Readings: John 8:12-20, 25-31, Divine Providence 224 (see below)
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Welcome to the third installment of our sermon series The Seven Types of Rest. I’ve drawn these seven types from the work of Saundra Dalton-Smith M.D. in her book Sacred Rest, and I invite you to check that out if you have any interest. Today, we will be talking about Emotional Rest.
These last couple of years, we have really been on an emotional roller-coaster. Between the pandemic and politics and world events, not to mention our own colorful lives, it is not at all surprising if we are feeling emotionally depleted.
Human beings have lots of feelings. It’s one of the wonderful (and terrible) things about us. We are both thinking and feeling creatures. Emotions are a natural part of our human experience and so, naturally, our emotional capacity is something that can become fatigued and need rest, just like our minds and our bodies. There are lots of ways that we can become emotionally fatigued, but let’s just lay out a few for us to think about.
The first way is by not acknowledging the feelings that we have to ourselves. Often times it seems like we need to ignore or squash our feelings in order to get on with our life. We might wonder, how could we possibly get anything done if we are always feeling our feelings? There is sometimes a fear that if we unleash them, our feelings will take over everything. Or perhaps we are ashamed of our feelings. We understand that some feelings are “bad” and so we want to pretend that we don’t have them. But ignoring or squashing our feelings creates its own special kind of fatigue. The feelings are still there, they are just unprocessed. And it takes energy for them to remain that way, just out of our sight.
The second way is by not acknowledging the feelings that we have to others. This often has a lot to do with meeting other people’s expectations. Perhaps we think that our feelings will not be acceptable to others, or we struggle with how to articulate them. Perhaps we have been socialized to hide our real feelings in certain situations, like at work, or with our family. This can be totally draining. It takes energy to put on a mask, to present ourselves inauthentically to others.
The third way is by being affected by the emotional state of the world in general and other people in particular. Human beings are social animals and emotions are contagious. We can all think of situations in which our emotions are affected by what is going on around us, and who is present with us. Think about the ways we consume the news and how that affects us, how much more connected the world is now and how quickly information can travel. We know so much more now about the challenges experienced in the entire world. Or on a more personal level, think about how we have all needed to show up for each other in new and different ways these last few years; that has been sacred but exhausting emotional work.
Now, all of these ways in which our emotional capacity gets fatigued actually originate in a kind of emotional superpower that has gotten out of balance. When working in balance, all of these emotional dynamics just listed are actually good things at their core.
In the first case, in not acknowledging our feelings to ourselves, this is an over-extension of our ability to separate our thinking and our feeling. It is a blessing that we can do this at all. We see toddlers learning this skill, to regulate their emotions, in real time as they grow and learn, as they figure out ways to feel their feelings that don’t always involve a complete meltdown when we won’t let them eat Cheerios out of the dogs mouth. Grown ups continue to learn and refine this skill as well. We learn when it is important to compartmentalize our emotions and just get things done. But, emotional fatigue arises if we continue to compartmentalize indefinitely. All feelings need to be felt and processed at some point.
In the second case, not acknowledging our feelings to others can actually be a blessing because it means that politeness and civility can exist. Emotions are chaotic, messy, raw and sometimes not nice. If everybody blew up at everyone else every time they felt a little bit frustrated, the world would be a really unpleasant place to live in. Social conventions can be protective; I might want to yell at the person who cut me off in traffic but not doing so is most often better than doing so, and sometimes our trained civilities give us the tiny pause we need to settle down and see things from another person’s perspective. At its best, civility is an act of care for our fellow human beings. At its worst, civility or social convention becomes heavy in the way that a suit of armor is heavy. It can protect but it can also distances us, and its burdens are not always distributed fairly. It can become tiring to have to carry that level of inauthenticity all the time.
In the third case, being affected by the emotional state of others is a blessing that allows us to feel empathy. Our brains are wired for this purpose. There are actual neurons, called mirror neurons, whose function is is mirror the emotions witnessed in others. Our brains are wired to feel in solidarity with other human beings. What a powerful design feature! What a blessed, connective gift from God. But, like any neural path, it can get tired. And this fact is complicated by the reality that, while we will often choose to use our gifts of empathy in service for another, by being present for them, witnessing and giving space and permission for them to feel what they need to feel, other times, our mirror neurons might just start firing in response to whoever we’re with, and we become affected by negative emotions unintentionally. Either way, if we don’t process these emotions that we are encountering through our mirror pathways, we will become emotionally fatigued.
