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Putting Conditions on God

A sermon by Rev. David Fekete

Genesis 28:10-22 – Jacob’s Dream at Bethel

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.*

In our story from Genesis, Jacob is choosing which God he will follow.  There were many Gods for Jacob to choose from in Israel.  In the book of Genesis, the Hebrew word for God is El.  El has different titles which were tied to certain places in Israel.  El-Shaddai, which means “Mountain God, also “God Almighty.”  There is El-Elyon, “God Most High.”  There is the general name of God, the name of the God of creation, “Elohim.”  Elohim is a perplexing name for God because it means, literally, “Gods”—it is a plural noun.  In addition to these Gods, there were other Canaanite Gods.  One such God, who caused much trouble in the history of Israel is Baal.  And in the religions of the ancient near east, Baal’s Father is called El.  Then there are Canaanite Goddesses in Israel like Asherah.  Among all these Gods and Goddesses, Yahweh—also translated as Jehovah—was a competitor.

According to some of the Bible writers, the name Yahweh wasn’t given to the Israelites until Moses asked God for His name.  This happened in Exodus 3.  So these writers never use the name Yahweh in their Bible stories until God gives it to Moses.  But there were many writers whose stories were edited into what we now have as the Bible.  So we find Yahweh in the Bible before Moses.  That is who appears to Jacob in his dream of the stairway to heaven with the angels ascending and descending on it.  Yahweh says that He is the God of Jacob’s father and grandfather, Isaac and Abraham.  God makes the comforting promise that He is with Jacob and will watch over Jacob wherever he goes.  

This is an unconditional promise of God.  God does not say, “If you sacrifice a bull to me I will be with you.”  God does not even say, “If you keep my covenant, I will be with you.”  No.  God says unconditionally that He is with Jacob and will watch over Jacob wherever he goes.

That is true for us, too, for everybody.  God is with us and will watch over us wherever we go.  God also always does what is good to and for us.  God is always lifting us out of self and ego upward into charity, neighbor love, and love for God.  God puts no conditions on this effort to save.  God works to save no matter what we do.  

However, we need to respond to God, as does Jacob.  God takes care of us.  God works to save us.  But God can’t save us without us responding to God.  We need to say, as did Jacob, “Yahweh will be my God.”  But what Jacob says before this is interesting.  And it may suggest the way some of us respond to God.  While God unconditionally promises to be with Jacob, Jacob puts conditions on whether he will follow Yahweh.  Listen to Jacob’s response to his vision of God,

“If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear  so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21)

I think that a lot of us put conditions on God.  Also, we have expectations on what belief in God means for us.

One way to call on God isn’t really sincere.  It comes from trouble.  Sometimes when a person is in deep trouble, maybe he or she is facing legal trouble, or is in some drunken calamity like facing jail for drunk driving, one cries out to God, “God get me out of this and I will go to church every Sunday!”  Then the person gets a break, the trouble goes away, and the person forgets about the promise he or she made to God.  Prayers of desperation don’t work all that well for a person’s relationship with God.  But still, God is with us and will watch over us wherever we go.  

There are other strange expectations that we put on God.  We make deals with God that benefit us.  Some of these deals with God are funny.  I remember a long time ago my parents took us children on a trip across America.  One of our stops was Las Vegas.  Of course, my mom played the slots.  She made a vow that she would give her winnings to the church.  But she was genuinely surprised that God didn’t let her win.  She lost money, and God didn’t let her win just because she was going to give her winnings to the church.  Her theology at the time didn’t understand that God made the laws of probability.  And God doesn’t violate God’s own laws.  And casinos are experts on God’s laws of probability and calculate their games and machines to make people lose.  

Another expectation people put on God is that no harm will come to believers.  But Jesus says, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).  I’ve seen people on TV say that if their faith is strong enough, God will protect them from COVID-19.  I’ve seen on TV a pastor who held church services with reckless disregard to social distancing.  He caught COVID-19 and died.  

A book came out a few decades ago called, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  As if only good things would happen to good people.  God causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on good and evil alike.  But because bad things happen to us, it doesn’t mean that God isn’t still with us, watching over us wherever we go.

Probably the hardest thing about our relationship with God is when it looks like our prayers aren’t answered.  Some of our prayers are funny.  God give me wealth, power, and total revenge on all my enemies.  Of course God doesn’t answer prayers like this.  And I doubt that many of us make prayers exactly like this.  But I think that we all make prayers that are variations of this prayer.  

I remember a long time ago praying for God to get me into Harvard.  I was feeling very alienated from society being raised a Swedenborgian, and from certain issues that devolved from the family life of my upbringing.  I pleaded with God to get me into Harvard, which I thought would solve these feelings of alienation.  God did answer this prayer.  And attending Harvard opened my mind to a great world that my parochial Swedenborgian upbringing blinded me to.  And going to that great, open-minded divinity school did two important things for me.  First, I was accepted as a Swedenborgian there for the first time in my life.  Second, I accepted peoples of other faiths who weren’t Swedenborgians.  This ecumenical attitude persisted through my whole life—even through my presidency of the Edmonton Interfaith Centre.  

I related that story to show that God does answer our prayers when good comes from it.  Going to Harvard was good for me, and it led to good deeds I did later as a direct result of my attendance at Harvard.  But I started out talking about when prayers aren’t answered.  Like my CD selling millions and that world concert tour that was supposed to come from it.  

Just recently, I made an earnest prayer about my poetry and my musical endeavors.  God did answer that prayer, too.  But not in that way I wanted at the time.  My prayer was like Jacob’s.  If you do this for me, I will follow you.  Only it was a little different.  It was more like, “Why can’t you give me these things?!  I know you can do anything.”  

