Dear Church of the Holy City community,
I don’t know about you but I really like routine. A good routine brings out the best in me, not in small measure because I work more efficiently when I am calm. But these days, there is plenty to throw us all off balance, plenty to start feeling anxious about. And in that state of mind, I start to feel a little off my game, slower, dare I say even paralyzed. Unfortunately, then I start to judge myself, to feel bad about not being as productive or as on top of things as I would like, and I start on turn inward, away from my discomfort, away from the disquieting world. I become a little bit numb. It’s an understandable reaction, but not really how I want to life my life. But, what if we tried to see being off balance as a gift? What if we asked the question: what am I being invited to see in this slower time, in this time slightly askew? These are Lenten questions, the season we find ourselves in right now, even if we are living this season in a way that we did not expect.
To quote the poet Mary Oliver: Attention is the beginning of devotion. As we find that our normal ways of devotion, our normal ways of doing everything, are disrupted, what new pathways to devotion are asking to be uncovered? What things within us have been crying out for attention, for enough quiet, for enough slowness, to bloom? Attention is the beginning of devotion, and devotion is simply a way to become aware of God’s constant presence with us. Let us pause, and breathe, and take notice. Let us notice what kindnesses are due, what offerings are rising up, what insights are awakening. Let us notice our neighbor, our family, our environment with new eyes. Let us notice the forgotten, the left behind and the lonely. Let us notice each other. And then let us act in love. For as much as these last days have created inconvenience, disappointment and worry, so too do they speak to an enormous communal selflessness. We have disrupted the normalcy of our lives for the sake of others, for the sake of the common good. These days have laid bare the truth of our essential connectedness; may this lesson settle eternally in our hearts, may it be bound up unbreakably with our very DNA, may it become our true north and our bright star. May we never forget that we belong to each other.
And finally, I offer a prayer from my favorite Australian cartoonist and poet, Michael Leunig:
God help us to move slowly:
To move simply:
To look softly:
To allow emptiness:
To let the heart create for us.
So, as announced previously, Sunday services at The Church of the Holy City have been suspended for the time being. For this Sunday, I invite you to worship with The Swedenborgian Community Online (www.swedenborgiancommunity.org), and Rev. Cory Bradford-Watts. They will offer a live YouTube service on March 15th at 8pm EDT. You can also access all their other archived services and interviews at that website. For the following Sunday (March 22nd), The Church of the Holy City will be offering an online worship service. Please look for details on how to access that service in our upcoming newsletter, and on our website and Facebook page.
Thank you dear community! Please do not hesitate to reach out (email@example.com).
Rev. Shada Sullivan
Pastor, The Church of the Holy City
Photo credit: Berend de Kort
Readings: Isaiah 46:3-10, John 3:1-17, Divine Providence #82 (see below)
I do think that Nicodemus is actually a perfect figure to be considering in the season of Lent. During Lent, we commit to *doing* things a little differently so that we might *see* things a little differently. We might give up doing something we have come to rely on in an unhealthy way. We might make some space for doing something that we normally think we don’t have time for. And we do all of this, so that we might uncover truths about ourselves and the world we live in that help us to embody love more effectively; love for our neighbor, love for ourselves, love for our world, love for our God.
But as we do so, the process itself is not always instagram-ready. This is kind of the point. We are deliberately shaking things up a little, and that will put us off balance. We are exploring, we are opening up, we are listening, we are feeling our way, and we are not going to know where we will end up before we start. If we did, the process would not be enlightenment, it would simply be confirmation of what we already know and think.
So then, we might resonate with Nicodemus and the way that he seems off balance in front of Jesus, not sure what to say, shifting from foot to foot. He was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jewish church, coming to see a controversial teacher, with all the tension that this suggests. He brought to Jesus his own worldview, his own assumptions and habits of evaluation. He brought his devotion. And he brought his curiosity, as there was clearly something about Jesus that was nagging at him, something he wanted to figure it out. He wanted to know what was true. But he also came in the darkness. Darkness has a symbolic meaning in the gospel of John, that of obscurity and of separation from the presence of God. We recall the prologue only two chapters earlier: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5)
This is how we often are during the season of Lent, and plenty of other times too, searching for the light in the darkness. We maybe don’t know why we are giving something up, or doing something new, except for the vague sense that it might benefit us, that there is something we might learn. We are in a necessary obscurity. We don’t know what will be revealed to us but we show up anyway. And we start from where we are and what we know, as did Nicodemus. He says to Jesus…you must be sent from God because what you have done is amazing…but in between the lines is the rest of what is unsaid…but you are challenging me with what you are saying, and I don’t want to let go of everything I thought I knew. I need the comfort of my rightness. He cannot even bring himself to ask Jesus a question. He just shows up embodying his dilemma, speaking out of his both his discomfort and his yearning, as we often do ourselves, during Lent or other times of spiritual struggle.
And so Jesus tries to give him some guidance, tries to broaden his view beyond the question of Jesus’ identity and towards the central task of being a person in this world: being re-made in the image of God. Jesus uses a metaphor to express this process: being born again. Now, because of the prevalence of Christianity in the world today, this notion of being born again is a very familiar one. We are used to spiritualizing this idea. But it probably wasn’t as familiar to Nicodemus. So of course, he is confused. He doesn’t grasp the metaphor. Maybe if we imagine Jesus saying instead that Nicodemus should replace his heart with a different one, or grow a new face, or even transform in a cocoon like a butterfly, we might appreciate a little more bit how strange being born a second time would have sounded, how easily Nicodemus might have been tripped up by the literal impossibility of what Jesus was proposing. Of course a grown man cannot return to his mother’s womb. No one can literally be born twice.
