Photo credit: Ismael Sanchez
Readings: Genesis 8:1-5, 13-19, Matthew 5:25-20, Heaven and Hell #533 (see below)
There is a story about Swedenborg that is beloved by his followers. It goes like this: A young girl who grew up in Swedenborg’s neighborhood kept asking him to show her an angel. So one day, he agreed, and took her inside his summer-house and placed her in front of a curtain. He said, “Now you shall see an angel,” and drew the curtain aside, revealing a mirror in which the girl could see her own reflection.(1)
This charming anecdote gets at the heart of Swedenborg’s optimistic and humane theology. He says many times during his works, all human beings are born for heaven. Yes, we have to make the conscious choice to follow that path, but it is nonetheless God’s intention for all of us. Contrast this with the vision of Jonathan Edwards, an American preacher of the same period, who preached a famous sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” whereby he described each of us being as spiders held by a slender thread over the pit of hell by a wrathful God who abhors us, and that it is God’s hand alone that prevents our burning forever.
Certainly, Edwards must have imagined that the specter of such a fate would provoke a necessary anxiety in his listeners, so that they might surrender to God’s grace. Fear persuades. We know this not only from religion but from politics, advertising, and from our own lives. But fear can only take us so far. It can motivate external action, but it cannot create a heavenly internal, a heart built on the stuff of heaven: mutual love. Mutual love can only be embraced through the relinquishment of fear, of self-preservation, of resentment. We can only love when we make ourselves vulnerable, make ourselves empty of our presumptions, and trust in a God who desires our eternal happiness above all.
Swedenborg’s positive vision includes such a God, one that begins with the assumption of our belovedness, not our sinfulness. Of course, we must willingly step into this vision, put our skin in the game, but it is not so much a matter of doing particular things in a particular way, or believing in particular religious notions. But rather, it is about being committed to loving the truth, even when that truth indicates we need to change. It is about being devoted to learning how to love others, even if that means hearing what we don’t want to hear. It is about trusting that the faithful practice of self-relinquishment means that the vision of our true selfhood in that mirror will become ever clearer.
And so, we heard in our Swedenborg reading today about the ultimate simplicity and accessibility of the path to heaven. He writes similarly elsewhere:
…we can see that it is not as hard to follow the path to heaven as many people believe. The only difficulty is finding the power to resist love for ourselves and love of the world and preventing those loves from taking control, since they are the source of all our evils.
Oh really Swedenborg, is that the *only* difficulty? Finding the power to resist love for ourselves and love of the world and preventing those loves from taking control? Is that all we have to do? I am sarcastic in jest, of course, for he is right: the path is not complicated in principle. We do not have to belong to a specific religion, or a specific ethnicity, we do not have to perform specific rituals or believe counter-intuitive things. We just have to try our best to leave the world a better place for us being here. We just have to try our best to love each other as much as we can. We are born for this path, and God and all the angels in heaven are behind us as we make our way. We hear this reflected in Jesus’ words, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:30)
But just because the way to heaven is simple in principle doesn’t mean that the living of it is easy. It can sometimes feel pretty hard. There are many layers to this work of being a good person. There are depths to be plumbed. For example, we might find it easy to not be overtly racist, but it is much harder to face and eradicate learned unconscious racism, to accept our white privilege, or other privileges. We might find it easy to respect women in our family, but it much harder to publicly stand against misogyny in the workplace. We might find it easy to protect the earth by recycling, but much harder to divest from companies taking advantage of the earth. We might find it easy to give our heart to someone, but much harder to authentically apologize when we are wrong. There is always work that we can do to open our hearts, be more courageous, more loving, and more truthful.
Finding the power to resist love for ourselves and love of the world and preventing those loves from taking control. It is simple but its not small. It is straightforward but it is not easy. The work continues throughout our lives because the way to heaven is not a test, but a journey. The question is not so much “What do I need to do to become an angel?” The question is: “How free do I want to be?”
We heard in our reading about the moment that Noah and his family and all the animals were finally able to leave the ark. They had been set afloat and tossed around by the floodwaters for almost a year, and finally the waters had receded.
Going out of the ark' means freedom….The time that Noah spent in the ark, surrounded by flood water, symbolized being in captivity — that is, being tossed about by evil and falsity or, what amounts to the same thing, by the evil spirits who spark our spiritual battles….
The Lord's presence involves freedom; the one is a consequence of the other. The more present the Lord is, the freer we are. In other words, the more we love goodness and truth, the more freely we act. That is the nature of the Lord's influence, coming by way of angels.
