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“Lighten the Darkness, Rekindle the Hope” – The Night Ministry in San Francisco

“Love, in its essence, is spiritual fire.”

Emanuel Swedenborg, CL §235

 A Night Minister passes a “parishioner” in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District                                             

Photograph © by Kyle Ludowitz, kylemerrit.com

 

The city of San Francisco is a place of immense beauty. Whether you are visiting, or have lived here all your life, you are constantly exposed to the beauty and richness of life. The Bay Area is still booming. There is a lot of construction, lots of young people. But whether you are a tourist passing by or a San Francisco native, you most definitely have also been confronted with the ever-present and ever-brutal contrast between the radiance of success and the despair and darkness, and indeed ugliness of poverty, addiction, and severe, insufficiently treated mental illness in the streets of the city and beyond.

There are many reasons for the seemingly permanent homelessness crisis in the Bay Area. Some factors are record costs of housing, the pleasant weather, and comparatively large (though still far insufficient) infrastructure of public and non-profit assistance. Systemic issues like the lack of proper public health and housing services seem to be the most underlying cause for the embarrassingly high number of un-housed people in America.

When people ask me what the most common denominator is that I see in my encounters on the street, my answer is almost always two-fold: Trauma and drugs. Almost all of the people in deep crisis and persistent houseless-ness which I have worked with dealt with emotional and psychic tragedy, caused by loss or illness, and fell into the vicious-cycle of self-medicating with alcohol or hard drugs.

 

Street gathering at Civic Center                                                     

Photograph © by Kyle Ludowitz, kylemerrit.com

 

I think of a parishioner who shared his all-too common story with me recently, I’ll call him Oscar. We met around 3am in San Francisco’s Mission District, a vibrant, beautiful, historically Hispanic part of the city. I passed Oscar on my walk down the street. He was going through garbage looking for recyclable cans for cash refunds. We exchanged eye-contact, a “Hi, How’s your night going,” and ended up chatting. The clerical collar tends to make it easy for people to feel safe to open up. Oscar shared with me how his evening had been going (it had gone well, he had a whole garbage bag of cans), and about where he was going to sleep that night (a cardboard box in the entrance of an “American Apparel” store).

For several years, he’s been living on the street, mostly in the Mission, sleeping outside storefronts and the occasional shelter. The little money he makes for food and Methamphetamine, he earns through recycling cans, and sometimes through selling drugs. Oscar is a native of Honduras. He came to the United States seven years ago with his wife and little daughter. They had a place to stay and he worked a gardening job.

One day, they had a car crash and his wife and daughter died. You can still see the way his blood-shot eyes light up when talking about them. As one can imagine, Oscar’s grief lead him into a deep depression. He drank to numb the pain, and that’s when the vicious cycle started. He lost his job, began hanging out with the “wrong crowd” and soon got addicted to Meth and Heroin. Lost his job and his apartment, and within days he was on the street with no network to catch him. It is this story, or a variation of it, that repeats over and over again.

Of course, San Francisco has a long history of “homelessness”. The epicenter of the Hippie movement, it attracted masses of young seekers in the 60’s. Social outcasts of all sorts began to roam the streets and contributed to its diverse and beautiful culture.But this culture has always had a dark side. One of loneliness and hopelessness, of “falling through the cracks”. It was in those days that the San Francisco Night Ministry became a presence of warmth and light to those who had been left behind.

 

Parishioners share a cigarette                                                 

Photograph © by Kyle Ludowitz, kylemerrit.com

 

Established by a group of progressive people of faith, its mission has been quite simple, and yet immense and profound: To be a non-judgmental, affirming ministry of love and support to all the people of San Francisco, in those crucial hours when the darkness can seem all-consuming.

There are three main avenues of ministry in this interfaith non-profit organization.

“Night Ministers”, ordained clergy from many different religious backgrounds walking the streets, wearing the religious attire of their faith tradition, and being available for pastoral care, prayer, blessings, crisis intervention, referral services, and the occasional pair of socks.

The second is “Open Cathedral”, small, open-air interfaith religious services held on Thursdays and Sundays in different public locations (Civic Center and the Mission).

And then there is the “Crisis Line”, where trained volunteers, “Crisis Line Counselors” answer calls from anyone needing an open ear and an affirming positive voice.