And it is no fun to be emotionally fatigued. Whatever way you slice it, too much emotional inauthenticity is not good for us. Even if we do it “for the sake of others” we can’t stay out of our own emotional center for long. It pays to become acquainted with our emotional truths, and to get good at processing and accepting them.
This is where I want to introduce you to the Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach. She outlines a process called RAIN, which helps to identify, accept and assimilate whatever we might be feeling. The first letter R stands for Recognize. We are invited to take a moment to simply recognize whatever feeling we are feeling, to give it a name and quality. The A stands for Allow. This is the point where we stop pretending or squashing or judging the emotion and give it the space to be there. Tara invites us to tell the emotion that it belongs. The I stands for Investigate. This is the point where we start to ask some gentle questions about our feeling. Where am I feeling this in my body? What is this feeling asking for in response? Is there a need associated with this feeling? And finally, the N stands for Nurture. From our larger sense of self, we offer care to whatever vulnerable or fearful or grieving states have been uncovered by our gentle questioning and attention. This process invites a shift away from ignoring or fearing our emotions towards a compassionate acceptance of them. (1)
But aha, you might say! What about emotions that are typically labeled as bad? What about anger, jealousy, pride, fear etc? If I “accept” that I have these emotions, isn’t that excusing them, won’t they then run away with me? It’s important to note that there isn’t a letter in RAIN that stands for letting our emotions call the shots in our actions. The truth is, when we see our emotions clearly, and accept their presence, then we are in true freedom to make a decision about that to do with them. Many times, it is when we try to stuff our emotions down, or pretend that they don’t exist, that we end up unconsciously or unintentionally acting out from them. Picture a tired parent finally losing it after a long day of trying to be “the grown up.” Accepting the presence of any feeling is not the same thing as letting that feeling guide our choices, and in fact acceptance is an integral part of moving beyond our feelings, if we need to.
And so, getting emotional rest and renewal can certainly be about putting down the emotional burdens that are tiring us out, but also, it is just as much about doing the work of processing the emotions that we have. This is a good skill to cultivate because we will always have emotions, this part of what makes us human.
But interestingly, we won’t always have the ability to hide them. Our Swedenborg reading for today talks about the spiritual realm as a place where inner things are no longer hidden. There is no hypocrisy in the spiritual world, what we think and feel is always apparent. Now, our earthly reaction to this might be “oh no, that sounds terrible!” How embarrassing that our true feelings will always be shining forth! But on the other hand, what freedom! I’m not sure our earthly minds can truly appreciate what it would mean to lay down our natural duplicity. To be at one with oneself, so truly authentic and whole, with no translation from our inner landscape to our outer? What a relief to lay down that burden! And as uncomfortable as the idea might make us feel, I’m quite sure that every angel surrounding us would be an expert practitioner of the RAIN method, especially the Nurture part, for themselves and others. When compassion is the order of the day, authenticity starts to feel more possible.
This is of course what God wants for us: to be whole, to be truly ourselves. The only way to get there is to be honest and compassionate with our emotions, and to unflinchingly seek out essential self-knowledge. Jesus modeled that for us in our reading from the gospel of John:
13 The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going.
25 “Who are you?” they asked. “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning,” Jesus replied…“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
(1) Tara Brach, Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness, p100-101
John 8:12-20, 25-31
12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. 16 But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. 17 In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is true. 18 I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.” 19 Then they asked him, “Where is your father?” “You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” 20 He spoke these words while teaching in the temple courts near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come.
25 “Who are you?” they asked. “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning,” Jesus replied. 26 “I have much to say in judgment of you. But he who sent me is trustworthy, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.” 27 They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father. 28 So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. 29 The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” 30 Even as he spoke, many believed in him. 31 To the Judeans who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Divine Providence 224
Can anyone fail to see that it is the inner level [of a human being] from which the outer level arises and that the outer level therefore derives its essence from the inner level? Surely everyone knows from experience that the outer level can appear in a guise that differs from the essence that it derives from what lies within. This is obvious in the case of hypocrites, flatterers, and con artists…I mention this because we too can put on pretenses in our civic and moral dealings as well as in our spiritual ones. We know that many people do.
