Archive for June, 2012

Jun 24th, 2012

Affirming the “Self”
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 24, 2012

1 Samuel 17:4-11, 32-40 Mark 35-41 Psalm 107

This Sunday I take to heart some of the comments we heard about self-love in our discussion a while back. I thought them over well, and wrote to another minister, Rev. Gardiner Perry, to get his comments on the subject. Rev. Perry is uniquely qualified to comment on the issue of self-love as he is an accomplished Swedenborgian scholar as well as a certified psychotherapist. My reflections and the comments of my fellow minister have shown me that self-affirmation is indeed a part of the heavenly life.
But I found that there are two kinds of self-love. One is negative and one is positive. Rev. Perry defines negative self-love as follows:
Self love (amor sui) can be understood as the spiritually problematic phenomenon Swedenborg portrays: it is love of self at the expense of others; self-centeredness; abuse of others for one’s own gain; and even the abuse of power when there is a power differential in the relationship.
However, he soon went on to say that if an individual has made the least progress in striving for a spiritual life, that self affirmation is to be cherished. He says, “This awareness is to be cherished, and is rightly considered in many traditions as a great blessing.” The important insight I gathered is to affirm who we are as individuals, as the agents of an activity that only we can do, and to affirm the unique persons that only we are. So Rev. Perry says,
However, if I, you, or anyone with whom you interact is on a more positive path, then one can afford to say, ‘Yes’ to my having my own existence. I can say Yes to self affirming attitudes, to self affirmation; and, when it comes to ministry . . . a pastor can say, ‘Yes, you can love yourself as you are.’
I believe this approach to self-affirmation is Biblical. And we see it in the story about David and Goliath. When David is about to fight Goliath, Saul clothes him in heavy, traditional warrior’s armor. But David refuses to wear someone else’s armor. He refuses to accept the traditional garb of warfare. He trusts in God and in himself. He goes out to meet the gigantic and formidable Goliath with only his sling, staff, and five smooth stones. David, in other words, goes out to meet Goliath as the shepherd that he is. He does not pretend to be a soldier; he does not wear a soldier’s armor; and he trusts that God will give him victory as He had when David was defending his sheep against lions or bears. David believed in himself as he was, and in the God who protects him.
I also reflected on an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson called “Self-Reliance.” In that essay, Emerson affirms each individual’s unique power to manifest divinity in their own way. He begins with self acceptance. Emerson teaches that,
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.
True self-love is doing just what Emerson says. It means that we “take himself for better, for worse.” And also we are to till “that plot of ground which is given him.” Emerson asserts that great men have always done so,
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so.
Emerson moves beyond mere self-acceptance. He affirms the unique gifts and contributions that only we can do when we act of our own unique powers. When we look within, and find God within us, we will hear a voice that only we can hear.
Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it.
When we follow that voice, and let the God within us shine forth, then we are exhibiting God’s Wisdom in a way no other human can. And we find that we are not acting by our own power, but by God shining through us.
We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams.
Before I scare traditional Swedenborgians with too much talk about self-affirmation, I claim that this understanding of self-love is consistent with Swedenborgian theology. I have already shown that it has a basis in the Bible, in the story of David and Goliath. I will now show that Swedenborg agrees with Emerson’s statements on self-affirmation. We are each of us a unique creation, and we have uses to perform that only we can.
No one man, spirit, or angel is ever just like another, not even as to the face. When I only thought of two being just alike, or equal, angels expressed horror, saying that every one thing is formed from the harmonious concurrence of many things . . . Uses in the heavens are likewise in all variety and diversity and in no case is the use of one exactly similar and the same with the use of another; thus neither is the happiness of one similar and the same with that of another (HH 405)
So I believe it is appropriate to celebrate who we are as individuals, and to love who we are, and to cherish our unique gifts.
I will say a few words, though, about negative self- love. This may be called egotism, selfishness, or, as my fellow minster said,
love of self at the expense of others; self-centeredness; abuse of others for one’s own gain; and even the abuse of power when there is a power differential in the relationship.
There’s a story about inappropriately loving self that comes to mind from my university days. When I was in graduate school, I played bass in a pop-trio. We had myself, a sax and a guitar. We ran into trouble with a bar owner and our continued employment there, and we sent our sax player to negotiate with him. I think that our sax player got the wrong message from the bar owner, or he spun what the bar owner said in his own favor. The sax player, let’s call him Bob, came back to us and said,
OK. He said that I’m the reason that we’re here. He said that my sax is why we’re hired at all. Without me we wouldn’t be here. Other bands have guitars but we’re the only one that has a sax.
Now I’ll admit, having a sax did make us unique. But where would Bob be without the bass and guitar to back him up? I very much doubt that the bar owner would hire Bob all alone to play his sax. Bob was exaggerating his contribution to our band putting himself above the ensemble we were together. I would point to this behavior as self-love in a negative sense. Now I’m not saying that Bob was evil, nor egotistical in other areas of his life. What I am saying is that I think his attitude in this story showed self-love as ego, and not the healthy kind of self-affirmation that makes room for community. But then I went on to exhibit negative self love, myself. I told Bob, “Well if you’re the only reason we’re here, you don’t need me.” And I quit the band on the spot.
I think this short story shows what my fellow minister called, “love of self at the expense of others.” Bob and I were both too pumped up with pride to work for the common good of our band. And the result was that we broke up. I should say that our guitar player, Mike, was above such petty displays of ego. It turned out that he and Bob formed a duo without me that got jobs in bars for a long while after I left the band. But we were all able to bury the hatchet, and whenever I went to a bar they were playing at, they always asked me up to sing a couple songs with them.
But let’s return to healthy self-love. Let’s recall Swedenborg’s words,
No one man, spirit, or angel is ever just like another, not even as to the face. When I only thought of two being just alike, or equal, angels expressed horror, saying that every one thing is formed from the harmonious concurrence of many things . . . Uses in the heavens are likewise in all variety and diversity and in no case is the use of one exactly similar and the same with the use of another; thus neither is the happiness of one similar and the same with that of another (HH 405)
We can affirm our unique gifts and also affirm the unique gifts of others. I think that self-love and neighbor love can happily coexist in us. We are all unique because the universe is perfected by diversity. So Paul says,
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” . . . there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it (1 Corinthians 12:21, 26).
That is how I see positive self-love. As Emerson says,
Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation . . . That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him.