All of this (not counting administration, fundraising, etc.) happens between the hours of 10pm and 4am. It has been beautiful to see the comfort that it brings to so many people that even at night, if they are in the city limits of San Francisco, they can consider themselves “parishioners” of the Night Ministry. A common misconception is that the Night Ministry is a “homeless ministry”. While a large percentage of parishioners are un-housed, any person in the city, be they a corner store clerk, a bus driver, a nurse, a drug dealer, an entertainer, a musician, or a sex worker, is considered part of the “congregation”, if they’d like to be, and can reach out to the Ministry for pastoral care.

 

A parishioner transports her belongings through the Financial Disctrict                                                    

Photograph © by Kyle Ludowitz, kylemerrit.com

 

I began my work with the San Francisco Night Ministry during my seminary education at Pacific School of Religion and the Center for Swedenborgian Studies in Berkeley. SFNM operates an accredited CPE (“Clinical Pastoral Education”) program which offers training in pastoral care to aspiring ordained faith leaders. Steeped in an environment of highly intellectual and academic theological discourse, working with the Night Ministry was eye-opening to me.

As Swedenborgians, our theology constantly reminds us that a life of spiritual growth and regeneration is a life of active useful service to others, yet so often we fall into the conceptional and theoretical rabbit holes that are so rich that we sometimes get lost in our own heads rather than being the hands and feet of God. The Night Ministry is a complete counter-balance to this tendency. It is not a ministry of theories, or even of beliefs. While many of its members are deeply religious, there is no proselytizing, no trying to spread a particular religious perspective. There is only hands-on being-present.

 

“Any person in the city, be they a corner store clerk, a bus driver, a nurse, a drug dealer, an entertainer, a musician, or a sex worker, is considered part of the ‘congregation’… and can reach out to the Ministry for pastoral care.”

A conversation with “Father Lyle”, Night Minister Rev. Lyle Beckman (now retired)                                                       

Photograph © by Kyle Ludowitz, kylemerrit.com

 

There is nothing I love more than nerding out about the old Swede. But not once have I mentioned his name on the streets between 10pm and 4am. He isn’t needed. Whats needed is a listening ear, a compassionate smile, ten minutes of non-judgmental, caring, and affirming conversation. The experience of being worthy and being loved. And the occasional pair of clean socks.

 

 

Rev. Thom Muller is managing editor of Our Daily bread at spiritualquesters.org, pastor at Hillside Community Church in El Cerrito, CA, and Assistant Night Minister at the San Francisco Night Ministry. A native of Germany, he holds a B.A. in Religion from Bryn Athyn College and a MDiv from Pacific School of Religion.

 

 

Kyle Ludowitz is a professional Bay Area photographer and has documented critical situations and the human condition in areas such as Syria, Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Myanmar, Cambodia, Kashmir, Thailand, and India. Featuring many crucial stories related to conflict, poverty, child welfare, and woman’s rights, his work is found in many publications. His work can be viewed at www.kylemerrit.com

 

 

If you would like to learn more about the San Francisco Night Ministry, including information about supporting our work through volunteer opportunities and giving, please visit

www.sfnightministry.org

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Audio-Sermon: “The Creation of Humankind” -Rev. Junchol Lee

The creation myth in the book of Genesis still confuses and challenges its readers in the 21st century. Rev. Junchol Lee of the San Francsico Swedenborgian Church examines this epic tale through the lens of Swedenborg’s mystical reading of Scripture.

 

Readings: (click for links to texts)

Genesis 1:26-28,

John 10:31-39,

Secrets of Heaven §8891

“From all this it is evident that the historical narratives regarding creation, and regarding the first human being and paradise, are the descriptions of fictitious historical events, containing heavenly and Divine realities within them.”

-Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of heaven §8891:4

Click below for an audio recording of Rev. Lee’s sermon:

 

 

Rev, Junchol Lee is pastor at the historic San Francisco Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco, CA. He enjoys integrating Eastern and Westerm philosophy and spirituality, eriching his community with deep insight into the teachings of Daoism and Buddhism. He lives with his family in San Francisco.

