Inviting Mara to Tea
Readings: Mark 14:27-31, 66-72, The Doctrine of Life 45 (see below)
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Welcome to the fourth installment in our Lenten series, Grounded: Goodness By Design. So now, finally, we get to the Lent-y part of the series, the part when we think about how we need to change, what we might need to do differently in our lives going forward.
We start with Peter’s story of denying Jesus. It’s just heart-wrenching isn’t it? To be so confident and then to deny so quickly and fully. There is something so very human about that. I think we can recognize ourselves in the text. We have such good intentions, high hopes, lofty goals. And then sometimes they are undone in a moment.
It is in this context of our obvious human fallibility that we can understand Swedenborg’s rather incredulous but common sense critique of Protestantism of his time. He thought that the doctrine of faith alone, as in the notion that all our salvation requires is a simple faith in Jesus' sacrifice and has nothing at all to do with how we act, was patently ridiculous. He wondered: How can the life of faith have nothing to do with our behavior? Look at how much we all mess up! Of course our behavior has to be part of the equation or what is the spiritual life even for? Swedenborg put forth instead a progressive and transformational vision of salvation, with faith and love working together to move us forward incrementally. And isn’t this much more like how we actually live our lives? We learn and grow in proportion to our openness and willingness to do so.
And it is with that focus, the fact that how we act is part of our faith story, that Swedenborg pretty much constantly talks about turning our backs on our evil desires, beliefs and behaviors. Older translations use the term shunning, that we should shun evils as sins. It seems pretty simple, he was saying just don’t be evil, don’t be bad, or destructive, or malicious. Makes sense, right? But it didn’t seem to him that religion at the time was focusing on that much anymore, especially the everyday evils - being a jerk, being dishonest, being selfish. But our lives are made up out of these everyday sins too.
And so it is a focus of Swedenborgian theology, in Lent and the whole year round, to cultivate awareness of our everyday evils and then to shun them, to say no to them and to stop doing them. To us, this is the bare minimum of the spiritual life; to care enough about God, ourselves and others to embark on a journey of doing better.
But, as you may well have guessed from the tone and direction of this Lenten series, I’m going to gently challenge how we hold this task, and particularly the language of shunning. As a good Swedenborgian, I’ve totally assimilated the notion of shunning evils, and when my everyday evils come up: jealousy, apathy, prejudice, fear, or any number of others, I’ll say NO, go away, that’s not me or how I want to be. And let me just say up front, that of course, I think this is an important “intellectual” process. We need to have clarity about what is right and wrong, we need to draw our lines in the sand, we need to be resolved on what kind of life we are trying to build, and that often means a commitment about what *not* to do.
But, emotionally, in the last several years, I’ve found shunning has showed up for me as a rather energetically aggressive and sort of superficial approach. It’s both exhausting and inherently judgmental, and doesn’t actually get to the bottom of why challenges might are coming up in my spiritual life in the first place.
Hence, the ideas from Buddhism that I have been introducing in these last two series: surrender, acceptance and self-compassion. Perhaps where I am going with this can be best illustrated by this Buddhist story, which I will paraphrase:
The Buddha was meditating under a tree one day, and saw the demon Mara lurking around the edges of the grove, spoiling for a fight. The Buddha knew that he was a match for Mara but also that, because of Mara’s nature, he would always be there, waiting to ambush. So, the Buddha said: “I see you, Mara.” And he invited Mara to tea, and served Mara with kindness. Mara was befuddled and eventually went away. (1)
I love this story. I love how it subverts an assumed combative premise, and offers up another way. There is something very powerful, a power derived from peaceful confidence rather than defiance, whereby the Buddha acknowledges Mara’s presence and who Mara is, and then takes away Mara’s power, which exists in the assumption that the “fight” is necessary. We notice of course, that the Buddha isn’t befriending Mara, isn’t signing on to or acquiescing to Mara’s agenda, which clearly is an agenda based in suffering and destruction. The Buddha simply accepts that Mara is present, and that leads to a reframing of the situation.