The world, our egos, have plenty to say about who we are and who we should be. The influences of hell piggyback on these messages we receive, intent on subjugating and dominating us, decreasing our sense of hope and possibility. We hear: you are not enough, you are too much, you need to look this way, own this thing, choose this product. We hear: you shouldn’t help them, it’s not your responsibility, it’s a hoax, it’s fake news, you should be very scared. We hear: you must control this, we must control them, own them, destroy them, get your way, get all the power, never apologize. We hear: your anxiety will prevent it, your disowning them will teach them, be small, be quiet, close your eyes, scroll your phone. And so we remain surrounded by the flood water, gulping for breath, splashed and sprayed and shivering, in an ark only three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high, when instead we could be living in the whole wide world.
The more we buy into what hell is selling us, the smaller and more cramped our world will be. But, the more we love goodness and truth, the more freely we act. The more we love goodness and truth, the more we are brought into the influence of the Lord and the angels. We read further:
But once a person has been set free, that is, been regenerated, they are led by the Lord through angels so gently that no yoke or dominion exists at all, for they are being led by what is joyful and pleasing, they are being loved, and they are being shown respect.
The influence of hell means only to make us nothing, and out of that nothing to have us strike out, and plunder, and scream, so to fill a void that can never be filled, to make ever more minuscule a selfhood that knows it was made for love, and to make ever larger a selfhood that is captive to avarice and superiority and fear. This is a desperate search for freedom that has instead settled on a lack of restraint.
The influence of heaven, however, is not undergirded by domination but by love and respect. The irony is that hell would have us be nothing as an insult, to break us down, but heaven would have us be nothing so that there is room for us to learn how beloved we are. The more present the Lord is the freer we are.
Now it might not always feel that way. As we grapple with the complexities of our lives, as the good choice, the right choice, becomes less and less obvious in an inter-connected and inter-dependent world, we might well feel less free, more confused, increasingly ambivalent. This is of course, normal and reasonable. Freedom is not the same thing as decisiveness or clarity. Freedom is not the same thing as ease or flow. Freedom is simply about having the ability to choose who we will serve. Freedom is about letting God pull back the curtain from the mirror and seeing our reflection there, and then really believing that it is us, that it is our future, and our present. When we believe that this true, when we know that it is so, the stakes change. We are no longer trying to be good enough, but to live into what is already true about us, into what God has already ordained for us. And on this road, even our flaws and our mistakes become a pathway for learning, a way to embrace a blessed emptiness into which God pours a love that rebuilds us.
So, as we consider our own spiritual journeys, as we consider our final theme for our angel series, “Becoming an Angel,” we might also consider this quote attributed to novelist Paulo Coelho.
Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that isn’t really you, so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.
We are all meant to be angels. And, unbecoming everything that isn’t really us, is really hard work. A lot of the things that aren’t really us, well, they really feel like they are. It will be difficult to let go. But who you were meant to be…you were meant to be an angel. In God’s past-present-future eyes, you are one. In each moment, now and forever, God is inviting us to come out of the ark, and into the sunshine.
Genesis 8:1-5, 13-19
1 But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. 2 Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. 3 The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, 4 and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. 5 The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.
13 By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. 14 By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry. 15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. 17 Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.” 18 So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. 19 All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. 27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Heaven and Hell #533
We can now see that it is not so hard to lead the life of heaven as people think, because it is simply a matter of recognizing, when something attractive comes up that we know is dishonest or unfair, that this is not to be done because it is against the divine commandments. If we get used to thinking like this, and from this familiarity form a habit, then we are gradually united to heaven. To the extent that we are united to heaven, the higher levels of our minds are opened, and to the extent that they are opened, we see what is dishonest and unfair; and to the extent that we see this, these qualities can be dispelled. For no evil can be banished until it has been seen. This is a state we can enter because of our freedom, since everyone is free to think in this way. However, once the process has started, the Lord works his wonders within us, and causes us not only to see evils but to refuse them and eventually to turn away from them. This is the meaning of the Lord's words, "My yoke is easy and my burden light" (Matt 5:30).
It is important to realize, though, that the difficulty of thinking like this and also of resisting evils increases to the extent that we deliberately do evil things - in fact, to that extent we become used to doing them until ultimately we no longer see them. Then we come to love them and to excuse them to gratify our love and to rationalize them with all kinds of self-deceptions and call them permissible and good. This happens, though, to people who in early adulthood plunge into all kinds of evil without restraint and at the same time at heart reject everything divine.