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“The Road to the Cross” -Rev. George F. Dole

 

In this sermon, Swedenborgian scholar and minister Rev. George F. Dole reflects on the inner meaning of the narrative of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, celebrated on Palm Sunday.

 

Click below for a printable PDF version of Rev. Dole’s sermon:

Road to the Cross

 

The Reverend George Dole has been a renowned scholar of Swedenborg’s works, as well as an ordained minister in the Swedenborgian Church of North America for many decades.

He lives in Bath, Maine with his wife, and continues to contribute immensely to Swedenborgian scholarship, ministry and discourse.

 

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Lenten Reflection: “Near, Oh So Near…” -Rev. Jonathan Mitchell

 

Off and on over the years I have gotten addicted to various puzzles, computer games, and the like. If you’re like me, I think you’ll find that you get particularly hooked when you feel that you almost have one solved, but not quite. I find myself saying, “I’ll try just one more thing, and then I’ll quit.” And when that doesn’t quite work, “Just one more try, just one more try” . . . until it’s three o’clock in the morning.

A sense of nearness can motivate us to keep trying. It can also be painful. It is much worse to lose a lottery by just one digit than by many, or to miss a train by just seconds, rather than by half an hour. Often in life we experience a sense of aching nearness. The more we want something and the closer it seems, the more we ache for it.

Jesus was overwhelmed by just such a sense of aching nearness. His utter conviction that the kingdom of heaven had drawn near inspired in him a burning desire to communicate that sense of nearness to others. This, I believe, is the source of the impatience and frustration that sometimes leaks out in the Gospel stories.

“How foolish you are,” Jesus says, “and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” I can imagine him thinking to himself, “It is so-o-o near, so near—why can’t they wake up and see it?” Today I am beginning a series of sermons on the sayings of Jesus, starting with Mark 1:15—“The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has become near; repent and believe the good news.”

This is the first saying recorded in the Gospel of Mark, which most scholars consider the first of the Gospels to have been written. So it makes sense to start here. More importantly, this saying both begins and summarizes the teaching of Jesus.

The keynote of Jesus’ teaching is precisely the nearness of the kingdom of God. What then is the kingdom of God, the reign of heaven on earth? It is based on reconciliation. It is a place of justice in peace. The kingdom of heaven on earth is a place where we need not.

For Jesus, this way of life was so close he could taste it. This short saying is so central to the understanding of the Gospel that it is helpful to examine it almost word by word. “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has become near.” The verbs in the Greek are present perfect, a fact that is obscured to a greater or lesser degree in English translations. A closer translation would be “the time has been fulfilled, the kingdom of God has neared.” Note the subtle difference between this and saying “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom is near.” The present perfects are more dynamic. They suggest that the time has grown more and more full, that the kingdom has grown nearer and nearer.

“Repent!” In contemporary English, this word implies regret. Repentance usually implies feeling bad about something you are doing or have done, and resolving not to do it anymore. This is an essential part of repentance, but the biblical concept goes far beyond this narrow focus.

The word “repentance” comes from Latin and means “to think again, to rethink.” In a similar but deeper vein, the Greek word is “metanoia.” “Meta” implies transformation as in metaphor or metamorphosis. “Noia” refers to our thought structure, the way we conceptualize the world and our place in it. It is not just to regret or to rethink, but to transform our minds, to change our world view. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the usual equivalent for repentance is “teshuva.” This comes from a verb meaning “to turn around.”

When we realize we have gone down the wrong path, what do we do? We turn around. Jesus bids us to transform our thinking and turn our lives around accordingly. Ultimately, repentance is a matter of acknowledging what is holding us back from living the life of heaven on earth, and resolving to overcome those obstacles. “Believe.” In our present usage, believing is often construed as having an opinion.

“Belief”, in the biblical sense, is much more active. What is your Promised Land? The Greek verb is related to a noun which means “to trust”; to believe is to put your trust in something. The vogue for fire-walking a few years ago can serve as an illustration. Thinking that a person can walk on live coals without getting burned is having an opinion. Those who confidently stepped out and onto the hot coals believed. “The good news.” This is what the word “Gospel” means if you take it back to Old English: “God,” which means “good,” plus “spell,” which means “news.”