I think that sometimes, our focus on shunning our evils, even turning our backs on them as the more recent translations say, can only be a short-term solution. Yes, if we are in the heat of the moment tempted to kick the dog, then yes, shun that real hard!! But then, when the heat of the moment is gone, perhaps we should spend some time inhabiting that impulse, asking it where it comes from, and what it might need in order to be healed. Because, whenever we go all in on shunning the impulse after the fact, that looks a lot more like denial. Accepting that our evil impulses exist, and exist for a some sort of reason, is foundational to our spiritual progress, because, if we do that curious work, work based in acceptance and self-compassion rather than denial, we will be less likely to even consider kicking the dog next time.
Acceptance can lead to change. And I know my brain is doing a little short-circuit because the definition of acceptance communicates a kind of static affirmation, a reaching of a state of approval. How can something like that lead to change? Isn’t that the opposite of change? I think rather, it is an acceptance grounded in acknowledgment rather than explicit approval. We need to see Mara first, accept Mara’s presence first, before deciding upon wise action because then in that clarity held with kindness, we have more freedom than just fight or flight. We can decide, as the Buddha did, to reject any false categories, like the combat Mara was wanting, and opt for a better solution.
Tara Brach writes: “By holding my feelings of anger and frustration with “radical acceptance” I could find my way to the caring that gives rise to wise action. Acceptance of whatever arises in us in the present moment is not a passive act. Rather, this engaged, mindful presence allows us to respond to our world from our deepest compassion and wisdom.” (24-25)
As we return to our reading today, we observe that we don’t get to hear from the gospel Peter’s internal process around his cowardice. We know he wept bitterly, and I think we all recognize that abyss of regret and disappointment. What we do know is that Peter went on to become an influential apostle, a key figure in the development of the early Christian church. And I believe an important part of him getting there was the way he encountered Jesus after the resurrection. In the gospel of John, there is a story of the disciples fishing and Jesus calling to them to breakfast on the beach (and this is a text we will hear more from in May). Jesus doesn’t demand an apology. But he does ask Peter three times, "Do you love me?” echoing, one could even say, healing, Peter’s three-fold denial. Each time Peter answers yes, and each time Jesus answers with a variation on “Feed my sheep.” The end game, as the Buddha knew, is not the vanquishment of our everyday evils as a sign of valor and purity. The end game is feeding Jesus’ sheep, those around us, and the reason we work to remove our evils is because they are going to get in the way of being loving. And we should attempt their removal in whatever way removes them from the root, rather than just removing them from our eyes. Compassion and understanding together can lead to powerful transformation.
Or, as noted by a renowned Buddhist teacher,
“The essence of Buddhism is to discover a state of lasting happiness and to work for the benefit of others. On this path, wisdom and compassion are inseparable. Little by little, through a process of investigation, we gradually come closer to understanding the truth.” (2)
Mark 14:27-31, 66-72
27 “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: “ ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” 29 Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.” 30 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.” 31 But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same.
66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said. 68 But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway. 69 When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” 70 Again he denied it. After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” 71 He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” 72 Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
The Doctrine of Life #45.
It then follows that as we turn our backs on evils because they are sins we have faith, because as explained just above this means that we are focused on what is good. There is support for this in the contrasting fact that if we do not turn our backs on evils because they are sins we do not have faith, because we are focused on what is evil, and evil has an intrinsic hatred for truth. Outwardly, yes, we can befriend truth and put up with it and even love having it in our understanding; but when we shed that outwardness, as happens after death, we first discard the truth we befriended in the world, then we deny that it is true, and finally we turn away from it.
Laying Down the Second Arrow
Readings: Psalm 22:1-5, 22-25, Luke 6:37-42, Secrets of Heaven 8573:2 (see below)
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I’m going to open today with a reading from Tara Brach’s Trusting the Gold, in which we hear the teaching of The Second Arrow:
“One day, it is said, the Buddha was talking to a group of his followers about our habit of being down on ourselves when something goes wrong, and how that only imprisons us in suffering. Noticing that one of the young men there looked puzzled, he invited him forward and asked, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” Probably thinking that was a pretty obvious question, the student responded, “Well, yes it is.”