So, Jesus expands upon the metaphor a little bit more. He takes Nicodemus’ image of the womb, of a baby being born from water, from the mother’s amniotic fluids, and he says, yes, you must be born again but this time from water AND spirit. A spiritual birth. Just as we are built molecule by molecule, organ by organ, limb by limb, in the womb of our mother, so too we must be spiritually built little by little in the womb of our God, nourished and held in just the same way, birthed through contraction and challenge, but emerging whole and full of life into a new way of being, which Jesus calls the kingdom of God. This metaphor has spoken powerfully to the church over the ages.
And what the rest of the world calls metaphor, Swedenborg calls correspondence, for he understands this connective way of meaning-making and meaning-seeing to be the language that God speaks to us, indeed, the way that spirit and flesh are eternally conjoined. The world whispers a secret word and the spirit knows its meaning and in that shared understanding there is connection. We are born, and yet we keep on being born, our most basic and primal experience being the pattern for our continual journeying. And what I love about this text is that we can see the layers of overlapping connection in a couple of different ways. We are both grounded in our natural experience and invited forward into an expanding spiritual experience.
First, we are born from water *and* spirit. Our spiritual birth is not disembodied or disconnected from our natural birth or our natural worldly experience. Jesus takes the experience of our natural birth and expands upon it, infills it with an ongoing meaning and opportunity. We are not told to discount or despise our birth from water; it was a gift, it brought us here, it was a miracle. We are grounded in gratitude. And then we continually re-enact that birthing by adding another dimension to it, a spiritual dimension that requires and builds upon all of our earthly experience as container, anchor, and inspiration. Water *and* spirit, earth *and* heaven, body *and* soul, separate but not-separate, working in concert.
Second, in our spiritual process we are born from *water-and-spirit* together. We read in True Christianity 572:
To be born of water and the spirit means to be born of truths related to faith and of a life lived by those truths.
To be born of *water-and-spirit* means to create a selfhood out of what is true, and to create a life out of living according to what is true. In regeneration we are attempting to birth an integral oneness of soul; a cohesion of mind and heart that reflects the love and wisdom of God. Love that acts in wisdom, love that cannot help but to act in wisdom, love that is real and useful. And isn’t that exactly what we are trying to do here in Lent? Uncover essential truths about ourselves and to live authentically and usefully according to what we have learned? To figure out how to love more fully and effectively? Water alone cannot do it, spirit alone cannot do it, but together there is wholeness. Being born again connects heaven and earth within us, just as being born again also connects truth and good within us. Jesus’ words both ground us and invite us forward.
And while birth is liberating, it is also messy and unpredictable, and so it is reasonable that Lent might feel messy and unpredictable too. As we participate in God’s birthing of us, we come to understand that this process cannot be directed entirely by our rational minds, cannot be purely intellectual. We cannot be removed, play the game at a distance, leave some part of us enjoying ironic detachment. We have to care, we have to feel the stakes, because it is the caring that leads to the seeing of something new, and it is the caring that motivates us to live according to the truth we see. We read in Doctrine of Faith #13:
The “Inner Recognition of Truth” That Is Faith Is Found Only in People Who Are Devoted to Caring
…Caring originates in a desire to do something good. Since what is good loves what is true, this desire leads to a desire for truth and therefore to the recognition of what is true, which is faith. By these steps, in proper sequence, a desire to do something good takes form and turns into caring. This is how caring develops from its origin, which is a desire to do something good, through faith, which is a recognition of what is true, to its goal, which is caring. The goal is the doing of something.
We only search for the truth because we care to. We can only recognize truth when it matters to us. Love precedes the water of truth, every time, love precedes the birthing. The desire to do something good creates an impetus for the seeking, creates space for the recognizing, creates motivation for the acting. And sometimes caring feels uncomfortable, even unbearable, and absolutely exhausting. Caring feels likes ants in our pants, a prickle in our brain, an ache in our heart, a cry in our soul. Caring feels messy. But it is necessary. Our devotion to caring, our commitment to being invested in the world around us, this is what leads us to an inner recognition of truth. And that truth births us into new realities. Again and again.
So, it is okay to show up as Nicodemus. Not sure but curious. Wanting to have our old ways of thinking confirmed but knowing there might be something else beyond them. Staking things out under the cover of night because the newness feels too tender to subject to the daytime. Jesus shows up to this state of being with gentle challenge and an armload of metaphors, so that we might start to understand what God is calling us to. For God so loved the world…so very much.
3 “Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob, all the remnant of the people of Israel, you whom I have upheld since your birth, and have carried since you were born. 4 Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. 5 “With whom will you compare me or count me equal? To whom will you liken me that we may be compared? 6 Some pour out gold from their bags and weigh out silver on the scales; they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god, and they bow down and worship it. 7 They lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they set it up in its place, and there it stands. From that spot it cannot move. Even though someone cries out to it, it cannot answer; it cannot save them from their troubles. 8 “Remember this, keep it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. 9 Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. 10 I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” 4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Divine Providence #82
…The Lord teaches us that "No one can see the kingdom of God except by being born again." However, not many people know what "being born again" or "being regenerated" actually is. This is because people do not know what love and thoughtful living are; so they do not know what faith is, either, because anyone who does not know what love and thoughtful living are cannot know what faith is. Thoughtful living and faith are integral to each other the way what is good and what is true are, the way desires of our volition and thoughts of our discernment are.