Readings: Psalm 103:1-2, 13-22, 2 Kings 6:8-17, Secrets of Heaven #5992:1-3 (see below)
Our text for today, one of the stories of the prophet Elisha, is powerful. When we are in moments of fear or anxiety, how comforting it would be to have our eyes be opened to an army of angels helping us! Fear and anxiety are compounded by feelings of aloneness, our own abilities and competencies and agency made smaller by a sense of being isolated. Conversely, our courage is often bolstered by togetherness and solidarity, by knowing that there are people in our corner. So this story resonates. We yearn to know that we stand in the company of those who have our best interests at heart.
This reality is reflected in our Swedenborg reading for today. We may not literally find ourselves facing an army but all battles in the Bible can metaphorically speak to the battles of our minds and spirits. In those moments, we might also know that we are not alone. As we heard in our reading, angels from the Lord lead and protect a person, doing so every instant and fraction of an instant, and they do this out of love for us, for nothing gives them greater joy. Inside every second of our lives, we will find fellowship, we will find encouragement, freely given. Two implications of this teaching strike me as interesting and poignant.
First, we often resonate with the idea of our loved ones being angels who are with us, that they might visit us, or that we might feel their presence with us. This is certainly possible, and lovely, and something that many people experience.
Or we might think of the powerful verse from the book of Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith (12:1-2).
These verses refer to those who have acted with courage and suffered on account their faith in the past, who now stand in solidarity with the early Christians to whom the letter was written. Again, an inspiring and beautiful scene not unlike the story about Elisha; we all look to people from history who have inspired us, whether they be well known or not, and it gives us courage to imagine that they stand with us now.
But Swedenborg doesn’t specifically speak of our guardian angels in either of those terms. Regardless of our family connections in this world, of who we loved in the world and who loved us, each human being is connected to and protected by angels from the moment of their birth, not necessarily angels who knew us, and not necessarily angels who have done something amazing or exemplary in this world. They are simply people like us, who lived a good life, who have done days and years worth of dishes, who breathed approximately 500 million breaths, who messed up and apologized and tried to do better, who lost and learned and prayed and ate and slept. These people, now in the spiritual world, their hearts and minds voluntarily refined by the work of love, have turned around to focus on helping us.
And if there is one thing that has really been brought home for me in doing this angel series with you all, if I had to choose just one thing that has been clarified, and made more meaningful to me, it is that there are people who are fighting for me who I do not know, or might never know. As we remember, angels are not some specially created race of beings so pure and good that *of course* they would support us and look after us. No. As we explored two weeks ago, angels are human beings in the spiritual realm who have chosen to fight for you and me, who delight in every small victory, who believe in us more than we could ever believe in ourselves. We might expect this of a parent, a sibling, a friend…but from someone we have never known? What an unfathomable gift of grace, of confidence, and of love. How could we ever deserve it? We don’t. It’s not about deserving. Angels delight in seeing the image of God in us, revel in our essential worthiness, and what’s more, they *believe* in our worthiness, deeply and unreservedly, now and forever, without ever having known us in the world. Good Lord, how could we ever accept this is true? It is a gift beyond comprehension.
And yet, this is the kind of universe that God has built. A universe that runs on connectedness with each other. A universe that is constructed so that it draws its strength and endurance from an intimate and co-responding relationship between heaven and earth. It is just a matter of course, that in this kind of universe, each us would be lovingly held within such a web of care.
The second thing that I find so fascinating is *how* angels guard and protect us. We often think of protection in terms of a barrier, like a windshield on a car or a railing on a balcony.
But consider this passage from Swedenborg’s Secrets of Heaven:
 A considerable amount of experience has proved the truth of this to me. For I have noticed that when evil spirits have thrust evils and falsities at me, the angels from the Lord present at the time have maintained in me the truths implanted in me previously and have thereby withheld me from those evils and falsities. From this it has also been evident that the truths of faith which, through an affection for truth, have become rooted in me serve as a level into which angels can operate…(1)
Notice that term - the affection for truth - that we spoke about last week. Angels do not bat away challenges like tennis balls or fend off raindrops like an umbrella. Their protection consists in the empowerment of ourselves. We human beings take our love of knowing true things (our affection for truth), and we search for truth to speaks to us, and we construct our dominant perspective piece by piece until it becomes a part of us, rooted in us, so to speak. We operate within a worldview built on the truths in which we have faith. And the angels use this worldview. The protection of angels is to remind us what we believe in. The protection of angels is to strengthen us in what we know to be right and good and true.