PRAYER

Lord, we give you thanks for the gifts and talents you have given us. For each one of us is unique and different, and we each have our own special way of making your wisdom manifest. May we seek you within our hearts, as we do in your holy Word. May we listen to the inspiration that you give to each one of us, so that we may know our call and live truly to it in our lives. May we seek our own way, the way you have given to each one of us; may we walk content on the path that is ours to walk; and may we till the soil that is on our own plot. Give us to rest content in our lives, and in who we are. For you have given us to ourselves to keep in service to you.

Lord, we ask for your peace to descend upon this troubled world. Where there is conflict and war, let there be understanding and peace. Inspire our leaders, and the leaders of other nations to govern their people with compassion and with your Holy Love. Where there is famine and thirst, may good hearted aid come and satisfy the needs of those who want. Where there are natural disasters, may help come from good neighbors and from compassionate governments. Where there is hardship and unemployment, lend your patience and hope.

Lord, send your healing love to all those suffering in body and soul. We ask you to give the gift of health to all in need. And Lord, there are special people in our lives who we wish for you to heal and bring back into a fuller enjoyment of life and our world. We pray for them now. Bring them a full and speedy recovery. Send your healing power to all those in need.

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Jun 17th, 2012

Planting Holiness
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 17, 2012

Ezekiel 17:22-24 Mark 4:26-34 Psalm 92

This Sunday’s talk follows the two previous talks. Two Sundays ago, I asserted that we are not wholly bad or good. I said that we should not be surprised to find that we have both in us. Then last Sunday I talked about what to do with the evil we see in ourselves. That brought up the issue of repentance. We should not be afraid to see evil in ourselves, and then to turn from it and begin a new life. It behooves us nothing to see that we may have maladaptive behavior traits from our upbringing, and to do nothing about them. We don’t need to blame ourselves, or our upbringing. We need to play the hand we were dealt, and turn from sin.
This Sunday I have a more pleasant topic. This Sunday we will look at the rebuilding that follows upon repentance. For hand in hand with repentance comes reformation. As we turn from sin, good is implanted in its place. Our lives become more loving, accepting, and heavenly. And we also feel better. Because when the vexations of our soul are removed, peaceful and happy feelings begin to fill our mind and spirit.
Our Bible readings for this morning treat this theme. Isaiah talks about bringing low the high and haughty tree and planting a new tree on a high mountain. Jesus talks about seeds growing into grain, and the mustard seed growing into such a large plant that birds can roost in its branches. These are all images of our new life, as we are reformed by God.
This may sound strange, but we need to be taught what spiritual life is. In fact, we need to be taught everything. Unlike most animals, we are born with essentially no instincts. There is nothing inborn in us about how to live. We first learn how to live through our families. From our upbringing, we are fit–well or ill–to live in the world. This may be called first birth.
The same process happens for our spiritual life. We need to learn about God’s world. Some of us have learned about God’s world as we grow up. But even so, this infantile knowledge of God’s world needs to be enhanced by adult knowledge about the dynamics of heavenly life. So the process of reformation is in many ways a mental process. It is one of learning about spiritual life. Swedenborg tells us,
that a person may be regenerated, it is necessary for this to be done by means of the understanding . . . and it is done through the information which the understanding receives, given first by parents and teachers, afterward from reading the Word, from preaching, books, and conversation. The things which the understanding receives from these sources are called truths; it is the same, therefore, whether reformation is said to be effected by means of the understanding, or by means of the truths which the understanding receives. For truths teach a person in whom and in what he should believe, also what he should do, thus what he should will (TCR 587).
“Truths teach a person in whom and in what he should believe, also what he should do.”
