Readings: Daniel 3:1, 4-6, 8-30, Secrets of Heaven #10227:12 and #1327
See also on YouTube here
I thought to use this story for worship today because certain aspects of these last few months have felt bit like being in the fiery furnace. I think we all might have felt something of that intensity in each of our own ways…some combination of anxiety, frustration, grief, sadness and anger. And has anyone been on Facebook lately? Tensions are running high, to say the least, as we all grapple with what this pandemic is going to mean for us going forward.
Most of us have not done this pandemic thing before. So, it can be useful for us to look to our traditions and our stories for ways to help us understand what we are going through, for insight into the human condition so that we might find a framework for how to act now, in this particular situation.
This is one of the reasons that I have always loved the Swedenborgian interpretative tradition, which holds that the Bible is “the story of us.” The whole thing is the story of us, you and me, right now. Yes, it is outwardly stories about people who lived a long time ago, but it also communicates something much larger; truths that we can use to further our own spiritual journeys in each of our own contexts.
And this means that, when we are faced with the prideful anger of the King Nebuchadnezzar, we cannot retreat into the comfort of literalism and say, well, I’m not a Babylonian King, or someone with anywhere near that kind of power, so this really doesn’t have anything to do with me. However, we *all* can experience pride and self-obsession, we can *all* experience avarice or find ourselves worshiping something not worth worshiping. I think this is a really valuable spiritual practice; when the whole bible is about us, we cannot wriggle out of its various critiques, regardless at whom they are leveled.
So King Nebuchednezzar tells us about the ugliness, the ridiculousness, the dangerousness, of being drunk with power and self-obsessed, of turning our allegiance to that which props up our own wealth, self-esteem, status, and demanding that others do the same. This can be borne out in so many small ways in each of our lives. For example, there are times I’ve lashed out at my children, not because I desire to correct them usefully but because I am furious they have disrespected my authority. This is my Nebuchednezzar self coming out. And more specifically, according to Swedenborg, Nebuchednezzar and the Babylonian regime represents the profanation of holy things (see reading). Which is a theologically fancy way of saying it is evil representing itself as good. So continuing my example above, it would be like if I were to not only lash out at my children for disrespecting my authority, but then also justify it as a good thing to myself (and them)…like, it is good for them to have boundaries, good for them to learn consequences for their actions, and maybe even, it is a good thing for children to be a little afraid of their parents. See how insidious it is?
Conversely though, if the bible is about us, then we also have within us the good characters as well as the bad. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego represent those parts of us that resist these darker impulses. The parts of us that have given their allegiance to God, to truth and love, to something outside of ourselves and our own benefit. Daniel represents our developing conscience, and Daniel’s friends represent the true ideas that our conscience depends upon (1). The existence of Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, opens up to us the opportunity to practice steadfastness, diligence, courage, and faith. So to continue the parenting example, they represent my commitment to the ideas that my children should feel safe and loved, and learn to be confident and generous, with healthy and useful autonomy and boundaries. My commitment to those ideas as primary helps me to see my Nebuchadnezzar self for what it is, and to resist what it is calling me to give free rein to within myself.
And so, we can read these stories as something that can speak to us personally, in our own lives and in our own contexts. God speaks then and God speaks now through that which we can understand; stories about human nature and human possibility.
However, I do think there is one important caveat. As wonderful as I consider this personal metaphorical interpretive tradition to be, I believe it emphasizes some things and obscures others. One downside to spiritualizing biblical stories in such a personal way is that we might pay far more attention our personal spiritual journey and forget that we are social, communal, systems-building creatures. With this story, it might blind us to the fact that the type of pride exhibited by the king was not just a personal failing, it was a personal failing that was propped up and encouraged and, to a certain extent, created by a system of power. (2)
This is not only a story about the fact that King Nebuchadnezzar was a prideful person. It is also a story about the misuse of systemic power. The King directed the allegiance and the worship of his people towards a golden statue, something that supported and increased his own status and suggested it was what they should value. He used his power (which technically has the potential for good) to serve his own ends. His network of advisors, also beholden and invested in that system, helped to perpetuate that misuse of power by accusing Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego of wrongdoing.
So, I believe the framework of this particular story is prompting us to ask ourselves: how is my pride, my avarice, my selfishness, how is that supported, encouraged, and obscured by systems in which I find myself? How do those systems prompt me to reframe my selfishness as good, or prompt me to forget or overlook who those systems disadvantage? How do these systems profane what is holy, or try to pass off what is evil as what is good?
One easy example is suggested by the “golden statue:” Does an allegiance to un-regulated capitalism ask us to value money over people? Is it asking us to forget that a system cannot be humane unless it serves everyone well, not just the few? Or, Are our political ideologies based on accumulating power rather than serving people? Do they encourage us to dehumanize others in order to worship our own sense of “rightness?” Is a preoccupation with freedom and patriotism asking us to forget the basic kindness we owe to our neighbor, like wearing a mask, even if we would rather not? Are our systems of white supremacy and white privilege, asking white people like myself to dismiss the lived experience of people of color, while we quietly benefit from entrenched systemic advantages?
And I think right now is a perfect time for us to be considering these points, and others like them, as the pandemic has revealed to us many weaknesses in our systems and ideologies, many ways that they leave people behind, or serve to divide us, the human family, from each other. I think it is appropriate right now to be asking questions about the systems in which we participate and the ideologies to which we subscribe: what are they asking us to value, do they benefit us in ways that we might not realize, and who are they leaving behind?
Nebuchadnezzar is found within each human heart, yes. It is our responsibility notice where he is showing up in our lives, even in the small and mundane ways. But, it is also important to recognize that we don’t exist in a vacuum, that the Nebuchadnezzar spirit can join people together in ways that create and perpetuate larger systems of injustice, that seek to justify and continue their own existence by casting greed, incivility, selfishness and ignorance as good.
But of course, we still have Shadrach, Meshach and Abedego. Their story is not just about a one time courageous action. Their story tells us much more about how to exist in a world that seems to only see Nebuchadnezzar. You see, when Judah was first overthrown by Babylonia, promising Jewish youths like Daniel and his friends were plucked out of their own country and intentionally brought up within Babylonian structures, groomed to function in the Babylonian court, for Babylonian agenda. They had to learn how to exist in that context. But they didn’t forget where they came from. They stayed true to their heritage. They worked to the best of their ability within the social structures they found themselves in, but they did not allow those systems to corrupt the things that were most important to them.
This can be a valuable lesson to us. We cannot live outside of human systems and ideologies. We will always co-exist with them, we need them. They create meaning and structure and connection for us. But they are still and always will be human. And many times, that means they will bid us forget what we owe to each other, bid us forget our heritage.
Our most basic heritage is that, from God’s divine love, everyone is born for heaven, which is a realm of mutual love (3). I don’t say this so that we will dismiss this world we live in and only focus on getting to heaven, not at all. Rather, I say it for us to realize that our heritage is something larger than the systems and ideologies of this world, no matter how much they might benefit us in the here and now, no matter how good they might make us feel. Our destiny is to exist in heaven in mutual love, to serve one another in mutual care, and to as far as possible live and birth that heaven into this world in the here and now. When we remember that heritage, we can resist any system or ideology that asks us to love or worship anything else. With God’s help and guidance, we can learn to walk around in the fire, unbound and unharmed. Amen.
(2) The New Interpreter’s Bible, p751.
(3) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #997, #1775 and Divine Providence #323
Daniel 1, 4-6, 8-30
1 King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.
4 Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: 5 As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. 6 Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”
8 At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. 9 They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “May the king live forever! 10 Your Majesty has issued a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold, 11 and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.” 13 Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, 14 and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15 Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” 16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” 19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22 The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace. 24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.” 25 He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, 27 and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them. 28 Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.” 30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
Secrets of Heaven #10227:12 and #1327
'Nebuchadnezzar' the king of Babel…mean[s] that which is profane and lays waste, which happens when the truths and forms of good which the Word contains serve, through wrong application, as means to lend support to the evils of self-love and love of the world. For in these circumstances the evils of those loves exist inwardly, in the heart, while the holy things of the Church are on the lips.
These verses use Babylon as an image for the way the deeper aspects of faith — inner worship, in other words — are wiped out. Anyone who embraces self-worship is devoid of religious truth…Such a person destroys and devastates everything that is true and leads it into captivity.
Photo credit: Thai Nhan
Readings: Psalm 29, Luke 24:44-53, Secrets of Heaven #10646:3 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
So, we’ve certainly gone through a lot of changes regarding worship in the last couple of months, haven’t we? Not just for us and our community but churches the world over. Virtual worship feels different, and has brought about both challenges and blessings. And so I thought that this week might be a good time to consider *why* we worship. Why did a whole bunch of places of worship go to the trouble to take worship online, why are you sitting down in your home in front of a computer to watch? What is worship for, and why is it so important?