So, an example: we might have committed ourselves to a life guided by empathy and non-judgment. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t sometimes, or even often, instinctively judge people before knowing them, perhaps by their appearance or some other small or external thing. We might find ourselves already doing it before we even know it. And then we catch ourselves. That moment when we catch ourselves unfairly judging, that moment when we are reminded of what is important to us and how we wish to live our lives…this is our angels protecting us. Protecting us by reminding us who we are and what is important to us. What we decide to do with that information is our choice. How we interpret and employ that remembrance is up to us.
And, of course, it is not one and done. We are going to mess up again in the very same way. Like in meditation, when our awareness has wandered and we are ask ourselves to gently and without judgment return our awareness to our breath, so too our angels remind us to return to ourselves. We are going to have to do it again and again and again. But this is how a heavenly nature is built, through intention, sacrifice, forgiveness and persistence. Our angels walk us through this cycle as many times as we need.
And on the outside, that might seem like weak sauce to a world that believes that protection is about big strong actions. But, I actually cannot think of anything more powerful or loving. Angels have no interest in protecting us in ways that disempower us, or dis-incentivize us, or infantilize us. Yes, they love us but they love our freedom and our developing journey just as much. This is a mature love, a risky kind of love, a respectful and pragmatic love. And it is a love in which we must participate: a co-responding and reciprocal melding of heart and spirit.
And so, as we spiral along on our journeys, so too our angels spiral with us, protecting us by calling forth our own irrepressible humanity, our own hopefulness. No matter how deeply buried it might be, they will find it, for they know beyond a doubt that it is there.
So, let us now end with this blessing from Jan Richardson, A Blessing for Waking. As the armies of Aram doggedly set up camp before us, first here and then there, constantly enticing us to a world of warfare, of self-preservation, of winner-takes-all, let us remember those who surround us, those who are working to open our eyes to who we really are.
Blessing for Waking
This blessing could pound on your door in the middle of the night
This blessing could bang on your windows, could tap dance in your hall, could set a dog loose in your room.
It could hire a brass band to play outside your home.
But what this blessing really wants is not merely your waking but your company.
This blessing wants to sit alongside you and keep vigil with you. This blessing wishes to wait with you.
And so, though it is capable of causing a cacophony that could raise the dead, this blessing will simply lean toward you and sing quietly in your ear, a song to lull you not into sleep but into waking.
It will tell you stories that hold you breathless till the end.
It will ask you questions you never considered and have you tell it what you saw in your dreaming.
This blessing will do all within its power to entice you into awareness, because it wants to be there, to bear witness, to see the look in your eyes on the day when your vigil is complete and all your waiting has come to its joyous end. (2)
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #5893:3
(2) Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, p23-25.
Psalm 103:1-2, 13-22
1 Praise the LORD, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. 2 Praise the LORD, my soul, and forget not all his benefits.
13 As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who revere him; 14 for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. 15 The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; 16 the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. 17 But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who revere him, and his righteousness with their children’s children— 18 with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts. 19 The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. 20 Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. 21 Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. 22 Praise the LORD, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the LORD, my soul.
2 Kings 6:8-17
8 Now the king of Aram was at war with Israel. After conferring with his officers, he said, “I will set up my camp in such and such a place.” 9 The man of God sent word to the king of Israel: “Beware of passing that place, because the Arameans are going down there.” 10 So the king of Israel checked on the place indicated by the man of God. Time and again Elisha warned the king, so that he was on his guard in such places. 11 This enraged the king of Aram. He summoned his officers and demanded of them, “Tell me! Which of us is on the side of the king of Israel?” 12 “None of us, my lord the king,” said one of his officers, “but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom.” 13 “Go, find out where he is,” the king ordered, “so I can send men and capture him.” The report came back: “He is in Dothan.” 14 Then he sent horses and chariots and a strong force there. They went by night and surrounded the city. 15 When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked. 16 “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17 And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
Secrets of Heaven #5992:1, 3
5992. [Regarding] The angels through whom the Lord leads and also protects a person…Their function is to impart charity and faith, to notice the direction in which the person's delights turn, and to modify and bend those delights towards what is good, so far as they can do so in the person's freedom. The angels are forbidden to act in any violent manner and thereby crush a person's evil desires and false assumptions; they must act gently…
 In particular the angels call forth the forms of good and truth residing with a person and set them opposite the evils and falsities activated by the evil spirits. As a result the person is in the middle and is not conscious of the evil or of the good; and being in the middle they are in freedom to turn towards one or towards the other. Angels from the Lord employ means like these to lead and protect a person, doing so every instant and fraction of an instant. For if the angels were to let up merely for a single moment the person would be plunged into evil from which after that they cannot possibly be brought out. The angels are motivated to do all this by a love they receive from the Lord, for nothing gives them greater delight and happiness than to remove evils from a person and lead them to heaven. This is their joy. Scarcely anyone believes the Lord has that kind of concern for a person, a constant concern lasting from the very beginning of a person's existence to the final moment of their life, and for evermore after that.