Nodding, the Buddha went on. “And if that same person is then struck by a second arrow, would that be even more painful?” The student replied, "Yes, it would be.”
The Buddha then explained: In life, difficulty naturally arises—things don’t go as we wish, or we have an accident, or we get sick. We can’t always control that first painful arrow. However, he went on, we can add to our pain by the way we react to what’s happening. He added that we might feel victimized or angry about life being unfair, or we might blame ourselves for poor self-care. Our reaction is the second arrow, and it intensifies our suffering, said the Buddha…”
(Tara continues) It’s helpful to remember that the first arrow in this story is not only about that unpleasant feeling we experience when something goes wrong in our lives. The first arrow can also be the emotional pain we feel when we are afraid, or angry, when we feel grief or hatred. It can be the pain of depression or lust. And when we then respond by blaming ourselves for these already painful feelings, we are shooting the second arrow. As we awaken compassion for ourselves and release shame and self-judgment, we free ourselves from this suffering and heal our hearts.”(1)
We will all suffer at some point, at many points, in our lives, in various ways large and small. That suffering will cause us pain. This is a fact of life. This might especially happen in Lent, if we are spending time noticing and reflecting upon where we need to improve. And this is the first arrow in the Buddha’s story. We might even spend a lot of time investing in various kinds of metaphorical armor, various habits based in control and/or denial. But at some point an arrow will find a chink. This is inevitable. And it will hurt. We will feel the pain of loss, change, betrayal, surprise, and we will experience grief, anger, sadness and fear as a result.
But then sometimes a curious thing happens, we start having feelings about our painful feelings. Judgy feelings. Our self-talk might start sounding like: why aren’t you over this yet, why are you making this so hard, just buck up okay? you’re stronger than this, it must be so hard because I’m so broken and lazy, only a terrible person would feel such resentment or anger, stop being such a coward, or a ?? Or, it might just be as simple as a sense of anxiety, that we are feeling painful feelings at all. When we do this, we have shot ourselves with that second arrow. We have intensified our pain with pain of our own making.
Why do we do this? That’s a really good question that is probably answered best from inside each of our own contexts. But one possible answer is suggested in our gospel reading from Luke. It certainly is a famous one, a warning against the hypocrisy of judging others while being blind to our own faults. No one wants to be that hapless person with the enormous plank in their eye that they can’t seem to see. And while we might first feel that warning on the level of social embarrassment, I think we all sense how ultimately dangerous such an oblivious and unwilling mindset can be; we see from the news how it easily can lead to atrocities against our fellow human beings.
I wonder, perhaps, if the tendency to shoot the second arrow at ourselves comes from a deep and sincere assimilation of this warning against hypocrisy, against psychological obliviousness. When we have a deep investment in the spiritual path, or in just trying to be a “good” person, we understand that seeing and acknowledging our faults is the first step to overcoming them. And so we might naturally focus a lot of energy on this necessary first step - it is an important one! Over time though, we might find ourselves over-investing in this step; diagnosis is often easier than figuring out what to do or how to change in a complicated situation, and much much easier than patience and perseverance. And so we default to the second arrow, finding fault in ourselves again and again because it feels like we are doing something good. Aren’t we supposed to judge ourselves? Aren’t we supposed to take that splinter out of our eye? Yes, of course, we are, until we accidentally find our desire for control leading our good intentions, the blind leading the blind straight into the pit.
Out of the fear of blindness to our own faults, we fall into a pit of even greater blindness, where we forget the mercy of God. God doesn’t require that second arrow from us. It doesn’t get us any extra points (not that God has a point system, anyway). In our Swedenborg reading today we heard that God is constantly excusing, constantly forgiving, and constantly showing mercy. And this is because the judgment is never the point. Judgment is a means to an end. Perhaps a better word is discernment: it is a seeing with clarity, sorting things out, and then making a decision in order to move forward. And to move forward to what? Towards being a more loving person. This is God’s goal and God will give us as many chances as we are willing to sincerely take.
