Walking Around in the Fire
Readings: Daniel 3:1, 4-6, 8-30, Secrets of Heaven #10227:12 and #1327
See also on YouTube here
I thought to use this story for worship today because certain aspects of these last few months have felt bit like being in the fiery furnace. I think we all might have felt something of that intensity in each of our own ways…some combination of anxiety, frustration, grief, sadness and anger. And has anyone been on Facebook lately? Tensions are running high, to say the least, as we all grapple with what this pandemic is going to mean for us going forward.
Most of us have not done this pandemic thing before. So, it can be useful for us to look to our traditions and our stories for ways to help us understand what we are going through, for insight into the human condition so that we might find a framework for how to act now, in this particular situation.
This is one of the reasons that I have always loved the Swedenborgian interpretative tradition, which holds that the Bible is “the story of us.” The whole thing is the story of us, you and me, right now. Yes, it is outwardly stories about people who lived a long time ago, but it also communicates something much larger; truths that we can use to further our own spiritual journeys in each of our own contexts.
And this means that, when we are faced with the prideful anger of the King Nebuchadnezzar, we cannot retreat into the comfort of literalism and say, well, I’m not a Babylonian King, or someone with anywhere near that kind of power, so this really doesn’t have anything to do with me. However, we *all* can experience pride and self-obsession, we can *all* experience avarice or find ourselves worshiping something not worth worshiping. I think this is a really valuable spiritual practice; when the whole bible is about us, we cannot wriggle out of its various critiques, regardless at whom they are leveled.
So King Nebuchednezzar tells us about the ugliness, the ridiculousness, the dangerousness, of being drunk with power and self-obsessed, of turning our allegiance to that which props up our own wealth, self-esteem, status, and demanding that others do the same. This can be borne out in so many small ways in each of our lives. For example, there are times I’ve lashed out at my children, not because I desire to correct them usefully but because I am furious they have disrespected my authority. This is my Nebuchednezzar self coming out. And more specifically, according to Swedenborg, Nebuchednezzar and the Babylonian regime represents the profanation of holy things (see reading). Which is a theologically fancy way of saying it is evil representing itself as good. So continuing my example above, it would be like if I were to not only lash out at my children for disrespecting my authority, but then also justify it as a good thing to myself (and them)…like, it is good for them to have boundaries, good for them to learn consequences for their actions, and maybe even, it is a good thing for children to be a little afraid of their parents. See how insidious it is?
Conversely though, if the bible is about us, then we also have within us the good characters as well as the bad. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego represent those parts of us that resist these darker impulses. The parts of us that have given their allegiance to God, to truth and love, to something outside of ourselves and our own benefit. Daniel represents our developing conscience, and Daniel’s friends represent the true ideas that our conscience depends upon (1). The existence of Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, opens up to us the opportunity to practice steadfastness, diligence, courage, and faith. So to continue the parenting example, they represent my commitment to the ideas that my children should feel safe and loved, and learn to be confident and generous, with healthy and useful autonomy and boundaries. My commitment to those ideas as primary helps me to see my Nebuchadnezzar self for what it is, and to resist what it is calling me to give free rein to within myself.
And so, we can read these stories as something that can speak to us personally, in our own lives and in our own contexts. God speaks then and God speaks now through that which we can understand; stories about human nature and human possibility.
However, I do think there is one important caveat. As wonderful as I consider this personal metaphorical interpretive tradition to be, I believe it emphasizes some things and obscures others. One downside to spiritualizing biblical stories in such a personal way is that we might pay far more attention our personal spiritual journey and forget that we are social, communal, systems-building creatures. With this story, it might blind us to the fact that the type of pride exhibited by the king was not just a personal failing, it was a personal failing that was propped up and encouraged and, to a certain extent, created by a system of power. (2)
This is not only a story about the fact that King Nebuchadnezzar was a prideful person. It is also a story about the misuse of systemic power. The King directed the allegiance and the worship of his people towards a golden statue, something that supported and increased his own status and suggested it was what they should value. He used his power (which technically has the potential for good) to serve his own ends. His network of advisors, also beholden and invested in that system, helped to perpetuate that misuse of power by accusing Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego of wrongdoing.
