Archive for April, 2011

Hope for the Whole Human Race

 

Isaiah 25:6-9                                       John 20:1-20                                       Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26

 

The Easter message is a message of hope for the whole human race.  On the natural level, it means that death is not the final word.  Easter teaches that there is life after death.  And that there is the hope of living in heaven forever in loving relationship with the risen and glorified Lord.  On the spiritual level, Easter teaches that there is hope of deliverance from all the aspects of our lives that vex us.  Easter gives us the hope that peace and love will prevail in the end, and that we will find a way to live in harmony with our God and with one another.

We live on earth but for a short time.  Our true home is in the heavens.  Swedenborg teaches us that God’s intention in creating us was to have a heaven from the human race. In Divine Love and Wisdom n. 330, Swedenborg writes, “The goal of creation is a heaven from the human race.”  God is love itself, and it is God’s desire to enter into a loving relationship with the whole human race.  Love is the happiest state a person can know, and when one considers that God’s love is infinite, there is no end to the joys that God can give us.  Lovers want what is good for their beloved, and they want their beloved to be happy.  And to the extent that it is possible, lovers try to give their beloved everything they can to make them happy.  How much more is this the case with God, who is love itself.  Swedenborg has much to say about this.  And his discussion is so beautiful and clear I can’t resist quoting him at length.

Two things make up the essence of God, love and wisdom; but three things make the essence of His love–loving others outside of itself, desiring to be one with them, and making them happy from itself. . . . loving others outside of itself, is known from the love of God toward the whole human race; and for their sake God loves all the things He has created . . . desiring to be one with them, is known also from His conjunction with the angelic heaven, with the church upon earth, with every one there . . . . Love also, viewed in itself, is nothing else than an effort to conjunction; therefore, that this object of the essence of love might be attained, God created human beings into His image and likeness, with which conjunction may be effected.  That the Divine love continually intends conjunction is manifest from the words of the Lord, that He wills that they be one, He in them and they in Him, and that the love of God may be in them (John 17:21-23).  The third essential of God’s love, which is making them happy from itself, is known from the eternal life, which is blessedness, joy, and happiness without end, which God gives to those who accept His love in themselves; for God, as He is love itself, is also blessedness itself; for every love breathes forth from itself enjoyment, and the Divine love breathes forth blessing, joy, and happiness itself to eternity.  Thus God from Himself blesses angels, and also people after death, which is effected by conjunction with them (TCR 43).

It is to give us all these blessings of love and happiness that we were created.  And heaven, which is being in God and God in us, exists in order for us to live in these blessings of love and joy forever.

These blessings are ours when we are conjoined with God.  And Easter gives us the hope that we can be joined with God.  God came down to earth in the form of Jesus in order to make this conjunction possible.  Before the incarnation, God Spirit was blocked.  The forces of darkness were overpowering the forces of light.  Therefore, in John’s Gospel we read, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (1:5).

Our understanding of the incarnation is different than that of traditional Christianity.  Traditional Christians say that Christ came to earth in order to bear our sins on the cross.  But we are responsible for our own sins.  Jesus’ crucifixion did not take away our sins.  A little introspection will show this.  Rather, for us, God came to earth in order to unite the infinite Divine with the Human Christ so that God and man became one.

. . . a conjunction of the Infinite or Supreme Divine with the human race was effected through the Lord’s Human made Divine, and . . . this conjunction was the purpose of the Lord’s coming into the world (AC 2034).

Then, because God has a human body, God is now present to us in a more direct way than was possible before the incarnation.  So Swedenborg writes,

When the Human was made Divine, and the Divine was made Human, in the Lord, there was an influx of the Infinite or Supreme Divine with man, which could not otherwise have existed at all (AC 2034).

This is the reason for God’s coming to the earth in the form of Jesus Christ.  God is now present on earth in His Divine Human in a way that wasn’t possible before.  The union of the Infinite Divine with the Divine Human is what gives us the power to receive God’s Spirit in our lives.  God can come to each and every one of us directly through His Humanity.  We can commune with Jesus as with any other human with one great exception.  Jesus gives us all the life, love, and joy that we have.  Jesus gives us the ability to enter into positive relationships with each other.  And we can love each other and God because of the Spirit that comes to us through the Divine Humanity of the Lord.  This is what salvation means for us.

The Lord came and united the Human Essence to the Divine Essence, so that they were altogether one . . . and at the same time He taught the way of truth, that every one who . . . should love Him and the things which are of Him, and should be in His love which is love toward the whole human race . . . should be conjoined and be saved (AC 2034).

It is God’s Spirit, acting through His Divine Human that gives us the power to resist and overcome sin.  It is God’s Spirit, acting through His Divine Human that lifts us up and out of our fallen nature.  Jesus Himself teaches this.  He says, “But when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself” (John12:32).

This is what gives us hope spiritually.  It means that we are not trapped in unhealthy behavior patterns that we may have acquired in our upbringing.  It means that we are not doomed to follow self-destructive habits that we may have acquired.  It means that there is another way.  It means that the way we have been doing things does not have to be the way we always must do things.  It means that God can lift us out of all limitations and bring us into joys we cannot imagine.  God acts on us throughout our whole lives and even into eternity.  He continually shows us how to move out of one lesser way of living into one better way of living–and then He gives us the power to change.

There is no limit to the progress we can make spiritually with God’s help.  Step by step, inch by inch, we grow as seeds in a garden.  As I suggested above, we are responsible for our own spiritual growth.  God did not take away our sins on the cross.  Through the process of self-examination and self-modification we are able to move out of sin and into love.  (For sin is nothing else but love twisted.)  This is what is meant by the blessing we sometimes use in our church.  “God keep our going out and our coming in from this time forth, and even for ever more.”  The blessing means that we go out of our shortcomings and come in to greater happiness and heavenly joy.  The Easter story gives us the hope that this is possible.  “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself.”  We will find the insight to change, with God’s help.  We will find the power to change, with God’s help.  We will find people around us who can support us and lead us, with God’s help.  So Swedenborg writes, “The man who is made new by regeneration . . . is withheld from evil by an influx of the life of the Lord`s love, and this with all power” (AC 3318).

This is what the resurrection did.  God’s Infinite Being united with His Divine Humanity so that the Human became fully Divine and Divinity became fully Human in one person.  This is what is meant by that passage in John, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him” (13:31).  The Son of Man is glorified by God’s Spirit completely filling Him, and God is glorified by being in the Son of Man fully.  Humanity and Divinity meet in one total union in the risen and glorified Christ.  And that union gives us all the power to be children of God, as John puts it,

To all who received him, to them he gave the power to become sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (1:12-13).

