well being. But do we need excessive wealth and power? Do we need to put them first as our goals? How does that view of success measure up against the words of Jesus, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life” (John 6:27). “Seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well” (Luke 12:31). If we seek to be good, if we seek to serve, we will find ourselves valued in this world and we will be laboring for food which endures to eternal life. If we are successful in regard to eternal things, we have all we need. Then, the success we attain in this life is all icing on the cake.

PRAYER

Lord, we pray for eyes to see, eyes to see from your heavenly kingdom. Many are the temptations of this world. Many are the messages about the good life. But the good things of this world are but a fleeting fancy. But you, Lord, you have messages of good things that last forever. Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. We pray for the desire to find eternal rewards, not only the rewards of this world. We ask that you quicken our hearts and give us to love the things that last for ever. We know that you look after us. We know that you care for our souls. We know that you want us to be happy–both in this world and in the next. We pray this morning that you show us the way to blessedness–first in your kingdom, then in this life.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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Providence’s Winding Pathway
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 6, 2015

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Matthew 14:22-33 Psalm 105

The story of Joseph is a striking example of God’s Divine Providence. While Joseph goes through severe trials, the result of his journey is beneficial for all the players in his life–including himself. The way we journey as pilgrims in this life may be similar to Joseph. We may go through difficult times, we may appear lost at times, but for those who have a faith in God’s Providence, in retrospect, we can see that all the winding ways of our lives have resulted in spiritual growth for us.
In our Bible reading, things do not look good for Joseph. Hated by his own brothers, he is sold into slavery to the Midianites, who sell him to the Egyptians. In Egypt, other tragedies befall him. He is thrown into prison on false charges. But ultimately, Joseph rises to a position of power in Egypt. He rules as the Pharaoh’s right hand man. All of Egypt is under his command, except the Pharaoh’s own throne. Later, when the land of Israel experiences famine, Joseph gives food to his family, who travel to Egypt for aid. There is a tearful reunion of Joseph and his family. And in his position of power in Egypt, he is able to give his family the food they need. The very tragedy he experienced in his young years ended up with Joseph prospering immensely.
For many of us, life is a winding pathway through times of happiness and also times of sorrow and even despair. But all the while, God is leading us to heaven and heavenly joy and happiness. In every turn of our life’s direction God is leading us into greater love for Himself and for our neighbors, which is the same thing as saying that God is leading us to salvation. Swedenborg writes,
Providence continually regards what is eternal, and continually leads unto salvation, and this through various states, now glad, now sorrowful, which man cannot possibly comprehend, but still all are conducive to his eternal life (AC 8560).
When we look back on our lives, we see that the path we have followed has made us who we are. When we are in the depths of despair, and things look overclouded with sorrow, it is hard to maintain faith that God is still with us. There is that famous poem that we have on the wall downstairs called, “Footprints.” In that poem there are two sets of footprints on the beach. Then, for a time, there is only one set of footprints. The writer says to God, “Where where you when there were only one set of footprints,” thinking that those were his own footprints in a time of grief. God’s response is, “Those footprints were mine, when I was carrying you.” We can’t see Divine Providence working in our lives in the moment. But we can see Divine Providence when we look back on our lives. Swedenborg tells us,
It is granted to see the Divine Providence in the back and not in the face; also in a spiritual state and not in his natural state. To see the Divine Providence in the back and not in the face, is to see after the Providence and not before it; and to see it from a spiritual but not a natural state is to see it from heaven and not from the world. All who receive influx from heaven and acknowledge the Divine Providence, and especially those who by reformation have become spiritual, while they see events in some wonderful series, from interior acknowledgement they as it were see the Divine Providence, and they confess it (DP 187).
I know that when I look back on my own life, I can see that wonderful series of events that Swedenborg speaks of. And in my own life, I have experienced dark times, times when there were only one set of footprints on the beach. And as I look back, sometimes I wonder why God was carrying me, considering how angry I had become with Him. It is a measure of just how all loving God is. When I was in my twenties, I was preparing for ministry. I fully intended to become a Swedenborgian minister when I was thinking about my career at the age of twenty-three. So I enrolled in our church’s college, Urbana College. Urbana College isn’t a very well-known college in the US. But for Swedenborgian ministry, it is the best place to prepare for divinity school. From Urbana College, I went to our divinity school, the Swedenborg School of Religion. I was in our divinity school for five years when the church decided that it wouldn’t ordain me. That decision was reached in a three-hour-long meeting of the Council of Ministers while I awaited their decision outside the room. Since it was a closed meeting, to this day, I don’t know the whole story as to why they decided not to ordain me. I do know that I was an active alcoholic, and quite a loose cannon personally. When I heard the decision, I was enraged. From the time of my college years at Urbana College through my years in divinity school, I had put seven years of my life towards Swedenborgian ministry. I felt I had given my youth to the church, and it was all for nought. Furthermore, with only a degree from the unexceptional Urbana College and an unaccredited diploma from the Swedenborg School of Religion, I wasn’t in a very good position career-wise. While I was wallowing in gloom, one of the students said to me, “Oh, David, this may turn into something wonderful in time!” I didn’t want to hear this, and didn’t receive it very well. But it turns out he was right.