Taken all together, we hear in this saying an accelerating sense of nearness and promising possibility, as well as a call to personal transformation. The kingdom of heaven on earth is within our grasp. It is that near. This is the good news.

In chapter 28 of the book of Genesis, Jacob, in the midst of a dangerous journey, lies down to sleep and sees in a dream angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. Upon awaking he says, “Truly God is in this place and I never knew it!” Jacob had the wake-up experience that Jesus is urging upon all of us. How joyfully blessed are the moments when we realize that God has been with us all along, when we too say “God is in this place and I never knew it!”

How great the benefit to our spiritual lives when we hold on to that sense of nearness!

I ask you to reflect: What does the deepest, the purest, the most truly loving part of your heart long for? How would you most love to live on this earth with your fellow human beings? What is your Promised Land? What is the kingdom of heaven on earth? And furthermore, can you discern what holds you back from leading this life? Can you see what “repentance”—that is, what personal transformation—you are being called to undertake? What is the life your heart most deeply longs for?

If you think that life is far, far away, you have no reason to get off the couch. But if you can hold on to a sense of its aching nearness, nothing will hold you back. The time for waiting has been filled up. The kingdom of God has neared. Repent, and put your trust in the good news!

 

The Reverend Jonathan Mitchell, a New England Native and long-time Swedenborgian minister, is currently serving both Los Angeles ministries of the Swedenborgian Church: Wayfarer’s Chapel in Ranchos Palos Verdes and The Garden Church in San Pedro.

His passions include Buddhism, Christian Mysticism, and social justice work.

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New ODB Series: “Service in Action”

 

We are happy to announce a new ODB series: The “Service in Action” programming will keep you informed about ministries of service, compassion and justice within the Swedenborgian Church of North America and beyond.

Stay tuned!

 

“Feeling the joy of someone else as joy within ourselves – that is loving.”

-Divine Love and Wisdom §47

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“Two Waters Separated” – Rev. Junchol Lee

 

In this Sermon, Rev. Junchol Lee, pastor at the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church, offers a Swedenborgian interpretation of the mythological second day of creation in the Book of Genesis.

Knowing and learning is perhaps the most important activity for a human being for one’s survival, self-fulfillment, having and maintaining relationships, and ultimately spiritual cultivation. However, knowing and learning can also mislead us depending on what we are learning and from whom. I reflect upon the allegorical understanding of the second day of creation – the dividing of waters – in connection with the formation of our inner self which is the true self.

 

Click below for an audio recording of Rev. Lee’s sermon:

 

 

Rev, Junchol Lee is pastor at the historic San Francisco Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco, CA. He enjoys integrating Eastern and Westerm philosophy and spirituality, eriching his community with deep insight into the teachings of Daoism and Buddhism. He lives with his family in San Francisco.

sfswedenborgian.org

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“Divine Lockout” – Rev. George F. Dole

In this piece, Swedenborgian scholar and theologian Rev. George F. Dole explores the biblical epic of the relationship between the divine and the human, as understood through Swedenborg’s esoteric scriptural exegesis.

 

Click below for a printable PDF version of Rev. Dole’s article:

Divine Lockout – Rev. George F. Dole

 

Rev. George Dole has been a renowned scholar of Swedenborg’s works, as well as an ordained minister in the Swedenborgian Church of North America for many decades.

He lives in Bath, Maine with his wife, and continues to contribute immensely to Swedenborgian scholarship, ministry and discourse.

 

 

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ODBlog: Water and Fire – Rev. Robert McCluskey

 

“Deep, unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism, a regeneration, the initiation into a new state.”*

-George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), 1859

 

 

Christmas: Jesus is born to his father and mother; he begins as a member of a family.

 

Eight days later, he is circumcised, and shortly after that he is brought by his parents to the temple to be dedicated to the Lord, as he was the first born. (Ex. 13). Rituals of purification and introduction into the religious community.

 

At twelve years old, as we heard two weeks ago, we find Jesus separating from his parents and making his way to the temple. Here his introduction into the religious community becomes more intentional, more personal. Not just an external ritual, but an internal, personal engagement with the Divine text.

 

And the next scene, before us this morning. 30 year old Jesus being baptized by John in the river Jordan. Leaving the constraints of the religious community, and striking out on his own, spiritually speaking.