So, I believe the framework of this particular story is prompting us to ask ourselves: how is my pride, my avarice, my selfishness, how is that supported, encouraged, and obscured by systems in which I find myself? How do those systems prompt me to reframe my selfishness as good, or prompt me to forget or overlook who those systems disadvantage? How do these systems profane what is holy, or try to pass off what is evil as what is good?
One easy example is suggested by the “golden statue:” Does an allegiance to un-regulated capitalism ask us to value money over people? Is it asking us to forget that a system cannot be humane unless it serves everyone well, not just the few? Or, Are our political ideologies based on accumulating power rather than serving people? Do they encourage us to dehumanize others in order to worship our own sense of “rightness?” Is a preoccupation with freedom and patriotism asking us to forget the basic kindness we owe to our neighbor, like wearing a mask, even if we would rather not? Are our systems of white supremacy and white privilege, asking white people like myself to dismiss the lived experience of people of color, while we quietly benefit from entrenched systemic advantages?
And I think right now is a perfect time for us to be considering these points, and others like them, as the pandemic has revealed to us many weaknesses in our systems and ideologies, many ways that they leave people behind, or serve to divide us, the human family, from each other. I think it is appropriate right now to be asking questions about the systems in which we participate and the ideologies to which we subscribe: what are they asking us to value, do they benefit us in ways that we might not realize, and who are they leaving behind?
Nebuchadnezzar is found within each human heart, yes. It is our responsibility notice where he is showing up in our lives, even in the small and mundane ways. But, it is also important to recognize that we don’t exist in a vacuum, that the Nebuchadnezzar spirit can join people together in ways that create and perpetuate larger systems of injustice, that seek to justify and continue their own existence by casting greed, incivility, selfishness and ignorance as good.
But of course, we still have Shadrach, Meshach and Abedego. Their story is not just about a one time courageous action. Their story tells us much more about how to exist in a world that seems to only see Nebuchadnezzar. You see, when Judah was first overthrown by Babylonia, promising Jewish youths like Daniel and his friends were plucked out of their own country and intentionally brought up within Babylonian structures, groomed to function in the Babylonian court, for Babylonian agenda. They had to learn how to exist in that context. But they didn’t forget where they came from. They stayed true to their heritage. They worked to the best of their ability within the social structures they found themselves in, but they did not allow those systems to corrupt the things that were most important to them.
This can be a valuable lesson to us. We cannot live outside of human systems and ideologies. We will always co-exist with them, we need them. They create meaning and structure and connection for us. But they are still and always will be human. And many times, that means they will bid us forget what we owe to each other, bid us forget our heritage.
Our most basic heritage is that, from God’s divine love, everyone is born for heaven, which is a realm of mutual love (3). I don’t say this so that we will dismiss this world we live in and only focus on getting to heaven, not at all. Rather, I say it for us to realize that our heritage is something larger than the systems and ideologies of this world, no matter how much they might benefit us in the here and now, no matter how good they might make us feel. Our destiny is to exist in heaven in mutual love, to serve one another in mutual care, and to as far as possible live and birth that heaven into this world in the here and now. When we remember that heritage, we can resist any system or ideology that asks us to love or worship anything else. With God’s help and guidance, we can learn to walk around in the fire, unbound and unharmed. Amen.
(2) The New Interpreter’s Bible, p751.
(3) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #997, #1775 and Divine Providence #323
Daniel 1, 4-6, 8-30
1 King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.
4 Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: 5 As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. 6 Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”
8 At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. 9 They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “May the king live forever! 10 Your Majesty has issued a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold, 11 and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.” 13 Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, 14 and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15 Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” 16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” 19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22 The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace. 24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.” 25 He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, 27 and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them. 28 Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.” 30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
Secrets of Heaven #10227:12 and #1327
'Nebuchadnezzar' the king of Babel…mean[s] that which is profane and lays waste, which happens when the truths and forms of good which the Word contains serve, through wrong application, as means to lend support to the evils of self-love and love of the world. For in these circumstances the evils of those loves exist inwardly, in the heart, while the holy things of the Church are on the lips.
These verses use Babylon as an image for the way the deeper aspects of faith — inner worship, in other words — are wiped out. Anyone who embraces self-worship is devoid of religious truth…Such a person destroys and devastates everything that is true and leads it into captivity.