As we learn what to believe in and what we should do to inherit eternal life, we measure our lives against what we are learning. This is the searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves that I mentioned from the 12-step programs. It is also repentance and the beginning of reformation. We are learning what good is, and we are learning what evil is. We will probably see also what the psychologists tell us about the conflicted nature of humanity. Freud talked about three aspects to our personality that are constantly in conflict. There is the Id which seeks pleasures and desires insatiably. Then there is the Super-Ego, which is all the cultural mores that we learn and the principles of propriety. These two are in conflict. Then there is the Ego, which seeks to rationally arrange a truce between these two personality aspects. Freud was influenced by Plato, who had a similar three-part system of the personality. For Plato, the lowest part of our personality was like Freud’s Id. He called it the epithumia, the lowest part of us. In the epithumia are all our desires for sensual pleasures. The next up is the thumos, which is made up of noble emotions like honor and courage. The highest aspect of our soul is the nous, which is all reason and rationality. Freud was also influenced by mystical Judaism which teaches that there are up to 12 aspects to the soul. Swedenborg also describes a three-part model of the soul. The lowest is the natural, which centers on worldly life. Then there is the spiritual, which centers on truth and love for the neighbor. Then the highest is the heavenly, or celestial, which centers on love of God. However we describe the soul, we will see that we humans are in conflict as to what we desire. Our lower nature will want things that our higher nature doesn’t want.
Swedenborg describes this conflicted nature of humanity in terms of inner and outer. As I said above, our minds learn spiritual truths. And we measure our lives against the truths we have learned. Here is where our conflicted nature shows itself. Our outer person wants the things of this world. These are primarily the things that favor our self-interest. But our inner person wants the things of heaven which are for others and for God. So we find Swedenborg saying,
A combat then arises because the internal person has been reformed by means of truths, and from these it sees what is evil and false, and these still are in the external or natural man . . . For it is well that the flesh is opposed to the spirit, and the spirit to the flesh . . . (TCR 596).
But conflict isn’t the final result of all this. As we progress spiritually, we drive out the blockages to the spirit, and let in heavenly light and heat. Good replaces evil or character defects or maladaptive behaviors. We become more and more filled with God’s love and peace, and our lives become happier. Swedenborg describes this in terms of the internal conquering the external
when the internal man conquers, the external is subjugated; and . . . when this is subjugated, lusts are dispersed, and affections of good and truth are implanted in place of them; and these are so arranged that a person may do the goods and truths which he wills and thinks, and may speak them from the heart (TCR 597).
I can think of one area in my life where such a transformation happened to me just how Swedenborg describes it. For some reason, and it doesn’t matter how or why, in my early adult life I was very rebellious. I was going to set the world straight. I would resist customs that I felt were misguided; I would protest against things that weren’t according to my way of thinking; I would correct society when it went wrong; and I would correct you when you were wrong. I wanted to arrange the world according to my understanding of the way things should go. It didn’t occur to me that the world was doing just fine without my help. Well, you can imagine what that did to me. I wasn’t big enough to make the world go my way. And as I corrected people when they were wrong, they tended to shy away from me. The result was that I became frustrated and angry at the world, and lonely.
I learned a truth that transformed my life. I was told the simple sounding truth that I needed to withdraw from the debating society, and to accept the world on the world’s terms. I couldn’t make the world fit into my expectations of it. I learned that God accepts the world as it is, so could I. God is God, not me. God is running the show, not me. What a relief to be unburdened from the task of running everything. That broad and general truth liberated me from my constant fighting. When I came to accept things as they are, the world became a much friendlier place for me to live in. I could listen to other people and accept them and their views even if they differed from my own. If a car whizzed past me on the road, I didn’t need to correct him or her–I could accept that they were going to drive that way, were likely pent-up and had their own demons to wrestle with. I came to see myself as a fellow-citizen in the world, not it’s would-be dictator. I grew comfortable in the world, and in my own skin. I m no longer angry, pent-up, and frustrated. I learned to live and let live. This perspective is summed up very well in a poem by Robert Frost called The Draft Horse:

With a lantern that wouldn’t burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.

And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.

The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of a broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.

The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to to hate,

We assumed that the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way.

I do still try to make the world a better place. I do not say that all the evils in it are acceptable. But there are appropriate ways to effect change. And one needs to learn to pick one’s battles. I participate in movements and events to effect change in society like the seminar to end racial discrimination, which I MC’s through the Interfaith Centre. And in Florida I lectured in many venues to raise consciousness to the stigma and neglect of persons with mental illnesses. But if my efforts do not succeed in effecting the change I want, I no longer become angry or frustrated. The results are in God’s hands. As we heard in Mark, this morning, “Whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain.” My approach to life now is like another line I love from a Frost poem about mowing a hay field, “My long scythe whispered to the ground/And left the hay to make.”
By the power of His Divine love, God is planting a seed that grows into a tree in the soil of our souls. As we root out the weeds that choke out God’s light, fruit trees spring up. New loves replace distorted pleasures. Our own well-being, the welfare of others, and humility before God come to reign in our souls. “And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning.”

PRAYER

Lord, we thank you for the special gift of our fathers. We thank you for the love and care that only fathers can bring to a family. We thank you for the guidance and nurturing from our fathers. Often we take our fathers for granted, and we don’t show them the appreciation they deserve. Today we pause and reflect on all that our fathers have contributed to our lives. We thank you God for our fathers, and we thank our fathers for supporting us in our life’s journey.

Lord, we ask for your peace to descend upon this troubled world. Where there is conflict and war, let there be understanding and peace. Inspire our leaders, and the leaders of other nations to govern their people with compassion and with your Holy Love. Where there is famine and thirst, may good hearted aid come and satisfy the needs of those who want. Where there are natural disasters, may help come from good neighbors and from compassionate governments. Where there is hardship and unemployment, lend your patience and hope.

Lord, send your healing love to all those suffering in body and soul. We ask you to give the gift of health to all in need. And Lord we ask you to send the power of your healing Spirit to all your children. Bring them into the strength and wellness they were created to enjoy. Send your healing power to all those in need.

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The Redeemer Will Come to Those Who Repent
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 10, 2012

