Archive for August, 2014

Aug 31st, 2014

Winding Our Way to God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
August 31, 2014

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Matthew 14:22-33 Psalm 105

The story of Joseph is a striking example of God’s Divine Providence. While Joseph goes through severe trials, the result of his journey is beneficial for all the players in his life–including himself. The way we journey as pilgrims in this life may be similar to Joseph. We may go through difficult times, we may appear lost at times, but for those who have a faith in God’s Providence, in retrospect, we can see that all the winding ways of our lives have resulted in spiritual growth for us.
In our Bible reading, things do not look good for Joseph. Hated by his own brothers, he is sold into slavery to the Midianites, who sell him to the Egyptians. In Egypt, other tragedies befall him. He is thrown into prison on false charges. But ultimately, Joseph rises to a position of power in Egypt. He rules as the Pharaoh’s right hand man. All of Egypt is under his command, except the Pharaoh’s own throne. Later, when the land of Israel experiences famine, Joseph gives food to his family, who travel to Egypt for aid. There is a tearful reunion of Joseph and his family. And in his position of power in Egypt, he is able to give his family the food they need. The very tragedy he experienced in his young years ended up with Joseph prospering immensely.
For many of us, life is a winding pathway through times of happiness and also times of sorrow and even despair. But all the while, God is leading us to heaven and heavenly joy and happiness. In every turn of our life’s direction God is leading us into greater love for Himself and for our neighbors, which is the same thing as saying that God is leading us to salvation. Swedenborg writes,
Providence continually regards what is eternal, and continually leads unto salvation, and this through various states, now glad, now sorrowful, which man cannot possibly comprehend, but still all are conducive to his eternal life (AC 8560).
When we look back on our lives, we see that the path we have followed has made us who we are. When we are in the depths of despair, and things look overclouded with sorrow, it is hard to maintain faith that God is still with us. There is that famous poem that we have on the wall downstairs called, “Footprints.” In that poem there are two sets of footprints on the beach. Then, for a time, there is only one set of footprints. The writer says to God, “Where where you when there were only one set of footprints,” thinking that those were his own footprints in a time of grief. God’s response is, “Those footprints were mine, when I was carrying you.” We can’t see Divine Providence working in our lives in the moment. But we can see Divine Providence when we look back on our lives. Swedenborg tells us,
It is granted to see the Divine Providence in the back and not in the face; also in a spiritual state and not in his natural state. To see the Divine Providence in the back and not in the face, is to see after the Providence and not before it; and to see it from a spiritual but not a natural state is to see it from heaven and not from the world. All who receive influx from heaven and acknowledge the Divine Providence, and especially those who by reformation have become spiritual, while they see events in some wonderful series, from interior acknowledgement they as it were see the Divine Providence, and they confess it (DP 187).
I know that when I look back on my own life, I can see that wonderful series of events that Swedenborg speaks of. And in my own life, I have experienced dark times, times when there were only one set of footprints on the beach. And as I look back, sometimes I wonder why God was carrying me, considering how angry I had become with Him. It is a measure of just how all loving God is. When I was in my twenties, I was preparing for ministry. I fully intended to become a Swedenborgian minister when I was thinking about my career at the age of twenty-three. So I enrolled in our church’s college, Urbana College. Urbana College isn’t a very well-known college in the US. But for Swedenborgian ministry, it is the best place to prepare for divinity school. From Urbana College, I went to our divinity school, the Swedenborg School of Religion. I was in our divinity school for five years when the church decided that it wouldn’t ordain me. That decision was reached in a three-hour-long meeting of the Council of Ministers while I awaited their decision outside the room. Since it was a closed meeting, to this day, I don’t know the whole story as to why they decided not to ordain me. I do know that I was an active alcoholic, and quite a loose cannon personally. When I heard the decision, I was enraged. From the time of my college years at Urbana College through my years in divinity school, I had put seven years of my life towards Swedenborgian ministry. I felt I had given my youth to the church, and it was all for nought. Furthermore, with only a degree from the unexceptional Urbana College and an unaccredited diploma from the Swedenborg School of Religion, I wasn’t in a very good position career-wise. While I was wallowing in gloom, one of the students said to me, “Oh, David, this may turn into something wonderful in time!” I didn’t want to hear this, and didn’t receive it very well. But it turns out he was right.