The Perpetual Sabbath
Photo credit: Thai Nhan
Readings: Psalm 29, Luke 24:44-53, Secrets of Heaven #10646:3 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
So, we’ve certainly gone through a lot of changes regarding worship in the last couple of months, haven’t we? Not just for us and our community but churches the world over. Virtual worship feels different, and has brought about both challenges and blessings. And so I thought that this week might be a good time to consider *why* we worship. Why did a whole bunch of places of worship go to the trouble to take worship online, why are you sitting down in your home in front of a computer to watch? What is worship for, and why is it so important?
Well, I’ll begin by setting the stage with a couple of key Swedenborgian ideas about worship. First, as we heard in our reading: worship is not for God, it is for us. We don’t ascribe to a God who needs our worship, it is not something we *owe* to God, it is not a transaction whereby we get what we want. Worship is for the purpose of our own growth. It is so that we might make space to, in a regular fashion, open ourselves up to new perspectives, to put aside preoccupations, to align ourselves with God’s purposes. Swedenborg calls this being in a state of humility, which I think has modern connotations that might make it sound like a negative thing. However, it is not about being ashamed per se, but about being quiet, being open, being vulnerable. It is into those states that God can flow most easily, and help us to grow and change. And for many, worship of some kind or another brings us into that state.
Second, true worship is not necessarily about being in a church. Swedenborg also writes:
…We worship constantly when we have love and charity; outward worship is merely an effect. Angels worship in this way, so they have a perpetual Sabbath.(1)
So it is also an important thing in our tradition to recognize that the truest form of worship of God is living a loving, good, and kind life. Church worship is to serve this ultimate purpose. When we strive to live a loving life, then every day is Sunday, every moment is liturgy, every action a hymn. It has become a rallying cry to the world wide church the last few months, that church has never been about a building, and this is so very true. Church is about striving to be open to God in a way that connects us to love and kindness, to God’s purposes, and to our fellow human beings. We do not *have* to have a building to do that. And so, in that vein, I thought I might read you something now that encapsulates this notion, something that I really love and that I have been waiting for an opportunity to share with you.
I would like to read to you the preface to the 1950 liturgy of the Swedenborgian Church. When I read it for the first time several years ago, it really moved me, and I hope that it speaks to you in a similar way. I’ve not been able to find out who wrote it (if you happen to know, please tell me!) but I love the idea of, when we are in challenging time for church, to intentionally ground ourselves in our tradition, to reach back for the wisdom of those who came before us, knowing that they are present for us, even now, in spirit. This preface is called “Let Us Worship."
In all of us, there is a sense of what ought to be, which will not let us rest until we give ourselves and our all to its demands. It bids us rise above our lower nature, to seek the worth and meaning of life in our endless spiritual possibilities. It stirs our concern for all mankind and a better world. Whence that yearning, if not from a God whose love dwells in the inmost recesses of our souls and draws us to himself, fashioning us in his image and likeness?
We, Christians of the New Age, see this image in the Lord God, the Savior Jesus Christ, risen and glorified, now come again in the truth and power of his Word and urging us to match our lives and all our relationships with his Divine Humanity. As we look up to him, we cannot compromise with a lesser destiny. When in utter commitment we devote ourselves to the pursuit of his purpose, so that in us and our social order his Incarnation might be completed, and that his inner presence in the hearts and minds of men may illumine humanity from within and make it the glorious organism it is mean to be, then truly we bow down before him and say, “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.”
This is what worship is intended to bring about and intensify. Beyond the words we sing, within the words we pray, back of our standing and kneeling, as we listen in the silence of our hearts to the Book which “testifies of him,” in presenting to him the tokens of our willingness, we dramatize, indeed, our dependence on him and our interdependence with all men as the objects of his care. We recognize, proclaim and rejoice in that, “He is our God.” And so, through appreciation of his infinite mercy, worship becomes our experience of holy fellowship with him, and all he loves. Conscious of our shortcomings and sins, and our oneness with all men, we bare our lives before him; and, according to our sincerity and repentance, we receive the enlightenment and the strength to become his once again. We see in him what human life can be, the goal to which creation moves, and in the light of it our humblest strivings are given new significance. Worship is the actual thrill of receiving from him light and love and power for our daily task. It is the joy of being made by him, and, step by step, becoming better channels through whom his love may flow.