Well, I’ll begin by setting the stage with a couple of key Swedenborgian ideas about worship. First, as we heard in our reading: worship is not for God, it is for us. We don’t ascribe to a God who needs our worship, it is not something we *owe* to God, it is not a transaction whereby we get what we want. Worship is for the purpose of our own growth. It is so that we might make space to, in a regular fashion, open ourselves up to new perspectives, to put aside preoccupations, to align ourselves with God’s purposes. Swedenborg calls this being in a state of humility, which I think has modern connotations that might make it sound like a negative thing. However, it is not about being ashamed per se, but about being quiet, being open, being vulnerable. It is into those states that God can flow most easily, and help us to grow and change. And for many, worship of some kind or another brings us into that state.
Second, true worship is not necessarily about being in a church. Swedenborg also writes:
…We worship constantly when we have love and charity; outward worship is merely an effect. Angels worship in this way, so they have a perpetual Sabbath.(1)
So it is also an important thing in our tradition to recognize that the truest form of worship of God is living a loving, good, and kind life. Church worship is to serve this ultimate purpose. When we strive to live a loving life, then every day is Sunday, every moment is liturgy, every action a hymn. It has become a rallying cry to the world wide church the last few months, that church has never been about a building, and this is so very true. Church is about striving to be open to God in a way that connects us to love and kindness, to God’s purposes, and to our fellow human beings. We do not *have* to have a building to do that. And so, in that vein, I thought I might read you something now that encapsulates this notion, something that I really love and that I have been waiting for an opportunity to share with you.
I would like to read to you the preface to the 1950 liturgy of the Swedenborgian Church. When I read it for the first time several years ago, it really moved me, and I hope that it speaks to you in a similar way. I’ve not been able to find out who wrote it (if you happen to know, please tell me!) but I love the idea of, when we are in challenging time for church, to intentionally ground ourselves in our tradition, to reach back for the wisdom of those who came before us, knowing that they are present for us, even now, in spirit. This preface is called “Let Us Worship."
In all of us, there is a sense of what ought to be, which will not let us rest until we give ourselves and our all to its demands. It bids us rise above our lower nature, to seek the worth and meaning of life in our endless spiritual possibilities. It stirs our concern for all mankind and a better world. Whence that yearning, if not from a God whose love dwells in the inmost recesses of our souls and draws us to himself, fashioning us in his image and likeness?
We, Christians of the New Age, see this image in the Lord God, the Savior Jesus Christ, risen and glorified, now come again in the truth and power of his Word and urging us to match our lives and all our relationships with his Divine Humanity. As we look up to him, we cannot compromise with a lesser destiny. When in utter commitment we devote ourselves to the pursuit of his purpose, so that in us and our social order his Incarnation might be completed, and that his inner presence in the hearts and minds of men may illumine humanity from within and make it the glorious organism it is mean to be, then truly we bow down before him and say, “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.”
This is what worship is intended to bring about and intensify. Beyond the words we sing, within the words we pray, back of our standing and kneeling, as we listen in the silence of our hearts to the Book which “testifies of him,” in presenting to him the tokens of our willingness, we dramatize, indeed, our dependence on him and our interdependence with all men as the objects of his care. We recognize, proclaim and rejoice in that, “He is our God.” And so, through appreciation of his infinite mercy, worship becomes our experience of holy fellowship with him, and all he loves. Conscious of our shortcomings and sins, and our oneness with all men, we bare our lives before him; and, according to our sincerity and repentance, we receive the enlightenment and the strength to become his once again. We see in him what human life can be, the goal to which creation moves, and in the light of it our humblest strivings are given new significance. Worship is the actual thrill of receiving from him light and love and power for our daily task. It is the joy of being made by him, and, step by step, becoming better channels through whom his love may flow.
There is in that experience a rapture no words can express. Yet it does not always come easily. Often we hold ourselves back and forget that worship is essentially a response, an expression of love to a Person. Let us remember, in our praise and our prayers, our need of him, not simply of knowledge about him. We need his hand, which alone can lift us up in our full spiritual stature; the light of his presence; the glow of his companionship; the forgiveness of his compassion; the sound of his inner voice, if he is to send us, charged with power, to heal and comfort the bruised and broken heart of the world. For, though worship begins in one precious hour, it extends to the whole of life. It is opening our life to the Lord that He may work in and through us. It is staking our faith in the man that is to be, and the world that is to be, because of the God who is.
Isn’t that just gorgeous? What I love about it, is that it balances so perfectly the way in which human beings exist in both our individuality and our commonality. We, each of us, open our lives to God, so that we might become who *we* are meant to be, which in turn contributes to the world becoming what *it* is meant to be, a vision of which God carries so tenderly in God’s heart.
I don’t know what is in store for the world-wide church, for *our* church over the coming months. Uncertainty is never fun. Difficult decisions might need to be made. But what I do know, is that our mission is to make space, if not physical then virtual, so that we might in community be moved by the spirit of our God in heart and mind, and then, as we read, charged with power, we might heal and comfort the bruised and broken heart of the world.
There is so much bruised and broken right now; may we always seek to live, to embody, the perpetual Sabbath.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #1618
1 Ascribe to the LORD, you heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. 2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness. 3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters. 4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is majestic. 5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon. 6 He makes Lebanon leap like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox. 7 The voice of the LORD strikes with flashes of lightning. 8 The voice of the LORD shakes the desert; the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh. 9 The voice of the LORD twists the oaksand strips the forests bare. And in his temple all cry, “Glory!” 10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD is enthroned as King forever. 11 The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.
44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Secrets of Heaven 10646:3
It is said that the Lord alone is to be worshipped. Anyone unacquainted with the nature of true worship of the Lord may think that the Lord loves to be worshipped and desires glory from people, like someone who grants another person what he requests because that other person pays him respect. Anyone who thinks like that has no idea at all of what love is like, let alone of what God's love is like. God in His love does not desire worship and glory for His own sake but for that of people and their salvation. For humility exists in those who worship the Lord and give Him glory, and from those in whom humility exists…what belongs to self departs. And so far as this departs, the Divine is received; for the…self, being evil and false, is the one thing that stands in the way of the Divine. This is the glory of the Lord, and worship of Him exists to that end.
Readings: Psalm 31:1-5, John 14:1-7, Divine Providence 60 (see below)
See also on YouTube here
So, do not let your hearts be troubled, huh? This might be one of those times when we are like, really Jesus? Really? Because there is a lot in the world to trouble us right now. Even before the pandemic, there was plenty to be troubled about. I think that perhaps I do not need Jesus to be telling me not to “let” my heart be troubled, as if being faithful meant somehow being detached from all the injustice, all the loss, all the inequity, all the grief.
Whenever I am challenged by something that I read in the bible, I find it helpful to look a little deeper, to see if the context helps to ground what is being expressed. First, I think it is helpful to see that right before Jesus says do not let your heart be troubled, he predicts that Peter will disown him three times. In fact, in the previous chapter, Jesus washes his disciples feet, predicts his betrayal by Judas (with Judas right in front of him), commands the disciples to love one another, and then tells Peter he will disown him three times. And then immediately Jesus says: Do not let your heart be troubled.
On the face of it, it seems even more ridiculous. How could the disciples not be troubled by the crazy rollercoaster ride that is happening to them? But I think if we look deeper we can see that Jesus is actually anticipating the fullness of their experience, anticipating their grief and their uncertainty and helping them to see their way through it.
I don’t think Jesus is saying that to be faithful means not feeling sad. I don’t think he is saying to be unmoved, or not to grieve for the brokenness we see in the world. He is saying that in all of it, we do not need to feel internally agitated, unmoored, desperate, because God is with us. The word in the text that is translated as “troubled” is the greek word tarasso, and it indicates agitation, being stirred-up, literally movement to and fro.
Which sounds to me like a specific state that is more like anxiety or even defensiveness, a state that prevents us from being present to what is actually happening to us. And I think the antidote to that state is not detachment or escape or rising above our life, but rather recognizing what is expressed in Psalm 31. With God as our refuge, and rock, we can be grounded enough to squarely face whatever is happening. We can have the courage and fortitude to feel it all in fullness. We don’t have to retreat into denial, or dismissal, or numbness, or conspiracy theories. We won’t need simple answers to complex problems just to make ourselves feel better. With God as our rock we can see the world as it truly is, feel everything we are given to feel, and not be afraid of what it might mean.
For the disciples, grief was a reasonable reaction to seeing their friend and mentor die so terribly. Grief was a reasonable reaction to their own failures. Grief is a reasonable reaction to what we are experiencing now in our own lives. We are witnessing death of the vulnerable (both due to the pandemic and white supremacy). We are witnessing overwhelm and exhaustion on the part of our doctors and nurses. We are seeing ordinary people, our friends and neighbors lose their livelihoods. And as much as we are seeing people come together, we are also seeing divisions widen. There is so much to grieve.