 …What is hidden shows through…very clearly in the spiritual world, because when we move from this physical world into the spiritual world, which happens when we die, then we leave behind those outward appearances along with our bodies, but keep the inner qualities that were hidden away in our spirits…
 Let me also add that in the spiritual world there is a sharing of feelings and consequent thoughts, which means that none of us can say anything except what we are actually thinking. Also, our faces change there and become images of our feelings, so others can see from our faces what we are really like. Hypocrites are sometimes allowed to say what they are not thinking, but their tone of voice sounds discordant because of their deeper thoughts, and they can be recognized by this discord. So we can tell that the inner nature is hidden within the tone, the language, the expression, and the gestures of the outer, and that while people in the physical world are not sensitive to this, it is obvious to angels in the spiritual world.
Readings: Psalm 131, Matthew 6:24-35, True Christianity 364:3 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
Welcome to the second installment of our sermon series The Seven Types of Rest. I’ve drawn these seven types from the work of Saundra Dalton-Smith M.D. in her book Sacred Rest, and I invite you to check that out if you have any interest. Today, we will be talking about Mental Rest.
Friends, I really struggle with this one. One of my regular caveats to this whole series is that I’m not coming to you as someone who has mastered any of these types of rest. But I find getting enough Mental Rest to be particularly difficult.
We all, always, have a mental track running in our minds to various degrees at various levels. Prioritizing our to-do lists, thinking about what to make for dinner, what we have coming up on the calendar, things we have done we wish we hadn’t, things we haven’t done that we wish we had, and how we might accomplish other things we want in the future. Not to mention all the other random thoughts that pass through our mental stream.
Our minds are grand machines, and good at what they do, which is essentially optimizing prediction. Our minds are tasked with taking care of us, and taking care of the people and things we care about. A lot of the time, they do a really good job. But, the prediction business is always a bit of a gamble, and the temptation to run this scenario or that scenario just one more time is pretty strong. On the face of it, what harm could that do? It’s good to be prepared. It is an act of care to be prepared. But, I find that my mind sometimes gets stuck in a preparation loop, always looking to accomplish a little more, optimize a little further, control things a little better.
And what is the feeling that goes along with all that strategizing? Anxiety, right? Even if it just a low purr underneath a mostly functional life, a lack of mental rest can often accumulate and then manifest in the experience of anxiety, or discontentment, or overwhelm. There is a natural limit to what one mind can do, and this is okay. And our minds, like our muscles, need rest and renewal.
And so this mental renewal can look like a lot of things. It can look like meditation or contemplative prayer. Listening to music works for a lot of people, because it quiets the mental track in favor of a musical one. Exercise works for some, or a handicraft. There are lots of options and it really is very individual. Our minds are limited just like the rest of our bodies, even if they don’t like to think so, they do need time off.
This is, of course, what Jesus was talking about in the (pretty famous) passage from Matthew that we read today. Consider the lilies of the field, says the King James version, how they grow, they toil not, neither do they spin. This passage is part of the sermon on the mount, a wide-ranging speech from Jesus covering many topics.
Now, I’ll be honest, I feel really judged by these teachings. Don’t worry, says Jesus. Be like the birds and the flowers, says Jesus. Ok sure, I just won’t worry. Easy-peasy. Well, of course, that is easier said than done. But I think that when we dig a little deeper, we do find a more nuanced teaching than my easily offended ego first sees.
Obviously, Jesus in employing a metaphor, as he often does, to try to communicate something of the essence of what he is describing. When we think of a flower of the field, what is it that we think about? Perhaps rootedness, groundedness, but also a kind of natural flexibility, like flowing in the wind. We might think of soaking up the sun and the rain, being in the moment and accepting what the moment brings, growing in the season we are given to grow in.
This is a pretty big contrast to one of the passages right before when Jesus was talking about fasting in a hypocritical and performative way. Often times, his followers would point to other spiritual practices and ask what about that, do we need to do that? Jesus would often say no because he understood the question was about checking off a box…doing this to get that, fast or sacrifice or say the right words to get salvation or praise or righteousness. Certainly, fasting can be an effective spiritual practice in the right context (which Jesus describes), but not if it is used in a grasping, ambitious way. That is simply an empty practice.