There is in that experience a rapture no words can express. Yet it does not always come easily. Often we hold ourselves back and forget that worship is essentially a response, an expression of love to a Person. Let us remember, in our praise and our prayers, our need of him, not simply of knowledge about him. We need his hand, which alone can lift us up in our full spiritual stature; the light of his presence; the glow of his companionship; the forgiveness of his compassion; the sound of his inner voice, if he is to send us, charged with power, to heal and comfort the bruised and broken heart of the world. For, though worship begins in one precious hour, it extends to the whole of life. It is opening our life to the Lord that He may work in and through us. It is staking our faith in the man that is to be, and the world that is to be, because of the God who is.
Isn’t that just gorgeous? What I love about it, is that it balances so perfectly the way in which human beings exist in both our individuality and our commonality. We, each of us, open our lives to God, so that we might become who *we* are meant to be, which in turn contributes to the world becoming what *it* is meant to be, a vision of which God carries so tenderly in God’s heart.
I don’t know what is in store for the world-wide church, for *our* church over the coming months. Uncertainty is never fun. Difficult decisions might need to be made. But what I do know, is that our mission is to make space, if not physical then virtual, so that we might in community be moved by the spirit of our God in heart and mind, and then, as we read, charged with power, we might heal and comfort the bruised and broken heart of the world.
There is so much bruised and broken right now; may we always seek to live, to embody, the perpetual Sabbath.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #1618
1 Ascribe to the LORD, you heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. 2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness. 3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters. 4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is majestic. 5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon. 6 He makes Lebanon leap like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox. 7 The voice of the LORD strikes with flashes of lightning. 8 The voice of the LORD shakes the desert; the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh. 9 The voice of the LORD twists the oaksand strips the forests bare. And in his temple all cry, “Glory!” 10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD is enthroned as King forever. 11 The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.
44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Secrets of Heaven 10646:3
It is said that the Lord alone is to be worshipped. Anyone unacquainted with the nature of true worship of the Lord may think that the Lord loves to be worshipped and desires glory from people, like someone who grants another person what he requests because that other person pays him respect. Anyone who thinks like that has no idea at all of what love is like, let alone of what God's love is like. God in His love does not desire worship and glory for His own sake but for that of people and their salvation. For humility exists in those who worship the Lord and give Him glory, and from those in whom humility exists…what belongs to self departs. And so far as this departs, the Divine is received; for the…self, being evil and false, is the one thing that stands in the way of the Divine. This is the glory of the Lord, and worship of Him exists to that end.
Mothering the World
Readings: Psalm 31:1-5, John 14:1-7, Divine Providence 60 (see below)
See also on YouTube here
So, do not let your hearts be troubled, huh? This might be one of those times when we are like, really Jesus? Really? Because there is a lot in the world to trouble us right now. Even before the pandemic, there was plenty to be troubled about. I think that perhaps I do not need Jesus to be telling me not to “let” my heart be troubled, as if being faithful meant somehow being detached from all the injustice, all the loss, all the inequity, all the grief.
Whenever I am challenged by something that I read in the bible, I find it helpful to look a little deeper, to see if the context helps to ground what is being expressed. First, I think it is helpful to see that right before Jesus says do not let your heart be troubled, he predicts that Peter will disown him three times. In fact, in the previous chapter, Jesus washes his disciples feet, predicts his betrayal by Judas (with Judas right in front of him), commands the disciples to love one another, and then tells Peter he will disown him three times. And then immediately Jesus says: Do not let your heart be troubled.
On the face of it, it seems even more ridiculous. How could the disciples not be troubled by the crazy rollercoaster ride that is happening to them? But I think if we look deeper we can see that Jesus is actually anticipating the fullness of their experience, anticipating their grief and their uncertainty and helping them to see their way through it.
I don’t think Jesus is saying that to be faithful means not feeling sad. I don’t think he is saying to be unmoved, or not to grieve for the brokenness we see in the world. He is saying that in all of it, we do not need to feel internally agitated, unmoored, desperate, because God is with us. The word in the text that is translated as “troubled” is the greek word tarasso, and it indicates agitation, being stirred-up, literally movement to and fro.
Which sounds to me like a specific state that is more like anxiety or even defensiveness, a state that prevents us from being present to what is actually happening to us. And I think the antidote to that state is not detachment or escape or rising above our life, but rather recognizing what is expressed in Psalm 31. With God as our refuge, and rock, we can be grounded enough to squarely face whatever is happening. We can have the courage and fortitude to feel it all in fullness. We don’t have to retreat into denial, or dismissal, or numbness, or conspiracy theories. We won’t need simple answers to complex problems just to make ourselves feel better. With God as our rock we can see the world as it truly is, feel everything we are given to feel, and not be afraid of what it might mean.