But wait, didn’t I preach about grief already? Well, grief isn’t a one and done experience. It comes in waves. It goes out and comes in like the tide. So, as we experience this collective trauma, it is reasonable that our feelings may come and go in a similar way. And one reason I want to return to the topic of grief today, on mother’s day, is because of what I see as the relationship between grief and the mothering impulse.
There are lots of things that we think of when we think of mothering. One thing that seems to me to be inherent to the mothering impulse is to see the suffering of another and to wish to ameliorate that pain somehow, to share the burden of the pain so that it might be lessened for another, being willing to sacrifice something of the self so that another might thrive.
And to be clear, I’m not trying to say that only mothers can engage in the mothering impulse. I’m talking more broadly about something that is very human, something that all people can participate in. Being a mother in a family certainly gives someone lots of opportunities to engage with and to practice and express the mothering impulse, but I wouldn’t call it exclusive to that relationship only. We can see it in lots of places.
Jesus, for example, gives us a powerful example of the mothering impulse. Jesus’ very birth was demonstrative of God’s mothering impulse, wherein God saw the suffering of humanity and reached out. Jesus continued to embody the mothering impulse by ministering to those unseen and suffering, and then finally sacrificing himself so that we might see and understand the ways in which our selfish choices are poisoning our own hearts, indeed, on the very cross forgiving us, enfolding and holding the grief and the blindness of the world, taking it upon himself.
In a very real way, when *we* are feeling the enormous grief that accompanies this pandemic, and all of its effects, when we truly feel it, we are each of us mothering the world in our small way. Each of us acting in partnership with the mothering impulse of God, a God who feels the grief of our world in every moment.
But this mothering impulse is not passive. It does not exist solely to be martyred, to vacuum up the world’s grief and make it go away, to make us feel more comfortable. The mothering impulse also insists upon the birthing that is to come. For, as much as I have been preaching about grief these last two months, I have also been preaching about newness.
A pregnant women not only endures painful contractions but uses them to bring about birth. One of the most useful pieces of advice that I received from my midwife when giving birth to my own children was to enter into the pain of the contractions and to flow with them, rather than to resist them. To accept them as something that could give me the power, not just to simply endure the process, but to be the one who actively brought new life into the world.
I am sure that the disciples wished that Jesus would have resisted his crucifixion. Wished he would have spoken up and defended himself at his trial. But his purpose was not self-preservation, his purpose was to submit deeply to one of the most bleak of human failures, and then to reframe it as a powerful contraction, something that would give birth to new human possibility, something that would provide new life.
This is the way that Jesus speaks of: the way, the truth and the life.
Birth and re-birth is one kind of language for the way and the truth and life, but there are other ways of describing it too. As a gardener, I personally love gardening metaphors and Rev. Anna Woofenden uses the notion of compost as a way to describe how God works in the world and in us. I quote:
The more I learned about compost, the more I saw the image of God in it, proclaiming the work she does in the world. God is the Divine Composter. She takes all that has been, all that we’ve used, our best bits and our slimy bits, the endings in our lives and the pain of loss, the tantalizing crumbs from our joyful moments and the leftovers we’ve kept for too long. God takes all of that and says, “Okay great, let’s see what we can do with it next!” (1)(129)
Our best bits, our slimy bits, endings, loss, joy and the things we wish we could hold on to…this sounds a lot like that last supper with Jesus and the disciples that we described earlier, full of tenderness, betrayal, love, and confusion. It sounds a lot like life. I think sometimes we want our faith to be like a shield. Something that is supposed to make everything okay. That if Jesus says don’t let your heart be troubled, then we think avoiding sadness will mean we are doing something right.
I think instead that faith is more like a resilient immune system. Or like bacteria in compost. Or like the process of birth. There might be fever, there might be breakdown, there might be contractions, but the fever, the breakdown, the contractions, they are not evidence that something is going wrong, they are evidence that new life is on the way. I know that I feel “troubled,” as in agitated and afraid, when I think the breakdown is all there is, when I’m afraid that new life isn’t possible. Faith though, is believing in the process and being willing to ride it out.
We read in our Swedenborg reading that it is an angelic quality to know the path from having walked in it and then to walk in the path from this knowing of it. To truly know the way, we must be willing to walk in that way, and let that experience change us and lead us. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life. The way that embraces truth and leads to life.
(1) Anna Woofenden, This is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls, p129.
1 In you, LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. 2 Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me. 3 Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me. 4 Keep me free from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge. 5 Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God.
1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” 6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Divine Providence #60
We can know the path to heaven to some extent simply by considering what the people who make up heaven are like, realizing that no one can become an angel or get to heaven unless he or she arrives bringing along some angelic quality from the world. Inherent in that angelic quality is a knowing of the path from having walked it and a walking in the path from the knowing of it.
Photo credit: Elke Vermeersch
Readings: Psalm 23, John 10:1-10, Secrets of Heaven 2356 (see below)
Also on YouTube here
One of the things that I find fascinating about his passage is that it is very open about the idea that Jesus was using a metaphor to communicate something to the Pharisees about the relationship between God and people. Jesus certainly did this all the time, but I think it is worth taking a moment to consider what this means theologically.
The point of a metaphor is to take something that we know something about, and use that to teach us something about something else. So, an example from poetry, from Emily Dickinson in particular: Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul. We are using the common notion of a bird (something with feathers) and what we already know about them: that they can fly, that they sing every morning, that they are untamed, and use those ideas to tell us something about the more ineffable notion of hope…in this case, that hope is something that is wild and free and yet beautiful and constant. We understand something of which the poet is trying to say because we use metaphor as a kind of intellectual stepping stone from one thing to another. The greek word itself--paroimia— that is used in our bible passage reflects this idea, as it is an amalgam of the words para, meaning alongside and oiomai, meaning to suppose or think. We use one idea to “think alongside” another idea, and learn something about the second thing that we couldn’t learn directly.
A common biblical example is the use of the shepherd metaphor. We take the qualities of a shepherd with which we are familiar (or at least that the people in biblical times were familiar): that a shepherd is careful, alert, dedicated, protective, caring— and we are told in Psalm 23 that the Lord is our shepherd…and so we understand that God has those qualities too, in relationship to us.
So this this in mind, let’s explore the John text to see what this particular metaphor might be trying to teach us.
The first is familiar, already mentioned, the shepherd. The second is less so: Jesus as gate, or door, and more specifically, the gate to a sheep pen.
What is this idea of the gate communicating? An open door often speaks to us of welcome. A little further on in 10:16 Jesus will say: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also.” An open door speaks to us of community and of possibility. It speaks of groundedness, of belonging, of invitation. Who hasn’t had the experience of walking around a building trying to find the door, trying to find a way in? And what a relief when you finally find it! It feels great to find a way into a place that you wish to enter.
But a gate can also be closed…
And so, we see the other side of the metaphor, the notion of protection. What do we already know about sheep and why they might have a pen at all? It is so they might be kept safe…first, that they might not wander away, and second so that they might not fall prey to a predator. So, from this part of the metaphor we are learning that the presence of God with us might provide a useful boundary, something that keeps us within a community or within a set of useful behaviors or habits, something that provides guidance and safety and consistency.
So, with this metaphor of the gate, we see a balance between welcome and protection. Now, here is a good time to mention the inherent limitation of metaphors. By their nature, they are always incomplete in some way. They can describe some aspects about something we do not know, but they can’t say everything about that thing we do not know, for then the two things we are comparing would be exactly the same. Metaphors describe likeness but not sameness. We know that God is not actually a gate. We are using the idea of a gate to tell us something about God, but it can’t tell us everything. Sometimes, when we are very familiar with a particular metaphor, we might forget about this inherent incompleteness. For example in a theological context, we are super familiar with the metaphor of God as Father. This metaphor is useful in communicating certain ideas about God, ideas like love, intimacy, encouragement, protection. But we know that God is not literally our father, and neither is God male. The metaphor of Father obscures some of God’s other characteristics that we might associate with mothering for example, or platonic companionship. And further, our use of this metaphor relies on what we understand a Father to be in this day and age. As that cultural idea changes, so too will the group of characteristics that the metaphor expresses.
Metaphors can never be perfect. They might be missing some essential characteristics, or they might suggest characteristics that don’t quite fit. The latter principle applies to our idea of the gate. Not everything about a gate should be applied to God. A gate can close, and a sheep pen can be locked. It will literally prevent the sheep from leaving, regardless of their will. God doesn’t do that, God doesn’t compel. Neither does God wish to separate us, as sheep, from other sheep in other folds, or from the world. One problem here, is that the notion of a helpful boundary, or of gentle protection, can be twisted to justify exclusion or superiority or insularity. The idea of Jesus as the gate, the only safe gate, the preferred gate, can be pressed into the service of “othering” groups of people. Because if there is a pen, there must be a threat…and then we feel free to define for ourselves that threat, and it often turns out to be whatever is convenient to our own sense of self or our own desire for domination and control.