Photo credit: Castorly Stock
Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-8, Matthew 5:13-20, Secrets of Heaven #9207:1-2 (see below)
I remember, as a child growing up in rural Australia, being involved in a number of tree planting initiatives. It seemed at that point in time, deforestation had led to increased salt levels in the soil, which had decreased the soil’s fertility. The solution was to plant more trees again. My beloved choir teacher had even written a song about it, which still makes me so happy to remember to this day. The words went like this:
We can halt the salt, we can help heal the land
We can plant trees with our own two hands
We can bring back the balance, a little each year
’Til the soil is sweet again, and all the rivers run clear.
It was branded onto my childlike heart, the wonder that I, small as I was, could do something beneficial and important to bring about a common good, and that we could all do it together. I will never ever forget that.
So in that particular context, too much salt in the earth was a bad thing. When Jesus called this followers the “salt of the earth” he was trying to get at something else entirely. Salt is certainly ubiquitous in our lives, and Jesus enjoyed using metaphorical language that employed the everyday. We have come to understand the “salt of the earth” to mean noble, no-nonsense, grounded, hard-working people. And this is basically who Jesus was talking to in this text. He had just begun the Sermon on the Mount, had just blessed the poor in spirit, the meek and those who mourn, people who normally don’t see themselves as blessed. And then he likened them to a valuable and useful mineral, something that anyone would be delighted to find and use, something of worth. But he also delivered a warning: salt without the quality of saltiness is pointless. It might as well be a random rock. Being “salt of the earth” was not a designation that could be bestowed, it was a quality that needed to be lived, a way of being. Salt isn’t really salt unless it is salt-y.
In the Swedenborgian worldview, salt corresponds to the “affection for truth.” It is old-fashioned phrasing to be sure, but basically, think of that feeling of relief and openness and gratitude and contentment in our minds when something clicks into place and makes sense and we know that it is true. That is a good feeling. We love that feeling. We usually want more of that feeling. Swedenborg calls this drive for wanting more of that feeling the “affection for truth.” The affection for truth simply means the love that we have for things that are true, and more broadly, the love that we have for the notion and the existence of truth itself.
So going further then, Swedenborg tells us that the state of being salted or salty represents the desire truth has for goodness. Swedenborg is nothing if not consistent. He tells us over and over and over again, that truth is not actually true unless it is also good, unless its inherent truthfulness springs from goodness. So, if salt corresponds to loving the truth, having the quality of saltiness corresponds to recognizing how goodness is the soul of truth, how truth is necessarily conjoined to goodness, and that loving what is true must also mean loving what is good.
And because of this, because loving what is true also means loving what is good, that Swedenborg describes salt as representing the conjunctive power of the heavenly marriage, which is the union of love and wisdom in God. He says:
'Salt' receives this meaning from its conjunctive properties; for it makes ingredients all combine and consequently brings out their flavor. (1)
This is one way to think about the so-called conjunctive power of salt, but I cannot also help but think of the chemical make-up of salt. Table salt is the result of the conjunction of two different elements: an atom each of sodium and chlorine. These specific atoms of sodium and chlorine need each other because of an imbalance in their electrons; one has one too many and one has one two few. They conjoin so that they can share an electron, and the force of that sharing (a positive charge and a negative charge coming together) creates a totally new thing: sodium chloride or table salt.
Even in its molecular form, salt models a principle of conjunction, the union of truth and goodness, for together truth and goodness become something whole and useful. Truth alone is like an atom missing an electron, deeply, inherently and desperately incomplete. It yearns for conjunction. So truth cannot just refer to good, or be adjacent to good, but genuine truth fervently wishes to be conjoined to good, to share its life, so that they together may be essentially one thing and one thing only: Truth-that-does-good.
Now, the Sermon on the Mount is not the only time that salt is mentioned in the Bible. There is also plenty of wasteland imagery to be found that speaks to what happens when there is too much salt and nothing can grow. This was the burgeoning reality of my rural homeland (which good people worked very hard to reverse). Swedenborg tells us that the in the contrary sense, salt represents the perversion of the desire for truth, and the consequently destructive desire that falsity has for evil. (2)
Because the reality is that the innate desire we human beings have for knowing can be turned inward. That shining beautiful moment of having things make sense can be addictive, we want to feel that way all the time, we want to claim that we have all the answers, that complete certainty is the only good and that doubt and questioning and nuance are all a sign of weakness and moral relativism.