Isaiah 59:12-21 John 4:7-14 Psalm 130

Last Sunday I talked about evil. I said that we should not be surprised to see that there is evil in us. I illustrated this with a poem by Dylan Thomas that said we are not wholly bad or good. I also quoted Swedenborg, who said that we have evil spirits attached to us and also angels attached to us. The reason why we have evil spirits attached to us is because we are born with evil tendencies and some of these become acts. If we did not have the freedom to feel those tendencies, we would not be able to live. Swedenborg tells us the following unpleasant news,
That spirits that communicate with hell are also adjoined to a person, is because a person is born into evils of every kind, and so his first life is only from them; for this reason, unless there were adjoined to a person spirits like himself, he could not live, nor indeed be withdrawn from his evils and be reformed (HH 293).
But I don’t mean to leave us in evil. Today I will be talking about what we do with the evil we see in ourselves. I call our attention to that last line in the citation above, “unless there were adjoined to a person spirits like himself, he could not live, nor indeed be withdrawn from his evils and be reformed.” This line refers to our theme this morning, which is repentance. Isaiah tells us that, “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins” (59:20). This means that God will purify our souls and come to us when we repent. So the question becomes, “What is repentance?”
Repentance is a process. It is a process by which evil is removed and good is implanted in its place. Last Sunday I cited a passage from Swedenborg that just touched on how this process works. In Heaven and Hell Swedenborg writes,
That a person cannot be reformed unless he has freedom, is because he is born into evils of every kind, which yet must be removed in order that he may be saved; nor can they be removed unless he sees them in himself and acknowledges them, and afterward ceases to will them, and at length holds them in aversion; then they are first removed (HH 598).
That is the process in a nutshell. We first see and acknowledge evils in us. Second, we cease to will them. And third, we hold them in aversion–which means that they become distasteful to us. This short statement is actually the whole process of repentance, reformation, and regeneration, which can be found in True Christian Religion, nos. 510-620. This Sunday we look at repentance, which is the first thing that we do with the evil we see in ourselves.
We can only change ourselves if we see that we need to be changed. Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Repentance requires real self-knowledge. It requires what 12-step programs call a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. When we look at ourselves, we should not be surprised to find areas where we need to change. We may see very unflattering aspects to our personalities. This is normal for every human being. When Jesus says that we need to be born again in order to see God’s kingdom, he doesn’t mean only a few bad eggs. His statement includes all of humanity. So the first step in spiritual growth is to see and admit that we have evil in us. Swedenborg’s short statement on this goes as follows,
The question is, therefore, How ought a person to repent? The reply is, for one to examine himself, know and acknowledge his sins, make supplication to the Lord, and begin a new life (TCR 330).