We need to be careful with metaphors, because sometimes we can lean them in a direction that takes us away from knowing more about God, about who God is and what God wants.
So, we must embrace metaphors with a balance of curiosity and caution, just as this particular metaphor of the gate balances a tension between welcome and protection. If we listen to the sentence from v.9 “They will come in and go out, and find pasture,” it sounds like neither one, either welcome or protection, is supposed to dominate. The sheep come and go, finding protection when it is required, but not in a way that limits finding pasture.
To really settle into that sweet spot that it sounds like this metaphor is going for, I think it might be helpful to ask the question, what is it all for? Our text ends with the statement “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The point is not that the sheep should be penned but that they should have life. This is what Jesus was trying to communicate via this metaphor. God is always working so that we might have abundant, thriving, nourishing life. For a sheep to have a good life, they sometimes need to be protected, and sometimes need to be able to roam for pasture. I think it is somewhat the same with us. Those of us who are parents can certainly relate with trying to find a balance between boundaries and freedom for our children as they grow into their own personalities and their own judgment.
But this begs the question: what about the thief or the robber that “climbs in by some other way.” What is it about circumventing the gate that is bad? We heard in our Swedenborg reading:
'A door' in the Word means that which introduces or leads the way either towards truth, or towards good, or towards the Lord. Consequently 'a door' in addition means truth itself, also good itself, as well as the Lord Himself, for truth leads to good, and good leads to the Lord.
There isn’t any other way to abundant life, as in a thriving life that is connected and engaged with spirit and growth, there isn’t any other way to that life except by what is true or what is good. We often times might try to circumvent this process and find belonging, guidance, or fulfillment from other things like control, accumulation, blame, or deception. We might try to skip over the difficult process of figuring out what is true, of figuring out how to do what is right and good in our own complicated lives, and try to get to safety, peace and contentment without doing any of that work. We might wish we could get belonging without vulnerability, community without sacrifice, success without discipline, meaning without struggle.
But the gate is the only way into these things: the gate is truth itself, also good itself, as well as the Lord Himself, for truth leads to good and good leads to the Lord. There is no other way. But of course, that doesn’t mean there is only *one* way. There are a million different individual ways of discovering truth and doing what is good. A million different iterations of the only way. But still, there is only one *kind* of way, only one gate that leads to relationship with God: a desire for truth, and a desire to translate that truth into goodness in our daily lives. We can’t skip over it. We can’t jump the fence. It is not about exclusivity; this gate is as wide as the whole world. But there just isn’t any other way into abundant life, into alignment with the reality of a loving God, than by loving truth and doing good. And So God will try to herd us in though that gate by hook or by crook. And we will bleat and moan and fall over and try to run away, but ultimately, we will listen to the voice of the shepherd we know, and who knows us. The one who calls us by name.
1 A Psalm of David. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name's sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.
1 "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Secrets of Heaven 2356
…’A door' in the Word means that which introduces or leads the way either towards truth, or towards good, or towards the Lord. Consequently 'a door' in addition means truth itself, also good itself, as well as the Lord Himself, for truth leads to good, and good leads to the Lord.
Readings: Isaiah 42:16-20, Luke 24:13-35, Secrets of Heaven #3863:14 (see below)
See also on YouTube here
We hear today about one of the most beloved and detailed post-resurrection appearances: Jesus on the road to Emmaus. We begin the story with two followers of Jesus who are traveling to Emmaus from Jerusalem, after everything had went down. We don’t know why they were traveling to Emmaus; it was not an especially notable town. Perhaps they were just going home. Along the way, they encounter someone, and here begins the delicious irony. The reader—us—we know something that these two followers do not yet know. The person is Jesus.
Jesus asks them what they are discussing. (The actual Greek is quite charming: it is literally “what are you tossing back and forth between you?”) The two are incredulous — how can this person not know the biggest news of the last few days? Jesus feigns ignorance. What news? So they give him a summary of the easter story that we ourselves have read over the last several weeks. Jesus is bemused, and begins to explain the significance of the events according to Scripture. Yet, still the two remain in the dark. Finally, when they reach the village, they invite Jesus to dine with them, and it is in the moment of breaking bread that their eyes are opened to his identity.
It is such beautiful story-telling. One of the reasons that I believe this story is so beloved is that resonates so fully with our experience. We have all had disappointed hopes, we have all had our expectations dashed, or felt overwhelmed and confused. And we’ve all had moments of being taken by surprise by the in-breaking of the spirit, a moment gone before we knew it was there.
But one of the main things that makes this story so compelling is the mounting irony: we know that Jesus has been resurrected but the disciples don’t recognize him. So, what keeps them from seeing? Well, the text makes pretty clear that it was their expectations kept them from seeing. They say it themselves: “We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”
They had their own story that they are telling themselves about what happened. They had their own ideas about what Jesus was, and why he had come. And this kept them from seeing Jesus right in front of them. You see, Jesus was the one who was going redeem Israel. Jesus existed for them within their Messiah construct, and that came with certain ideas about what success looked like, and it sure didn’t look like death on the cross. Now, we shouldn’t be too hard on them, when Jesus was crucified and put in a tomb, that really must have seemed like the end, and we in their place, well, we all have thought so too. But part of Jesus’ whole message was that, if we want to usher in the reality of the kingdom of God, we cannot always trust our own telling of the story. Part of the point of being crucified was to upend human ideas about what is righteous, so that we might learn to depend on God’s telling of the story more than our own.
We too, like the two followers, have stories that we tell ourselves about the way life is. About what has happened to us. About what other people have done, or not done. About what God’s plans are. About what, or who, is good or not good. Yet, our telling of the story will always be formed and marked by our social location, by our expectations, our community formation, and yes, our personal interest. Now that is not bad thing necessarily, in fact, it is kind of unavoidable. We all have our particular viewpoints, we all have our unique experiences. But it *is* important to remember that our story is not the whole or only story. It is important to recognize the existence of a variety of experience, a variety of interpretation, a variety of stories, which means that there is always more to learn. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron likes to say “let the world speak for itself.” She says, “the world doesn’t speak for itself because we are so caught up in our story line…You just keep speaking to yourself, so nothing speaks to you.” (1)
So it is important remember not to get so caught up in crafting our own narrative, so invested in our own story-lines and expectations, that we can’t see what is unfolding right in front of us. We must let God, and the world, speak for itself.
But it is not quite that simple now is it? Because, certainly, our own self-centeredness and our expectations can absolutely get in the way of seeing how God is showing up for us, but is that the only thing that obscures God’s presence? Yes, the disciples had expectations, sure, and they were having a hard time letting go of them, and of what they wanted Jesus to do for *them.* But also, they were sad. They were suffering. They had had good intentions overall and an oppressive regime had crushed their hopes. They were reeling, they were hurting, they were confused and overwhelmed. Like most human beings, their experience was a complicated mish-mash of things that were their fault and things that weren’t, things that were in their control and things were out of their control. People sometimes suffer under things that are not their fault, and this experience can *also* make it hard to see God, to recognize God’s work in our lives. We shouldn’t heap shame upon ourselves when our circumstances…political, economic, biological…all make it hard to feel positive, open and receptive.
And as usual, the Word of God speaks to our human experience in a both/and kind of way. God shows up for us on the road of life no matter what, a companion to our hardest days and our deepest challenges. When everything feels like it has fallen apart, God is there. The text tells us that when Jesus asked what had happened, the disciples “stood still, looking sad.” The simplicity of this description just kills me. Their sadness literally stopped them in their tracks. I know that I can relate to that right now. A deep deep sadness. God shows up for us in this sadness, or whatever else we are experiencing, unequivocally, and non-judgmentally.
But God shows up with more than companionship. Even in our suffering, the stories that we are telling ourselves matter. God comes to us where we are and introduces the possibility of seeing things differently. Not judging, just gently asking, “hmm, so what happened again?” And listening to the way that we tell it. And then inviting us into a new way of seeing and understanding, if that is what we need.
God understands that we are both products of our environments *and* that we are capable of rising above our environment. When we quiet our litany of desires and interests and expectations, we open ourselves to the possibility that God is welcoming us into a new story. And this new story isn’t always about what we are doing wrong, although it can be. This new story is also sometimes about grace, or realignment, or rest, or forgiveness, or so many other things.
So, what helped the disciples to see? Well, first, they were curious and hospitable. They told their story and Jesus listened to the whole of it. But they didn’t argue the truth of it with him. When Jesus started to explain things to them, they listened, they were open. And then, they offered for Jesus to continue with them. They made space for what was being offered.
Second, they sat down to an ordinary meal and allowed Jesus to be the host in a situation in what he should have been the guest. And what Jesus did was draw their attention to the bread, to the breaking of bread, which is done for the purpose of nourishment. As we learned in our Swedenborg reading, bread represents goodness, represents love. God’s presence with us is most fundamentally grounded and recognizable in acts of service, is most fundamentally accessible and understandable in love that is given freely to one another. Many times our thinking is caught up in questions of what is right or what is best or what is efficient. But are we told that God is found in goodness, not in truth without goodness. All the explanations in the world don’t matter unless they are organized around the question of “how do we serve?” or “how can we bring goodness and love into being?”