But, it is an illusion that truth can be grasped and captured and turned into an unshakable certainty that serves to assuage our fear of being alone, of being replaced, of being unworthy, of being broken. When truth is used thus, it is emptied of itself, it becomes a shadow, a shell. No matter how logical or sensical it might sound on the outside, truth emptied of good is falsity. It is soul-less. A black hole. A weapon.
This is a love for self, for safety, for superiority, and for power, that is dressed up as a love for truth. As Jesus suggests, it may look like salt but it is no longer salty. It cannot season or preserve, it cannot increase enjoyment or productivity, it is just sharp, spiky, hard and rocky.
And while I take Jesus’ point that such truth has lost its inherently useful quality, ie saltiness, speaking in this way downplays the dangerousness of a love for truth that is turned inward. The salt metaphor taken in another direction, the wasteland, brings this home more potently. Too much salt can lead to the ruination of the land, lays it waste, destroys it, prevents growth, fertility, generativity. Likewise, a grasping, rapacious desire for truth that keeps turning truth inside out like so many empty pockets, searching evermore for something that will finally prove the superiority of our selfhood, that will finally ensure the justification of our transgressions, that will finally erase the need for vulnerability…this desire will destroy everything it comes across, if given its way. This desire wants truth to serve and support power, but it cannot. Truth can only ever, and will only ever, serve love.
So for example, it is true that if we are to have nations at all, then it is reasonable that a nation should have borders and have some control over who gets to be a citizen. Certainly. But when this truth is used to justify north of five thousand children separated from their families(1), it becomes falsity, nothing but falsity. It is reasonable to think that migrants should attempt to enter our country legally. But when this truth is used to justify migrants requesting asylum be sent back to their country to be killed or tortured (2), it becomes falsity. It is reasonable to believe that justice should follow a due and transparent process. But when a hyper-focus on process is used to cover up wrong-doing and obstruction, it is a falsity. It is reasonable to think that voters at the voting booth should be who they say they are. But when this truth is used to create voter ID laws that systematically suppress the voting rights of certain groups, it is a falsity. It is true that we should be honest and authentic and real in our dealings with other people. But when this truth is used to justify willingly insensitive and unkind behavior, it is a falsity.
We read in Jeremiah… “But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.”
Just as I planted tree after tree in my childhood home, trying to halt the salt, heal the land, bring back the balance, so we too can strive to love truth in the right way, for the ways that truth grounds us and puts our hands in the dirt, makes us salt of the earth, salt-in-and-connected-to the goodness of the earth. We can strive to have an affection for truth-that-serves-good, not truth-that-serves-party, not truth-that-serves-power, not truth-that-serves-self-preservation, but truth-that-serves-good.
For we are the trees that will halt the salt, heal the land, bring back the balance. Let us plant ourselves by the Lord’s living water, truths that hydrate and flow, right through our branches and into leaves and fruit and flowers. A bounty of goodness for all.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #10300:1
(2) Ibid #10300:2
5 This is what the LORD says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in humankind, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the LORD. 6 That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives. 7 “But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. 8 They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Secrets of Heaven #9207:1-2
…The fact that truths perish with those who have no desire for good is evident from what has been stated…regarding goodness and truth when joined together. But something further must be stated regarding that joining together. Truths that have been joined to good always hold within them a desire to do good, and at the same time to be joined more closely to good by doing it. Or what amounts to the same thing, those who possess truths always have a desire to do good and to join it thereby to their truths. People therefore who think that they are in possession of truths but who have no desire to do good do not in fact possess truths; that is, they have no belief in them, however much they imagine they do have.
 Their condition is portrayed by the Lord when He speaks of 'salt', in Matthew,
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt is tasteless, by what will it be made salty? It no longer has any use, except to be thrown outdoors and trodden down by people. (Matt 5:13)
The Lord says these things to the disciples and to the people. By 'the salt of the earth' He means the Church's truth that has a desire for good, and by 'tasteless salt' He means truth devoid of any desire for good. The fact that such truth is worthless is portrayed by the idea of salt which has become tasteless and no longer has any use, except to be thrown outdoors and trodden down by people. Having a desire for good means having a desire to do good and thereby be joined to good.