The process of spiritual rebirth is one of actual character transformation. And this character transformation cannot be done in the twinkling of an eye. Nor can it be done magically by God without our cooperation. In order for us to change, we need to take responsibility for who we are. It is we who need to look at ourselves, acknowledge our sins, ask God for help, and begin a new life. Swedenborg puts this another way. He says that,
when one is considering evil with the mind, and is intending it, he should say to himself, “I am thinking of and intending it; but because it is a sin, I will not do it.” By this means the temptation injected from hell is checked, and its further entrance prevented (TCR 535).
He goes on to add the humorous remark that, “It is wonderful to say that one can find fault with another . . . and yet it is hard for him to say so to himself . . .” (TCR 535).
When we are examining our lives, we will find that we are driven by one ruling love. Swedenborg calls this the reigning love, or the ruling love, or the dominant love. The ruling love is what we love above all things. We enjoy and love many things, but they all come from what we love above all. Swedenborg describes our ruling love as follows,
All the enjoyments that a person has are of his ruling love, for a person feels nothing else enjoyable than what he loves, thus especially that which he loves above all things; whether you say ruling love, or that which is loved above all things, it is the same thing (HH 486).
Our repentance involves identifying our ruling love, and checking it against what we know to be good. What drives us? What do we seek to do? What do we enjoy doing? Are we motivated by heavenly loves? What kinds of loves and enjoyments make up who we are?
Swedenborg seems to use the term “ruling love” in two senses. In one sense, the ruling love is what defines us as an individual. We are what we love above all things.
A person is such as the dominance of his life is; by this he is distinguished from others; according to this his heaven is made if he is good, and his hell is made if he is evil; it is his very will, his selfhood, and his nature; for it is the very being of his life (TCR 399).
And likewise, Swedenborg says,
All the enjoyments that a person has are of his ruling love, . . . Those enjoyments are various; they are as many in general as there are ruling loves, consequently as many as there are men, spirits, and angels, for the ruling love of one is not in every respect like that of another (HH 486).
So to know who we are, we need to know what our ruling love is. We can get an idea of it by examining what kinds of things we enjoy, and to see what their source is. It shouldn’t be that hard to discover what we love above all things. Swedenborg tells us,
What a person loves above all is continually present in his thought, because it is in his will and makes his veriest life. . . . It is in his will like the unseen flow of a river which sweeps along and bears him away even when he is acting in some other way, for it is that which gives him life (TCR 399).
The second sense in which Swedenborg uses the term “ruling love” is even more directly related to our repentance. In this second use of the term “ruling love” there appear to be only four loves that qualify. Of these four ruling loves, two are heavenly and two are hellish. These four loves appear over and over again in Swedenborg’s works. I think that all Christians would agree on the two heavenly loves, since they are Biblical. But I haven’t heard much in other churches about the two hellish ruling loves. The four are as follows,
There are two loves from which, as from their very fountains, all goods and truths arise; and there are two loves from which all evils and falsities arise. The two loves from which all goods and truths are, are love to the Lord and love toward the neighbor; but the two loves from which are all evils and falsities, are the love of self and the love of the world. . . . The two loves from which are all goods and truths, which, as was said, are love to the Lord and love toward the neighbor, make heaven with a person, for they reign in heaven; and because they make heaven with a person, they also make the church with him. The two loves from which are all evils and falsities, which, as was said, are love of self and love of the world, make hell with a person; for they reign in hell; consequently also they destroy the church with him (TCR 399).
So our ultimate spiritual aim is to love God above all and to love our neighbor as ourselves, as Jesus says in Mark 12:28-34. I have said a lot about examining ourselves and rooting out the evils we may see in ourselves. But I also found something remarkable in Swedenborg that makes this whole repentance thing appear easy. So easy that I’m not sure how far to run with it. Swedenborg appears to say that if we do good from a religious motive, we avoid sin and are accepted by God. He does hedge when he talks about this, but in the end he seems to say that those who do good from a religious motive avoid evil. So at first Swedenborg is ambiguous,
All they who do good from religion avoid actual evils; and yet how rarely do they reflect upon the interiors . . . in the belief that they are not in evils because they are in good, yes, that the good covers the evil. But, my friend, the first of charity is to flee from evils (TCR 535).
What does he really mean here? It would appear that Swedenborg is saying both, that doing good from religion saves a person from evil and also that doing good doesn’t cover up evil. But having said this, he comes back to his original statement,
But yet, all who do good from religion, not Christians only but also pagans, are acceptable to the Lord, and after death are adopted; for the Lord said . . . Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of My least brethren, ye have done it unto Me. Come, ye blessed, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Matt. 25:31).
Swedenborg also lets us off the hook if we are basically good, even if we do occasionally commit evil. In a surprisingly lenient passage, Swedenborg says,
But good spirits are never punished, though they had done evils in the world, for their evils do not return; and I have learned that their evils were of another kind or nature than those of evil spirits, not being done purposely contrary to the truth, and not from any other evil heart than what they received hereditarily from their parents, into which they were carried from a blind enjoyment when they were in externals separate from internals (HH 509).
I think that the conclusion from all this is what a person intends. If we’re trying to be good from a religious principle, we will find heaven. If we deliberately do evil because it is against God and because we want to break God’s principles, we will find hell. I lean toward the four love model in regard to our ruling love. If we have love for God and the neighbor first in our hearts, we will find heaven because it is a state of love. On our path of good-will we will see evil in ourselves. We will want to avoid it when possible and come to a place where the better light fills our souls. As we advance on our spiritual path, we will continue to carve a place for God in our hearts. Then, as God fills our souls ever more fully with His life and love, like the woman at the well, we will ask for living water, and find it given as “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

PRAYER

Dear Lord, you have promised forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all those who repent and turn to you. Help us to trust in this promise as we go about the work of our spiritual growth. Give us the courage we need to look at ourselves fearlessly, so that we may know who we are and where our lives need amendment. Give us strength to shine a light on our feelings and thoughts. Reveal to us our ruling love, that which we love above all things. And lead our spirits to love you above all, and the good life that love for you brings. Lead us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to wish them well for their own sake. Lord we give you thanks for your mercy and forgiveness. We know that you hold our wellbeing always in your Divine Providence.

Lord, we ask for your peace to descend upon this troubled world. Where there is conflict and war, let there be understanding and peace. Inspire our leaders, and the leaders of other nations to govern their people with compassion and with your Holy Love. Where there is famine and thirst, may good hearted aid come and satisfy the needs of those who want. Where there are natural disasters, may help come from good neighbors and from compassionate governments. Where there is hardship and unemployment, lend your patience and hope.

Lord, send your healing love to all those suffering in body and soul. We ask you to give the gift of health to all in need. Give all the breath and energy they need to fulfil the calling to which they have been summoned. Send your healing power to all those in need.