We might ask though, “what about those times when we really should be feeling blame?” Yeah, there are definitely those times, we all mess up, sometimes badly. The point of this whole second arrow exercise isn’t to avoid the notion of self-blame entirely. There are times, when we have done something wrong, something harmful to another, when we *should* feel blame, guilt and regret. These can be helpful emotions, even though they are painful, because they indicate an active conscience, they let us know when we have strayed off course. Sometimes pain can be useful; when we choose to engage with it it can allow us to grow. This promise is actually what Easter is all about. But that still doesn’t mean that we need to shoot that second arrow. It’s just not helpful. The pain of the first arrow goes something like this: Boy, did I ever mess up and I feel terrible about it. I really need to make amends, and I’m going to do so. The pain of the second arrow goes more like this: I am a terrible person. I can’t believe I did this. I will never be able to make this right. And by the way, why can’t I be more confident and just shake this off? (Hey. No one said our self-talk is always logical).
And the problem is that no matter how the first arrow came about, the second arrow paradoxically keeps us circling in place instead of moving forward. It’s an irony, because I think the second arrow, most of the time, comes from a misguided but genuine place. It just ends up doing the opposite of what we think it’s going to do. The first arrow gives us pain aplenty. We might think we need that second arrow to prove we are really serious, to prove that we are not asleep at the helm, to prove that we know the difference between right and wrong, to prove that we are strong. But we don’t need to prove any of this to God. And if God is willing to extend compassion towards us, then perhaps we should too.
From Psalm 22: To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. Amen.
(1) Tara Brach, Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness, p15-17
Psalm 22:1-5, 22-25
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? 2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. 3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises. 4 In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. 5 To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
22 I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. 23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! 24 For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. 25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who revere you I will fulfill my vows.
37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” 39 He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher. 41 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Secrets of Heaven 8573:
As regards the nature of intercession, all love holds intercession within it, and so does all mercy since mercy is the characteristic of love. Anyone who has love or who has mercy is interceding constantly, as the following examples demonstrate: The husband who loves his wife wishes her to be well-received and well-treated by others. He does not express his wish in actual words, but it is constantly in his thinking, so that he is silently requesting it and interceding for her. Parents do the same thing for their children whom they love. It is likewise what a person governed by charity does for his neighbour, and what one moved by friendship does for a friend. These examples show that intercession is present unceasingly in all love. The same is true of the Lord's intercession for the human race, especially for those with whom the goodness and truth of faith are present; for towards them Divine - that is, infinite - love is shown, and Divine - that is, infinite - mercy. Not that the Lord prays to the Father for them and intercedes in that way; for then He would be acting in an entirely human manner. Rather He is constantly excusing and constantly forgiving, because He is constantly showing mercy; this the Lord Himself is doing since the Lord and the Father are one, John 14:8-12
Seven Loaves to Feed a Crowd
Readings: Matthew 15:32-39, Apocalypse Revealed #10 (see below)
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Many times the spiritual life is about striving, and that’s a good thing. We owe it to each other to try to be a a little bit better today than yesterday, to leave the world a little better than we came into it. Indeed, this is the heart of the New Church vision of the New Jerusalem; a transformed world made up of one transformed heart and mind at a time. Lent is part of that story, a time when we might try a little harder, and with a little more focus.
For those of us that tend toward a more anxious frame of mind, though, the healthy striving of the spiritual life can sometimes get a little twisted up. This is totally understandable because the hells, and our egos, and western culture are always deifying the hustle, tempting us to value ourselves by our achievements, calling us forward to take our place on the treadmill of “just a little more, just a little better.” When that constant drumbeat becomes the soundtrack of our brains this can a tyranny. Striving can be a good thing, but not when it become the stick that we beat ourselves up with.