Now risen and glorified, Christ gives us all the joys that His infinite love can possibly give to His own beloved human race.  It remains but for us to accept it–here on earth, and afterward eternally in heaven.

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The Love of God in the Face of Human Sin

 

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is almost the catalogue of human sin and weakness.  It shows the many ways we can act on our worst instincts.  It shows envy, mob violence, intimate betrayal, mockery, self-interest, and negligence.  These sins are bad enough when they are done amongst each other.  But when we consider that these sins were levelled against our God, then they become all the more terrible.  The crucifixion shows humanity at its worst.

And at the same time, when we consider Jesus’ reaction to the crucifixion, we see divinity in all its glory.  Despite being confronted with all these terrible human sins, in Luke, Jesus forgives the whole human race.  Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  This statement shows how powerful is God’s love for the whole human race.  It was for love that God assumed the human, and came to us down here on earth.  And in his horrible crucifixion, God’s interest was still on the human race that He so loves.  Jesus’ divinity was so manifest that the centurion guarding him said, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”

As we go about our spiritual journey, we need to keep both these themes in mind.  We need to be aware of human evil; and we need to be aware of Divine forgiveness.  We can picture ourselves in the presence of Jesus Christ at any time, and measure ourselves against God’s divine forgiveness and our own shortcomings.  To make this idea concrete, consider one of Jesus’ parables.  In the parable about the sheep and the goats, Jesus says, “Whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did to me” (Matthew 31:40).  We are each and every one of us God’s creation.  And God lives in each of us.  When we meet another person, we are meeting God in him or her.  What we do to that person we are doing to God in that person.  That is one way of noticing Jesus’ presence in our lives.  But we can also see Jesus with us by means of an inner vision.  We can picture Jesus with us as we go about our daily lives.  Jesus is actually with us all the time.  The only time there is separation between Him and us is when we fall away from His teachings.  And even then, Jesus is still with us, it is us who distance ourselves from him in our own hearts.  We can picture our union with Jesus when we are in a spiritually good space.  We can see Jesus smiling on us, or we can picture ourselves resting our heads on Jesus’ breast as we read the Apostle John did.  Then we can picture Jesus forgiving us when we do hurtful actions–or even actions that show an indifference to our neighbors–recalling that Jesus forgave the woman who wept over Him in Luke 7.  She was called a sinful woman, and the Pharisee whom Jesus was dining with questioned Jesus allowing her to caress Him.  But Jesus taught the Pharisee a lesson in forgiveness and love.  Jesus told him,

Do you see this woman?  I came into your house.  You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.  Therefore I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much (Luke 7:44-47).

What forgives this woman are her tears and her love.  I would imagine that she was aware of her status as a sinful woman, yet her love for Jesus changed her status completely.  In order for us to be forgiven, I think that it is important for us to be aware of our own fallen nature.  We need to be aware that at every moment of our lives, we need God’s love and forgiveness in order for us to find heaven’s joy.  We need to remember that we do not have our spiritual gifts because of our own power.  It is God’s Spirit in us that gives us our gifts.  The love we have for others, the joy we have in our meditations about God, our own capacity to forgive others–these are all God in us.  And should we be tempted to claim them as our own, we will lose them.  Recognizing our utter dependence on God’s grace, as did the woman, is what will save us.

Do you think that you are capable of calling for Jesus’ crucifixion?  Do you see yourself capable of being caught up in the spirit of a crowd and having your own feelings stirred up?  Have your feelings of spite ever grown when you find yourself in a group of others who are also spiteful about someone?  Are you capable of envy for those around you who are very good at what they do, particularly something that you do as well?  Do you see yourself capable of turning your back on a friend when you are in a group of others who are talking him or her down?  Do you see yourself capable of ignoring a problem you could solve simply because you didn’t want to bother with it?  Maybe not.  Maybe so.

These are some of the  human weaknesses that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.  It was envy that led the Pharisees to bring Jesus up on charges.  It was the spirit of mob violence that called for His crucifixion.  It was intimate betrayal that led Judas to hand Jesus over to the Pharisees.  It was self-interest on the part of the Jewish leaders that saw Jesus as a threat to their own power.  And it was negligence on the part of Pilate that caused him to wash his hands of the whole matter.   Good Friday is a time for us to reflect on the ease with which we can fall away from Godliness, into the place of human sin and error.  But we also have the promise that Jesus is always pulling for us, always forgiving us, always calling us back to Him.  Though He suffered emotional betrayal and experienced the very worst that humanity is capable of, Jesus still forgave.  Even though Peter denied knowing him out of fear, Jesus still called him to ministry after His resurrection.  We may fall short of God’s ways.  We may sin and display spiritual weaknesses.  But we also may acknowledge it when we turn away and ask Jesus for His forgiveness.  Like the sinful woman in Luke, when we acknowledge that we are capable of sin and that we have committed it in moments of weakness, we can still come to Jesus, who will never turn us away.  In humility for what we may have done, what we are capable of doing without divine help, and what we can do with God’s help, we may come to Jesus and find love and forgiveness.

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 (Matthew 11:28-29).

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To Truly Call Him, “Lord, Lord”
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 27, 2011

Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28 Matthew 7:21-29 Psalm 31

Jesus tells us that not everyone who calls Him, “Lord, Lord” will enter His kingdom. Not even those who perform miracles of healing and who proclaim their faith in prophesy, are sure of entering His kingdom. Jesus tells us that only the person who, “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who builds his house upon a rock.” In Swedenborg’s system of correspondences, a rock signifies truth. And only a person whose life is grounded in spiritual truth can withstand the temptations and allurements of selfishness and the world’s seductions. It is not enough to call out, “Lord, Lord.” By this I understand those outward forms of religion such as attending church, reading the Bible, saying prayers, and even those who may know and study religions. These outward forms of religion are all good. And they can be very helpful in developing a spiritual life. But to truly be a spiritual person, it is not enough to only know about religions. It is not enough to only attend church. It is not enough to only confess being a Christian. No, to be a truly devout person, one needs to hear Christ’s words and apply them to life.
We hear a similar message in our Deuteronomy reading for this morning. The teachings in Deuteronomy are the same as those Jesus gives us. In Deuteronomy 11:18 we read, “Fix these words of mine on your hearts and minds.” God’s laws are to be internalized; they are not just to be known. No, Deuteronomy tells us to fix God’s commands on our hearts. This means that they are to be so intimately internalized that they are in our hearts, and hence all our thoughts and deeds. Since God’s laws are in our hearts, then they will be with us, as Deuteronomy says, “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you get up” (11:19). That pretty much covers all of our lives.
What Jesus and Deuteronomy are talking about are spiritual truths. The rock on which the wise man built his house symbolizes building a life that is centered around spiritual truth. There are many places one may turn to in seeking spiritual truth, but I believe that church is one very important source of spiritual truth. Churches represent faith traditions. And I don’t mean just our denomination. Most churches, be they of the different Christian denominations, or of world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Taoism to name a few, most churches are based around a tradition that has grown up over years of practice and reflection.
There are good things and bad things about a tradition. The good thing about a tradition is that it collects the wisdom of spiritual masters over a long period of time. In this respect, we can benefit from those who have gone before us. We can learn from wisdom that has been added to over time by those who have experienced spirituality in its depths and have struggled with spirituality in their own souls. We can benefit from those who have had the time to study spiritual texts in depth and who have shared the results of their study. Spiritual traditions can light our way as a lantern in the night.
The bad things about a tradition stem from the very things that make them good. Sometimes the words of humans are added to the words of sacred texts in such a way as to obscure the purity of the sacred texts. Sometimes human interpretations can cover over the sacred texts of a tradition. In a tradition, it is possible for human words to replace God’s Word. Then, the teachings of humans can mislead followers of a tradition, or distort God’s true message.
But I still affirm the need for a tradition. Some seekers today make up a brand of spirituality a la carte. By that, I mean they may pick something from Buddhism that they like, perhaps some Sufi poetry, a smattering of Taoism, and maybe the words of Jesus. While I am open minded about other wisdom traditions, there is a problem with this approach to spirituality. Spirituality a la carte can end up merely reinforcing the self. It is the self that chooses what the individual will take or reject. This is a problem, since a good deal of spirituality is the negation of self. Spirituality has as its goal the transformation of the individual from a self-oriented life to a God-oriented life. Spirituality also teaches the subordination of self to service to others. Spirituality levels pride and teaches humility. So without a faith tradition, one can end up only reinforcing the self that spirituality seeks to moderate. In many places, Swedenborg talks about, “How contrary to heavenly love and how filthy is the love of self” (AC 2040). On the other hand, if a person is firmly committed to a faith tradition, I do believe that faith can be expanded by reference to other great works of spirituality.
Spirituality teaches us to put God first, and the neighbor on equal footing with ourself. This teaching is not what society tells us. Society teaches us to seek self-affirmation and to get ahead at all costs–even if that means getting ahead by stepping on the heads of our neighbors. Society teaches us to seek social status and to get ourselves in a position to feel superior to others. Everwhere in shopping malls we are presented with images of the ideal person. Clothing stores show us what the perfect body and well-dressed individual should look like. They also show us what the ideal business person should dress like. Usually this means buying expensive designer clothes. We are shown pictured of health enthusiasts with sculpted abs. Posters and movies show boney models or actresses with body types that I consider unhealthy. Where can a person turn to find an alternative image from these icons? Where else but to a faith tradition?
Spiritual practice requires effort. We need to ask God into our lives, and we need to act in such a way that we admin the divine rays into our lives. I found some very provocative passages about this in Swedenborg. The rock on which the wise man builds his house signifies truth. And it is through truths that we learn what is good and what is evil. When we apply truth to our lives, we open ourselves to God’s love. The Swedenborg passages I found suggest that God is always there–but we can block God’s inflowing life and love. We use truth to get evils out of the way that stand between God and us. Swedenborg tells us that
There are loves of three kinds that constitute the heavenly things of the Lord’s kingdom; these are marriage love, love for infants, and the love for society or mutual love. . . . Whatever covers up, obstructs, and defiles these loves [must be removed] (AC 2040).
Note the language that is used here. We must remove whatever, “covers up, obstructs, and defiles.” This means to me that we have those heavenly loves in us already, and the problem comes when we block these loves. Swedenborg makes this even more clear. He writes,
so far as the evils of the lusts, and the falsities from them, are removed, the person is purified; and so far heavenly love can appear” (AC 2040).
So heavenly love appears when we remove what Swedenborg calls evils and falsities. Apparently, these things cover over heavenly loves that are in us. When we purify ourselves by removing those lusts, then heavenly love appears–there is nothing blocking it anymore.
It is truth that teaches us what is blocking the heavenly love that is in our soul. This is what is signified by the stone on which the wise man built his house. The stone is that truth that we can use to purify ourselves from the lusts of selfishness and worldliness. Swedenborg writes, “without knowledges of truth there is no purification. . . . a stone signifies truths” (AC 2040). As the wise man built his house on the rock, we need to form our lives upon truths. It seems to me that the church is the most fruitful place to learn spiritual truths. In a church one has the power of tradition–both living and historical. We are a community, and we can all benefit from the spiritual experiences of each other, as we sojourn in this life. Then there is the history of wisdom that church traditions provide. Now I am well aware that there is bad religion out there that drives thinking people away from the church. and I am well aware that we can find God outside the church. We can access wisdom traditions on our own. But I think that when we seek the truths that make a strong foundation for our house of life, the church is an invaluable resource. The people in it, and the people in its past are a solid support for our spiritual development.