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We Are Not Wholly Bad or Good
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 3, 2012

Isaiah 6:1-8 John 3:1-17 Psalm 29

I’d like to open today’s talk with a short poem by Dylan Thomas. It’s from a play called, “Under Milkwood.” The poem is actually a prayer recited by the town’s priest, and it goes like this:
We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milkwood
And thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst.
This poem captures our theme beautifully. For we are not wholly bad or good. We have traits of both in us. This is why Jesus tells Nichodemus that we must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God. This is an all encompassing statement. Jesus doesn’t say some of us must be born again. His statement includes all of humanity, “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John3:3). We need to be born again of water and the Spirit. This suggests Jesus as the Source of living water, which He told to the woman at the well in Samaria. And it suggests our need to accept God’s Holy Spirit into our hearts in order to receive spiritual life.
We find a similar theme in Isaiah. In our reading this morning we find sin and redemption, or in other words, rebirth. When Isaiah has the vision of God enthroned on high, his first response is consciousness of his own shortcomings. He cries,
Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty (6:5)
God’s response is not one of punishment or anger, but one of redemption and salvation. Isaiah’s mouth is purified with a coal taken from the altar of the temple, and then he is ready to serve God.
We need a healthy humbleness in our spiritual life. We need to remain conscious of our need to be reborn. However unattractive it may sound, we need to be aware of sin in our lives. The Bible teaches us not to hold ourselves above others, not to see ourselves as wholly righteous, and to recognise that we live only from God. Furthermore, it teaches that we receive the power to do and love good from God alone. I think of that passage in Luke. It warns us against self-righteousness. The story begins with the important words,
To some who were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable” (Luke 18:9).
A Pharisee goes to the temple and says,
God, I thank you that I am not like all other men–robbers, evil-doers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector (18:11).
While the tax collector’s prayer is opposite. He says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (18:13). Jesus says that the tax collector went home justified before God.
I think, too, of the sinful woman who shows her love for Jesus. Luke tells us that she was, “A woman who had lived a sinful life.” She anoints Jesus’ head with oil, cleanses His feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses them and pours oil on them. The Pharisee challenges Jesus about this. He doesn’t think that Jesus should have let her do this. He says to himself,
If this man a prophet, he would know who is touching Him and what kind of woman she is–that she is a sinner (7:39).
Jesus’ reply is, “Her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much” (Luke 7:47).
The relationship between sinfulness and righteousness is not black and white. There isn’t a clear line between good and evil as we find them in a person. Like the Dylan Thomas poem, we are not wholly bad or good. A little introspection will show us that we have both in us. Swedenborg teaches that,
With every person there are good spirits and evil spirits; by good spirits a person has conjunction with heaven, and by evil spirits with hell (HH 292).
We have both good and evil spirits around us because we have both qualities in us. We have evil spirits with us because we have evil in us that is part of our life. Not a pretty thought, but an honest one. Swedenborg gives us the following unpleasant news,
That spirits that communicate with hell are also adjoined to a person, is because a person is born into evils of every kind, and so his first life is only from them; for this reason, unless there were adjoined to a person spirits like himself, he could not live, nor indeed be withdrawn from his evils and be reformed. Wherefore he is held in his own life by evil spirits, and is withheld from it by good spirits; by means of both he is also in equilibrium; and because he is in equilibrium, he is in freedom, and can be withdrawn from evils and inclined to good, and good can be implanted in him (HH 293).
Being reborn, as Jesus says we must be, is a process. It is not a magical transformation that happens in the twinkling of an eye. It is a process in which we see, fully acknowledge, and turn away from our character flaws. In fact, as we let God’s love into us, we no longer crave our former lusts. We love heavenly delights instead. Loving God and loving the neighbor become pleasant to us. Aristotle claimed that a person isn’t truly virtuous until he or she enjoys virtue. Swedenborg describes this process succinctly,
That a person cannot be reformed unless he has freedom, is because he is born into evils of every kind, which yet must be removed in order that he may be saved; nor can they be removed unless he sees them in himself and acknowledges them, and afterward ceases to will them, and at length holds them in aversion; then they are first removed (HH 598).
Seeing our character defects, and turning away from them opens us up to receive their opposite. For when we realise that we aren’t the centre of the universe, we first begin to live for God and for our neighbors. When we first realise that the short-lived vanities of the world like fame or wealth or popularity don’t make us truly happy, then we first begin to seek out treasures for ourselves in heaven. Then we come to value honesty, truth, wisdom, and all the varieties of good service we can do. This is how the process of spiritual rebirth happens.
God is continually lifting us upward to Himself all through our lives. Swedenborg says,
There is actually a sphere elevating all to heaven, that proceeds continually from the Lord and fills the whole natural world and the whole spiritual world; it is like a strong current in the ocean, which draws the ship in a hidden way. All those who believe in the Lord and live according to His precepts, enter that sphere or current and are lifted (TCR 652).
Everyone can be lifted up into heavenly love and into God’s kingdom. Swedenborg is very clear on this, “Since all men have been redeemed, all may be regenerated each according to his state” (TCR 579). We all have our own path to God. Since we all have unique personalities, hereditary dispositions, and different upbringings, our regeneration is unique to each one of us. Swedenborg explains,
All may be regenerated, each according to his state; for the simple and the learned are regenerated differently; as are those engaged in different pursuits, and those who fill different offices . . . those who are principled in natural good from their parents, and those who are in evil; those who from their infancy have entered into the vanities of the world, and those who sooner or later have withdrawn from them . . . and this variety, like that of people’s features and dispositions, is infinite; and yet everyone, according to his state may be regenerated and saved (TCR 580).
Meanwhile, we live in between heaven and hell. We should not be surprised to see some character traits in ourselves that are unhealthy and need amendment. We don’t want to put our head in the sand and cower under a supposed spiritual perfection. To do so would prohibit us from the primary means of our salvation. Our sins are removed to the extent that a person, “sees them in himself and acknowledges them, and afterward ceases to will them, and at length holds them in aversion” (HH 598).
Finally, I need to say something about self-esteem in the light of character defects and the theological word “sin.” Nearly every spiritual program has a confessional component to it. And this also includes 12-step programs like AA and Al-Anon. Step 4 in AA and Al-Anon talks about making a rigorous moral inventory of ourselves. In Catholicism, there is confession to a priest and absolution. In our religion, we talk of self-examination and confession privately before God. But when taking these confessional steps, a rigorous moral inventory is a true inventory. It is an assessment of strengths as well as weaknesses, character virtues and character defects. It is not a place for crushing guilt or shame. But an assessment and amendment of life is required in all these systems. “Unless a person is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” It is in our best interest to do so. For instance, in Al-Anon they talk about coping mechanisms that may arise under alcoholic environments that no longer work, or that interfere with more healthy ways of showing and receiving love. Where would a person be if they continued to live out behavior patterns from childhood in adulthood? Where would a person be if they continued to practice unhealthy coping skills when they have the opportunity to live in open, healthy, and loving relationships?
Change is hard. But as they do in other programs, I urge us all to be fearless in our self-appraisal. Ask God to shine a light on our lives and to give us the wisdom to see where and how we can amend our lives. Admitting that we may be able to live a better way does not mean we need to lose self-esteem. In fact, it takes true self-esteem to embrace our shadow. It takes psychological strength to accept who we truly are. For we are not wholly bad or good. Embracing our whole self is the way to true self-esteem, and to spiritual growth and progress.