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.
Readings: Jeremiah 7:1-11, Matthew 20:20-28, Heaven and Hell #403 (see below)
There is an anecdote in the beginning of Swedenborg’s book, Married Love, about what constitutes heavenly joy. In it, newly deceased spirits arrive in the spiritual realm, and are allowed to experience whatever it is that they think heaven is or should be. Some spirits thought heaven was pure unadulterated bliss, some thought it was constant enjoyable conversation. Some thought it was feasting with the Patriarchs, some thought it was enjoying a paradise. Some thought it was experiencing great wealth and splendor, and finally, some thought it was constant praise and religious celebration. An angel tells them: “Follow me and I will introduce you to your joys…” and the spirits got to experience exactly what they had been hoping for. But we don’t have the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for” for nothing. Not surprisingly, the spirits tired very quickly of their perceived joys. The spirits wishing for endless diverting conversation were eventually driven to distraction by the sound of talking, the spirits wishing for endless feasting grew sick at the sight of food, spirits wishing for the exercise of power and wealth came to see themselves as playacting, spirits wishing for constant paradise found themselves becoming inured and numb towards beauty, the spirits looking forward to constant praise found themselves bored beyond telling.(1)
The angels tell each new spirit that they have mistaken the “subsidiary adjuncts to heavenly joys” for actual heavenly joys. Meaning: they mistook the external form of joy for the source of joy.
A spirit then asks: What then is heavenly joy? To which the angels answers: It is the pleasure of doing something that is of use to oneself and to others, and the pleasure of being useful takes its essence from love and its expression from wisdom. The pleasure in being useful, springing from love through wisdom, is the life and soul of all heavenly joys.(2)
Swedenborg’s book Heaven and Hell describes it this way:
This is because virtues for everyone in the heavens are virtues in act, which are functions. Everyone there does something specifically useful, for the Lord's kingdom is a kingdom of uses. (3)
All the things that are good about heaven, or about angels—love, honesty, integrity, compassion, curiosity, connection—are not abstract virtues that are good just in and of themselves, they become good when they become real in action. Thus heaven is a kingdom of uses. Elsewhere in Swedenborg’s writings heaven is described as a realm of mutual love. In both cases though, it is clear that the life and soul of heavenly joy is usefulness, a recognition that we do not exist so that we might benefit ourselves only, but rather, we exist so that we might extend love, benefit, and blessing outward towards others. As heard in our reading, joy that rests on the notion of idleness, necessarily rests upon the notion of wanting more happiness than another; such a view is ultimately inward looking, contracted, dwindling, static. A notion of heavenly joy that rests upon useful service is inexhaustibly generative, a mutual love feedback loop that builds ever more towards the renewal and perpetuation of each person’s humanity. The Buddha said: If you light a lamp for someone, it will brighten your own path.
And can anything else make sense to us? As we consider eternity, could anything else be palatable for the human mind and soul? “Forever” is beyond our true comprehension, but I think that we all sense the truth of the anecdote which with we began, that human beings are not very good at choosing what will make us happy. If an eternal afterlife is to exist, there is nothing else but active, loving and useful service that could be remotely tolerable for an eternity, that could actually lead to true and lasting joy and happiness.
So, when Swedenborg describes what do angels do in heaven, it is delightfully quotidian, delightfully grounded, delightfully varied.
There are angels who take care of children who have died, angels who teach or preach, angels who welcome and guide new spirits, angels who take care of new spirits as they awaken, angels who monitor and moderate the actions of people in hell, angels who see to domestic duties, angels who participate in civic endeavors and communal government, angels who organize and oversee divine worship, angels who study, read and learn, angels who build and garden, angels who create art and music. Swedenborg makes sure to say there is literally no way to list all the functions that people have in heaven. Because, even with an impossibly exhaustive list, each angel also contributes their own unique flavor to their function. A beautiful variety, guided by the principle that we heard in our reading:
…angelic life consists of worthwhile, thoughtful actions, actions that are useful to others, and that all the happiness angels have is found in service, derives from service, and is proportional to service.
But, it is very important to note, however, that an active life is not necessarily a busy one. The life of heaven is not doing for the sake of doing. It is not the “Busyness Olympics” which many of us fall prey to in our lives here, whereby our busyness quotient might prove just how important, or passionate or in demand we really are. The Sufi poet Hafiz wrote: I felt the need of a great pilgrimage so I sat still for three days. Love in heaven is expressed through wisdom, which is about knowing what is truly needed in any given moment. A great pilgrimage in a far away land might well feel exciting, but it is true wisdom to recognize when it is an internal pilgrimage that is warranted, and not an external one.
Heaven is not a realm of performative busy-ness, but a realm of true usefulness, of thoughtfulness. Swedenborg himself, though an active member of society, was a consistent meditator. He understood deeply how essential contemplation can be, how useful reflection, renewal and Sabbath can be. Usefulness has lots of different forms.