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Apr 16th, 2011

The Mountain Top
Rev, Dr. David J. Fekete
March 6, 2011

Exodus 24:12-18 Matthew 17:1-9 Psalm 2

I can think of three story elements from our Bible readings for this morning. They are all interrelated with one another. First, there is the mountain. Moses ascends Mount Sinai, and Jesus ascends a high mountain whose name we are not told. Then there is the presence of God on the mountain top. In Exodus, the glory of the Lord settles on the mountain and appears like a consuming fire. In Matthew, the glory of God shines through Jesus Himself as His face beams as bright as the sun and His clothes become as white as light. Furthermore, the same bright cloud of God’s glory that settled on Mount Sinai settles on the mountain where Jesus, Peter, James, and John are. We hear God’s voice saying that Jesus is His beloved Son with whom He is well pleased. The third story element is God’s laws and commands. God calls to Moses to come up onto the mountain top in order to receive God’s law and commands. In Matthew, Moses and Elijah appear on either side of Jesus, as representatives of the law and the prophets. They appear because Jesus is the human embodiment of the law of God, or in other words, the Word made flesh. Swedenborg tells us that Jesus Christ is Divine truth of the Word in human form.
It’s no accident that these story elements all surround a mountain. God’s glory appears to Moses and Jesus on the mountain top. Why would Moses and Jesus need to go up to a mountain top in order to experience this revelation of God? We don’t need Swedenborg’s system of correspondences in order to understand the meaning of mountains for the Biblical writers. Mountains are high places. Some of the very names for God involve mountains, or high places. In Genesis, God is often called El Shaddai which means, “The Mountain One.” Another name for God in Genesis is El Elyon, which means “God Most High.” And El Elyon was worshipped on none other than the mountain on which Jerusalem was built.
It’s not as if God lives on mountains. God is actually present everywhere. It would be too literal a reading of these stories to think of God as actually living on mountains. Rather, it is the symbolism of mountain tops that gives the power of these stories. We talk of God as being above. We pray for God to send us help from on high. As high places, above the ordinary places in the world, mountains were associated by the ancients as holy places and the dwelling of God. So when God appeared to the Biblical writers, He appears on mountain tops. This mountain revelation is a powerful symbol in the Bible. It gives power to our ideas about God when we envision the mountain covered with the glory of God.
In ordinary language we use reference to heights to describe important events in our lives. When we have particularly strong feelings of connection with God we talk about being on a spiritual high. On the natural level, even when we are very happy, we say we are feeling high. There was a psychologist named Abraham Maslow who talked about rare and exceptional human experiences as Peak Experiences. The Wikipedia–thank God for that wonderful research tool–defines just what these peak experiences are. It says,
Peak experiences are described by Maslow as especially joyous and exciting moments in life, involving sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and possibly also involving an awareness of transcendental unity or knowledge of higher truth (as though perceiving the world from an altered, and often vastly profound and awe-inspiring perspective).
Maslow describes peak experiences in a book entitled, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. In its very title, one can see that Maslow is considering the realm of religions when he talks about peak experiences. Notice, too, that these special moments are called peak experiences, drawing language from mountain peaks.
I like Maslow’s term, but it would be best to leave his psychology behind as we proceed to talk about spiritual peak experiences. In our spiritual life, we will find times when it seems that God is particularly close to us. There are times when we feel the presence of God more strongly than at other times. Sometimes these peak experiences happen when we are in special natural environments on earth. I have found these experiences at our various church camps. But it doesn’t have to be limited to these spiritual surroundings. I can recall one special peak experience I had when I was in my late teens. I was just standing on the front lawn of my parents’ house. I looked at the sun, and thought about God as the spiritual sun, and thought about my church friends, and then felt this wonderful closeness of God. I knew in that moment that there was a God. I had felt Him in my heart with as much certainty as if I had touched Him with my hand. Since then I have never doubted the existence of God, although my relationship with God has been a bumpy road.
Our journey of spiritual growth is not an even line of progression. It is not even a straight, uphill pathway. Rather as we grow and mature spiritually, we will have peaks and valleys. We will have experiences of wonderful union with God. and then we will come down from the mountain to the world of ordinary experience. Both Moses and Jesus came down from their mountains. Jesus’ complexion turned back to normal and didn’t shine with the brilliance of the sun. We can treasure our peak experiences of God, but acknowledge that we won’t necessarily stay there. I remember how sad and disappointed I used to be when I would leave Almont, and return to my ordinary life in school and at home. I see this feeling, too, when I work at youth retreats and Paulhaven Camp when the spiritual high that the teens feel together in God’s name must be left behind for life back at home and away from camp. But these peak experiences of the nearness of God still remain with us, although pushed back into the recesses of our unconscious minds. When Moses came down from the mountain, where he met God, he carried with him the tablets of stone on which God’s law was written. Swedenborg might call this part of our personality the inner self. There will be moments when this inner self shines brilliantly through our personality and then moments when it is clouded over with the darkness of life in this world.
There is also the issue of the lawgiver that we can associate with these peak experiences. The Wikipedia says that the peak experiences may also involve “an awareness of transcendental unity or knowledge of higher truth.” The is the lawgiver of our Biblical stories. This is the law and commands that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. And this is the appearance of Moses and Elijah in the mountain top experience of Jesus, Peter, James, and John. During a peak experience, our minds may find resolution of a problem, a new truth may intuitively come to us, or we may find how a particular truth we memorized actually works in real life. This relationship with truth may help create the peak experience itself. We may come into that higher feeling of God’s presence by contemplating a Bible passage, or a teaching from a theologian. I once asked the teens at Paulhaven Camp if they thought that the camp would still have that magical feeling if we took away chapel, classes, and confirmation class. They all said, “No, it wouldn’t be the same.” So chapel and religious instruction helped to create that peak experience that they associated with Paulhaven.
I think that in a mountain top experience, God’s presence is intimately connected to truth. We show our love for God by living according to His principles. Jesus says,
If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:23).
We see from Jesus’ words that love to God means doing what Jesus teaches. So conjunction with God depends on learning what Jesus teaches and then doing what Jesus teaches. Love of God is not just a feeling. In our society, we think of love as a feeling. But love is actually an ongoing relationship. It means how we are acting in relationship to our beloved. So loving God is actually a relationship in which we are doing Godly things. We can’t do Godly things unless we know what they are. So Swedenborg writes,
Love to the Lord is nothing else than committing to life the precepts of the Word, the sum of which is to flee from evils because they are hellish and devilish, and to do good because it is heavenly and Divine (DLW 237).
Only by the lawgivers Moses and Elijah can we find the glory of God that enveloped the holy mountains in our Bible stories. There is an intimate relationship between God’s laws and God’s presence. We love God when we do what God asks of us. Only by learning God’s law from the Bible and applying what we learn to our lives can we open ourselves to God’s presence. But as we grow spiritually, as we learn truths intuitively or by conscious study, and as we flee evil and do good, more and more we feel God’s presence. We will be transported to the mountain top. We will see the glory of God and bring that glory into our ordinary lives. We can expect to go up and down the mountain as we travel along this pathway in life. By going up the mountain to experience God’s nearness, we will have God in our hearts to shine through our lives when we go down the mountain. Our peak experiences will elevate the plane on which we live in ordinary life. As we progress spiritually, our peak experiences will grow higher, our comprehension of truth will grow more profound, and our lives will become more and more characterized by a love of doing good. Then God will come to us and make His home with us forever.

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Apr 16th, 2011

Disjunction from Good
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 13, 2011

