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Readings: Psalm 25:1-10, Mark 1:9-13, Secrets of Heaven #1049 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/MC3IzhW2fus
Welcome to the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which we observed with a litany today, the purpose of which is to remember our fragility and our earthiness. And from there, Lent invites us into a consideration of our shortcomings and our failures, and how we might be able to do better and be more loving in the future. Sometimes, this reflection might be usefully spurred by a spiritual discipline of some kind: the excision of something we have relied upon, or the adopting of something we don’t usually do. Either of these acts are not so much virtuous in and of themselves, but rather, can help create fertile ground for seeing things differently. Seeing things differently can lead to both to insight and action, moving us along on our spiritual path. The Swedenborgian tradition does not emphasize Lent quite as much as others might do, as we value the opportunity and responsibility to enter into repentance and reflection all year round, and whenever our circumstances and relationships suggest it is necessary. But also, there can be much value in taking a season each year to revisit long-term questions, habits, thinking, and perspectives. And, so I offer these reflections today.
But we must acknowledge that taking the opportunity to delve into our shortcomings, to feel the reality of our own nature and imperfection, and to develop clarity around where we need to improve, takes focus and courage. This year especially, when so many are struggling in so many ways, we may not feel we have the stamina for this work right now. That is totally reasonable. It is okay to set modest goals. But also, this year may have revealed to us things that we can longer ignore, that we can no longer put aside. It is important to give voice to both the urgency and the exhaustion that we are all feeling.
So before we begin, the practice of Lenten reflection needs to be grounded in the fact that we are beloved. Judgment, even righteous judgment, can rather easily morph into unhealthy shame and unworthiness. The pangs of conscience, appropriate regret and guilt, are essential to our process of repentance; they spur us forward into repairing what needs to be repaired. But shame, the sense that we ourselves are somehow bad and unworthy, this is can be corrosive. The engine of self-reflection, the true efficacy of the Lenten season, cannot be found in how awful we are, it must be found in love. From a solid place of security and worthiness, we can then look with courage and clarity at our shortcomings and not be overwhelmed by the work that is before us. Our Psalm for today speaks to this.
It begins with: To you Lord, I lift up my soul (NKJV). The word here translated as soul is nephesh, meaning soul, yes, and also selfhood, life, and all the activity of our being. It is incredibly vulnerable, to lift up such a thing. To bear forth our very being and life, to hold it outward for inspection like a child might lift up a precious stone or shell that they have found. Just talking about it feels very tender, let alone doing it. Interestingly though, other translations render this sentence as “In you Lord, I put my trust” (NIV). And this translation is important too, because it frames the vulnerability of what is happening. We lift up the tenderness of our soul to God, and we are able do it because we trust God. Why?
Because of raham and hesed. In verse six of the psalm we hear: remember Lord your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Raham—translated as great mercy or compassion—and hesed—translated as steadfast love—are two words that occur again and again throughout the psalms and the whole Hebrew bible. They mark out the shape and character of God’s relationship with God’s people, as one of safety, continuity and community.
The word Raham, as well as meaning mercy, also can be used to mean womb, and the yearning and care that a parent has for their child. How different does it feel then, to lift up our naphesh, our tender selfhood, when we are doing so within the safety of the womb of God, within the care and concern of our heavenly parent, warm, contained, and nourished. It evokes for me a sense of the safety and joy of childhood blanket forts; in the womb of God we are held and protected.
The word Hesed is such a complicated one to translate because it contains so much within it. It means love, yes, but an ongoing love in a covenantal relationship. For this reason it is sometimes translated as lovingkindness, because that word has ongoing aspect to it—love expressed in continual acts of kindness in relationship. And again, how differently do we feel about lifting up our nephesh, within this context, one in which any revelation about ourselves and our shortcomings occurs within a relationship with one who is committed to showing us kindness and compassion, who knows how to do that and will always do that.
Which brings us to our Mark text, because Jesus was the ultimate act of hesed (1), the ultimate act of fulfilling the promise of relationship. God doing what God had to in order to stay in connected with us. This involved reaching out, involved entering deeply into our experience. And before the experience of temptation in the wilderness, before the experience of being broken down, of questioning what he thought he knew, and coming to the clarity of knowing his mission…before all of that, Jesus heard that he was beloved, and we get to see him being told he was beloved, so that we might also know that we are beloved.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today:
Having mercy, though, is something [God] can be said to do, because [God] realizes what we humans are like.
God know who and what we are, and as we lift up our nephesh in trust, God sees us more clearly than anyone else can. And yet God will still always, as the reading says, “draw us to heaven with a powerful force.” We might not always feel this force but it is always there.
And it is so important for us to choose to partner with this force as much as we can. These pandemic times, these social and political times, have uncovered so much worth thinking about, have thrown into relief how urgently we need to be our best selves for each other and our world. There are times in the bible that God’s judgment is spoken of in terrifying ways, for the experience of seeing the brokenness of ourselves and our world can be heartbreaking, and demoralizing, and scary. But we need to see what is wrong and broken and sinful within ourselves and our world, or otherwise we will never be able to change it for the better. We need to see it. But we also need to be able to see it and withstand seeing it. We need to be able to see and not flee from it. We need to be able to see it and stay with the long process of dealing with it. And I really don’t believe that any kind of stamina for spiritual work can come from a place of unworthiness and shame. It has to come from love. It has to come from knowing that we are beloved and knowing that everyone else is beloved too. It has to come from raham and hesed.
This year in particular, we might need an extra dose of contemplating our belovedness before we can get to the business of examining ourselves. Heck, take twenty doses, there is more than enough. God needs us and wants us in the game, whatever that looks like for us. And so for today, let us settle and steep in the truth of our belovedness, with this blessing from Jan Richardson, entitled “Beloved is Where We Begin.”
If you would enter
into the wilderness
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
who you are:
Named by the One
who has traveled this path
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from the scorching
or the fall
of the night.
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
(1) Commentary by Nancy deClaisse-Walford, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-psalm-251-10-13
(2) Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. 3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. 6 Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O Lord! 8 Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. 10 All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Secrets of Heaven #1049
The symbolism of and I will remember my pact, which is between me and you, as the Lord's mercy, specifically toward people who have been and people who can be reborn, also follows from all this, since remembering, for the Lord, is having mercy. The Lord cannot be said to remember, because he knows absolutely everything from eternity. Having mercy, though, is something he can be said to do, because he realizes what we humans are like. He knows that our self-centeredness reflects hell and is our actual hell, because our self-will keeps us in touch with hell. Self-will is such, on its own and by hell's inspiration, that its strongest, keenest wish is to throw itself headlong into hell; and it is not content with this but wants to drag everyone else in the universe along with it. Because this is the kind of devils we are on our own, and the Lord knows it, remembering the pact is consequently the same as showing mercy, using divine means to regenerate us, and drawing us to heaven with a powerful force, so far as our nature allows him to.