The answer we give to these questions will be individually different. If we are already serving a lot, it might be loving to serve our own health for a while. If we are spending a lot of energy in trying to figure out how to serve in the best possible way, it might be loving to just serve in the one way that we can today. And of course, if we have privilege of some kind, it certainly might be loving to use that privilege for the sake of others. The key is, God is recognizable in love that is shared, in power that is relinquished, in concern that is extended. And this is why Jesus disappeared from sight, because God is seen in the moment that we give something away. Personally, I don’t love this idea. I want to hold on to God! But this comes from my own fear of scarcity. When we recognize what this story is telling us, that God is present and recognizable in each tiny ordinary bread-crumb moment of love and goodness, then we realize that God is all around us, all the time, and always will be.
(1) Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, p30
16 And I will lead the blind in a way that they know not, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them. 17 They shall be turned back and utterly put to shame, who trust in graven images, who say to molten images, "You are our gods." 18 Hear, you deaf; and look, you blind, that you may see! 19 Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the LORD? 20 He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear.
13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, "What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?" And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cle'opas, answered him, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?" 19 And he said to them, "What things?" And they said to him, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning 23 and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see." 25 And he said to them, "O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" 27 And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. 28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, 29 but they constrained him, saying, "Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent." So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. 32 They said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?" 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, 34 who said, "The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!" 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Secrets of Heaven 3863:
It came to pass when Jesus sat down with them, that He took the bread, and blessed, and breaking, gave to them; and their eyes were opened, and they knew Him (Luke 24:30-31);
by which was signified that the Lord appears by good, but not by truth without good, for "bread" is the good of love. From these and other passages it is evident that "seeing," in the internal sense, signifies faith from the Lord, for there is no other faith which is faith than that which comes from the Lord. This also enables a person to "see," that is, to believe; but faith from self, or from what is a person's own, is not faith, for it causes them to see falsities as truths, and truths as falsities; and if they see truths as truths, still they do not see, because they do not believe, for they see themselves in them, and not the Lord.
Photo credit: Phillipp Birmes
Readings: Psalm 16, John 20:19-22, 24-28, Divine Providence 3:2 (see below)
See also on YouTube here
So, here we are, the Sunday after Easter. Depending where you are in the world, spring continues to abound, I know it does here. As the world bursts into bloom and generativity, that might feel in stark contrast with the confinement of our current circumstances. In the news this week, and this has certainly in lots of people’s minds for a while now, is the question of when and how will our lives return to normal?
There is so much longing held in that question. We want to be able to see our friends, to go back to our jobs or to school, to not have this sense of anxiety and uncertainty following us around constantly.
But to a lot of people, we must remember that normal wasn’t working. As we sit here on this threshold, in this moment that one I article I read called The Great Pause,(1) as nations and governments start to release their plans for how to phase back safely into our lives as we knew them, we also need to recognize what an incredible moment this has been and what it has revealed to us.
In the last few years, many a theologian has pointed out the meaning of the word apocalypse, which is “an unveiling.” This is a powerful reminder that when things seem to be falling apart, there is also an opportunity to see what we might not otherwise have been open to seeing. Certainly, the last few years have been ripe for an unveiling of many kinds. The US elections in 2016 revealed a level of racism and xenophobia that some thought no longer existed (although marginalized communities could have told us all along that it still did). A year later, the #metoo movement revealed the extent to which women have always had to deal with sexual harassment and assault, and the ways in which the powerful worked to cover up their transgressions. And now the spread of Covid-19 is revealing to us some other things too. As millions lose their jobs due to a pandemic, perhaps we might wonder if connecting health insurance to employment is the right approach. As air quality in major cities miraculously clears when no one is driving anymore, we might no longer be able to deny how much we all contribute to the degradation of our environment. As food bank use explodes, we come to realize just how many of our neighbors were only barely squeaking by, how unevenly resources are distributed by our economic system. We are seeing all this and so much more, on personal, communal and national levels.
The disciples were also living interesting times. Our text today finds them uncertain as to what was going to happen. They were likewise locked in their room in fear (though at least they were together). Jesus appears to them, offers them peace, breathes the holy spirit upon them. Thomas wasn’t with them though, and would not believe until he had seen Jesus himself. So the next time, Jesus invites Thomas to put his finger upon his wounds, his hand in his side.
We often frame this episode in terms of doubt, that the wounds were proof of the resurrection, that it wasn’t some trick, or that Jesus was not a spirit. This can be a reasonable and productive angle. But also think it is interesting that Thomas was invited to really experience the woundedness of Jesus in a way that the other disciples didn’t. To not look away from the wounds, to really feel them. In the first encounter with the rest of the disciples, the main emotion was joy. Which is wonderful, of course it was. Jesus did show them his wounds but they didn’t seem to dwell on them. And so we might wonder how much in the moment did the disciples eyes pass over the wounds, how much were they tempted to pretend, now that Jesus was back, that everything might return to normal, might return to what they had expected might happen before the crucifixion derailed everything. But Thomas needed to account for what happened, for the trauma of it. He put his hand in the wounds and really saw them, and then he was able to imagine the resurrection as a real event. The reality is, as much as the disciples might have wanted their lives to go back to normal, they were not going to. Jesus would be leaving them soon and from that moment on they would be apostles, and their lives would be dedicated to bringing alive to others what had been revealed to them.
We have also been in our metaphorical tomb, experiencing various traumas and crucifixions and losses but before we fast forward into the joy of the resurrection, I believe we must ask ourselves, are we willing to see the the wounds that have now been revealed to us? Are we willing to put our hands in Jesus’ side and really sit with the implications of how an innocent person was put to death, really grapple with the forces that wounded him, really grapple with the scars and trauma that remain? As we consider and imagine “getting back to normal,” how willing are we re-imagine what normal should be?
Let us not waste this moment. Let us be like Thomas and not be afraid to put our hand in the wound, to see its existence and to feel its contours. Let us really assimilate what is being revealed to us during this time: the potential for resurrection —yes, and always— but also how resurrection must contain and include the ways that we and the world and our neighbor have been wounded. How resurrection must seek their active healing and integration. How Jesus’ whole ministry pointed towards a woundedness that was just below the surface all along.
So I love that Psalm 16 is part of the lectionary today because it expresses a beautiful balance between the ways that God guides us and our own agency in creating the contours of our realities.
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. (v.5-7)
In these days of upheaval and re-evaluation, perhaps now it is a good time to take a look at where our boundary lines have fallen. Before, they might have been in pleasant places for us, but not for others. Or maybe they fell in ways we weren’t conscious of, or we didn’t want to examine, or maybe they fell somewhere out of necessity. Maybe we followed the crowd. Maybe we have changed now. Maybe we got it almost right but it needs a tweak. Maybe we need to start from scratch.
So, let’s do something a little different. I’m going to ask you to go get a piece of paper and a pen, and to write down something that you know you want to hold on to from this time, something that has been revealed to you, something you don’t want to lose when life goes back to normal. Go ahead, pause me and come back! You can’t do this to me when I’m in the pulpit but you can do it now! Ok, have you done it? Have you written something down? Maybe you want to keep family game night, maybe you want to keep an increased awareness of local food insecurity, maybe you want to keep a sense of God’s care, or Sabbath, maybe you want to keep a renewed interest in protecting the environment. There are so many beautiful and personal options. And now let’s just pray upon these things for a moment:
“Lord, you have given us the gift of this insight. You have given us counsel, and our hearts have instructed us. Let us resist the call to rush back to normal but rather to consider what You would now have us bring into being. Let us pause and remember.” Amen.
I love the final sentence in our Swedenborg reading today: Maintenance is constant creation, just as enduring is a constant coming into being. We will endure, our world will endure, our nation will endure, our economy will endure, our way of life will endure. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be exactly the same. True endurance, true resilience, holds within it a sense of constant creation, a constant coming into being, a coming into newness.
So let us not wish to back to normal but rather forward into a new normal. There will be many things we bring with us, that we return to with joy, just as there are things we will need to be re-imagined or re-invigorated. Let us embrace this fact and this opportunity, one that is supported by the very way in which God made all of creation.