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 Matthew 4:1-11 Psalm 32

We are now in the season of Lent. Lent began with Ash Wednesday, which was last Wednesday. We will be in the Lenten season until Easter. In the old Christian traditions, one would observe Lent by fasting and giving up some vice. By fasting, I do not mean abstaining from eating altogether, but rather abstaining from meat, or red meat, or some other dietary restriction. In today’s society, to some Lend has come to mean giving up smoking or drinking, or some other destructive habit. In Lent, the church traditionally emphasizes sin and human frailty as we lead up to the crucifixion and then Christ’s triumphant resurrection. Nobody wants to hear about sin. But I think that a clear, rational understanding of the dynamics that make for sin is very useful for a person’s spiritual wellbeing.
The issue of sin is very clear from our readings this morning. I am following the Common Lectionary that many Christian churches use, and it prescribes these Bible passages for the first Sunday in Lent. We read about the original sin, which cast Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. And we read about the temptation of Jesus after His baptism.
The Genesis reading can sound misleading. It can make the tree of the knowledge of good and evil appear positive. The serpent tells Eve that the forbidden fruit will make her like God, knowing good from evil. And the woman thinks that eating the fruit would be, “Desirable for gaining wisdom.” These lines make the tree of the knowledge of good and evil appear positive. If it would make a person know the difference between good and evil, wouldn’t that be good?
The real meaning of this passage, though, is summed up in a few key words. Those words are spoken by the serpent. He says that Eve will be, “Like God.” The sin of eating the forbidden fruit is making oneself into a god. It means trusting human knowledge instead of revealed truth. It means trusting in self and what the self knows on its own, and not trusting in the inward perception of truth that comes from God and God’s Word. Being like God means trusting in what can be proven scientifically. It means believing only in what you can see, touch, hear, smell, or taste. In other words, to be like God means to trust only in information we gather from our senses. When we believe only what we understand by reasonings based on our senses, then we make human intelligence into a god.
I have spoken with such people. They can appear smug and proud that they stand on proven truth, not childlike belief. They can look down on those who have simple faith. In fact, they can look down on those who have a highly developed belief system. In fact, they can look down on everyone but themselves.
This is love of self in a negative sense. We need self-esteem in order to love others. If we are crippled by destructive images of self, we are not in a position to support others. We will think we are not worthy. We would think we are incapable of anything good. This is a destructive self-image. So we do need what could be called a positive self-love. This means that we love ourselves enough to pass love along to others. When theologians write against self love, they are talking about something we would call pride, or arrogance. Swedenborg calls it contempt for others compared with self. When person is filled with evil self love he or she looks down on everyone else besides the self. This is when self love becomes evil.
There are lists of sins, and descriptions of the various kinds of evil that a person can commit. In the middle-ages, there were seven deadly sins known to all. These were anger, sloth, envy, pride, gluttony, lust, and greed. But there is a simpler way to look at sin. There is a way of seeing sin that makes it less disturbing to consider. It can be summed up in one simple sentence. “Evil viewed in itself, and also sin, is nothing else than disjunction from good” (AC 4997). Evil or sin is that which separates a person from what is good, and what separates a person from the love that flows into us continually from God.
But Swedenborg does go further in describing evil. For Swedenborg there are two fountains of evil: love of the self and love of the world. The worst of these is self love. Self love is directly opposed to love of God. For when a person makes him or herself out to be god, then one is in opposition to the true God. Then, everyone who doesn’t favor him or her is hated.
He loves no one but himself, and others only so far as they make one with him. Hence he turns the attention of all to himself, and entirely averts it from others, most especially the Lord; and when many in one society do this, it follows that all are disjoined, and each looks upon another as an enemy; and if any one does aught against him, he holds him in hatred, and takes delight in his destruction (AC 4997).
This is the nature of a person who has figuratively eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is the kind of person who makes a god of themselves.
The other kind of evil is less severe. It is called love of the world. Swedenborg describes this as a desire to possess all the wealth of the world, and all the possessions of everyone else. Although Swedenborg says this is less evil than the love of the self, I think that it may be more problematic in today’s society. I think that society teaches this sin as a virtue. Our society teaches us to strive for gain and wealth. Anthony Robbins and Deepak Chopra have written best-selling books on how to achieve success. They even cite spiritual laws you can use to acquire wealth. Some New Age establishments even say that there is a law of attraction that will give you wealth if you correctly meditate. Swedenborg defines love of the world as coveting, “the wealth and goods of others, and desires to possess all that belongs to them; whence also arise enmities and hatreds, but in less degree” (AC 4997). Let me be clear. I don’t think that wealth is evil in and of itself. And wealth can be used to better society as Bill Gates is doing. In this sense, wealth is a blessing to society and to the person who has it. It all comes down to how a person reacts to wealth. I can think of three ways in which wealth becomes a sin.
One way is for wealth to make someone think they are better than others. Wealth makes some people look down on those who are middle class or poorer. I remember when I was at Harvard that some people would size me up by the clothes I was wearing and decide whether I was worthy of talking to. I remember talking with someone in a bar in Boston. I asked him, “How much does a person’s self worth depend on his money here?” The guy looked askance at me and said, “What are you–one of those ultra-librals?” Then there were some wealthy people, usually old money, who didn’t care how much money I had, who would treat me as an equal personally. So one sin that derives from wealth is similar to that of love of self–the idea that wealth gives one the right to look down on others.
Then there is that old sin from the middle ages–greed. Some wealthy people never have enough. I heard one man of wealth interviewed on TV. The interviewer said, “I consider you a wealthy man.” The man replied, “Moderately wealthy, you always want more.” This is a craving for more and more wealth as Swedenborg describes it. It is a desire to possess “riches and wealth for their own sake” (DP 215). And when you set your heart on wealth, you will never be at peace, satisfied, or content.
The third, and probably worst form of love of the world depends on one key phrase. Swedenborg describes love of the world as primarily coveting, “the goods of others.” In other words, the sin of worldliness is wanting to take away what belongs to someone else. Ultimately to take away everything from everyone and to possess the riches of everyone by any means possible. I remember back in Florida relaxing, smoking a cigar in a cigar club. An acquaintance I knew came in and wanted to know what were good cigars for him to purchase. I showed him some very fine cigars in the club, but then he did something very strange. He pointed to one of my own cigars and asked me, “How much for your cigar?” I told him that the cigars I showed him were just as good, in fact, better. But he held out for my cigar. Perhaps that is a mild example of worldliness. This guy didn’t want a good cigar; he wanted my cigar.
Both love of self and love of the world disjoin a person from their neighbor. They throw up walls between their brothers and sisters. So much for sin and how it disjoins people from God and each other. It remains now to reflect on what it means to be good and how being good conjoins people together.
While evil and sin are disjunction from good, and oppose love for God and for the neighbor, goodness is conjunction with God and with the neighbor. Swedenborg describes the nature of good, and how it conjoins one to God and heaven,
Good is conjunction, because all good is of love to the Lord, and of love to the neighbor. The good of love to the Lord conjoins one to the Lord, and consequently all good which proceeds from Him; and the good of love toward the neighbor conjoins one to heaven, and to the societies there (AC 4997).
All good flows out from God as its source. Think of good as everything that brings people together. Kindness, friendliness, good will, service, generosity, empathy, compassion, and the like. Whatever can be seen as an expression of love is good. Good flows forth from God, so when we do good, then God is in us and we are conjoined with God. Jesus says, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine you have done to me” (Matthew 25:40). This implies that God is in each one of us, and when we do good to our neighbors we are doing good to God who is inside them. And doing good to others joins us together. Imagine a realm where everyone is trying to make everyone else happy. Imagine a realm where everyone does good to everyone else. That is what heaven is like. And when it happens in this world, then heaven is on earth.
In this season of Lent, let us reflect on the two great directions we can go in life. We can disjoin ourselves from God and our neighbors. Or we can conjoin ourselves with God and our neighbors. This is a simple way to view sin and goodness. And is so often the case, in simplicity is the greatest truth.