Jesus is speaking right into the predictive tendency of our minds, reminding us that when it comes to spiritual life, to put away the to-do list, because it doesn’t work like that. To focus instead on learning to be be grounded, grateful, and open, and the rest will follow. This is not to mean are to vilify the busyness of our mind, or eschew the day-to-day business of our lives; it’s not all or nothing. As Jesus said, God knows you need those details, and our minds are designed to handle them, but rather, we are invited to see them for what they are: the lovely and precious *externals* of our lives. Any external, to be living rather than an empty shell, must have an internal, and Jesus is saying fill *that* up with all the being-like-a-flower energy. That is the kind of energy that can sustainably power the external details of our lives. Because, it is entirely feasible to check all the external boxes and still be empty on the inside, and this is what Jesus is cautioning us against.
Which brings us to the deeper spiritual question that animates this exploration of mental rest, for me at least: what do I need to *do* to be worthy?
Our minds are doing machines, tasked with translating plans and desires into reality. Our minds’ natural language and currency is control. So, of course our minds ask this question, even if just as background programming. Tell me what to do to be worthy and safe and successful and I will do it. I’ll put it on the to-do list.
But of course there is nothing we need to *do* to be worthy of God’s love. No box we need to check, no words we need to say. We were created out of love, and loved we will remain. This is very difficult for our minds to assimilate. Our minds, tasked with strategizing our safety and survival, find it hard to believe that a moment in which we are not “thinking” is just as full of God as a moment in which we are.
And this sometimes feels like an obstacle to taking mental rest. From our mind’s point of view, we are wasting time. But that’s why Jesus used the flower of the field metaphor, to bring us out and away from the way our mind usually understands usefulness and to inhabit a totally different headspace.
When I am finding it difficult to make space for mental rest, especially in meditation, when a common practice is to just notice our thoughts but not run away with them, I tell myself that the moments in which my mind is quiet are just as full and meaningful as the moments in which I am actively thinking, planning and doing. This notion is inspired by our Swedenborg reading:
In a word, all things are full of God. We each take our own portion from that fullness.
(True Christianity 364:3)
Moments of mental rest seem to the natural mind like emptiness. And our minds see emptiness as unproductive and so how that can it be good? So I remind myself, moments of quiet, of mental rest, have a usefulness that is beyond what our doing minds can see. They anchor us in our essential worthiness, and uncouple that essential worthiness from our abilities and our accomplishments. The mind sees emptiness but the spiritual reality is very different.
Now, of course, to name the other side of the equation, this is not to say that the spiritual path is only passive, is only a letting go. The spiritual path is also very active, with lots of active questions to answer like: What do I need to do be in alignment with God’s purposes? What can I do to become a form of love? How can I help people and leave the world better than I came into it? There are lots of different things we can *do* that will help us transform and grow into the angels that God intends us to be, active things that our minds will be a great help with.
But those are transformational questions and today we are dealing with more existential questions. Today, we settle into the truth, that while we are invited into partnership with God in the spiritual journey, we are not earning our worthiness or our belovedness. Our minds believe that they are tasked with achieving what we need and they take that task very seriously. But God has already given the gift of our belovedness, we don’t need to achieve that. And so we are invited to plant ourselves like a flower of the field in the vast soil of our worthiness and to stay grounded in that, and to give our minds permission sway in the breeze from time to time.
1 A Song of Ascents. Of David. O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. 2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother's breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. 3 O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and for evermore.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
True Christianity 364:3
 The Lord is omnipresent; and everywhere he is present, he is present with his entire essence. It is impossible for him to take out some of his essence and give part of it to one person and another part to another. He gives it all. He also gives us the ability to adopt as much as we wish of it, whether a little or a lot. The Lord says that he has a home with those who do his commandments, and that the faithful are in him and he is in them. In a word, all things are full of God. We each take our own portion from that fullness.
Readings: Psalm 16, I Kings 19:1-8, The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 98 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
Photo by Ilham Rahmansyah on Unsplash
So my friends, welcome to the first installment of our series on The Seven Types of Rest. I don’t know about you all, but I certainly have become exhausted by the last couple of years, and perhaps it has been the same for you. The pandemic is one part of it, but there are many other things going on in the world that might contribute, not to mention each of our personal lives. I’m seeing a deep weariness in myself and in others, even as we try to live our lives as normally as possible.