The course of my life proceeded into accredited graduate schools. First, my Master’s Degree at Harvard, and the my Ph. D. program at the university of Virginia. In these programs, my mind grew and expanded as I studied great works of literature and of the world’s religions. I became much more open minded. Before this, all I saw and knew was through the lens of Swedenborg. I judged by Swedenborgian doctrines. I was very narrow minded and parochial. Graduate study in religions of the world opened me up to people of other faiths, and taught me the interesting beliefs of other traditions and respect for people of other faiths. Then after all that intellectual work, I ended up in the mental health field in which my intellect was cut off as I worked with people’s moods. This looked like another setback, but it was another growing experience. My heart grew. I became more compassionate and my counselling skills improved. Then there was the gift of sobriety, without which I wouldn’t be able to receive any of these other gifts. There were also unexpected treats from God, like the gift of playing in a rock and jazz band. In the long run, I did become the Swedenborgian minister I wanted to be in my twenties, but I had so much more to bring to the ministry. I am now a much different minister than I would have been had I been ordained back then. Furthermore, by being kicked around by life, I grew more humble and my pride diminished. I’m actually glad for the way things turned out.
This narration exemplifies the passage from Swedenborg that I read at the beginning of this talk,
Providence continually regards what is eternal, and continually leads unto salvation, and this through various states, now glad, now sorrowful, which man cannot possibly comprehend, but still all are conducive to his eternal life (AC 8560).
Through all this, I became open to my neighbor. I saw that the immediate needs I thought I had to have, I could get along without. This is what is symbolized by the passage we heard from the New Testament. Jesus’ disciples are in a boat and a storm breaks out all around them. They are fighting against the wind. Waves and the turbulent sea symbolize temptations. They symbolize the despair a person goes through from time to time in life, and especially in one’s spiritual life. In the midst of this storm, Jesus comes to the disciples, walking on water and stills the storm. This signifies the state of peace that comes when temptations are quieted and new good has been insinuated into our minds and hearts. This would be like the compassion and open-mindedness that came to me through the trials in my life.
Temptations are not just allurements of the forbidden fruit. They are soul-stirring trials when we can’t see our way back to God and it seems we are on a course heading nowhere and lost. We can even despair of our salvation, and think ourselves bereft of the light of God’s love. These are the times when there are only one set of footprints on the sand. These periods break up our pride and teach us that we need God every hour and that all the blessings we have are gifts from God. Swedenborg speaks of,
a state of desolation caused by the privation of truth, the last stage of which state is despair. That despair is the last stage of that state, is because the thereby the enjoyment of the love of self and of the world is removed, and the enjoyment of the love of good and of truth instilled in its place; for in the case of those to be regenerated, despair has reference to spiritual life, and consequently to the privation of truth and good, since when they are deprived of truth and good, they despair of spiritual life; hence they have a sweet and blessed joy when they come out of their despair (AC 5279).
Would we humble ourselves and turn to God without such trials, I ask? There is a lyric from a song written by a friend of mine in Florida that goes, “Without those desperate times would we ever turn to you, and recognize our weakness?” I need to be clear, here, though. God does not send us these trials. It is we ourselves who bring them upon ourselves. It was my drinking and wild behavior that gave the Council of Ministers their doubts about me. God moderates these periods and guides them so that good will come of them and we will become more heavenly as a result.
So the path we take in this world is not necessarily an easy one. As Swedenborg tells us, “now glad, now sorrowful.” But Divine Providence does not let anything happen to us that does not conduce to our salvation and to greater conjunction with God and with heaven. Furthermore, all these trials bring us into greater love and this means into greater happiness. Through these temptations, Swedenborg tells us,
the Lord enters with affections of the love of the neighbor, and opens the window of his roof, and then the side windows, and makes him see that there is a heaven, a life after death, and eternal happiness; and by the spiritual light and at the same time by the spiritual love then flowing in, He makes him acknowledge that God governs all things by His Divine Providence (DP 201).
Those who trust in God can see this happening in their own lives. Whether we are now in a good state or whether we are now in a difficult state, we need to trust that God is with us, that God never gives up on us, and that God will bring us safely home to port. We need keep in mind the story of Joseph, and what looks bad now may turn into something wonderful down the road.

PRAYER

Lord, we know that you are always with us. We know that you are always guiding our lives. You are with us in difficult times. And you rejoice with us in happy times. You lead us through all the turns and twists of our lives. We know that the way to your kingdom is not always a straight, easy path. We know that we will experience times of trial and hardship. But we know that all these trials can be used for our spiritual enrichment. Everything that happens to us serves to bring us out of ego and worldliness and into love for you and for our neighbor. Though it may not look like it at times, we know that you are always guiding us, that you are always with us. Thank you for your continual care and guidance. For you never cease in your efforts to save us.

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