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The LORD Looks at the Heart
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 3, 2011

1 Samuel 16:1-13 John 9:1-41 Psalm 23

Our Bible readings this morning concern different ways of seeing. In the Old Testament reading, we heard about how man sees, and we heard about how God sees. In our reading, we heard about Samuel being sent to anoint a new king after Saul. Samuel is sent to Jesse in Bethlehem, to look at his sons. For God tells Samuel that one of Jesse’s sons will be king. When Samuel first sees Eliab, he thinks to himself that Eliab is the one who will be king next. Apparently, Eliab is tall and strong–a fitting king. We know this because God tells Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him” (1 Samuel 16:7). Eliab was like Saul, Israel’s first king. Saul, too was tall and strong. We are told that, “as he stood among the people he was a head taller than any of the others” (1 Samuel 10:23). So to Samuel’s thinking, Eliab would be the next king, as was Saul before him. But although this is Samuel’s own thinking, he yields to God’s word. One by one, all of Jesse’s sons are brought before Samuel, and God rejects them all as the next king. Then Samuel asks if these are all Jesse’s sons. Jesse says that there is still one more, David, who is tending sheep. When David comes to the prophet, God tells Samuel to anoint David as Israel’s next king.
David is peaceful and mild, being a shepherd and a singer. There is a striking contrast between him and Sau. Saul was also chosen by God, but the people found him quite to their liking. He stood head and shoulders over the others. This was the kind of king a person would want to lead them in battle. But what about David? David was just a boy when he was anointed, and not trained in the arts of war. He was a mere shepherd. In the eyes of man, David would not be a likely choice for king. But God chose him to be Israel’s next leader. And God’s words to Samuel are words to us as well. God tells Samuel,
The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart’” (1 Samuel 16:7).
To the outward appearance, to the eyes of man, David is not a likely choice for kingship. But in the eyes of God, who looks at the heart, David is chosen to be the next king of Israel. In King David, we see the contrast between how the eyes of man see, and how the eyes of God see.
In our New Testament reading, we find the contrast between blindness and sight everywhere. Our story begins with a man born blind. Jesus gives him sight. This is the first contrast between blindness and sight. It is a physical image–a blind man who can see. But as the story progresses, blindness and sight become symbols. The story begins to contrast believing that Jesus is the Christ and disbelief that Jesus is the Christ. The first contrast concerns belief that the miracle even took place. We are told, “The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and received his sight” (John 9:18). They go to the man’s parents and ask them if he is their son, and if he had been born blind. Saying just as little as they can, the parents admit that he is their son and that he was born blind. The next contrast is whether Jesus is of God or a sinner. The Pharisees say that Jesus is not of God because he does not keep the Sabbath. They say this because Jesus healed on the Sabbath, which they consider work. The Ten Commandments forbid working on the Sabbath. Others say that no sinner can do such miraculous things. The blind man himself testifies to Jesus’ godliness. He says,
We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing (John 9:31-32).
A striking blindness overcomes the Pharisees. They deny the miracle of sight that happened right in front of them and condemn the blind man who praises Jesus for restoring his sight. They say, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they throw him out of the synagogue. The final play on sight and blindness becomes spiritual. Jesus says, “For judgment I have come into the world, so that the blind may see and those who see will become blind” (John 9:39). The Pharisees ask, “What? Are we blind too?” Jesus then talks of sin in relation to blindness and sight, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (9:41). A similar line is in Luke 8:10, Mark 4:12, and Matthew 13:13-14. Mark’s line goes as follows,
To those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
they may be ever seeing but never perceiving
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven (4:12).
When I hear these words, I can’t help but think of some people I know who can’t seem to see God’s hand working in their lives or in the world around them. For me, everywhere I look I see God. Just looking at a flower, and its beauty, is clear testimony to me of God’s work. Why would such a beautifully designed living thing come into this world? When I see nature falling asleep in the winter and waking up in the spring and look at the great cycles of the seasons, I see God’s hand. Snow and biting cold does not kill nature–it merely puts it to sleep. Then as the weather warms, the plants come back to life after their period of dormancy. When I think how a single cell is impregnated and grows and develops into a heart, lungs, a brain and head, limbs and becomes a living human being capable of self-direction, I see a divine miracle. When I look back on my life and see the changes and growth that I have been through almost without my knowing it, I see God acting in my life. And yet I have friends who tell me, if there were a God, they would see evidence somewhere. I am not judging such people. I am simply expressing surprise and wonder that something that seems to obvious to me is so hidden to others. Are these those whom Jesus says are, “ever seeing but never perceiving?”
But for us the most important seeing is how we see ourselves. How are our thoughts, feelings, and actions measuring up against our understanding of Godliness? Jesus taught in parables so that His deeper truths would be hidden in the simple nature stories. When we are ignorant of truth, we are not responsible. But that doesn’t leave us off the hook. It is still incumbent on us to seek God and try to learn God’s ways. It is still incumbent on us to remain prayerfully connected with God. And in our prayerful connection with God, God will reveal to us more and more about how to live in His kingdom. He will reveal to us sins we are to get rid of, and show us good things we are to love and do. He will open our eyes and give us sight.
And the more we see, the more we are responsible for. But the upside of this is that the more we become responsible for our spiritual development, the deeper God penetrates our lives with His loving and joyous Spirit. Our faith may start out very simple with something like the Ten Commandments. But from a very simple start, God will open our minds further if we seek Him and His kingdom. We learn truths from many different sources–conversation, study, reading spiritual works, inspiration, and life’s experiences. If we begin our spiritual journey with faith as small as a mustard seed, we can grow into a faith as grand as the tree that birds nest in. Swedenborg tells us that faith is perfected according to the abundance of truths we learn. These truths reinforce each other and the more we learn, the more support we have for what we have learned.
So far we have been looking at sight from a human perspective. We not consider sight from God’s perspective. Here, the words that God spoke to Samuel come in:
The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart’” (1 Samuel 16:7).
God looks at our heart. He doesn’t look at our dress, our money, our status, but how our heart is. We are all children of God. And God sees us as His children. God loves us with the kind of love a mother has for her children. And God judges us with a mother’s love. God looks at what we are trying to do. God looks at our intentions. God does not make up a list of our right and wrong deeds. He looks at what we are trying to do right now. We all fall short of the ideal. We may have done things in our past that we regret. But what really matters is what we are trying to do right now. Are we walking with God? Are we walking into the light? Is our heart turned toward goodness and godliness? Do our actions stem from goodwill? Are we but trying to turn toward God? These are the kinds of things God looks at. I once heard a man say, “When we take one step toward God, God takes three giant steps toward us.” We don’t need to be saints to find God’s love and joy. As the Big Book in AA says, “We claim spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.
We may falter at times. We may stumble around in the darkness. But if we are still seeking God, and remaining prayerfully connected with Him, He will hold us up when we falter; He will lift us when we stumble. God is with us in all of our wanderings, stumblings, misguided actions, blindness, and trials. God is with everyone, everywhere. God seeks continually to bring light into our darkness, so that we may see. God is a “lamp for our feet and a light to our path,” the Psalmist says (119:105). With God in our hearts, may our light shine before men.