The course of my life proceeded into accredited graduate schools. First, my Master’s Degree at Harvard, and the my Ph. D. program at the university of Virginia. In these programs, my mind grew and expanded as I studied great works of literature and of the world’s religions. I became much more open minded. Before this, all I saw and knew was through the lens of Swedenborg. I judged everything by Swedenborgian doctrines. I was very narrow minded and parochial. Graduate study in religions of the world opened me up to people of other faiths, and taught me the interesting beliefs of other traditions and respect for people of other faiths. My graduate study in religion has proved invaluable in my capacity as president of the Edmonton Interfaith Centre. Then after all that intellectual work, I ended up in the mental health field in which my intellect was cut off as I worked with people’s moods. This looked like another setback, but it was another growing experience. My heart grew. I became more compassionate and my counselling skills improved. Then there was the gift of sobriety, without which I wouldn’t be able to receive any of these other gifts. There were also unexpected treats from God, like the gift of playing in a rock and jazz band. In the long run, I did become the Swedenborgian minister I wanted to be in my twenties, but I had so much more to bring to the ministry. I am now a much different minister than I would have been had I been ordained back then. Furthermore, by being kicked around by life, I grew more humble and my pride ameliorated. I’m actually glad for the way things turned out.
This narration exemplifies the passage from Swedenborg that I read at the beginning of this talk,
Providence continually regards what is eternal, and continually leads unto salvation, and this through various states, now glad, now sorrowful, which man cannot possibly comprehend, but still all are conducive to his eternal life (AC 8560).
Through all this, I became open to my neighbor. I saw that the immediate needs I thought I had to have, I could get along without. This is what is symbolized by the passage we heard from the New Testament. Jesus’ disciples are in a boat and a storm breaks out all around them. They are fighting against the wind. Waves and the turbulent sea symbolize temptations. They symbolize the despair a person goes through from time to time in life, and especially in one’s spiritual life. In the midst of this storm, Jesus comes to the disciples, walking on water and stills the storm. This signifies the state of peace that comes when temptations are quieted and new good has been insinuated into our minds and hearts. This would be like the compassion and open-mindedness that came to me through the trials in my life.
Temptations are not just allurements of the forbidden fruit. They are soul-stirring trials when we can’t see our way back to God and it seems we are on a course heading nowhere and lost. We can even despair of our salvation, and think ourselves bereft of the light of God’s love. These are the times when there are only one set of footprints on the sand. These periods break up our pride and teach us that we need God every hour and that all the blessings we have are gifts from God. Swedenborg speaks of,
a state of desolation caused by the privation of truth, the last stage of which state is despair. That despair is the last stage of that state, is because the thereby the enjoyment of the love of self and of the world is removed, and the enjoyment of the love of good and of truth instilled in its place; for in the case of those to be regenerated, despair has reference to spiritual life, and consequently to the privation of truth and good, since when they are deprived of truth and good, they despair of spiritual life; hence they have a sweet and blessed joy when they come out of their despair (AC 5279).
Would we humble ourselves and turn to God without such trials, I ask? There is a lyric from a song written by a friend of mine in Florida that goes, “Without those desperate times would we ever turn to you, and recognize our weakness?” I need to be clear, here, though. God does not send us these trials. It is we ourselves who bring them upon ourselves. It was my drinking and wild behavior that gave the Council of Ministers their doubts about me. God moderates these periods and guides them so that good will come of them and we will become more heavenly as a result.
So the path we take in this world is not necessarily an easy one. As Swedenborg tells us, “now glad, now sorrowful.” But Divine Providence does not let anything happen to us that does not conduce to our salvation and to greater conjunction with God and with heaven. Furthermore, all these trials bring us into greater love and this means into greater happiness. Through these temptations, Swedenborg tells us,
the Lord enters with affections of the love of the neighbor, and opens the window of his roof, and then the side windows, and makes him see that there is a heaven, a life after death, and eternal happiness; and by the spiritual light and at the same time by the spiritual love then flowing in, He makes him acknowledge that God governs all things by His Divine Providence (DP 201).
Those who trust in God can see this happening in their own lives. Whether we are now in a good state or whether we are now in a difficult state, we need to trust that God is with us, that God never gives up on us, and that God will bring us safely home to port. We need keep in mind the story of Joseph, and what looks bad now may turn into something wonderful down the road.

