Readings: Isaiah 41:8-10, Matthew 28:16-20, Secrets of Heaven #7298:2 (see below)
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Welcome to the final week of our continuing series: Exploring Mission. Each week we have been exploring an aspect of our church’s mission statement. We are doing this so we can connect ourselves to the WHY of our community, to ground ourselves in the spiritual principles that can give our work together its meaning. Today we will consider the part of our mission statement that says that we are:
Let me share a small moment from our Sunday morning bible study last week. As one participant was outlining the lectionary reading that would be the focus of our study that day, he said something along the lines of: “It’s a tough one this week,” meaning that the text would have some challenging themes. I cannot tell you how much it warms my heart though, that in response, we all looked at each other with something akin to glee, and said, well, let’s get to it then! We have a very similar attitude in our monthly Swedenborg chat discussion group. This anecdote, and this final section of our mission statement outline two very important aspects of our tradition, both of which I deeply love.
The first is that we are allowed to question, we are allowed to struggle, we are allowed to doubt. All of that is considered to be a healthy and useful part of faith. And this is because we recognize that it is important to be able to rationally accept our religious beliefs. It can be a harmful and manipulative practice for a religious tradition to train people to disregard their rational mind and their intuition and tell them to “just believe” or that “God is a mystery.” Almost anything can be justified within that framework.
Instead, we believe in a deeply understandable, consistent, loving and wise God who made a deeply understandable, consistent, loving and wise creation. Certainly God *is* beyond human comprehension in certain ways, but not essentially, not fundamentally. God and God’s ways are not “other” to our understanding. A loving God would not want to be so “other” to us and the ways we understand ourselves and our world. Being made in God’s image and likeness was not a simple demonstration of power on God’s part but a gift of connection. In recognizing that likeness we can know that God wishes to be in actual relationship with us, a relationship that resonates.
So, in our tradition, we see our efforts to understand God and theology, to have them make sense to us, as an important way to connect with God, to be in partnership with God. Faith is not just words we say, creeds we offer with a shrug, faith is an inner recognition of truth. Getting to that inner recognition is a process, one that as we heard in our Swedenborg reading, involves a healthy level of doubt. Doubt helps to broaden and deepen our understanding, keeps our understanding humble and flexible, which then helps make our application of our understanding more wise.
Now, Swedenborg does draw a very hard line between sincere doubt and cynical skepticism. For some, doubt can become a badge of honor, and they love to tear ideas apart for the sheer love of how powerful that feels, how it bolsters their sense of superiority. Conversely, there is the doubt that comes from love, a true desire to have our beliefs make sense to our mind, heart and life, to live in integrity. Swedenborg calls this kind of sincere searching the affirmative principle, and the cycle of self-aggrandizing skepticism he calls the negative principle, the idea being that a sincere doubt will eventually find the answers it needs, but a selfish skepticism never will, because answers would defeat it’s purpose.(1) A sincere searching, even if it takes a very long time, will always be holy because it is grounded in love for the truth.
The second aspect that the mission statement references is that theology needs to be lived, be related to our daily life. There is absolutely no paucity of abstract theological teaching in our tradition. Theology nerds (me included) can feast their minds all day long upon the fascinating and consistently structured worldview that Swedenborg presents. But Swedenborg is also 100% clear that theological belief is to be lived, and it has very little importance unless it is lived. Ideas are just ideas, with very little significance or even existence, until they become real in action.
So a super important part of our faith life is to figure out what it looks like in each of our contexts to bring our spiritual beliefs into our day-to-day. Sometimes that is not so easy to figure out.
For example, If we believe in a God of Divine Love, who calls us to a life of mutual love and usefulness, what does that look like? In which moments does love call me to give, or does love call me to receive, or does love call me to speak up or be quiet? In which moments does love call me to be strong and fierce, or soft and yielding? To listen, to teach, to let go, to hold on?
If we believe that God’s providence is leading our spiritual journey in every moment, what does that look like? Does it change how I approach mowing the lawn, buying my groceries? Does it change how often I’m willing to say I’m sorry, how willing I am to take a risk? Does it change how I understand discomfort, or confusion or disappointment?
If we believe in a God of Divine Love, who loves us unconditionally, what does that mean for how I understand myself? The worthiness that I impart to myself and others? The self-talk that fills my head? The way that I speak to my employees, my children, to someone who seems different than I am? How willing I am to admit I am wrong and make restitution?
These questions go on and on, but they are the work of the spiritual life. It is what transforms us incrementally into angels, onto people who want to, and can, exist in a heavenly realm of mutual love. Swedenborg writes:
Present in an angelic character, moreover, is a knowledge of the way from walking in it, and a walking in the way through a knowledge of it.(2)
The work of the spiritual life, or as we call it, regeneration, is a self-reinforcing, virtuous cycle of searching, learning and applying. We search for theological truths that make sense to us, we bring them down from thought to action, we use the eyes of love to figure out how to apply our principles in wisdom. We notice, we pay attention. Did this work? Did this action result in greater connection, more love and support being manifested? If not, why not? What might be getting in the way? We return to our principles with affirmative doubt, and ask what did we miss? And we try again.
And you can see from this framework that how faithful we are has absolutely nothing to do with how sure we are. In fact, 100% certainty all the time actually gets in the way. So, I hope that we will continue to create a culture here in this church that makes space for questioning, for figuring things out. A space that sees how holy the searching is, and how formative. A space that honors how hard it sometimes feels to be wondering, as well as a space that revels in the joy of learning something new.
This is the work. Thank you for being in it with me, and with each other.
8 “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend,
9 I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.
10 So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.
17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Secrets of Heaven #7298:2
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 they are 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. They therefore see and perceive with their understanding every characteristic of the truth, and from this are able to let in the influences coming from heaven as the situation demands; for truths take varying forms as dictated by circumstances.