Sometimes the most useful thing is to not be active. Sometimes the most useful thing is to slow down. Sometimes the most useful thing is to receive: receive care, counsel, perspective, or renewal. Heaven is not a kingdom of martyrdom, about constantly ignoring ourselves and our needs, but rather, about not elevating our needs above all other things, all the time. The heavenly view sees the self through the lens of community, through the lens of usefulness to the common good, of which each angel is a part. They rest and renew and receive, in order that it might serve their own sense of connectedness to God and to their neighbor. We will pray in a few moments the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi…Lord make me an instrument of your peace. This is an angel prayer: Lord make me an instrument of your peace, Lord make me an instrument of heavenly usefulness and generativity, make me an instrument of your infinite flow of love, make me an instrument of connection for the sake of the wholeness of your creation.
Since heaven is a realm where the true nature of things is apparent, it is clear to angels how this connectedness plays out. Each angel is the microcosm to heaven’s macrocosm. Each individual is a reflection of the whole of heaven. Swedenborg writes:
It is a secret not yet known in this world that heaven, taken in a single all-inclusive grasp, reflects a single individual. In heaven, though, nothing is better known. Knowing this, knowing particulars and details about it, is the hallmark of angelic intelligence there…Since angels do know that all the heavens, like their communities, reflect a single individual, they refer to heaven as the universal and divine human…(4)
This, ultimately, is what I find so moving about the notion of heavenly usefulness. It is not so much about the virtue of activity, the virtue of creativity, the virtue of doing something good or even the virtue of love. It is participation in a grand symphony of inter-connectedness, whereby our unique individual identity is held in perfect balance with everyone else’s unique individual identity, like cells in the human body, because everyone agrees that everyone is a miracle but no one is the center of the universe.
Follow me, says the angel, and I will introduce you to your joy…I will introduce you to your place in the universal and divine human, where you might know your own value deeply but hold your selfhood lightly, where you might treasure your connectedness to others and every opportunity to be a benefit to them, where you might be alive in the truth of a loving God though whom all these blessings flow.
1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 “Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message: “ ‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. 3 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. 9 “ ‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. 23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Heaven and Hell #403
On the basis of an opinion formed in the world, some spirits have believed that heavenly happiness consisted of a life of leisure, being waited on by others; but they were informed that there is never any happiness in idling around in order to be content. This would mean wanting the happiness of others for oneself, in which case no one would have any at all. This kind of life would be idle, not active, a life that would lead to atrophy. They might in fact have known that apart from an active life, a life has no happiness, and that idleness serves that life only for refreshment, in order to return them to the active life with more energy. Then they were shown in many ways that angelic life consists of worthwhile, thoughtful actions, actions that are useful to others, and that all the happiness angels have is found in service, derives from service, and is proportional to service.
Prayer (attributed to St. Francis of Assisi)
Lord make us an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine One, grant that we may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand,
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Luke 17:20-25, Matthew 6:19-23, Heaven and Hell #311:2 and #54 (see below).
So I’m sure that you have noticed that most of my sermons here are pretty theology focused. Certainly that arena is where I feel most comfortable and interested, and also, these are the types of explorations that are suggested by following the lectionary. The lectionary is gospel heavy, and following Jesus’ life brings up questions of the theological variety, like what does Jesus tell us about God, how can we be faithful to God’s kingdom, what does resurrection tell us about God’s universe? I believe that grappling with these question is very important and useful, as it is extremely important to the Swedenborgian tradition that we live out what we believe.
What is interesting about Swedenborg’s writings though, is that they represent not one but several different genres. There are his works on theology, yes, on single themes such as Divine Providence, Heaven and Hell, Charity, Faith, and Marriage. Then, there are the multiple volumes of scriptural exegesis, whereby Swedenborg works to elucidates an inner meaning to the books of Genesis, Exodus and Revelation, verse by verse. Finally, there are his volumes directed towards the Christian church, a systematic dismantling of prevailing religious thought, and his perspective on what should replace it. Throughout all these works though, are interwoven Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences. In between chapters of theology he will often relate an experience in heaven or a conversation with spirits that bears on similar themes. Taken together, these represent a multitude of accounts of what he experienced in the spirit, what he saw in heaven, and the angels and hellish spirits with whom he spoke.
So, there are actually lots of ways into the Swedenborgian thought-world. Some folks like me find the theology the most appealing, some are lit up by a new understanding of scripture, and some folks resonate with the spiritual experiences. I love this; there are twelve gates to city after all. But even if we individually might have a preferred focus, it is often good to try something new, and that is what I am trying to do here for you with this series. I have my preferred way of doing things, but that doesn’t mean it is the best. So, for the next several weeks, we will be abandoning the lectionary and we will be exploring Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences and what they suggest. And, we will be doing this through the framework of angels, hopefully in a way keeps the our exploration relevant and grounded in our everyday lives.
So as you may gather from our title —Angels 101— we begin with a few basic principles. The first thing that needs to said is that angels are us. Swedenborg makes very clear that angels are not a separately created race of beings but rather are people who lived in this world, who chose to live a good life, who died to this natural earthly realm and continue to live in the spiritual world. Though that may sound like common sense, and the way that most people instinctively view angels and the afterlife, it is also true that there has historically been an elaborate religious mythology around angels that persists even today.