For the disciples, grief was a reasonable reaction to seeing their friend and mentor die so terribly. Grief was a reasonable reaction to their own failures. Grief is a reasonable reaction to what we are experiencing now in our own lives. We are witnessing death of the vulnerable (both due to the pandemic and white supremacy). We are witnessing overwhelm and exhaustion on the part of our doctors and nurses. We are seeing ordinary people, our friends and neighbors lose their livelihoods. And as much as we are seeing people come together, we are also seeing divisions widen. There is so much to grieve.
But wait, didn’t I preach about grief already? Well, grief isn’t a one and done experience. It comes in waves. It goes out and comes in like the tide. So, as we experience this collective trauma, it is reasonable that our feelings may come and go in a similar way. And one reason I want to return to the topic of grief today, on mother’s day, is because of what I see as the relationship between grief and the mothering impulse.
There are lots of things that we think of when we think of mothering. One thing that seems to me to be inherent to the mothering impulse is to see the suffering of another and to wish to ameliorate that pain somehow, to share the burden of the pain so that it might be lessened for another, being willing to sacrifice something of the self so that another might thrive.
And to be clear, I’m not trying to say that only mothers can engage in the mothering impulse. I’m talking more broadly about something that is very human, something that all people can participate in. Being a mother in a family certainly gives someone lots of opportunities to engage with and to practice and express the mothering impulse, but I wouldn’t call it exclusive to that relationship only. We can see it in lots of places.
Jesus, for example, gives us a powerful example of the mothering impulse. Jesus’ very birth was demonstrative of God’s mothering impulse, wherein God saw the suffering of humanity and reached out. Jesus continued to embody the mothering impulse by ministering to those unseen and suffering, and then finally sacrificing himself so that we might see and understand the ways in which our selfish choices are poisoning our own hearts, indeed, on the very cross forgiving us, enfolding and holding the grief and the blindness of the world, taking it upon himself.
In a very real way, when *we* are feeling the enormous grief that accompanies this pandemic, and all of its effects, when we truly feel it, we are each of us mothering the world in our small way. Each of us acting in partnership with the mothering impulse of God, a God who feels the grief of our world in every moment.
But this mothering impulse is not passive. It does not exist solely to be martyred, to vacuum up the world’s grief and make it go away, to make us feel more comfortable. The mothering impulse also insists upon the birthing that is to come. For, as much as I have been preaching about grief these last two months, I have also been preaching about newness.
A pregnant women not only endures painful contractions but uses them to bring about birth. One of the most useful pieces of advice that I received from my midwife when giving birth to my own children was to enter into the pain of the contractions and to flow with them, rather than to resist them. To accept them as something that could give me the power, not just to simply endure the process, but to be the one who actively brought new life into the world.
I am sure that the disciples wished that Jesus would have resisted his crucifixion. Wished he would have spoken up and defended himself at his trial. But his purpose was not self-preservation, his purpose was to submit deeply to one of the most bleak of human failures, and then to reframe it as a powerful contraction, something that would give birth to new human possibility, something that would provide new life.
This is the way that Jesus speaks of: the way, the truth and the life.
Birth and re-birth is one kind of language for the way and the truth and life, but there are other ways of describing it too. As a gardener, I personally love gardening metaphors and Rev. Anna Woofenden uses the notion of compost as a way to describe how God works in the world and in us. I quote:
The more I learned about compost, the more I saw the image of God in it, proclaiming the work she does in the world. God is the Divine Composter. She takes all that has been, all that we’ve used, our best bits and our slimy bits, the endings in our lives and the pain of loss, the tantalizing crumbs from our joyful moments and the leftovers we’ve kept for too long. God takes all of that and says, “Okay great, let’s see what we can do with it next!” (1)(129)
Our best bits, our slimy bits, endings, loss, joy and the things we wish we could hold on to…this sounds a lot like that last supper with Jesus and the disciples that we described earlier, full of tenderness, betrayal, love, and confusion. It sounds a lot like life. I think sometimes we want our faith to be like a shield. Something that is supposed to make everything okay. That if Jesus says don’t let your heart be troubled, then we think avoiding sadness will mean we are doing something right.