Readings: I Kings 19:1-13, Secrets of Heaven #5036:2 (see below)
Sometimes it can be hard to relate to the Bible. Without historical context, many of the stories seem strange to us. But chapter 19 in I Kings is one of those chapters in which the millennia that separate us and the time it was written just fall away. Who cannot resonate with the heart of Elijah’s experience? We may not personally be under threat of an evil queen, we may not have a wilderness to which we might flee or a broom bush under which we might pray. But we know what it is to feel like there is something that might destroy our life or happiness, some loss that will devastate us. We know what it is to feel like to need to run away. We know what it is to say: “I have had enough, Lord.” We know that feeling of weariness, emptiness, and aloneness.
These feelings are a part of being a human being. Jesus felt all these things too, in the garden of Gethsemane, on the cross, in being rejected by his hometown, in all those times the disciples just could not understand what he was trying to do. These are truths of our human experience; they are real and we honor how difficult they are.
But…as valid and as real as these truths of *our* personal experience might be, they do not necessarily tell us the truth about God. The ultimate truth is that we are never alone. God is always with us and never withdraws. Likewise, angels are with us in every moment and always desire to benefit us and do their best to help us. But, the truth is sometimes, like Elijah, we just don’t feel it. At all. What does Swedenborg teach us about these times?
First, it is important to note that not everyone experiences connection to spirit and to God in the same way. We are all unique and different, and likewise we will all have unique and different forms of spiritual experience, different ways that we perceive the presence of spirit, different ways we are moved by spirit. Some of us might feel the movement of spirit through music, or prayer, or nature, or silence. Some of us might feel the presence of spirit through ideas, through insight, through words put together in a way that illuminates, through story. Some of us might notice the presence of spirit more literally in sight or sound, or more diffusely through feeling, perception, intuition or dreams. One kind of experience is not better than another.
Second, Swedenborg teaches that we are not generally supposed to be able to feel our connection to spirit in a way that encroaches on our freedom.(1) Sure, it might seem like it would be comforting to have a literal angel by our side all the time, giving us whatever we need, or an angel showing up in times of challenge to give just the right advice, but the nature of that kind of occurrence can also be somewhat coercive. We are not supposed to feel the connection in a way that gives us no choice in acknowledging it. The natural power and transcendence of angels cannot help but naturally influence us, and might well force us into belief, erasing our ability to doubt.
And we need to be able to doubt. Swedenborg writes that doubt is extremely important to our spiritual process:
In addition it should be recognized that it is in accordance with the laws of order that no one should become convinced of the truth instantaneously, that is, should instantaneously be made so sure of the truth that he is left in no doubt at all about it. The reason for this is that when truth is impressed on a person in that kind of way, they become so fully convinced of it that it cannot be broadened in any way or qualified in any way. Truth like this is represented in the next life as that which is hard, not allowing good into itself to make it pliable. This goes to explain why in the next life as soon as some truth is presented through plain experience to good spirits, some opposing idea giving rise to doubt is presented. In this way they are led to think and ponder over whether it is indeed a truth, gather reasons in support of it, and so introduce that truth into their minds by the use of reason. This enables their spiritual vision in respect of that truth to be broadened, seeing even into the ideas that are opposed to it. (2)
Angels would never want to take away our ability to doubt, to influence our process in a way that ultimately does not serve us over time. So, angels typically work with us in a gentle and nuanced way, using that which is already within us to provoke feelings of hope, positivity and strength.(3)
But sometimes, even a gentle presence or connection may not be discernible to us. Swedenborg teaches that there are two reasons for feeling such a separation:
First, we ourselves might have turned away. Angels can only work with what we give them. If we are making choices that are evil and unkind, if we are entertaining and defending false notions, and if we do these things to serve our own selfhood and self-preservation, it is harder for angels to be present and useful to us. Think of it like turning our cell phone off, or literally turning our back towards a friend and plugging our ears.
We all make choices, and sometimes those choices will privilege our egos, our self-absorption, and our defensiveness. These states of mind are less open spirit and more naturally closed and inward-looking. We can’t receive calls with our phones turned off. We can’t hear our friend with our fingers in our ears. Yet, there is nothing permanent about this. We can always choose to turn our phone back on or turn around. A friend, even the best and most compassionate might at some point leave if we ignore them for too long but God and angels never will. They continue to work as best they can for us, as closely as they can, even if we are not letting them in.(4)
The second reason that connection to spirit might feel faint is if we are actively experiencing temptation. The Swedenborgian notion of temptation is a little more robust than our current cultural one, which generally seems to be about either seduction or an irresistible piece of chocolate cake. But really, true temptation is nothing other than a situation that exposes a challenge to our spiritual or moral conscience. We might just call it “spiritual struggle.” We come across these situations all the time, in lesser and greater forms, whereby we experience varying levels of agitation, confusion, sadness and anger. There are too many examples of spiritual struggle to list, and all of them deeply personal. We can all remember times we have been tempted to walk by, withhold love, give up hope, discount ourselves, make an assumption, lash out, close our eyes. We think of Elijah, standing up to to an evil regime, but empty, afraid, not sure what to next or how to move forward, doubting that anything he did mattered. This is temptation and it isn’t fun.