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Apr 14th, 2011

Life from the Lord
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 10, 2011

Ezekiel 37:1-14            John 11:17-43            Psalms 130, 131

In our Bible readings this morning, we heard about God giving life.  In Ezekiel, we heard about dry bones that were in a valley.  They came together, and God breathed into them the breath of life.  Then in our passage from John, Jesus gives life to Lazarus, who had been dead for four days.  There are two ways to look at these stories, naturally and spiritually.  On the natural level, these stories tell us that our very life itself is from God.  On the spiritual level, we are taught that God lifts us up into spiritual life, and gives us the joys of heaven.
The natural level of this story is not how things appear to us.  It doesn’t feel like we have life from God.  It feels like the life we have is ours.  It feels like we live by our own power.  But his is only an appearance.  The life we have is given to us.  God alone is life itself; we are only recipients of life.  Swedenborg tells us,
Man is nothing else but an organ, or vessel, which receives life from the Lord, for man does not live from himself.  The life which flows in with man from the Lord is from His Divine love (AC 3318).
So everything that we call life is God’s Holy Spirit in us.  All those millions of chemical reactions that go on without our knowing or even without our power to control is God flowing into our souls, and our souls flowing into our body.  Our life is God in us.
All the good we do and all the truth we understand is also God’s Holy Spirit in us.  In this case too, God is Good Itself and Truth Itself.  We are mere recipients of God’s good and truth.  Our life consists only of those things that we love and those things that we understand.  (This idea was first put forth by the philosopher David Hume.)  The things that we love and understand are called goods and truths.  Goods are what we love, and truths are what we understand.  These two constitute who we are.  Therefore Swedenborg says that, “the very essential of life consists in thinking good and willing good . . . these things are not of man, but of the Lord, therefore, all life flows in” (AC 4151).
Some Christian churches teach that good works do not save us.  They say this because they believe that we can do nothing good.  They exaggerate a line from Isaiah that Luther took up.  It goes, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).  And they are afraid that if we try to do good by our own efforts, we will believe that we deserve heaven.  They believe that people will think that they deserve heaven because they have done good.  In some regards, they are right in this.  To claim that we deserve heaven because we have done good is very injurious to our spiritual wellbeing.  Swedenborg calls this claiming merit for our good works.  But we are still called upon to do good deeds.  Jesus tells us,
I am the vine and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he trims clean so that it will be even more fruitful (John 15:1-2).
John the Baptist confirms this when he says, “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).  So it is clear that we are called to bear fruit, which I take to mean do good things.  But it is harmful to take credit for the good we do.  This is as strange a teaching as is the teaching that we live from God, not ourselves.  It sounds strange because we do good by choice and by an act of will.  We try to do good and we do good by our own effort.  At least that is how it looks to us.  But when we do good, we need to remember that we are only recipients of good and truth.  We are able to do good because God’s goodness is in us.  This is implied in the Swedenborg passage I cited above which said, “the very essential of life consists in thinking good and willing good . . . these things are not of man, but of the Lord” (AC 4151).  But Swedenborg is even more clear in this.  “No one ever has good and truth which is his own, but all good and truth flow in from the Lord” (AC 4151).  All life is from God.  All good is from God.  On our own, we can do nothing.  Everything we do is from God’s life in us and all the good we do is from God’s goodness in us.  So Jesus says, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  This is why we cannot claim merit for the good we do and this is why we cannot claim that we deserve salvation because of the good things we do.  It tarnishes the good we do with self-righteousness.  We need to keep humble, and not claim the good we do as our own.  If we claim it as ours, we will be like the Pharisee that Jesus denounces in Luke 18:9-12.  In that passage,
The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like all other men–robbers, evil-doers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.
This Pharisee is puffed up with pride for all the good he does.  Yet Jesus says that he is not justified before God.  “For he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
So far we have been looking at life itself as a gift of God.  Now we turn to spiritual life.  On a spiritual level, it is God who gives us spiritual life.  The dry bones in Ezekiel signify a person who is not yet regenerated.  Lazarus’ death symbolizes the same thing.  We are born into the world an image of nature.  We are reborn into heaven as an image and likeness of God.  Now we are entering into Swedenborg’s mysticism.  By mysticism, I mean the condition in which a person is joined with God, or in which God is actually in the person and the person is in God.  Jesus describes this in John, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (14:20).  In one sense, God is always in everyone.  He is in us as life itself.  But God isn’t in us completely until we let His love and wisdom into our lives.  We are only fully conjoined with God when we return His love–”you are in me, and I am in you.”
Before God is in us spiritually, we are in thick darkness.  We are formless and void, as is described before creation in Genesis.  We need to be lifted out of our darkness in order to come into heaven.  Our minds need to be enlightened so that we understand spiritual truth and our hearts need to become purified so that we can love unselfishly.  This is the teaching of Jesus, Swedenborg claims:
He taught the way of truth, that every one who . . . should love Him and the things which are of Him, and should be in His love which is love toward the whole human race . . . should be conjoined and be saved (AC 2034).
But knowing the way of truth is not enough.  Believing is not enough.  We need to actually let God’s Spirit shine down into our personalities so that we are reborn spiritually.  God flows into us from our inmost soul down into our very behavior–and everything in between.  Swedenborg breaks the human personality down into three degrees: the internal, the rational and the natural.  On earth we are only conscious of our rational and natural degree.  We may have moments of inner peace and joy that seem to come over us when our higher degrees are more open to us.  But for the most part, we are not fully conscious of these higher degrees.  We become fully aware of them when we come into the next life.
Our spiritual regeneration happens when God flows into our higher degrees and our higher degrees flow down into our natural degree.  Swedenborg tells us that,
there is a continual Divine influx of celestial and spiritual things through the internal man into the external; that is, an influx of celestial and spiritual things through the rational man into the natural (AC 3085).
But our natural degree begins an image of the world, and we need to be reborn into an image of heaven.  We learn a lot of things from a lot of sources–from our upbringing, from religious study, from conversation, from experience.  Some of what we learn is true and some is false.  I once heard a person say how his truths changed in life.  He grew up thinking, “Anything you don’t do perfectly is not worth doing at all.”  But in later life he abandoned his perfectionist attitude, and now operates under the statement, “Easy does it.”  As we pray and stay open to God, our natural degree is perfected.  The truths in our natural degree are elevated, and our falsities are dispersed.  So our natural degree is reduced into conformity with our internal degree.  Swedenborg describes this process:
Divine good flows into the natural man, than is, into the knowledges outward and inward, and doctrinal teachings therein, for these are of the natural man so far as they are in its memory; and that by this influx it enlightens, vivifies, and disposes into order all things therein; for all light, life, and order in the natural man is from an influx from the Divine (AC 3086).
Our natural degree becomes more open and able to receive influx from our higher degrees as we remove obstacles.  The obstacles to influx are chiefly selfishness and worldliness.  We need to be ready to abandon truths that only serve self and to take on truths that teach us how to love God and our neighbor.  Our inner degrees sift through the knowledges we have in our natural level and lift up into our conscience truths that are heavenly.  These then become our guiding principles.  This process continues throughout our life on earth and into the next life.
This is the process that brings our dry bones to life.  By removing the obstacles to influx, our higher degrees flow down into our natural degree and make it into an image and likeness of God.  This is actually God flowing through the degrees of our personality, giving us the breath of spiritual life.  This is how we are elevated into heavenly thought and feelings.  This process happens to us with our effort and without our effort.  At times we need to consciously reject limiting doctrines.   And at other times, we will have intuitive perceptions about truth that come from our higher degrees.  But whatever the means, it is actually God lifting us ever upward to Himself.  It is never a process that we can take credit for.
The man who is made new by regeneration . . . is withheld from evil by an influx of the life of the Lord`s love, and this with all power (AC 3318).
All our life, and all our spiritual life is a gift from God.  As Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”  We are indeed called upon to do good and to bear fruit.  But we can never claim the good we do for ourselves.  It is God in us doing the good, lifting us upward out of self into an ecstatic relationship with Himself.