I think instead that faith is more like a resilient immune system. Or like bacteria in compost. Or like the process of birth. There might be fever, there might be breakdown, there might be contractions, but the fever, the breakdown, the contractions, they are not evidence that something is going wrong, they are evidence that new life is on the way. I know that I feel “troubled,” as in agitated and afraid, when I think the breakdown is all there is, when I’m afraid that new life isn’t possible. Faith though, is believing in the process and being willing to ride it out.
We read in our Swedenborg reading that it is an angelic quality to know the path from having walked in it and then to walk in the path from this knowing of it. To truly know the way, we must be willing to walk in that way, and let that experience change us and lead us. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life. The way that embraces truth and leads to life.
(1) Anna Woofenden, This is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls, p129.
1 In you, LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. 2 Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me. 3 Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me. 4 Keep me free from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge. 5 Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God.
1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” 6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Divine Providence #60
We can know the path to heaven to some extent simply by considering what the people who make up heaven are like, realizing that no one can become an angel or get to heaven unless he or she arrives bringing along some angelic quality from the world. Inherent in that angelic quality is a knowing of the path from having walked it and a walking in the path from the knowing of it.
Photo credit: Elke Vermeersch
Readings: Psalm 23, John 10:1-10, Secrets of Heaven 2356 (see below)
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One of the things that I find fascinating about his passage is that it is very open about the idea that Jesus was using a metaphor to communicate something to the Pharisees about the relationship between God and people. Jesus certainly did this all the time, but I think it is worth taking a moment to consider what this means theologically.
The point of a metaphor is to take something that we know something about, and use that to teach us something about something else. So, an example from poetry, from Emily Dickinson in particular: Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul. We are using the common notion of a bird (something with feathers) and what we already know about them: that they can fly, that they sing every morning, that they are untamed, and use those ideas to tell us something about the more ineffable notion of hope…in this case, that hope is something that is wild and free and yet beautiful and constant. We understand something of which the poet is trying to say because we use metaphor as a kind of intellectual stepping stone from one thing to another. The greek word itself--paroimia— that is used in our bible passage reflects this idea, as it is an amalgam of the words para, meaning alongside and oiomai, meaning to suppose or think. We use one idea to “think alongside” another idea, and learn something about the second thing that we couldn’t learn directly.
A common biblical example is the use of the shepherd metaphor. We take the qualities of a shepherd with which we are familiar (or at least that the people in biblical times were familiar): that a shepherd is careful, alert, dedicated, protective, caring— and we are told in Psalm 23 that the Lord is our shepherd…and so we understand that God has those qualities too, in relationship to us.
So this this in mind, let’s explore the John text to see what this particular metaphor might be trying to teach us.
The first is familiar, already mentioned, the shepherd. The second is less so: Jesus as gate, or door, and more specifically, the gate to a sheep pen.
What is this idea of the gate communicating? An open door often speaks to us of welcome. A little further on in 10:16 Jesus will say: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also.” An open door speaks to us of community and of possibility. It speaks of groundedness, of belonging, of invitation. Who hasn’t had the experience of walking around a building trying to find the door, trying to find a way in? And what a relief when you finally find it! It feels great to find a way into a place that you wish to enter.
But a gate can also be closed…
And so, we see the other side of the metaphor, the notion of protection. What do we already know about sheep and why they might have a pen at all? It is so they might be kept safe…first, that they might not wander away, and second so that they might not fall prey to a predator. So, from this part of the metaphor we are learning that the presence of God with us might provide a useful boundary, something that keeps us within a community or within a set of useful behaviors or habits, something that provides guidance and safety and consistency.
So, with this metaphor of the gate, we see a balance between welcome and protection. Now, here is a good time to mention the inherent limitation of metaphors. By their nature, they are always incomplete in some way. They can describe some aspects about something we do not know, but they can’t say everything about that thing we do not know, for then the two things we are comparing would be exactly the same. Metaphors describe likeness but not sameness. We know that God is not actually a gate. We are using the idea of a gate to tell us something about God, but it can’t tell us everything. Sometimes, when we are very familiar with a particular metaphor, we might forget about this inherent incompleteness. For example in a theological context, we are super familiar with the metaphor of God as Father. This metaphor is useful in communicating certain ideas about God, ideas like love, intimacy, encouragement, protection. But we know that God is not literally our father, and neither is God male. The metaphor of Father obscures some of God’s other characteristics that we might associate with mothering for example, or platonic companionship. And further, our use of this metaphor relies on what we understand a Father to be in this day and age. As that cultural idea changes, so too will the group of characteristics that the metaphor expresses.