(1) Julio Vincent Gambuto, Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting, medium.com, https://forge.medium.com/prepare-for-the-ultimate-gaslighting-6a8ce3f0a0e0
1 Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. 2 I say to the Lord, "You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you." 3 As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. 4 Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. 5 The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. 6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. 7 I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. 8 I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. 9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. 10 For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. 11 You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
John 20:19-22, 24–28
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked…Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
24 Now Thomas…one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Divine Providence 3:2
 Everything that meets our eyes in this world can serve to convince us that the universe and absolutely everything in it was created out of divine love by means of divine wisdom. Take any particular thing…a tree--or its seed, its fruit, its flower, or its leaf. Collect your wits and look through a good microscope and you will see incredible things; and the deeper things that you cannot see are even more incredible….The goal it is headed for is a seed that has a new power to reproduce. If you are willing to think spiritually…surely you see wisdom in this. Then too, if you are willing to press your spiritual thinking further, surely you see that this power does not come from the seed or from our world's sun, which is nothing but fire, but that it was put into the seed by a creator God who has infinite wisdom. This is not just something that happened at its creation; it is something that has been happening constantly ever since. Maintenance is constant creation, just as enduring is a constant coming into being.
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Readings: Isaiah 42:5-9, John 20:1-18, True Christianity #109 (see below)
Happy Easter everyone, I sure do miss being with you all! As I was thinking about this sermon this past week, I realized that there were to two particular things that I wanted to emphasize: the symbolism of the empty tomb and how that connects to grace.
We touched on the correspondence of a tomb or a grave two weeks ago when considering the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel, and we learned that in the internal sense of the Word, in the Swedenborgian symbolic worldview, a grave or a tomb or a sepulcher, any burial place really, actually symbolizes the opposite: life, renewal, regeneration. From Secrets of Heaven:
The reason it means life…is that angels, who possess the internal sense of the Word, have no other concept of a grave, because they have no other concept of death. Consequently instead of a grave they perceive nothing else than the continuation of life, and so resurrection… Now because 'burial' means resurrection, it also means regeneration, since regeneration is the primary resurrection of a person, for when regenerated they die as regards their former self and rise again as regards the new.(1)
I just want to sit with this for moment so that it can really sink in. I know that one of the reasons that I really love being with people who are new to Swedenborg is that I get to see the tradition and the teachings with new eyes. I’ve grown up in the faith, and it has always been the air that I breathe, so sometimes the really simple teachings lose their power. Sort of like this Easter teaching. Anyone in the Christian world is already familiar with it; the fundamental recognition that someone that we thought was dead becomes alive. And for Swedenborgians…yes yes, the tomb actually symbolizes life and regeneration, got it. Cool.
But…wait a minute. What this is actually saying to us is enormous. For, as Swedenborgians we believe that this cosmic meaning is more than just an interesting metaphor. We believe that this symbolism of words and concepts and things is what actually binds heaven and earth together, binds spirit and flesh together. So it is not just that Jesus’ tomb meant life for him, or even that Jesus tomb means life for us, it is that the whole notion of death/tomb/burial/ending/loss/suffering, that whole notion, in whatever way it comes it us in our lives, in whatever way we recognize it or experience it, this notion is connected spiritually to its opposite: life/renewal/regeneration/growth.
And I think it is important to recognize that this is not a connection that *we* have to make, through either goodness or progressive enlightenment. This is a connection that exists. God made it so. God gifted this to us. God made a loving universe in which the potential for goodness and growth exists in everything. I can’t think of a single other gift that is more important. Everything which we experience as unpleasant, no matter how small or large, no matter the kind of suffering, God has arranged the universe so that these things are fundamentally spiritually connected to that which is growing and renewing and living, all the time, every time, no exceptions. We really do not need to be afraid, ever. Oh we will be, and that’s totally okay. But, because of God there is nothing in the universe, no condition of fear or loss or overwhelm, that exists just purely as itself. There is no black hole of suffering that does not, potentially, come out the other side without some sliver of new life, new truth, new compassion, new understanding.
This means that God has our back in the most fundamental way. God can’t live our life for us, but God can arranged it so goodness and love and growth always have the last word, somehow, someway, somewhere.
And we see this borne out in the Easter story. As Jesus, God is reaching out and demonstrating this fundamental principle in a personal and embodied way, showing us that, yes, there will be loss, there will be death, and it will happen in the most unfair, evil, and shameful ways. That it will seem like empire, dominion, selfishness and cowardice (in ourselves and in others) will take the day. But Jesus rises from the tomb. There will be life, there will always be life because God has not left us alone with our suffering.
A simple but gorgeous truth. It seems like I know it and don’t know it all at once. It seems too simple. And it is exactly what I would want and expect a God of love to do.
But even this most lovely truth…well, human beings will weaponize it to hurt ourselves. Sometimes because our Lord conquered death so completely, rose so completely, even as to his body, as we read in our Swedenborg reading…because it was so complete a resurrection, we might feel that anything other than a complete resurrection in ourselves is a failure. If we don’t make the most delicious lemonade out of our lemons. If we don’t learn some amazing life lesson from our loss. If we don’t emerge from our suffering triumphant, changed, better. If we don’t emerge from this quarantine, more centered, more skilled, more enlightened.
The truth is though, the process is not often quite so neat. Our resurrections can sometimes feel barely grasped, scrabbly and wispy, and not enough, not nearly enough. Our resurrections can sometimes feel late to the party, or like they took the very very scenic route. They can be partial, they can be incremental, they can be incredibly hard won. Jesus was never supposed to be model but an inspiration. Our Lord wasn’t saying what should be so, but was revealing a potential that exists, revealing a gift and a grace that exists. In Swedenborgian speak, God works all the way to the ultimates, redeeming the whole of what can be redeemed and leaving nothing behind, so that the potential for redemption for us and the world and everything in it is always completely possible.
And because of this potential for redemption, there is often a lot of talk about belief around Easter. The traditional Christian notion has been that belief in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross makes God’s grace accessible to us. And certainly, being open to the import of Jesus life, death and resurrection *can* be transformational to our ways of thinking and being. But, the Swedenborgian tradition rejects the transactional nature of the belief for grace equation. We rather subscribe to a kind of naturalized grace, a grace as described earlier that is built into the structure of the universe, that flows out unimpeded from God’s being. And so often times, we don’t even speak of grace at all, firstly because it doesn’t always mean the same thing to us as it does to other traditions, and second, because it is so foundational, it is built into the notion of a loving God, it is a given.
And yet, perhaps now is a perfect time to speak of it. Perhaps now we need to be reminded of grace in this time of crisis and strangeness. In this time of anxiety and uncertainty, when we are all just doing our best, but we are exhausted, afraid, disillusioned, and just barely keeping it together. This is exactly when we need to remember God’s naturalized grace, in this time when we are having trouble believing in it.
Because this is the actual gift. We don’t even have to fully believe in God’s naturalized grace, we don’t even need to believe that God can actually bring something good out of suffering. Our belief isn’t what makes it true. God’s love makes it true. Certainly, our beliefs have some relationship to what we see and what we are open to. Certainly, our partnership and engagement has some relationship to what comes into being for us. But it is also true that God’s power is not limited by our consciousness. Even in our darkest, lowest, doubting times, resurrection happens anyway. It happens with or without us, because God made the universe that way.
I’ve always enjoyed the quote: Grace is the face love wears when it meets imperfection(2). I don’t see this grace as a condescension or as pity, as “oh honey, maybe you’ll get it right next time” but rather it is a face full of hope and confidence because of the way God has designed the world, and us. Grace is an announcement of a pre-ordained newness, like the power and potential that exists in every seed, a quiet and serene and explosive power, waiting inside each breath, each moment, and circling back evermore as an offering to us, God’s beloved.
See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.
5 This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 8 “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
True Christianity 109
The Lord's process of glorification was a transformation of the human nature that he took on in the world. The transformed human nature of the Lord is the divine physical form. A proof of this is that the Lord rose from the tomb with the whole body he had had in the world. Nothing was left in the tomb. Therefore he took with him from the tomb every aspect of his earthly human form. This is why after the resurrection he said to disciples who thought they were seeing a spirit, "See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Feel me and see; for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have" (Luke 24:37, 39).
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Readings: Luke 19:28-48, Divine Love and Wisdom #14 (see below)
It’s a little hard to get in the spirit of Palm Sunday this week. The notion of gathering together in a large group for a parade has quickly become foreign to us. And additionally, we probably don’t feel much like celebrating. Blessed is the king? No thank you.
This is fair. We are not in that celebrating headspace right now. And honestly, neither was Jesus. As we heard in our text, as Jesus approached Jerusalem, he sat down and wept for the city and the people in it. Why was he weeping? He knew what was coming. He knew that many people would not understand what he was doing. He grieved for humanity and our pain. And this didn’t mean he was just play-acting the triumphant parade; he directed the colt to be found, he refused to rebuke his disciples for their praise. But, he understood the duality of the coming days. There would be resurrection but first there would be crucifixion. There would be the last supper but then there would be betrayal. There would an ascension but first there would be despair and fear and confusion.