So today, we are going to focus on the notion of “being enough.” At a soul level, we are always enough, for we are created in the image and likeness of God. Yes, God wants us to be happy, and so yes, God helps us to transform ourselves into loving and kind people, but God doesn’t love us “more” when we do that. And God certainly doesn’t love us more if we constantly worry about not being good enough, as if that would somehow prove how serious we are about it.
And so our text for today is the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, whereby Jesus transforms a small amount of bread and fish into enough to feed a multitude. Please don’t get the wrong idea. This story isn’t about asking God to multiply what we can give, what we can achieve, make us more more more. In our Swedenborg reading, we learned that the number seven represents not “more” but fullness and completeness. They began with seven loaves, and they ended up with seven baskets; the number seven—completeness—remained the same in the beginning and in the end. So from this, I hope we can rest in the idea that wherever we are in the journey, we are enough.
Now, this lesson might not be for everyone. We all need different things, for some, a message of motivation and striving is what is needed, and we do preach that a lot. But we need not fear that resting in our enough-ness will suddenly leave us complacent. In fact, psychological research has shown the opposite: higher levels of positive emotions like gratitude actually lead to more action. So, let us make space today, for knowing we are enough as we are.
I’ll invite you now to join me in a time of contemplation. I’ll begin with a reading from Tara Brach’s Trusting the Gold. And then we will hear our scriptures again, and we can sit with them for a moment, and finally we’ll end with a prayer from George Appleton. Make comfortable in your seat, take a deep breath, and close your eyes.
I could have done that better, I should have gotten more done. I wish I had been more sensitive. For many years, never enough was a chronic habit of mind, and I could run endless variations on the theme. Finally one night before going to bed, I sat down and asked myself “Okay, what would be enough? What do I have to do to be good enough?”
Over the next weeks, I started tracking what happened after I’d completed a successful weekend of teaching, or after receiving feedback about contributing to others’ wellbeing, or after being particularly kind or generous with someone. The enough feeling would last about 2.4 minutes before I’d start fixating on what else I needed to do, how I needed to prepare for the next event, how I needed to be more consistently sensitive and kind. Even the most satisfying accomplishments, upon close inspection, would seem tainted by ego, and therefore not spiritual enough. Whatever I was doing, it didn’t leave me with an enduring sense of enough.
Since that long ago evening when I faced the never-ending narrative of falling short, I have discovered that enoughness has absolutely zero to do with accomplishing, nothing to do with achieving, and is not at all about trying to be good enough. Rather, the realization of enough is right here in the fullness of presence, in the tenderness of an open heart, in the silence that is listening to this life.(1)
(Matthew 15) 32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” 33 His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?” 34 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.”
Let us pause and settle in companionship with the number seven, as spoken in this text. The disciples want to know how there will be enough. What do you have? Jesus asks. Seven, they reply. Enough.
(Matthew 15) 35 He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. 36 Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. 37 They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.
Let us pause and sit with the word satisfied. Jesus gave thanks, and fed the people, and they were satisfied. Seven basketful were still left over. Enough.
…numbers in the Word symbolize properties, and “seven” symbolizes all things or all people, and so also fullness and completeness…(Apocalypse Revealed #10)
Let us pause and visit with the fullness and completeness of God. We are made in God’s image and likeness, and so share in God’s fullness and completeness at our deepest levels.
Help me, O Lord, to descend into the depths of my being, below my conscious and sub-conscious life until I discover my real self, that which is given me from you, the divine likeness in which I am made and into which I am to grow, the place where your Spirit communes with mine, the spring from which all my life arises. (George Appleton)
(1) Tara Brach, Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness, p12-13.
Matthew 15: 32-39
32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” 33 His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?” 34 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.” 35 He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. 36 Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. 37 They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 38 The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. 39 After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan.
Apocalypse Revealed #10
For numbers in the Word symbolize properties, and “seven” symbolizes all things or all people, and so also fullness and completeness, and it occurs in the Word where the subject is something holy, and in an opposite sense, something profane. Consequently this number involves holiness, and in an opposite sense, profanation.