The reality is actually pretty simple. God’s highest purpose is to be able to give love to us for eternity, to make a heaven from the human race. And, if Divine love wants to be able to give love in a meaningful way, there is at least one serious pre-condition. We all know love can only be meaningful when it is freely given, so we human beings, even as we ourselves are creations of God’s love, have been given the freedom to choose Divine Love over the self if we want to. As we progressively choose love over the self, in small and greater ways, we re-make ourselves into a fuller image and likeness of God. We come to reflect the nature and form of Divine Love and Wisdom. This is the process of becoming an angel. Swedenborg called it the process of regeneration. IT is not like passing a test or earning an award but rather more like becoming proficient and strong in a certain physical skill. Let’s take dancing for example.
In order to increase our proficiency in dancing, we will need to be open to learning, to being willing to work hard, mostly likely repetitively, to modify how we move our bodies and how we think about moving our bodies. Over time, we will gain muscle mass and muscle memory, greater flexibility, speed and agility. We will become a better dancer. And, instead of this proficiency being ultimately demonstrated by conformity or uniformity, great dancers express their personality through the technique they have acquired. They become more themselves the more they submit to the form and the craft of dancing.
And so it is with our process. There are ways to become a better, more loving, heavenly person. We can learn good communication, anger and anxiety management, compassionate practices, how to listen, how to stand up for ourselves, how to apologise, how to love people in the ways that truly help them. Our learning will depend on being open to teachers wherever we may find them, being willing to fail and try again, being willing to grow even when it is uncomfortable.
And so heaven, or becoming an angel, is not like reward because it is not about deserving. Neither is it about earning something or getting something. It is about being something. Not surprisingly, Swedenborg’s conception of heaven and how angels fit into the picture is not really a moral vision but rather, a scientific or even mechanistic one. Angels do not get to be in heaven because they deserve it. Angels get to live in heaven because they have made themselves into the kinds of people who love what heaven is: a realm of mutual love. Where angels reside is a direct consequence of what they have come to love the most. The more space we clear inside our own spirit for God, the closer we can be to God, because our nature, our deepest loves, will be in alignment with what God is. For people who choose the opposite, who privilege the self above all and close themselves off from God and mutual love, they go to hell. Again not because they “deserve it” but because they cannot abide being in heaven. They hate being in the sphere of mutual love because that is opposed to the primacy of the self. Hell is a mercy for those who have chosen not to transcend the smallness of their own concerns.
So, to recap, angels are us, humanity, and in this world we have the opportunity to do the work that will mould us into the kinds of people who will feel at home in heaven. And there isn’t a threshold, as in we have to achieve some specific level of goodness in order to find our home in heaven. Rather, we will be brought into a home in heaven that matches the heaven we have nurtured inside of ourselves. There will be a place for us; there is a place for everyone, wherever they can be the most happy. These are beautiful teachings, idyllic even. But, now is the time to ask the question: what do they mean for everyday life?
It is certainly reassuring, to know that God’s Divine Providence is leading and guiding us to our perfect heavenly home. But it is important to remember that this is a potentiality that we must actively live into. It is not a passive leading, as if we are floating above everything from one world to the next. There are choices to be made. Choices that involve us being open to new learning about ourselves, being unflinching in recognizing where we are falling short, where we are closing ourselves off from a heaven of mutual love. Choices that involve us sacrificing that which benefits our own ego, so that we might learn how to love others in the ways that they need. Becoming an angel will require determination, flexibility and resilience, for the human ego is relentless, human unconsciousness is pervasive, human defensiveness is the default.
For some further insight on this human condition, I turn to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, whom we will celebrate with a national holiday tomorrow. In a sermon considering how to be a good neighbor, Dr. King addresses segregation, and what is required to surmount it.
"But acknowledging this, we must admit that the ultimate solution to the race problem lies in the willingness of men to obey the unenforceable. Court orders and federal enforcement agencies are of inestimable value in achieving desegregation, but desegregation is only a partial, though necessary step toward the final goal we seek to realize, genuine intergroup and inter-personal living. Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but something must touch the hearts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right. A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities that are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible inner law that etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation. True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.”(1)
True neighbors, living in genuine intergroup and inter-personal living, through willing obedience to unenforceable obligations. Mother Theresa puts it this way: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
In contemplating our status as angels-in-training, it is easy to get a little tunnel-focused on our own journey. Our own hearts, our own process, our own internal states, heavenly or otherwise. But, what creates our angel-natures within us is our attention and steadfast diligence regarding our unenforceable obligations towards our fellow human beings. What is it that we choose to do when we don’t have to? This is what will express the nature of our love. This is what will forge us a heaven within us. As Jeremiah expressed, God’s law in our minds and God’s love written on our hearts, transforming how we live in the world. The kingdom of heaven is within us, but it only gets put there through caring about what is outside of us.
(1) Martin Luther King, Jr, Strength to Love (Fortress Press: 2010), p 29-30.
31 “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, ” declares the LORD. 33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD.
20 Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” 22 Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23 People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. 24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.
Heaven and Hell #311:2
…in all heaven there is not a single angel who was created as such in the beginning, nor is there in all hell a devil who was created as an angel of light and cast out. Rather, all the people in heaven and in hell are from the human race - in heaven the ones who have lived in heavenly love and faith, and in hell the ones who have lived in hellish love and faith. Hell as a whole is what is called the devil and Satan.
