Readings: Mark 14:27-31, 66-72, The Doctrine of Life 45 (see below)
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Welcome to the fourth installment in our Lenten series, Grounded: Goodness By Design. So now, finally, we get to the Lent-y part of the series, the part when we think about how we need to change, what we might need to do differently in our lives going forward.
We start with Peter’s story of denying Jesus. It’s just heart-wrenching isn’t it? To be so confident and then to deny so quickly and fully. There is something so very human about that. I think we can recognize ourselves in the text. We have such good intentions, high hopes, lofty goals. And then sometimes they are undone in a moment.
It is in this context of our obvious human fallibility that we can understand Swedenborg’s rather incredulous but common sense critique of Protestantism of his time. He thought that the doctrine of faith alone, as in the notion that all our salvation requires is a simple faith in Jesus' sacrifice and has nothing at all to do with how we act, was patently ridiculous. He wondered: How can the life of faith have nothing to do with our behavior? Look at how much we all mess up! Of course our behavior has to be part of the equation or what is the spiritual life even for? Swedenborg put forth instead a progressive and transformational vision of salvation, with faith and love working together to move us forward incrementally. And isn’t this much more like how we actually live our lives? We learn and grow in proportion to our openness and willingness to do so.
And it is with that focus, the fact that how we act is part of our faith story, that Swedenborg pretty much constantly talks about turning our backs on our evil desires, beliefs and behaviors. Older translations use the term shunning, that we should shun evils as sins. It seems pretty simple, he was saying just don’t be evil, don’t be bad, or destructive, or malicious. Makes sense, right? But it didn’t seem to him that religion at the time was focusing on that much anymore, especially the everyday evils - being a jerk, being dishonest, being selfish. But our lives are made up out of these everyday sins too.
And so it is a focus of Swedenborgian theology, in Lent and the whole year round, to cultivate awareness of our everyday evils and then to shun them, to say no to them and to stop doing them. To us, this is the bare minimum of the spiritual life; to care enough about God, ourselves and others to embark on a journey of doing better.
But, as you may well have guessed from the tone and direction of this Lenten series, I’m going to gently challenge how we hold this task, and particularly the language of shunning. As a good Swedenborgian, I’ve totally assimilated the notion of shunning evils, and when my everyday evils come up: jealousy, apathy, prejudice, fear, or any number of others, I’ll say NO, go away, that’s not me or how I want to be. And let me just say up front, that of course, I think this is an important “intellectual” process. We need to have clarity about what is right and wrong, we need to draw our lines in the sand, we need to be resolved on what kind of life we are trying to build, and that often means a commitment about what *not* to do.
But, emotionally, in the last several years, I’ve found shunning has showed up for me as a rather energetically aggressive and sort of superficial approach. It’s both exhausting and inherently judgmental, and doesn’t actually get to the bottom of why challenges might are coming up in my spiritual life in the first place.
Hence, the ideas from Buddhism that I have been introducing in these last two series: surrender, acceptance and self-compassion. Perhaps where I am going with this can be best illustrated by this Buddhist story, which I will paraphrase:
The Buddha was meditating under a tree one day, and saw the demon Mara lurking around the edges of the grove, spoiling for a fight. The Buddha knew that he was a match for Mara but also that, because of Mara’s nature, he would always be there, waiting to ambush. So, the Buddha said: “I see you, Mara.” And he invited Mara to tea, and served Mara with kindness. Mara was befuddled and eventually went away. (1)
I love this story. I love how it subverts an assumed combative premise, and offers up another way. There is something very powerful, a power derived from peaceful confidence rather than defiance, whereby the Buddha acknowledges Mara’s presence and who Mara is, and then takes away Mara’s power, which exists in the assumption that the “fight” is necessary. We notice of course, that the Buddha isn’t befriending Mara, isn’t signing on to or acquiescing to Mara’s agenda, which clearly is an agenda based in suffering and destruction. The Buddha simply accepts that Mara is present, and that leads to a reframing of the situation.
I think that sometimes, our focus on shunning our evils, even turning our backs on them as the more recent translations say, can only be a short-term solution. Yes, if we are in the heat of the moment tempted to kick the dog, then yes, shun that real hard!! But then, when the heat of the moment is gone, perhaps we should spend some time inhabiting that impulse, asking it where it comes from, and what it might need in order to be healed. Because, whenever we go all in on shunning the impulse after the fact, that looks a lot more like denial. Accepting that our evil impulses exist, and exist for a some sort of reason, is foundational to our spiritual progress, because, if we do that curious work, work based in acceptance and self-compassion rather than denial, we will be less likely to even consider kicking the dog next time.
Acceptance can lead to change. And I know my brain is doing a little short-circuit because the definition of acceptance communicates a kind of static affirmation, a reaching of a state of approval. How can something like that lead to change? Isn’t that the opposite of change? I think rather, it is an acceptance grounded in acknowledgment rather than explicit approval. We need to see Mara first, accept Mara’s presence first, before deciding upon wise action because then in that clarity held with kindness, we have more freedom than just fight or flight. We can decide, as the Buddha did, to reject any false categories, like the combat Mara was wanting, and opt for a better solution.
Tara Brach writes: “By holding my feelings of anger and frustration with “radical acceptance” I could find my way to the caring that gives rise to wise action. Acceptance of whatever arises in us in the present moment is not a passive act. Rather, this engaged, mindful presence allows us to respond to our world from our deepest compassion and wisdom.” (24-25)
As we return to our reading today, we observe that we don’t get to hear from the gospel Peter’s internal process around his cowardice. We know he wept bitterly, and I think we all recognize that abyss of regret and disappointment. What we do know is that Peter went on to become an influential apostle, a key figure in the development of the early Christian church. And I believe an important part of him getting there was the way he encountered Jesus after the resurrection. In the gospel of John, there is a story of the disciples fishing and Jesus calling to them to breakfast on the beach (and this is a text we will hear more from in May). Jesus doesn’t demand an apology. But he does ask Peter three times, "Do you love me?” echoing, one could even say, healing, Peter’s three-fold denial. Each time Peter answers yes, and each time Jesus answers with a variation on “Feed my sheep.” The end game, as the Buddha knew, is not the vanquishment of our everyday evils as a sign of valor and purity. The end game is feeding Jesus’ sheep, those around us, and the reason we work to remove our evils is because they are going to get in the way of being loving. And we should attempt their removal in whatever way removes them from the root, rather than just removing them from our eyes. Compassion and understanding together can lead to powerful transformation.
Or, as noted by a renowned Buddhist teacher,
“The essence of Buddhism is to discover a state of lasting happiness and to work for the benefit of others. On this path, wisdom and compassion are inseparable. Little by little, through a process of investigation, we gradually come closer to understanding the truth.” (2)
Mark 14:27-31, 66-72
27 “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: “ ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” 29 Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.” 30 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.” 31 But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same.
66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said. 68 But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway. 69 When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” 70 Again he denied it. After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” 71 He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” 72 Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
The Doctrine of Life #45.
It then follows that as we turn our backs on evils because they are sins we have faith, because as explained just above this means that we are focused on what is good. There is support for this in the contrasting fact that if we do not turn our backs on evils because they are sins we do not have faith, because we are focused on what is evil, and evil has an intrinsic hatred for truth. Outwardly, yes, we can befriend truth and put up with it and even love having it in our understanding; but when we shed that outwardness, as happens after death, we first discard the truth we befriended in the world, then we deny that it is true, and finally we turn away from it.