We are all holding that great duality right now too, as we journey towards Holy Week in these unusual circumstances. We are seeing beauty and pain all bound up together, all around us. I spoke to a woman the other day (on an essential errand at an appropriate social distance of course!) about how difficult it has been for her to navigate these days with a newborn baby. Of course, these days are filled with joy for her; how could they not be? Each moment with a new baby is filled with wonder —and exhaustion too!—but there is nothing quite like seeing the world through the eyes of a newborn. The tiny fingernails, the soft hair, the magical baby smell. Everything is a miracle. And yet. She cannot fully embrace having a baby in the world right now. She can’t let her parents hold her baby, she can’t introduce her child to her friends, show her infant the world in the way she wants to. Every new infant development, a wonder in itself, deserves to be celebrated in community, and right now, physical community cannot be achieved. And so this woman grieves for what has already been lost to her family, what will continue to be lost in these days. She holds both the joy of new life and the grief of isolation in one heart, one mind, one body.
And so it is with all of us in different ways. We see the beauty of springtime all around us, but we cannot take a walk together. We are getting to experience more family time, while also having to give up events that are important to us. We are settling into a slow rhythm of days, contrasted with a high vibration of anxiety as bad news mounts. We see people and communities stepping up to support each other yet we wish it wasn’t necessary in the first place, and we are afraid it won’t be enough.
And so we might wonder why Jesus bothered to enter triumphantly into Jerusalem at all. We might imagine his heart heavy and his smile forced, nothing but a tiny furrow in his brow to betray his knowledge of what lay ahead. Yet he still did it…why?
I think it has something to do with embracing the fundamental duality of our experience. It wasn’t right to only celebrate. It wasn’t right to only grieve. The grief and the celebration were both fully real, fully manifested in Jesus. And in us. We see the origins of this reality in our Swedenborg reading, where we come to understand the essential nature of God as a distinguishable oneness. He writes: In the Divine-Human One, infinite things are distinguishably one.(1)
In particular, Swedenborg writes that God’s love and wisdom…
are one entity in such a way that although they can be distinguished in thought they cannot be distinguished in fact; and since they can be distinguished in thought and not in fact, we refer to them as "distinguishably one.” (2)
Meaning, they are both separate but not separate. Theoretically separate but not functionally separate. This is how I am experiencing my days, I don’t know about you. My grief and my celebration are theoretically but not functionally separate. Our joy in a spring flower makes us think of the person we can’t share it with. Our closeness with family brings ever more intimate appreciation of their personal losses. Our gratitude for being well is held within anxiety for those who are not. Our thankfulness and awe for those on the frontlines of care is balanced with frustration and unbelief wherever leadership has been abdicated. Grief and celebration bound up together. Beauty and heartache bound up together. We are made in God’s image and likeness, so of course we can also experience some small facsimile of God’s oneness of many things, God’s oneness of love and wisdom, God’s oneness of praise and grief.
I would hope that we would not fight this seemingly strange condition but rather lean into it, because we are built for it. God has built us for it. Or rather, God has built us to be able to experience both suffering and the growth that comes from suffering, both the weeping and the breath that comes after, both the despair and the re-alignment. This is not a fracturedness but rather true wholeness, true integration of multiple co-existing realities. And these realities do not merge, we do not finally learn that celebration is better than grief, or that grief is more honest than celebration, we finally learn that we are big enough, vast enough, safe enough to feel it all.
In the words of Tara Brach: “As our heart transforms suffering into compassion, we experience being both the holder of our sorrows and the vulnerable one who is being held.” (3)
We get to both celebrate and grieve, to be the holder and the held, the one who has gained and the one who has lost. God’s presence with us during this time is one of accompaniment, to both embrace us and expand us into new realities. Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem is such a poignant representation of this notion. He was grieving and discouraged and yet was still drawn forth into a greater purpose, into both action and sacrifice. He rode a donkey amid joyful praise, he wept in frustration, and then he drove the sellers from the temple and continued teaching.
Brach points out, in reference to a beautiful Sufi teaching, that when we recognize the universal nature of our pain, we can see how our suffering is “entrusted to us,” (4) rather than being something we must resist in bitterness and fear. How it connects us to each other and God rather than divides us. That when we breathe into the balance of celebration and grief, we can know that God means for us to be both comforted and awakened, broken down and strengthened. We are entrusted with the experience, not because we are special or strong but because we are human, because we are beloved, because with God’s help we are capable of living it forward in a myriad of brilliant, authentic, vulnerable ways. It’s okay if our palm fronds are stained with tears this year. God remains present, weaving together our dualities, loving us into wholeness.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom #17
(2) Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom #14
(3) Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of the Buddha, p215
(4) Ibid, p216.
28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’ ” 32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They replied, “The Lord needs it.” 35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. 37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: 38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” 40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” 41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
45 When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. 46 “It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” 47 Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. 48 Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words.
Divine Love and Wisdom 14
In the Divine-Human One, reality and its manifestation are both distinguishable and united. Wherever there is reality, there is its manifestation: the one does not occur without the other. In fact, reality exists through its manifestation, and not apart from it. Our rational capacity grasps this when we ponder whether there can be any reality that does not manifest itself, and whether there can be any manifestation except from some reality. Since each occurs with the other and not apart from it, it follows that they are one entity, but "distinguishably one."
They are distinguishably one like love and wisdom. Further, love is reality and wisdom is its manifestation. Love occurs only in wisdom, and wisdom only from love. So love becomes manifest when it is in wisdom. These two are one entity in such a way that although they can be distinguished in thought they cannot be distinguished in fact; and since they can be distinguished in thought and not in fact, we refer to them as "distinguishably one."
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Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Secrets of Heaven #2916 (see below)
Well, if we could resonate with Samuel’s anxiousness last week, we can certainly even more so resonate with the valley of the dry bones today. Our text tells us of the Lord bringing Ezekiel to a valley full of bones, a great many of the floor of the valley, all dry, and lifeless.
It is powerful imagery, and it was written to a people in exile. The Kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians and its people were scattered. The Kingdom of Judah held on a while longer but eventually was also defeated by Babylon and its people taken into exile there. God’s promise to Abraham, that they would be a great nation, given many hundreds of years before, now seemed shattered to pieces. They were not only defeated and subjugated, but not even allowed to remain in their own land. Understandably, many felt there was no way forward.
The book of Ezekiel depicts this despair with the imagery of the valley of the dry bones. Could there ever be a picture of something more lifeless? Not just a dead body, but bones separated from each other, dry and dessicated. It’s incredibly bleak, no space for hope, no space for life.
These images are full of symbolism of course, which is why texts like these speak so powerfully. Swedenborg writes that a valley represents our lower states of mind, times of obscurity when it feels harder to see the bigger picture.(1) We recall Psalm 23: Lo, though I walk through the valley of of the shadow of death. Valleys can be low dark places, difficult to see where we are, difficult to see where we are headed, difficult to see how to get out.
The Bones themselves represent to us our proprium, our selfhood, which in and of itself is lifeless(2). Our selfhood is very often an immense and effective gift; it can take us a long way, it holds us up, it structures our life. We rely upon our selfhood and that is appropriate and good. But our selfhood can only take us so far. The dry bones scattered on the valley floor represent to us the limits of our selfhood, the limits of self-reliance, the limits of believing we can do it all and control everything. And these bones are also so very dry, which represents a lack of truth, a lack of a way to structure our thinking and our acting(3). This definitely strikes a chord —how thirsty we all are these days; how often do we go to Facebook or the news, desiring to know something, anything, about what is the right thing to do in this situation, some little piece of understanding that might give us hope. And finally, the bones are scattered about, disconnected. We can see this reflected in our social state of course! None of us are allowed to be near each other. Virtual connection is wonderful but it is not the same, and it is reasonable to feel dislocated from those we are used to seeing in person. And in a larger sense, in times of crisis, it is also easy to feel disconnected from providence, from a sense of God’s care. Swedenborg writes that angels can easily see how things are connected but it is harder for us, even in normal times(4). And so we find ourselves in the valley of the bones: shadowed, scattered, desiccated, and seemingly alone.
I know that I am in the valley of the dry bones right now, my friends, I don’t know about you. This is a hard time. We are all grieving in our own ways and for our own losses. But what marks these past weeks, this time in particular, is that we are also experiencing anticipatory grief. We are grieving for things that might be lost, in the future: lives, livelihoods, and the way of life that we knew.
In the regard, there is one article that I have found to be really helpful, and I included a link to it in our newsletter for this past week (or see below). In it, grief expert David Kessler speaks about strategies for dealing with anticipatory grief. He says:
Unhealthy anticipatory grief is really anxiety, and that’s the feeling you’re talking about. Our mind begins to show us images. [For example], my parents getting sick. We see the worst scenarios. That’s our minds being protective. Our goal is not to ignore those images or to try to make them go away — your mind won’t let you do that and it can be painful to try and force it. The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. If you feel the worst image taking shape, make yourself think of the best image. [For example], we all get a little sick and the world continues. Not everyone I love dies. Maybe no one does because we’re all taking the right steps. Neither scenario should be ignored but neither should dominate either.(5)
It is hard not to imagine the worst right now. Our minds are very naturally go to the dry bones in the valley. We shouldn’t shame ourselves for that, it’s our brain’s job to do this for us. We have been trained over millennia to project and anticipate potential dangers and avoid them; this is how we survive. Our brains are trying to protect us. But, part of the problem is the scope and nature of this particular threat. Only a small part of it is within our control, and it keeps expanding. And so our brains keep returning again and again to the dry bones, warning us, prompting us to act. We continue in anxiety. And this can be exhausting and debilitating.