Heaven and Hell #54
It can never be said that heaven is outside anyone. It is within; because every angel accepts the heaven that is outside in keeping with the heaven that is within. We can see, then, how mistaken people are who think that getting into heaven is simply a matter of being taken up among the angels, regardless of the quality of their inner life, who believe that heaven is granted merely because of [the Lord's] mercy. On the contrary, unless heaven is within an individual, nothing of the heaven that is outside flows in and is accepted.
Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9, 43:7-10, Matthew 3:13-17, Secrets of Heaven #9596:5 (see below)
Those of you who know me, know that I am something of a theology nerd. My favorite book of Swedenborg’s works is Divine Love and Wisdom, which his most abstract and scientific theological tome, and which doesn’t mention Jesus even once. I can get lost in ideas. Not as an escape, but an act of hope, for ideas dictate how we live and exist in our world, how we interpret our experience. Ideas are important.
But sometimes, even I need something a little more devotional. A little more heart oriented. This week, maybe you do too. The news coming from various parts of the world in the first weeks of this new year have been concerning; natural disasters of various kinds, an increase in tensions between nations, erratic and confusing leadership. The news keeps coming hard and fast, which can cause us to feel somewhat whipped about and disoriented. This is all on top of a low hum of constant strain: climate change, abuse of power, eroding political norms, increases in anti-semitism, systemic racism, xenophobia and nationalism. And this doesn’t even include each of our own personal losses and challenges.
Sometimes it feels like too much. A portion of a poem called “what they did yesterday afternoon” by Warsan Shire, often makes the rounds on social media when things feel particularly bleak:
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
This feeling is not new, of course. A conversation with my own teenage daughter this week reminded me how of anxious I was about the state of the world at her age. Human greed and overreach will always be set in conflict with essential righteousness and justice, and this contrast, the very fact of it, the very depressing fact of it, will alway pain the hearts of those who wish to see a world forged in the image of Divine Love. And as much as the actual work we all do to bring love into the world is exhausting, so too even the act of hoping can be exhausting as well. Who can continue to hope when it all seems so futile?
Sometimes the heart needs some care, some reassurance, some comfort, so that hope can feel even slightly possible. This week, I found comfort in Isaiah chapters 42 and 43, in hearing good news about stretching, breath, covenant and witness. From chapter 42, verse 5-6:
“This is what the Lord God says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people and life to those who walk on it. I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people..”
The Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out…this verse speaks to God’s power, yes, and creativity, but also to God’s purposes. Biblical texts that talk about the creation of the universe also speak about the creation of our own spirit. We read in our Swedenborg reading today:
'Stretching out the heavens and spreading out the earth’…by this is meant regenerating a person and thereby creating or forming a new understanding in which there is a new will, which is the spiritual person's actual heaven in which the Lord dwells with that person.
As the Creator stretches out the universe, gives it form and shape and being, so too are we being molded and shaped progressively into the image and likeness of Divine Love. Being stretched is not always comfortable. We generally want to avoid tension and discomfort as much as possible. But the broad sweep of creation also includes *us*, and God the Creator of the heavens is also creating us moment by moment. If we can lean into this tension and let God do what God does, then new worlds are created within us.
This is not always easy, as the cares of the world often feel like they are pushing us down, pushing against us, making us smaller, weaker, more helpless. From this contracted place, we feel fearful, brittle, it feels like stretching will shatter us.
But we must remember that the way that God stretches us is not like stretching an elastic band further and further, thinner and thinner, with no end in sight, until it is pushed to and beyond its limits. Isaiah also uses God’s stretching imagery in regard to a canopy or curtains or tent. From Isaiah 40:22 “He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”
This is a stretching that has an enveloping quality, it contains something, it protects something, it nurtures something, like a mother giving birth to a child. The stretching comes from the the expanding potential of whatever is on the inside. What is it that is on the inside? Breath and life. Verse 5 continues:
“…who spreads out the earth and all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it.”
New space begets new life. We know enough of this natural world to recognize that life fills in every possible niche with something living, something that belongs there. We find bacterial life in the harshest of arctic climates, and in the bleakest crevices of the deepest ocean.
Within us, in the new space God creates, there will be breath and life. In the Hebrew, these words are neshamah and ruwach, both of which can also mean spirit. Our breath and life are deeply connected to spirit. Breath. Our lungs expand and stretch to contain life-giving oxygen, just as our minds expand and stretch to contain new insights, new understandings. Life. In our bodies, oxygen creates adenosine triphosphate or ATP, which is the molecule that provides energy for things our cells must do, all the things which collectively create our life. In our minds, a new understanding of our experience creates a new will to act and live differently, actions that also collectively create our life.
Our lungs expand and take in breath over 20, 000 times per day, and each time it is an image of God’s creative, generative, propulsive purpose for us. We are stretched and expanded, and breath and life infill the space. We were not made to hold emptiness, but to be a container for soul.
We were also not made to journey alone.
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people…” (v.6)
We stretch, we grow, we expand to contain new breath and life, and in this God takes hold of our hand. I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people…
Swedenborg writes that whatever conjoins is a covenant.(1) A covenant is not just superficial words, a transactional agreement for mutual benefit. A covenant is words that give form to a connective relationship. In the reality of that connectivity, we see that our journey is not just for us, we are made to be a promise and covenant for other people as well. We stretch, we are filled with breath and life, God takes hold of our hand and we are propelled forward into the only future that God has made…mutual love, useful service, belonging to each other.