Metaphors can never be perfect. They might be missing some essential characteristics, or they might suggest characteristics that don’t quite fit. The latter principle applies to our idea of the gate. Not everything about a gate should be applied to God. A gate can close, and a sheep pen can be locked. It will literally prevent the sheep from leaving, regardless of their will. God doesn’t do that, God doesn’t compel. Neither does God wish to separate us, as sheep, from other sheep in other folds, or from the world. One problem here, is that the notion of a helpful boundary, or of gentle protection, can be twisted to justify exclusion or superiority or insularity. The idea of Jesus as the gate, the only safe gate, the preferred gate, can be pressed into the service of “othering” groups of people. Because if there is a pen, there must be a threat…and then we feel free to define for ourselves that threat, and it often turns out to be whatever is convenient to our own sense of self or our own desire for domination and control.
We need to be careful with metaphors, because sometimes we can lean them in a direction that takes us away from knowing more about God, about who God is and what God wants.
So, we must embrace metaphors with a balance of curiosity and caution, just as this particular metaphor of the gate balances a tension between welcome and protection. If we listen to the sentence from v.9 “They will come in and go out, and find pasture,” it sounds like neither one, either welcome or protection, is supposed to dominate. The sheep come and go, finding protection when it is required, but not in a way that limits finding pasture.
To really settle into that sweet spot that it sounds like this metaphor is going for, I think it might be helpful to ask the question, what is it all for? Our text ends with the statement “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The point is not that the sheep should be penned but that they should have life. This is what Jesus was trying to communicate via this metaphor. God is always working so that we might have abundant, thriving, nourishing life. For a sheep to have a good life, they sometimes need to be protected, and sometimes need to be able to roam for pasture. I think it is somewhat the same with us. Those of us who are parents can certainly relate with trying to find a balance between boundaries and freedom for our children as they grow into their own personalities and their own judgment.
But this begs the question: what about the thief or the robber that “climbs in by some other way.” What is it about circumventing the gate that is bad? We heard in our Swedenborg reading:
'A door' in the Word means that which introduces or leads the way either towards truth, or towards good, or towards the Lord. Consequently 'a door' in addition means truth itself, also good itself, as well as the Lord Himself, for truth leads to good, and good leads to the Lord.
There isn’t any other way to abundant life, as in a thriving life that is connected and engaged with spirit and growth, there isn’t any other way to that life except by what is true or what is good. We often times might try to circumvent this process and find belonging, guidance, or fulfillment from other things like control, accumulation, blame, or deception. We might try to skip over the difficult process of figuring out what is true, of figuring out how to do what is right and good in our own complicated lives, and try to get to safety, peace and contentment without doing any of that work. We might wish we could get belonging without vulnerability, community without sacrifice, success without discipline, meaning without struggle.
But the gate is the only way into these things: the gate is truth itself, also good itself, as well as the Lord Himself, for truth leads to good and good leads to the Lord. There is no other way. But of course, that doesn’t mean there is only *one* way. There are a million different individual ways of discovering truth and doing what is good. A million different iterations of the only way. But still, there is only one *kind* of way, only one gate that leads to relationship with God: a desire for truth, and a desire to translate that truth into goodness in our daily lives. We can’t skip over it. We can’t jump the fence. It is not about exclusivity; this gate is as wide as the whole world. But there just isn’t any other way into abundant life, into alignment with the reality of a loving God, than by loving truth and doing good. And So God will try to herd us in though that gate by hook or by crook. And we will bleat and moan and fall over and try to run away, but ultimately, we will listen to the voice of the shepherd we know, and who knows us. The one who calls us by name.
1 A Psalm of David. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name's sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.
1 "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Secrets of Heaven 2356
…’A door' in the Word means that which introduces or leads the way either towards truth, or towards good, or towards the Lord. Consequently 'a door' in addition means truth itself, also good itself, as well as the Lord Himself, for truth leads to good, and good leads to the Lord.