PRAYER

Lord, this morning, and every day, we ask for your guidance. You know our hearts and our deepest inclinations. And you lead us by means of our best reasoning and by means of our heartfelt loves. We trust that you will continue to guide us in that pathway that leads toward you and into heaven’s joys, and delights. Be with us in our sorrows. Be with us in our rejoicing. For we know that whatever happens to us will bring us into closer harmony with you and into deeper humility and heavenly joy.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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Aug 24th, 2014

Not Revealed by a Human
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
August 24, 2014

Exodus 1:8-2:10 Matthew 16:13-20 Psalm 2

When Peter says that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus tells him that this truth was not revealed by any human, but by God. Our deepest truths are revealed to us by God, not by human reason. In fact, as the inner sense of the Moses story tells us, human reason is often at war with spiritual truth. This is represented by Pharaoh attacking the Hebrew people in Egypt.
Religious truth and conviction, or faith, is given to us from heaven by God. We can confirm our religious faith by means of human reason and knowledge from this world. But we are likely to run into trouble if we begin our quest for spiritual truth by means of reason and knowledge.
Many, indeed, are the difficulties that reason has with religion. It seems to me that the more a person gets educated, the more difficult religious faith can become. I say this because some of the most educated people I know–people I have met in graduate school as professors or students–many of these highly educated people are atheists. In fact, the great Canadian philosopher writes, in his complex philosopher’s language, writes about atheism in higher education:
Our modern civilization is made up of a host of societies, sub-societies and milieux, all rather different from each other. But the presumption of unbelief has become dominant in more and more of these milieux; and has achieved hegemony in certain crucial ones, in the academic and intellectual life, for instance; whence it can more easily extend to others (Taylor, A Secular Age, pp. 12-13).
So Taylor claims that in academic and intellectual life, atheism has achieved hegemony–it is the dominant way of thinking.
Some of the things religion asks us to believe are hard to accept from a rational perspective. For one, God is invisible. Evidence for God’s existence comes from within–not from what we see and reason about. I know a man who was raised in the church–a minister’s son, no less–who said to me once, “I just don’t see enough evidence to believe in a God.” If you start your reasoning from what you observe, you won’t see God. But if you allow influx from heaven that there is a God, you will see God everywhere–in the sunrise, in a flower, in the plants that pop up in all manner of inhospitable places like the desert or on the steel hull of a boat–everywhere. But to see God there, you need inner sight, not evidence that starts from outside.
Another thing that our religion asks us to believe that is hard for reason to accept is that a man walking the earth 2,000 years ago was and is God. Jesus was a great man, and a great prophet. This every person can admit–even atheists. But the notion that this great man was also the Almighty is very difficult for a person to admit rationally. No man we ever knew of rose from the dead. No man that ever walked this planet was God. We may not doubt that there was a person named Jesus who lived in Israel. But many people–especially educated people–have difficulty believing that this remarkable person was the Messiah, God on the earth.
In order to believe that Jesus was God in the flesh, we need to have revelation from God Himself. Consider how Peter’s confession of the Christ is developed in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus asks His disciples who they think He is. They begin with a list of great prophets: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah. Great prophets indeed. But only prophets. Only men. But a dramatic shift takes place when Peter says that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Now, Jesus is lifted out of the realm of mere mortals. Now Jesus is lifted above even great mortals like John the Baptist or Elijah. With Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus is now equal with God–God on earth.