And I think that one interesting feature of this time is that perhaps we are getting an inkling that it is possible to be exhausted in different ways, not just physically. Certainly I’ve never had so many of my acquaintances complain about insomnia, but it is not only about sleep. We are becoming intimately acquainted with emotional and mental exhaustion too, as we live under high levels of uncertainty, in circumstances requiring high levels of resilience and flexibility. This is a lot to sustain over time, especially when we had use up our initial reserves, our surge capacity, well over a year ago.
And so when the idea came to me about doing a series on rest, it felt right, it felt needed, to me at least. So, this is my first caveat for this series: I’m learning alongside you. I’m no expert here, I’m struggling just as much as the next person with making the space for rest, or resting effectively in the ways that I really need.
Here is my second caveat: many of these ideas, especially the seven categories of rest which structure this series, they are not my own. I’m relying on work done by Saundra Dalton-Smith MD, and you can find this work her book Sacred Rest, which I invite you to explore if you want to know more.
And finally, we acknowledge that talking about rest, about the capacity to make space for it even when it is hard, or not our first inclination, this is a privilege. For some, the necessity financial survival or care-taking responsibility, or the existence of crisis, makes getting enough rest difficult if not impossible, and this lifts up to our eyes the systemic and cultural forces at play. So while this series will focus on the agency that each of us has in our own lives to cultivate rest, that focus does not intend to dismiss the ways in which our culture makes that very hard. But ultimately, hopefully, individuals who value and prioritize rest will work to change our very individualistic and busy-ness-obsessed culture over time.
So, the structure of our seven week series will explore these different types of rest: physical, mental, emotional, sensory, social, creative and spiritual. Today we will start out with physical rest. Obviously, we all know how important sleep is; we do it every night and it is impossible to avoid for long. Our bodies and brains require rest and they will take it when necessary.
However, sleep is just one aspect of physical rest. Dr. Dalton-Smith defines rest as an activity that purposefully revives the parts of our life that we regularly deplete(1), so it is not just about stillness, it is about renewal. Physical renewal sometimes needs to be active; when we have been sitting for a long time, for example, then walking or stretching constitutes physical rest from a persistent activity, and this can be just as integral to our physical well-being as stillness.
Dr. Dalton-Smith prompts us to ask ourselves and our bodies: what do we need? and to pay attention to the answer.(2) We can be angels to ourselves, as in our bible story for today. In that text, Elijah was physically exhausted by running for his life. He had been agitating against King Ahab and his idolatrous worship, and now Queen Jezebel had threatened to exact revenge. Elijah fled, and was now hiding out in the wilderness. At one point, he could physically travel no further and, despairing, he lay down and fell asleep. We can very easily imagine that he had forgotten to eat, from either anxiousness or lack of time or scarcity of food. The angel touched him on the shoulder and reminded him to eat, reminded him that his body needed to be renewed and strengthened for the journey ahead.
For, it is one thing to the take the time to perform the rest we need, hard enough as that is, but sometimes I think we might forget to even ask the question, to be that angel for ourselves and to ask, what do I need? I’ll be honest, I rarely forget to eat, but I sure do forget to stretch after working at my computer for a long time. I sure do forget to breathe full deep breaths when I have defaulted to shallow anxious breathing.
So, many times part of the problem is that we don’t even ask that question: what do I need? Why? Certainly we might be distracted by our multitude of responsibilities. But perhaps I wonder if there is a deeper reason?
Perhaps there is a spiritual question at the heart of it all that we may not even be aware we are asking, which is: am I allowed to need? Am I allowed to need rest and renewal? Am I allowed to have limits? For, we might say, if I am committed to a spiritual path that revolves around rooting out selfishness for the sake of others, am *I* allowed to need, personally? Is it *okay* to need? This might seem like a silly question on the face of it, but I would invite a pause to see: are we trying to answer this question with our head, when really the question is coming from our heart?