Not that it is much of a comfort, but it is through these experiences of temptation that we are forged, that we are propelled forward in our spiritual journey. Through them we shed notions and ideas that do not serve love, we let go of desires or fears that hold us back from doing good in the world. Temptations of many kinds are necessary, so that we might become progressively more heavenly.
But they are difficult and challenging work, and in those times when we are consumed by our own feelings, when it feels like we are fighting for survival, it can be hard to notice how God and angels are present with us. It is like having the phone on but not being able to hold it to our ear, or letting our friend hold us but crying so hard we can’t hear what they are saying. This is okay. Angels have nothing but compassion for us in this state. And again, there is nothing we can do that would make them leave, for they have been through all of it just as we have, and they know how hard it is.
But even more, they are not simply passive during times of temptation. Swedenborg teaches that angels and spirits are connected to our thoughts and feelings. When our selfish feelings and our false thoughts are in conflict with our good feelings and true thoughts, then the spirits and angels with us are in conflict as well. The angels are fighting for us. We heard in our reading that the angels defend us from within. That reading continues:
As stated, temptations arise primarily when a person is becoming spiritual, for at that time we are gaining a spiritual understanding of the truths of doctrine. The person themself is often unaware that this is happening; even so, the angels present with us see spiritual concerns within our natural ones since our interiors at this time are open towards heaven. (5)
What is most amazing is that the angels are not only fighting for us as we are now, they are fighting for who they know we can become. The angels present with us see spiritual concerns within our natural ones since our interiors at this time are open towards heaven. The angels know something about us more deeply than we ourselves know it. The angels see us truly, they see what is still obscure about us to us, yet they see the best of us and they draw that forth and protect it. What faith! Within our natural concerns they see the infinite and eternal, they see the heart of the matter, even if we can’t see it. They see our yearning and our deepest hoping, they see the cracks where the light can get in, they see our openness and they fight for it, even as we fail and stumble and fall. They bring us food and water, love and insight, nourishment for the journey. They believe in us. They say: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” They don’t fix our problems for us, but they give us the sustenance to make it to the mountain of God. And most of the time we don’t even know they are doing it.
Today, we will join together in what we call The Holy Supper, when we recall Jesus breaking bread and drinking wine with his disciples. We ourselves eat bread and drink wine as a remembrance of the how far God reached out to us, as a recognition of the ways that we are connected to spirit through God’s love and wisdom, and in gratitude for the ways we are nourished by what is good and what is true, what is loving and what is real. Today, let us also think of the angels attending Elijah and providing sustenance in the same way. Wine and water both correspond to truth, and so today we will have both wine and water available, so that if you wish it, you may enact a recognition of the ways that angels show up for us and nourish us.
All at once an angel touched him and said “Get up and eat.” 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. (I Kings 19:5-6)
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4249
(2) Ibid #7298:2 (3) Ibid #2338
(4) Ibid #3402 and #2121
(5) Ibid #5036:3
I Kings 19:1-13
Elijah Flees to Horeb
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.
9 There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Secrets of Heaven #5036:2
As for temptations themselves, they are going on while a person is in the actual process of being regenerated, for no one can be regenerated unless they also undergo temptations; and the evil spirits around then are the means through which those temptations are brought about. In temptation the person is brought into a state in which the evil that possesses them, that is, possesses their own essential self, is dominant. Once they enters this state evil and hellish spirits surround them, and when they realize that inwardly a person is protected by angels those evil spirits reactivate the false ideas a person has previously contemplated and the evil deeds a person has committed. But the angels defend us from within. This conflict is what a person experiences as temptation, yet the experience is so vague that we are aware of it as scarcely anything more than a feeling of anxiety. For a person, especially one who has no belief at all in influx, dwells in a state of complete obscurity and discerns scarcely the smallest fraction of the things over which evil spirits and angels are engaged in conflict. Yet a battle is taking place at such a time over us and our eternal salvation, with both sides using what is within us; for both draw on what resides with a person and engage in conflict over it. The truth of this I have been led most certainly to know. I have heard such conflict going on, I have perceived the influx taking place, and I have seen the spirits and the angels, to whom I spoke at the time and subsequently about what was happening.