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The Love of God in the Face of Human Sin

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is almost the catalogue of human sin and weakness. It shows the many ways we can act on our worst instincts. It shows envy, mob violence, intimate betrayal, mockery, self-interest, and negligence. These sins are bad enough when they are done amongst each other. But when we consider that these sins were levelled against our God, then they become all the more terrible. The crucifixion shows humanity at its worst.
And at the same time, when we consider Jesus’ reaction to the crucifixion, we see divinity in all its glory. Despite being confronted with all these terrible human sins, in Luke, Jesus forgives the whole human race. Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This statement shows how powerful is God’s love for the whole human race. It was for love that God assumed the human, and came to us down here on earth. And in his horrible crucifixion, God’s interest was still on the human race that He so loves. Jesus’ divinity was so manifest that the centurion guarding him said, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”
As we go about our spiritual journey, we need to keep both these themes in mind. We need to be aware of human evil; and we need to be aware of Divine forgiveness. We can picture ourselves in the presence of Jesus Christ at any time, and measure ourselves against God’s divine forgiveness and our own shortcomings. To make this idea concrete, consider one of Jesus’ parables. In the parable about the sheep and the goats, Jesus says, “Whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did to me” (Matthew 31:40). We are each and every one of us God’s creation. And God lives in each of us. When we meet another person, we are meeting God in him or her. What we do to that person we are doing to God in that person. That is one way of noticing Jesus’ presence in our lives. But we can also see Jesus with us by means of an inner vision. We can picture Jesus with us as we go about our daily lives. Jesus is actually with us all the time. The only time there is separation between Him and us is when we fall away from His teachings. And even then, Jesus is still with us, it is us who distance ourselves from him in our own hearts. We can picture our union with Jesus when we are in a spiritually good space. We can see Jesus smiling on us, or we can picture ourselves resting our heads on Jesus’ breast as we read the Apostle John did. Then we can picture Jesus forgiving us when we do hurtful actions–or even actions that show an indifference to our neighbors–recalling that Jesus forgave the woman who wept over Him in Luke 7. She was called a sinful woman, and the Pharisee whom Jesus was dining with questioned Jesus allowing her to caress Him. But Jesus taught the Pharisee a lesson in forgiveness and love. Jesus told him,
Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much (Luke 7:44-47).
What forgives this woman are her tears and her love. I would imagine that she was aware of her status as a sinful woman, yet her love for Jesus changed her status completely. In order for us to be forgiven, I think that it is important for us to be aware of our own fallen nature. We need to be aware that at every moment of our lives, we need God’s love and forgiveness in order for us to find heaven’s joy. We need to remember that we do not have our spiritual gifts because of our own power. It is God’s Spirit in us that gives us our gifts. The love we have for others, the joy we have in our meditations about God, our own capacity to forgive others–these are all God in us. And should we be tempted to claim them as our own, we will lose them. Recognizing our utter dependence on God’s grace, as did the woman, is what will save us.
Do you think that you are capable of calling for Jesus’ crucifixion? Do you see yourself capable of being caught up in the spirit of a crowd and having your own feelings stirred up? Have your feelings of spite ever grown when you find yourself in a group of others who are also spiteful about someone? Are you capable of envy for those around you who are very good at what they do, particularly something that you do as well? Do you see yourself capable of turning your back on a friend when you are in a group of others who are talking him or her down? Do you see yourself capable of ignoring a problem you could solve simply because you didn’t want to bother with it? Maybe not. Maybe so.
These are some of the human weaknesses that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. It was envy that led the Pharisees to bring Jesus up on charges. It was the spirit of mob violence that called for His crucifixion. It was intimate betrayal that led Judas to hand Jesus over to the Pharisees. It was self-interest on the part of the Jewish leaders that saw Jesus as a threat to their own power. And it was negligence on the part of Pilate that caused him to wash his hands of the whole matter. Good Friday is a time for us to reflect on the ease with which we can fall away from Godliness, into the place of human sin and error. But we also have the promise that Jesus is always pulling for us, always forgiving us, always calling us back to Him. Though He suffered emotional betrayal and experienced the very worst that humanity is capable of, Jesus still forgave. Even though Peter denied knowing him out of fear, Jesus still called him to ministry after His resurrection. We may fall short of God’s ways. We may sin and display spiritual weaknesses. But we also may acknowledge it when we turn away and ask Jesus for His forgiveness. Like the sinful woman in Luke, when we acknowledge that we are capable of sin and that we have committed it in moments of weakness, we can still come to Jesus, who will never turn us away. In humility for what we may have done, what we are capable of doing without divine help, and what we can do with God’s help, we may come to Jesus and find love and forgiveness.
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 (Matthew 11:28-29).

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