But before we try to answer that, let’s take a short interlude to consider a central doctrine of the Swedenborgian faith, the doctrine of use. One of the ways Swedenborg conceptualized the human being is that we have a mind and a heart, which we employ together to perform actions, hopefully actions that benefit others. Love and Wisdom working together to perform a Use, an effective and use-full action. This reflects the nature and being of God as well, as we are created in God’s image, and so this triad of love and wisdom working together to be useful is an important way to align ourselves with the divine design. So to Swedenborgians, the question of “how am I being of use?” is not only a practical one but a devotional one. Not just about the satisfaction of checking things off our to-do list, or even just doing something “nice” for someone, but rather, it is about the ways in which we can participate in the transformation of the world. To quote Desmond Tutu: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
The downside of such an emphasis though, is that it might focus us more fully on “doing” and less on “being.” We might start to mistake “use” as being about busy-ness, when it is really not about that at all. “Use” as a concept is more relational than that. It is more about inquiring what is needed in a given moment and context and then seeing how we can serve into what that moment and space requires. It is dynamic. And, it necessarily puts us in relationship with others and invites us to consider how we are inter-connected and all part of a whole. Because, if we are to perform useful, effective and loving actions, well, someone has to receive them. We can’t all be givers all the time. So, part of the formulation of the doctrine of usefulness has to include the part about sometimes being the receiver. When we all both give and receive, this is a much more dynamic and resilient design than if things were only one-sided.
Which brings us back around to our question: is it okay to need? Fundamentally? It has to be. We have been created as beings that can be useful, who can give, but in order to fulfill our design, we need to be able to give to each other. Need is an integral part of the way things are set up. It *is* okay to need. It is not shameful, it is necessary.
And if it is okay to need, to have needs, then it is also okay to fulfill them. Maybe this all sounds so simple, but I know that there are times that I forget this even this very simple principle. Now, sometimes only others will be able fulfill our needs. And sometimes the work of usefulness is to mindfully and reverently fulfill our own needs. Our Swedenborg reading today talks about the importance of being a neighbor to ourselves. Of course, it also talks about grounding that importance in care for others, and love to God, so that a focus on our own needs doesn’t become overridingly selfish. We spend plenty of time preaching about selflessness in church, and it is an important spiritual practice. But today, and in this series, we are working to create a balance that allows for becoming a sustainable giver. And part of this will involve paying attention to what our physical bodies are telling us. To listen to see if they are telling us that it is time to lie down, stretch, move, breathe, or dance.
We will be returning to these themes of need and usefulness throughout this series. For today, let us resolve to have compassion for our needs, especially our physical ones, to give them space and permission to exist. They won’t always be perfectly met, but at least the habit of gentle questioning, and the assumption that need is actually okay, might open up a little more awareness of how we can be angels to ourselves.
7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. (I Kings 19:7-8)
(1) Saundra Dalton-Smith, MD, Sacred Rest" Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity, p16
(2) Ibid, p42.
1 Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge. 2 I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.” 3 I say of the holy people who are in the land, “They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.” 4 Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more. I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods or take up their names on my lips. 5 LORD, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. 6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. 7 I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. 8 I keep my eyes always on the LORD. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. 9 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, 10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. 11 You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
I Kings 19:1-8
1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” 3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.
The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine #98
The following example may show how we are to be neighbors to ourselves. We all need to provide our bodies with their food and clothing. This needs to come first, but the object is to have a sound mind in a sound body. Further, we all need to provide food for our minds, meaning things that build our intelligence and wisdom, but the object is that our minds will be able to be of service to our fellow citizens, our community, our country, the church, and therefore the Lord. If we do this we are providing for our well-being to eternity. We can see from this that what should come first is the *purpose* for which we do something, because everything depends on that.
It is also like building a house. First we need to lay the foundation, but the purpose of the foundation is the house, and the purpose of the house is living in it. If we think being neighbor to ourselves is actually the most important thing, this is like regarding not the house or living in it but the foundation as our final goal. But in reality, from start to finish, living in the house is the true goal, and the house and its foundation are only means to this end.
Readings: I Samuel 2:18-20, 26, Luke 2:41-52, True Christianity 89 (see below)
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As a mother, I have to tell you, this text is really hard to read! First, there is the anxiety of losing your child. All parents, or anyone looking after a young child, have experienced their hearts in their throat at some point, when they realize that the child is not where they expected them to be. Then, can you imagine having to search for three days! I’d be an utter wreck.