(Having found something “inside” the story, he sets out to “become” the story.)

 

What is baptism?

  1. Jesus in the Jordan at 30 years old; an ancient Essene rite of initiation; “baptized with the waters of repentance.”
  2. Centuries later, the Catholic doctrine of original sin leads to infant baptism, adding confirmation at 14 as the new rite of initiation.
  3. Many centuries after that, Protestants (re)introduce adult baptism.
  4. Today, the Catholic model of infant baptism persists.

 

Infant baptism, performed often here at Wayfarers, are happy events. They are joyous, warm, and intimate. Lots of smiling faces, and plenty of photos. Nothing wrong with positive emotions, but in this case they often eclipse or cover over the darker, more challenging aspects of Jesus’s, and our own, spiritual baptism.

 

Infant Baptism/Dedication: symbolic/vicarious initiation and introduction into the spiritual life/church.

Adult Baptism/Confirmation: actual/intentional initiation and introduction into the spiritual life/church.

 

John is said to “baptize with the waters of repentance”: let’s start with the literal meaning of these words.

Baptize = to immerse; to cover with liquid completely

Water = spiritual/rational truth

Repentance = metanoia = a higher level of mind/thinking

 

To be “baptized with the waters of repentance” means to be immersed in the truth of a higher level of mind

 

Baptism/immersion: a total commitment to God, not partial; a dying to the lower self. (Traditional initiation rites recreate death and rebirth; falling and rising to new life; dying to old/false self and awakening to our new/true self.)

 

Water/spiritual truth: Water is to the body what spiritual truth is to the mind. Water cleanses the body of dirt and impurities, and helps its many parts to function. Spiritual truth, which we get from the Word, cleanses our minds of falsity, narrow mindedness, prejudice, false opinions, and pride in self-intelligence. The Word of God reminds us of who we really are. (By contrast, natural truth allows us to interact with the outer, external world just as we are, no change needed. Spiritual truth introduces us to a more difficult path, one which leads us to change, grow, and ascend.)

 

Repentance/metanoia: A new, higher level of mind; a clearer understanding of who we are and how we should live. (meta = above or beyond; noia, from nous = mind)

 

Jordan River: “’The waters of Jordan’ signify the truths that introduce into the church, which are the knowledges of good and truth from the Word, and ‘washing’ therein signifies purification from falsities, and consequent reformation and regeneration by the Lord. For this reason, baptism was instituted, which was first performed in the Jordan by John.” (AE 475.19)

 

Let us remember that a ritual doesn’t change anything; rather, it points to and represents metaphorically what that change must look like. So what change does baptism point to?

Exoteric, traditional Christianity looks outward, convicts the world/others of sin, and sets about to compel them to repent (preach the gospel, proselytize, convert, baptize, and “set right”). Esoteric, inner Christianity looks inward, discerns a tension between good and evil within the individual, and sets about to sort things out and clean house; it sets about the task of “self-compulsion.” (Inward Christian Soldier!) No one can be compelled to adopt a spiritual identity. Rather, they are reformed and made new who compel themselves. Before we go up, we must go down; before the grain of wheat can bear fruit, it must die. No one is reformed or made new without temptation struggles; battling against ourselves.

 

Many of us have been baptized with water (whether we remember it or not!), but many of us have little desire to experience a baptism of fire. Many of us have been introduced to the church when we were young, and raised with one or another “sense” of religion; few of us are eager to take up a cross, to hate our lives in this world, and to commit ourselves to God 100%. And yet therein lies the good news, the promise of new life.

 

It’s one thing to be immersed in and cleansed by water; it’s another thing to truly examine, claim, and reject falsity and ill-will within ourselves, especially when they feel good. Only inner struggle and combat (and the experience of losing – to God) moves us from earth to heaven. This is the baptism of fire which is to come, the separating of the wheat from the chaff; the good from the evil.

 

Genuine baptism is like walking through a door, into a world we had only known intellectually (through words, stories, ideas, symbols, etc.). Now we begin to experience it actually; and we find it is much more complicated and difficult than we had “thought.” Instead of asking questions about life, life now asks questions of us. Who are you, where did you come from, where are you going, why do you do what you do? Now we turn inward, toward self-examination, moral inventory. Now we no longer need to change the world, for we are focused on changing ourselves. Here there is challenge and suffering (not physical pain, but psychological distress, anxiety.) There is a cost; we are challenged at every turn to be authentic; to let go of proprium, which we love so dearly.