And this realization is so profound that Jesus tells Peter that only God could have revealed this to him. So it is with this foundational truth for all of us. We only see this statement as true when we are enlightened by the Holy Spirit.
In fact, if we think too hard about these matters, we may have second thoughts. I am currently reading a book about the historical Jesus and the early Christian church. This book is written by one of the world’s leading scholars on the history of Jesus and the early church. But the more I read this book, and the more facts this ponderous historian presents me with, the more difficult it is for me to cling to my faith in the divinity of Jesus. This author gives us sociological information about farmers in Galilee and new Roman cities that depleted their agricultural resources. He gives us sociological reasons for their hatred of cities and the people in them such as Pharisees and Sadducees. He asks the question why the “Jesus movement,” as he calls it, arose in Galilee and not other places like Jerusalem. He gives me so many historical facts about the Jesus movement that I wonder where divine intervention in all this occurred. This historian is giving me so many facts that I am losing a grip on my belief system.
This is what is symbolized by Pharaoh attacking the Hebrew people. Pharaoh symbolizes human reason. Swedenborg writes,
Pharaoh, the King of Egypt–by whom human wisdom or intelligence, that is knowledge in general, is represented . . . by these words they are signified who desire by means of knowledges, and so from themselves, to enter into the mysteries of faith (AC 42).
Another way of describing Pharaoh is the natural level of our thinking. The natural level of our personality is the level that is created to live in this world. In it are self-preservation and self-serving, the five senses, and the lowest level of thinking which is knowledge, facts, and reason. Being created to live in this world, the natural level of thought thinks about how to make money, how to get ahead, how to be a good citizen, and what seems to be true based on evidence from what we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. Without enlightenment from heaven and God, all we have is the natural level of thought–thinking about how to make money, how to get ahead, how to be a good citizen, and what seems true based on what we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. None of this will reveal God to us. The natural level of thought will not make the leap of faith that is belief in God.
Our conviction comes from an entirely different place than our natural level of thought. It comes from an inner thought process. With every person, God inflows with the idea that He exists. When God flows into our thinking, it is called influx. Influx literally means “flowing in.” The idea that God exists and that God is real enlightens our whole mind. When we are open to this idea, then we can use our lower mind to affirm this truth. We can study science or philosophy, we can look at our life’s experience with an eye to learn from it, we can dialogue with others about religion or their life’s experience–in short, we can look everywhere in this natural world for confirmation of God’s existence. All the facts and information we glean from this world serve to strengthen our belief in God.
But we cannot use this information to convince others. They need to use their own minds and listen for their own influx. And unless a person has their own mind illuminated from God inwardly, nothing we say outwardly will change their belief or unbelief. I have spoken with atheists about the logical inconsistency of their belief system–and denying God is a belief system–and they refused to listen even to logic.
Listening to Pharaoh, or using the natural mind to inquire about faith will blind us to truth. In fact, the natural mind will attack and argue against the possibility of faith. So Pharaoh attacked and enslaved the Hebrew people.
When Peter recognized Jesus’ divinity, the conviction came from God. And our conviction comes from God too. It comes from within directly and indirectly from God. We need only keep the door open and Jesus will come in and dine with us. The recognition that there is a God and that He is Jesus is not given by any human nor by natural reasoning. It is a gift from God.