And then, additionally, there is the sass that Jesus delivers! The kind of sass only a pre-teen can accomplish. “Why were you searching for me?” WHY? YOU KNOW WHY? IT’S BEEN THREE DAYS! Seriously, I’m about to burst into flames right here on the pulpit. I need to take a deep breath!
As much as I would rather not explore it though, this text is an extremely rich one. It is the only account in the gospels of an event in between the infancy and the adult ministry of Jesus. In biographies of famous figures of that day, stories of a precocious childhood were common. In particular, the Emperor Augustus was known to have eulogized his grandmother to great effect at the age of twelve (1). So already, the gospel writer is telegraphing Jesus’ superiority to the emperor.
We also begin the story with Jesus’ whole family going to Jerusalem for Passover. All male Israelites were required to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, and some other religious festivals, once a year. The journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem would probably have taken four or five days by foot. Clearly, Mary and Joseph are observant and diligent Jews, and Jesus’ facility with the Torah in the temple anchors him firmly in the Jewish tradition.
Such pilgrimages from country to city would have taken place in groups for the sake of safety, and we can probably surmise, in the form of extended families. We also might surmise a more communal parenting style than we are familiar with today, arising from a pastoral village setting, so it is not entirely unbelievable that Mary and Joseph might have thought Jesus was just hanging out with his cousins. Children can be extremely reluctant to come home when they are having a good time with their friends!
But we can also imagine the panic felt by Mary and Joseph when they realized Jesus was missing, how quickly they must have tried to travel back, how confused and frantic they must have felt while retracing their steps. We don’t know if they spent three whole days searching in Jerusalem, or if the three days includes the travel back to the city, but clearly they didn’t go straight to the temple. The text tells us they were astonished to find Jesus there. Probably they went first to the family they had been staying with, then perhaps to friends, then probably the marketplace, or some other place where children might hang out. Why did they not think to check the temple sooner? To Jesus, it seemed obvious that they were searching the wrong places for him. But it wasn’t obvious to Mary and Joseph. Why not? Even with all they had seen and heard, even as they knew their son was special, they didn’t assume that he would be in God’s house, attentive to God’s business.
In similar ways, we too might look for fulfillment, and meaning in places that do not necessarily serve us. What are the lyrics to that famous song? “Looking for love in all the wrong places”? In our day to day lives, we are driven by the human desire to feel safe, content, fulfilled, and engaged. We look toward many different things to satiate those desires. We look to various kinds of entertainment to engage our minds, sports teams or other groups to satisfy our tribal instincts, social media to feed our desire for connection, food to satisfy our desire for safety and sufficiency. We look to money for material comfort and upward mobility, to power for worthiness, to-do lists and technology for control, and many many other individual variations of these things.
These are just some examples of ways that we try to inject meaning into our lives, ways to make us feel okay, ways to make us feel settled, safe, included and worthy. And what do these efforts lead to? *Do* they lead us to feel we have meaningful lives? *Do* we feel safe, settled, included and worthy on their account? Sometimes we do, in the short term. But just as often we just feel restless, empty, not quite there yet, stressed. Studies have shown that human beings are not actually very good at predicting what will make us happy and fulfilled over time(2).
Martin Luther King Jr, in a speech during the Montgomery bus boycott entitled, “The Birth of a New Age(3)” spoke of the kind of leaders we need to propel our society forward, to midwife our society into a form that he called “the beloved community.” He said: “We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity.”
One thing I find interesting in this quote is that it implies a recognition that human beings must love something, must find meaning somewhere. So, the question becomes *what* are we in love with? What is driving us? What is the soul of our work? Where are we finding meaning? In money or justice? In publicity or the common good?
Because, the problem is not so much looking in the wrong places, as if God can be found only in one place, in the temple or in church, as if some parts of this world are inherently good and others are not. The problem is loving our various distractions for themselves instead of how they can be infilled with God. Things like money and publicity are in actuality neutral; how we use them and why determines how present God will be in them. For example: I recently gave money to a GoFundMe campaign for a friend of a friend who was experiencing some challenges (I’m sure many of you have done similarly for other causes). This involved both money and publicity as referenced in the King quote above. However, money that contributes to the the well-being of others when they need it the most is, of course, filled with God’s love and usefulness. Likewise the publicity, the social media platform that allowed me to know about this person. For all of the flaws inherent in social media, (and there are many!) in that moment and for that purpose, it was Godly and heavenly. What an honor, a miracle really, to be able to help someone so materially and easily, with just a keystroke. We also know this: that various entertainments can have a usefulness that is as simple and rest and rejuvenation, and as complex as introducing us to new perspectives and ideas we can reflect upon. Likewise food; as much as it can be abused it is a conduit for care and love, for bringing people together, for presence and gratitude. Even power, something that the gospel teaches us to be incredibly suspicious of, when used to help others can be a good thing, when used properly it can birth us all into a better world.