PRAYER

Lord, we trust in your care and in your providence. We know that you hold us all in your loving embrace. We know that you continually lift us upward to you. We ask that you give us the courage to look at ourselves, to see where we are strong in our faith and where we have weaknesses in our spiritual program. Let us fearlessly see where we have fallen away from your heavenly delights. And give us the power to change and amend our lives so that we may fill our hearts with the good things of your kingdom. As we turn away from sin and darkness, we pray that you inspire all good delights in us. Fit us to receive the heat and light that make up heaven’s environment, and bring us to you and to our eternal home with you.

Lord, we ask for your peace to descend upon this troubled world. Where there is conflict and war, let there be understanding and peace. Inspire our leaders, and the leaders of other nations to govern their people with compassion and with your Holy Love. Where there is famine and thirst, may good hearted aid come and satisfy the needs of those who want. Where there are natural disasters, may help come from good neighbors and from compassionate governments. Where there is hardship and unemployment, lend your patience and hope.

Lord, send your healing love to all those suffering in body and soul. We ask you to give the gift of health to all in need. Heal all of our loved ones and comfort us as we wait with them.

Your smallest or most generous free-will offering would be greatly appreciated for this important work. Cheques may be made out to The Edmonton New Church Society, and mailed to:
Church of the Holy City
9119-128A Avenue
Edmonton, AB T5E 0J6
Canada

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