PRAYER

Lord, this day, and every day, we pray that you strengthen our faith. Confirm us in our beliefs and grant us confidence that You are there for us. Many, indeed, are the temptations from this world that would turn us from our belief in You. Many are the arguments, the reasonings, and the persuasions against our faith which we encounter in this world. But in our hearts, we know that You are and that You are there for us. Hold us strong in this belief. Enlighten our minds from within. So that everything we see, hear, and touch in this world will remind us of You, and that You are there for us.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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Aug 10th, 2014

A Kingdom of Priests
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
August 10, 2014

Exodus 19:1-8 Revelation 21:9-14, 22-27; 22:1-5 Psalm 27

In our Exodus reading, God tells the people of Israel that they will be a kingdom of priests. And in Revelation, we have a description of the Holy City coming down from heaven. These two readings may not look related from a literal reading. But when we look at the spiritual sense of these passages, we will see that a kingdom of priests is like dwelling in the Holy City, which is coming down from heaven. The same qualities that make the Holy City come from heaven are the qualities that make for a kingdom of priests. Both point to embodying spiritual principles in our lives.
What does it mean to be a kingdom of priests? I would be called a priest. I lead worship. I create religious courses for us to study here at the church. And for Paulhaven I created the lesson plans that the teachers used. At Paulhaven, the campers functioned as priests, too. Each class took a chapel service at night and led chapel. So the campers were priests too! This was the case at Almont, too. There, classes took chapel at night, too.
But is this what the Bible means by saying that the people of Israel would be a kingdom of priests? Does it mean that all the Israelites would take a turn performing sacrifices in the tabernacle? Would they all have the special vestments that the priests wore? Well there is no record of this in the Bible. This didn’t go on. And yet the people of Israel are called a kingdom of priests. Something else is meant.
What would it mean? I think that the kingdom of priests needs to be seen as a metaphor. God isn’t referring to literal priests. And I think that the passage can be expanded beyond the people of Israel. I think that we all can be that kingdom of priests. Isn’t being a kingdom of priests a kingdom where everyone is in right relationship with God? Isn’t a kingdom of priests a kingdom where everyone is carrying God in their hearts? We hear of the priesthood of all believers. In this sense, being a believer, or being in right relation with God, is what is meant by the kingdom of priests. So being in a kingdom of priests means being in a community where people are in right relation with God.
To be even more clear, this reading doesn’t mean that priests are in better relation with God. I’m always amused when a certain friend at AA meetings talks about his character defects. He often says, “I still have character defects. I’m not ready to be ordained.” At this I smile, and others who know me smile, too. My ordination in no way makes me free of character defects. I am a fellow pilgrim on this plane, walking toward the Holy City.
But like everyone, I, too, am working on my relationship with God. And that is what entrance into the Holy City means. Our Bible reading says that the Holy City is coming down from heaven. What kind of city comes down from heaven? Aren’t most cities built from the ground up? They do not come down from the heavens.
Our church teaches that heaven is what is inside us. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the within you” (Luke17:20-21). So heaven is inside us, and also all around us wherever we are. This means that a city coming down from heaven is a city coming from within us.
I think that Paulhaven Camp is like the heavenly city coming down from heaven. We can see what I mean by considering what makes Paulhaven what it is. To make my point, I asked the campers this very question. I asked them what makes Paulhaven what it is. I asked, “Is it the food? Is it the dorm buildings? Is it the lodge?” And when I asked them, “Is it the showers?” there was a resounding, “NO!” (There is no hot water in the showers and the water is almost orange from the minerals in it.)
So I then asked the congregation what makes Paulhaven what it is. Some of the parents who came up to pick up their children spoke up, too. Some of the answers to what makes Paulhaven what it is were,
• Memories
• Friendships
• Feelings of love
• The joy of playing together (and there were no video games or smart phones at Paulhaven
• Learning about God in classes
• Worshipping God in chapel (You should have heard the teens belting out the lyrics to those chapel songs.)
These are some of the things that make Paulhaven what it is. And these are heavenly things. These are spiritual qualities that live for ever. These are the things that the Holy City is built of. And these are things that come out when Jesus is put first. When Jesus is at the centre of a city, or a community, or a person’s heart, then all these spiritual qualities emerge. Without Jesus, would the love, friendships, and memories be so special?
Recall from our reading that Jesus and the Lamb are at the very centre of the Holy City. Jesus gives light to the city so you don’t even need the sun. The gates of the city are never closed. It is Jesus who enlightens us all and gives us the warmth of love. And Jesus is always present, knocking at the door of our hearts, waiting for us to open up to Him. He is the source of all those lovely feelings that make Paulhaven what it is.
I would make the same observation about this church. What makes the Church of the Holy City what it is? Some of you were here when the building was built, and so the building itself has special meaning for you. But I would suggest that it is what happens in this building that has the deepest meaning for us. It is seeing the same faces week after week and the bonds that grow from that. It is the love and happiness that grows in this building. And I suggest that especially, it is putting Jesus at the centre of everything that makes for these bonds of affection.
These are the reasons Paulhaven and this church are like the Holy City coming down from heaven. These communities are built of heavenly qualities. These feelings of connection, of community, of love are what make Paulhaven and what make this church. This is why Paulhaven and this church are like the Holy City.
In the middle of the games at Paulhaven; in the middle of the beach; in the middle of the campfire; in the middle of it all, Jesus is at the centre. And so it is for the Church of the Holy City. Paulhaven and the Church of the Holy City are kingdoms of priests, and those places are as the Holy City coming down from heaven. They are sustained by the spiritual qualities that the Holy City is built of. Qualities that come from within and make heaven on earth.

PRAYER

Dear Lord, You promise the descent of your Holy City which is to come down from heaven. And we know that heaven and your kingdom is within us. We ask for you to admit us into the Holy City. We ask that you give us the heavenly qualities of which the Holy City is built. For that city is not built of stone, cement, and metal. The Holy City is built of love, charity, and truth. May we likewise be built of love, charity, and truth. So as the Holy City descends from heaven, may we ascend into heaven and take our place in that city.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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