We know from the Christmas story that God can and does enter into this world in ways that we might not expect. That God can and does enter into this world through forms that we might dismiss or disparage. We recall from our Swedenborg reading, that this is in fact, part of the divine design. All in the universe, including us, have been created so that they can welcome the divine, can be prepared to be infilled with the Lord. When space is made, when all that is self-serving is cleared out, then God enters as if coming in to God’s own dwelling. This is what we prayed for in our Christmas Eve prayer from Sister Joyce Rupp, that *we* might all be God’s Bethlehem in the here and now.
And this is our choice: We can love all those things that distract us from God as things in and of themselves, and they *will* fulfill their purpose, they *will* distract us. But when we see that God has created all things to be a vessel for partnership, then these things can be transformed. It is not about looking in the wrong places per se, because God can be, and is, in all those places that Mary and Joseph looked in first. God is in the marketplace, the playground, the library, the shopping mall, the office. Instead, it is about recognizing divine interconnectedness as the blueprint of the world.
Jesus was in the temple bringing our attention to this divine interconnectedness. “Didn’t you know that I had to be in *my Father’s* house?” he said. In the Greek, there isn’t actually a noun at the end of this sentence, and translators will fill in the gaps with “my Father’s house”, or “about my Father’s business.” But really, the most literal translation “to be in that which is my Father’s.” It is more that Jesus was saying: Didn’t you know that I had to inhabit my divine inheritance? Didn’t you know that I had to be present to my relationship to Spirit? Didn’t you know that I had to be present to the divine order that calls us to partnership, that calls us to depth and connection? Jesus is calling us to see that loving God first, and loving the things God loves, infills and enlivens everything else, due to God’s living relationship with us and the world. It is when our allegiance is given to the distracting thing, then we will be lost and continually searching. When, for example, we love money for sake of having more and not for the good it can do, when we love publicity for the sake of self-gratification and not for purpose of connection and enlightenment, that is when we will have trouble finding God, because we have closed down our capacity for partnership.
So, we return to the question: What are we in love with? For what we love will affect what we are able to discover. Mary and Joseph were clearly loving Jesus as their son, their boy, and so they looked for him in places where a twelve-year-old boy might be. Could we not imagine that Mary and Joseph hurried past the temple without looking inside, in a rush to retrace their steps. Jesus, however, with a burgeoning knowledge of his connection to the divine, was growing beyond their expectation, just as our Lord calls us to grow beyond our own expectation of where God should be, to see opportunities for partnership, for God’s indwelling, everywhere.
I Samuel 2:18-20, 26
18 But Samuel was ministering before the LORD—a boy wearing a linen ephod. 19 Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. 20 Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, saying, “May the LORD give you children by this woman to take the place of the one she prayed for and gave to the LORD.” Then they would go home.
26 And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the LORD and with people.
41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” 49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them. 51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.
True Christianity 89
In the process of taking on a human manifestation, God followed his own divine design. …in the act of creating, God introduced his design into the universe as a whole and into each and every thing in it. Therefore in the universe and in all its parts God's omnipotence follows and works according to the laws of his own design….
Now, because God came down, and because he is the design, there was no other way for him to become an actual human being than to be conceived, to be carried in the womb, to be born, to be brought up, and to acquire more and more knowledge so as to become intelligent and wise. Therefore in his human manifestation he was an infant like any infant, a child like any child, and so on with just one difference: he completed the process more quickly, more fully, and more perfectly than the rest of us do.
…The Lord's life followed this path because the divine design is for people to prepare themselves to accept God; and as they prepare themselves, God enters them as if he were coming into his own dwelling and his own home…
It is a law of the divine design that the closer and closer we come to God, which is something we have to do as if we were completely on our own, the closer and closer God comes to us. When we meet, God forms a partnership with us.