What is important to remember about these Isaiah texts, these “suffering servant” texts as they are known, is that even as Christians see them as prophecies of Jesus—who he will be and what he will do—in their own context they are God talking to the people of Israel about how they should be, how they should choose to define their identity in their own moment. We cannot forget how these texts are rooted in covenant and presence. They are not about what will happen, but about what we choose.
We continue in Isaiah Chapter 43:
10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. 11 I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior. 12 I have revealed and saved and proclaimed— I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God.
You are my witnesses…that I am God. Sometimes it is really hard to hope. Yet, into that very fallible despairing moment, to a fallible despairing people, God says “You.” You are my witnesses. I don’t want anyone else. You are proof that Divine Love is real. You are my witnesses.
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove…” (Matthew 3:13-17). Jesus witnessed in that moment, the presence and the pleasure of God. He witnessed and experienced expansion, breath, life and covenant. Then he went out and lived as if that were true. And so must we.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Explained #701
Isaiah 42:1-9, 43:10-12
1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. 2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.” 5 This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 8 “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. 11 I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior. 12 I have revealed and saved and proclaimed— I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God.
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Secrets of Heaven #9596:5
'Stretching out the heavens and spreading out the earth' is plainly similar in meaning to stretching and spreading out a dwelling-place by the use of curtains. And by this is meant regenerating a person and thereby creating or forming a new understanding in which there is a new will, which is the spiritual person's actual heaven in which the Lord dwells with that person.
Photo credit: Inbal Malca
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-13, Secrets of Heaven #9293 (see below)
Sorry, my friends, we are not going to escape Herod this week either. Today we explore our first glimpse of Herod in the gospel of Matthew: his interaction with the Magi. Although the gospel narrative makes it seem like the Magi showed up right away, it is more likely that several months have passed, at the very least, since Jesus’ birth. It would take a fairly long time for a caravan of travelers to make their way from the far east. Mary and Joseph and the baby would have settled into a routine, and a quiet life. But, it was not to remain so.
We explored last week how Herod is representative of the evil that exists in our world today. The type of spirit that would do anything to preserve power, the type of spirit that is afraid of necessary change, the type of spirit that can only see the primacy of the self. And this type of spirit can be found in actions both overt and covert, conscious and unconscious; it can find its way into social systems and structures that we depend upon and value. The resulting slaughter of the innocents that sprang forth from Herod’s paranoia and selfishness calls us to examine our own responsibility for the ways in which the vulnerable suffer in our world.
The Magi, though, represent to us a wholly different kind of spirit. The Magi were from a different nation and a different religion from Jesus. They were mostly likely devotees of Zoroastrianism. Yet they practiced an openness to learning new things, a willingness to move themselves from one place to another, a readiness to bow down to something greater than themselves. They could worship in a way that Herod never could. We can also see this spirit in the world if we look for it: movements and institutions that look toward the greater good, that delight in learning from those who are different and that understand our futures are bound up in each other’s well-being.
But of course, this wouldn’t be a Swedenborgian sermon if I didn’t also point out that Herod and the Magi additionally represent impulses and desires within each human heart. They are not just out there (in the world) but in here (within our hearts). They represent the ever-present potential of our freedom, the spectrum of choices that are available to human beings in their everyday. And as we stand here in the baby-days of a new year and a new decade…it is a great time to consider what kind of spirit we wish to cultivate.
Because, the conflict between Herod and the Magi goes beyond just being a nice story. It tells us the truth about what kind of responses there are to divine love being born in the world. Epiphany used to be one of the three main Christian holy days, before Christmas rose in popularity, and it was a celebration of the revelation of the incarnation. Not just the *fact* of the birth of Jesus but the *truth* of what that birth communicates. The truth that Divine Love reached out to a beloved world and a beloved people, but that this reaching out is going to change us and by extension, change the world we live in.
What is our reaction to this truth? Do we evade, conspire, defend, rage, and destroy, like Herod? Or do we rise up, do we commit to a journey, no matter how long or dangerous, do we seek with curiosity and humility, do we bow down and worship? Do we bow down and worship Divine Love and Wisdom in the whole of our life, in every relationship and interaction that we will ever have? Wow, that is a lot to ask. There isn’t a corner of our life the won’t need to journey further than we have ever journeyed, that won’t be asked to bow lower than we thought was possible. In a sense, Christmas is passive; we focus on the gift that is given to us. Epiphany is active and focuses on the journey we will make and the gifts we will give to God and others.
Our Swedenborg reading today talked about what the gifts of the Magi mean:
“For gifts which were offered to Jehovah meant the kinds of things that are offered to the Lord by a person from the heart…for deeds are nothing other than witness-bearers to such things as compose the will.”
The different gifts from the Magi represent different ways to give and receive love, different kinds of action we can take, different ways that each of us bear witness to the truth of the incarnation and bow down before the Lord. What were these gifts exactly and what do they mean?(1)
First, myrrh is a kind of resin from a tree that was used as an ingredient in perfume and medicines and also in embalming. In the Swedenborgian worldview, myrrh represents natural or earthly goodness, from both natural actions and natural motivations. Now, earthly or natural doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Natural needs are very very important. Basic dignity, basic comfort, basic safety, basic emotional support/community/resources are all integral to human well-being, and each person’s ability about to live up to their potential. So, giving a myrrh-kind-of-gift might mean giving money, giving food, giving clothing, giving shelter, providing community or resources. And a myrrh-kind of motivation would doing something because we have been taught that it is the right thing to do.