 

It’s one thing to be admitted into a school, it is quite another to complete the course.

It’s one thing to be admitted into a theater, it is quite another to experience the film.

It’s one thing to be admitted into a field, it is quite another to play the game.

 

John represents the literal sense of the Word; the best that the natural mind can do with scripture: obey the law! (“The greatest born among women, but least in the kingdom of heaven.”) He is harsh and commanding, calling people to change their outward behavior. This is an initial stage of growth which Jesus has completed. And so Jesus is baptized by John; passing the baton, as it were, to one greater than he. Here Jesus receives his baptism of repentance, his metanoia, his immersion into a higher level of mind. And the baptism of fire begins immediately afterward in the wilderness temptations, as Jesus is led inward, and continues to the cross and beyond; during which time he is gentle and forgiving, calling people to reform not their behavior, but their minds and hearts. And it continues all the way to the upper room, when the disciples themselves are baptized with rushing wind and tongues of flame, Spirit and fire, wisdom and love, at Pentecost, and the church is born.

 

Baptism by water: after proper preparation and growth, a sincere first step into the truth of spiritual life; getting to know and understand it.

Baptism by fire: this first step leads to struggle and decision, as we gradually come to know the good of spiritual life; willing it, living it.

Baptism by water is like waking up. Baptism by fire is like getting to work.

Baptism by water is changing our minds. Baptism by fire is changing our hearts.

 

Up until his baptism, Jesus is obedient; to his parents, to his tradition, to the letter of the law. Here, at his baptism, he moves from group consciousness to individual conscience; he begins to respond to a higher law, the spirit of the law; not another law, but a deeper, more authentic understanding of the same law; a personal understanding. He is the beloved Son because he is now obedient to his heavenly Father, and is willing to follow where he leads.

 

Suggested Readings: 

Isaiah: 43:1-7

Luke 3:15-17; 21-22

Emanuel Swedenborg: Apocalypse Explained §475.20

“In Luke 3:16, it is said that John baptized with water, but that the Lord would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This means that John only inaugurated the people into knowledges from the Word respecting the Lord, and thus prepared them to receive Him; but that the Lord Himself regenerates people by means of Divine truth and Divine good proceeding from Him. For John represented the same as Elijah, namely, the Word; “the waters” with which John baptized signified introductory truths, which are knowledges from the Word respecting the Lord; “the Holy Spirit” signifies Divine truth proceeding from the Lord; “fire” signifies Divine good proceeding from Him; and “baptism” signifies regeneration by the Lord by means of Divine truths from the Word.”**

 

 

 

*Eliot, George. The Works of George Eliot. New York: Collier, 1902.

**Swedenborg, Emanuel. Apocalypse Explained. New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1994.

 

 

Rev. Robert McCluskey, B.A., M.A., is a graduate of the Swedenborg School of Religion, and was ordained into the Swedenborgian Church of North America in 1984.

Rev. McCluskey has pastored Swedenborgian churches in Portland, Maine and New York City, and for 17 years served as Swedenborgian representative to the National Council of Churches.

He currently serves Wayfarer’s Chapel, the National Monument to Emanuel Swedenborg, in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.

 

 

 

 

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“Be Not Anxious – Yet Be Anxious!” -Rev. Hugh Odhner

 

In this Sermon, delivered at the Lord’s New Church in Bryn Athyn, PA, Rev. Hugh Odhner invites us to reflect on the different kinds of anxiety we face in life, as we begin the new year.

 

Click below for a printable PDF version of Rev. Odhner’s sermon:

Be not Anxious – Yet be Anxious!” -Rev. Hugh Odhner

 

Rev. Hugh Odhner has been an ordained Swedenborgian minister for many decades. A bridge-builder between the branches of the Swedenborgian movement, he is an active attendee at the Fryeburg New Church Assembly in Fryeburg, Maine, has preached in many Convention settings, and currently serves the Lord’s New Church in Bryn Athyn, PA.

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