But the advice from the grief expert is good advice. We can choose how we try to balance the images we are focusing on. Our mind will continue to do its job and will talk to us about the dry bones; let us give thanks for its capacity for foresight. And also, let us with intention focus on the other images that God has given us in the Ezekiel text: breath and enlivenment. For we see that the dry bones are not the end of the story, that God has something else to say, something else to prophecy. Our minds prophecy in their own way, speaking to our own personal context of survival and loss and how-to-get-to-the-next-day. But God also has a prophecy to offer; one that speaks in a broader way about resurrection and hope and answers our most basic and plaintive question: can these bones live?
God tells us: Yes, these bones can live! This has always been God’s most basic and fundamental promise: what seems dead to us can live again. It is the heart of the holy day we will celebrate in a few weeks. The empty tomb with the stone rolled away is the same as Ezekiel’s valley where bone joins to bone, flesh and skin and breath come into being, and a nation of people figuratively come back to life. “Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.”(v13)
God can be relied upon to take the initiative, for this is the one true purpose of Providence, to always and forever bring us out of the valley that we find ourselves in, to give us a hand up and out of the graves we have dug for ourselves, to walk alongside us in any challenge that befalls us. God will bring life to the crucified parts of our lives, and in order to show us that this is so, God went first.
Now, enlivenment does not always arrive in the ways we might imagine. And no, we don’t get to direct the process or decide how and where the life and breath manifests. If we were in charge, we would just want things to go back to exactly however they were. When the people of Israel finally got to return to their land, it wasn’t the same as before. They had to rebuild their cities, they had to rebuild their society, they had to rebuild their relationships. And it wasn’t without challenge. But this rebuilding brought them closer to each other, and closer to their God. God hasn’t promised a lack of danger or difficulty; God has promised resurrection. God has said “I will put breath in you and you will come to life.” (v6). We just get to decide if we are open to it. We get to decide if we want to imagine it. We get to decide to make space for it.
In the valley of the dry bones, we find that we have reached the end of our selfhood. A necessary end, a painful and anxious one to be sure. But God whispers in our ear: “I will put my spirit in you and you will live.” May we see this vision God has promised us, and may our breath and the breath of God, join together as one.
1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ ” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ ” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. 11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ ”
Secrets of Heaven #2916
In the internal sense of the Word 'a grave' means life, which is heaven, and in the contrary sense death, which is hell. The reason it means life or heaven is that angels, who possess the internal sense of the Word, have no other concept of a grave, because they have no other concept of death. Consequently instead of a grave they perceive nothing else than the continuation of life, and so resurrection…Now because 'burial' means resurrection, it also means regeneration, since regeneration is the primary resurrection of a person, for when regenerated we dies as regards our former selves and rise again as regards the new. It is through regeneration that from being a dead person we become a living one, and it is from this that the meaning of 'a grave' is derived in the internal sense. When the idea of a grave presents itself the idea of regeneration comes to mind with angels…
See also on YouTube at https://youtu.be/mKfwqgKdFFc
Readings: I Samuel 16:1-13, Secrets of Heaven #9954 (see below)
Samuel was the last of the great judges of Israel. Earlier in I Samuel, the people of Israel had decided that they wanted a king to rule them, instead of judges (who were much like prophets). God acquiesced and Saul was chosen. But over time, Saul began to rely on his own judgment more and more and less upon Samuel, as God’s prophet. Saul began to make decisions that benefited himself over the common good.
This is where we enter the story with our text. Samuel is worried. The state of things feels uncertain. The people of Israel are now ruled by an unbalanced and increasingly despotic leader. Samuel mourns, and is not sure what to do.
Perhaps we can relate to Samuel’s sense of unease; a feeling that things are on a downward spiral, not sure how or when things will get better. Afraid to act, afraid to not act. And Samuel is genuinely terrified. He feels the weight of responsibility for the wellbeing of the people of Israel upon his shoulders, yet he knows he cannot act against Saul without experiencing reprisals.
What happens? In conversation with the Lord, Samuel learns that God is with him. God hears him. God is empathetic, yet issues a gentle challenge. Time to move…you are going to need a new king.
We don’t take this literally in our own lives, of course. Yes, we do have an election coming up this year, but that is not what this story means internally, what it means to our hearts, minds and spirits. This story is prompting us to question, what rules within us? What assumptions have we been carrying with us that no longer serve? Do we need to re-evaluate the things to which we have given allegiance? Do we need to re-evaluate the way we have understood what is important?
In times of crisis, we are invited into a deeper understanding of truth. This is what David, the new king, represents(1). But Samuel knows nothing of David yet. He is still understandably uncertain, fearful, mourning. Into that state, God speaks. Fill your horn with oil.
Swedenborg tells us that a horn represents the power of truth that springs from good(2). In states of uncertainty, what do we know for sure? Not much, except that what is real and enduring must come from what is good, must come from thoughtfulness, care, and sacrifice. The power of truth, its actual effectiveness, its realness, cannot come from anything else. So, we are first grounded in the principle that truth springs from goodness, and then we fill that horn to the brim with oil. Oil represents the essential goodness of love(3). So, we assent to the framework, and we make ourselves vessels for love, clearing out whatever we need to clear out so there is space within us.
What is this love for? What is it going to do? It is going to anoint a new king within us. Anita Dole writes:
When we realize that our understanding of truth has been too superficial and has led us to make mistakes, we recognize the necessity of a new understanding, and the Lord's love working in us discovers and anoints a new “king.”(4)
What does this king look like? Samuel certainly had no idea. God led him to the family of Jesse in the town of Bethlehem. And like all of us, Samuel thought the new king should look the part. But one by one, Jesse’s older sons are passed over by the Lord. Finally, Samuel asks if there are any more sons. Jesse answers that there is only the “youngest” who is tending the sheep. The Hebrew word for “youngest” here implies not only a lesser chronological age but also a lesser significance. But, this is how the “new king” within us always appears when the “old king” is still ascendent.
David arrives and we are told that he is “glowing with health.” He is small but beautiful. Completely overlook-able in the normal course of things but shining bright upon closer inspection. And immediately, the Lord says, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”
This is the one. In the last week and a half, we’ve seen a lot. We’ve seen incompetence, greed, derision, carelessness, fear. But we’ve also seen healthcare workers putting their lives on the line to go to work, teachers rushing to create online schoolwork for their students, communities packing lunches, throwing food drives, taking care of each other. A multitude of small, beautiful things. In a time of crisis, things become clearer. We pass over the goals and choices that would have turned our heads before, so many Jesse’s sons, and make space for the diminutive shepherd-king who seemed insignificant just moments ago.
And this is a process that is not dependent on the coronavirus, of course. This is the process that drives our regeneration, our spiritual journey, all the time, over and over. Much of the time our crises are individual; what is different now is that we are sharing this experience together.
But I must make a note on self-efforting: as aspirational and inspiring as the anointing of David may sound, a lot of the time we are inhabiting the Samuel headspace of “How can I go?” We are exhausted. We are finite. We are human. So, it is important for us to know that God’s love is already working in us. It is not so much that *we* need to go out and anoint ourselves a new king by the power of our own self-will but rather that God is already anointing a new king within us. Our job is to partner and co-operate with God, to listen for God’s gentle promptings, and to try and throw up fewer roadblocks than we normally do.
Because, figuratively giving our rule over to a new king, it is transformative but it is also exhausting. We might be thinking: It’s all I can do is hold things together right now. Yes. Absolutely. Transformation doesn’t always look dramatic like a caterpillar to a butterfly. Sometimes transformation looks like getting out of bed. Sometimes transformation looks like asking for help. Sometimes transformation looks like remembering to breathe. David didn’t get to rule right away, with a bright shiny crown and a court full of servants. He was anointed and then grew into his kingship. And the first thing he had to do was go against a giant. So it is with us. A crisis will shake us, turn us upside down, make us question, and suddenly we are Samuel, uncertain, despairing, frustrated, shaking our fist at God. We say “how can I go?” and God gives us a way, one little step at a time.
None of us will be the same after these weeks. We will see the world differently because our hearts and minds will be ruled differently, organized differently. We have seen bravery in our midst. We have seen compassion. We have seen communities come together. We have seen a world suffering in solidarity and it cannot help but change us. It might be a relief when things go back to normal, whatever that looks like, but we can’t un-feel our fundamental connectedness, we can’t un-know the truths we have come to understand in a deeper way. And praise be to God for that.
“Rise and anoint him; this is the one.” Small, beautiful things. This is what will get us through.