Now, frankincense is a similar kind of resin to myrrh, with similar applications, and was most especially used for incense. It represents what Swedenborg called spiritual goodness, from both spiritual actions and spiritual motivations. By spiritual he didn’t mean actions that somehow come from a different realm, but rather, actions and motivations that have an internal aspect to them, more than one level. These kinds of actions that are led by the thinking mind, they work to figure out a problem and fix it, to provide for natural needs but more widely, more sustainably, with more efficacy. These actions take into account psychology, sociology, systems thinking and context. The frankincense-kind-of-giving might ask “how can I help?” and then really listen to the answer. And a frankincense-kind-of-motivation would be doing something because it makes sense, and our mind tells us it is the right thing to do.
And finally, we all know what gold is: a precious and beautiful metal, characterized by both its rarity and its malleability. Gold represents celestial goodness, which is characterized by actions led by the heart in wisdom. Swedenborg talks about the nature of the highest angels and calls them celestial. The quality of their natures are such that the wisdom of love is so written on their hearts that their actions are spontaneous and do not require an intellectual justification. They just do it. When someone is suffering, they give presence and care. When someone suffers an indignity, they provide justice. When someone had a need, they fulfill it. Why? Because each human being is an image of God, and to exist fully in the reality of this notion is to exist fully within the practice of mutual love. The gold-kind-of-motivation is doing something because our heart tells us it is the right thing to do.
Many of the gifts that can be given will look the same on all three levels. This is not a hierarchy of giving, saying that gold is better than frankincense and frankincense is better than myrrh. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that human beings exist on multiple levels: earthly, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and so giving always exists on all of those levels as well. But which is it, we may ask. Do the gifts of the Magi represent things we do or how we do them? The gift itself or the approach to giving? It is, of course, both, because the giving itself is a journey. The giving itself is a process, affecting both giver and receiver, and moving them forward in their own spiritual transformations.
And this is why we can’t forget the other gift in the story: the star.
The star is knowledge learned from heaven and God(2), knowledge learned from something beyond us, knowledge that draws us forward, knowledge that guides us up and out of our own self-obsession, our own sense of rightness and privilege. It is important to remember that the Magi journeyed. Far. They rose up out of their own context and traveled to another, not knowing exactly what they would find, led by a star, led only by their belief that this star would teach them something. Herod, of course, could not see the star. The Herod-spirit refuses to look to anything but the primacy of the self. Such a spirit will never take the risk of journeying, of not knowing the answer, and of putting aside outward strength and perceived rightness.
And so, as we consider what Epiphany calls us to, as we consider how we want to live our lives and how we wish bow down before the Lord and give of our own resources, spirit and love, we must remember to be guided by the star. The Magi did not give because it served them. The baby Jesus was not going to remember what they gave and why. We all know that babies prefer the boxes the gifts came in to the gifts themselves. They gave because that is what journeying to find the Lord requires; the journey was the gift, the gold frankincense and myrrh were the natural culmination of the journeying.
Neither did the Magi give out of their own comfort. The Magi didn’t send gifts, they brought them, they journeyed out of their own self-conception to see what Divine Love had wrought, and then they bowed down to what they found, not to their own idea of what it would be.
We all, at different times, will be led in different ways, just like the Magi. Sometimes the myrrh-star will lead us in an earthly way, and we will take care of someones’s natural needs…that’s good, keep on going. Sometimes the frankincense-star will lead our minds in an intellectual way, and bring us around to a new perspective of some kind, a new insight might give us a new way to serve….that’s good, keep on going. Sometimes the gold-star will lead our hearts, and we will be touched and moved by love, dignity and solidarity…that’s good, keep on going! Keep on journeying, Magi-friends!
In the simplest of ways, when we give to another, we give to the Lord. And we get to choose to enact our nativity scene each day, even after it comes down from the mantle after Christmas. But rather than a static scene, it is truly a dynamic one. Perhaps this time, in my own home, I will keep the Magi out all year long and have them journey around my living spaces, as a reminder that the birth of divine love bids us move, and that the journey itself is the gift.
Arise, shine, your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4262 and Apocalypse Revealed #277
(2) Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #205
1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. 2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. 3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip. 5 Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. 6 Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Secrets of Heaven #9293
…For gifts which were offered to Jehovah meant the kinds of things that are offered to the Lord by a person from the heart and are accepted by the Lord. The situation with those gifts is as it is with all a person's deeds. A person's deeds are merely acts performed by the body, and when regarded in isolation from their will are no more than variously regulated, so to speak articulated movements, not unlike the movements of a machine, and so are lifeless. But deeds regarded together with the will are not like those movements. Rather they are outward expressions of the will displayed before the eyes, for deeds are nothing other than witness-bearers to such things as compose the will. They also derive their soul or life from the will…. So it is that by 'gifts' offered to Jehovah, that is, to the Lord, such things as are present in the will or the heart are meant, 'the heart' being what the Word calls a person's will…