My first impression was to recall the original words I made in my Harvard prayer.  I told God back then that if He gets me into Harvard that my score with Him is settled.  All the bad and wrongs I had suffered would be atoned for and I would consider us even.  So why was I still discontented, now?  Hadn’t I promised that our score was settled back then?  But God gave me a better answer to this prayer.  And it basically was, is that what you really want?  God then gave me memories of things I’d done in my life that were profoundly meaningful.  And they were not about fame and fortune.  They were memories of playing music at Convention, about playing in chapel at Almont.  About connections I made with young people that meant a lot to them and to me.  These experiences sit in my mind with pleasant and deep meaning.  Other experiences, such as me playing solo trumpet on stage before concert halls, or playing rock in bars are easy to forget, and don’t make much of an impression on me when I recall them.  

So my peak experiences were not ones of popularity or mass approval.  They were experiences of emotional connection and spiritual meaning.  Maybe to sum it all up is an email I recently received from a musician friend of mine.  He has played with international music stars in venues as large as arenas.  He wrote me that he plays for God wherever he is at.  That is an answer to prayer.  And that is how God works.

When God promises to be with us and watch over us wherever we go, it means that God will take care of us.  God gives us what is good for us.  And this may not be what we want.  Sometimes going through troubles opens our hearts up and breaks up self-will run riot.  As the musician Heather Brooks sings in one of her songs, “Without those desperate hours, would we turn to you, and recognize our weakness.”  Without being broken and beaten down, we would think ourselves invincible.  Our ego would rule.  We would never come to God.  We would never become humble.  Then we would not be saved.

We are conflicted people.  We are torn between ego and God.  We are torn between sin and salvation.  We are born with self-serving, destructive tendencies.  Swedenborg says that we need to be turned upside down.  That means ego needs to be below and God above. But we are in process.  God’s saving love is grafted on our egos like a cultivated fruit branch on a wild plant.

If God took our egos away instantly, before heavenly affections had deep roots in our souls, we would fall down dead.  Our life would be taken away from us.  So our spiritual process is one in which both sin and love grow up together.  That is the meaning behind Jesus’ parable.  The weeds of our ego grow up with the wheat of heavenly good.  Ego gives us drive, and God refines ego into heavenly love for others.  At the end of our spiritual process, heavenly loves will be separated from our lower drives.  That is what heaven is—when we are living a life of love.  But here on earth, we will notice weeds within our garden of love.  God will not water and feed the weeds, even if we set our hearts on them.

So by watching over us, God may not cooperate with the conditions we put on God.  God’s love for us is unconditional.  God gives us what is good for us.  God ever lifts us toward heaven and into communion with God.  God makes us kinder, gentler, humbler, more loving.  And we might never get there if God gave us what we want from God… 

*Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Rev. David Fekete, PhD, is pastor at the Church of the Holy City (Swedenborgian) in Edmonton, Alberta, and contributing editor of “Our Daily Bread” at spiritualquesters.org. His passions include literature, ecumenism, music and the arts, as well as interfaith dialogue.

“Friend of the Devil” -Swedenborg and Satan

Is there a Swedenborgian Devil?

Swedenborgians don’t talk about the devil very often. And there’s good reasons for that. It’s not really something that plays much of a role in Swedenborgian cosmology or spirituality. It’s kind of like the trinity: the times he talks about it is usually in the vein of “well, in the Christian church people believed a), but it’s really meant to mean b)…” 

Swedenborg did not believe that there was an entity such as the devil. I’ll let him elaborate to start off my reflection:

People in the world still believe that there is a devil who rules the hells and that he was created as an angel of light but was cast into hell with his gang after he led a rebellion. The reason for this belief is that the Word talks about the Devil and Satan, and about Lucifer as well; and in these cases the Word is understood literally. 

However, in these passages the Devil and Satan mean hell. The Devil means the hell toward the rear where the worst people live, the people called evil demons; and Satan means the hell that is toward the front where the less malevolent people live, the people called evil spirits. Lucifer means the people who are from Babel or Babylon, the ones who extend their control all the way into heaven. 

We can also see that there is no devil to whom the hells are subject from the fact that all the people who are in the hells, like all the people in the heavens, are from the human race, that there are millions there from the beginning of creation to the present day, and that everyone there is the kind of devil he or she became by opposition to the Divine while in the world.

Some people cherish the notion that God turns his face away from people, spurns them, and casts them into hell, and is angry against them because of their evil. Some people even go so far as to think that God punishes people and does them harm. They support this notion from the literal meaning of the Word where things like this are said, not realizing that the spiritual meaning of the Word, which makes sense of the letter, is wholly different. 

So the real doctrine […], which is from the spiritual meaning of the Word, teaches something else. It teaches that the Lord never turns his face away from anyone or spurns anyone, never casts anyone into hell or is angry.” *

Heaven and Hell §544-545

The times he uses the term “devil” or “satan”, he is referring to what he would consider obsolete beliefs, or uses it collectively, to mean “hellish communities”, communal states of spiritual darkness, within the overall cosmology of the heavens and the hells, which are states of being we inhabit while we are still on the earth. 

So obviously the question of evil is addressed pretty thoroughly by Swedenborg. After all his best-seller is not called “Heaven”, but “Heaven and Hell”. One thing to note here that’s very different from a lot of other teachings is that Heaven and Hell are not places of reward or punishment. They are the states we freely choose to pursue.

Swedenborg is a strictly unitarian theologian. The idea of the one-ness of god plays a huge role. I already mentioned his rejection of tripersonalism, the idea that there is one god in three persons, which is a common understanding in many traditional forms of Christianity. 

A view which is still commonly held in the Christian world, especially among its more literalist/fundamentalist manifestations, is this strong sense of dualism. The notion that there is God and there is the Devil, and they are these kind of polar forces which are constantly trying to win over our souls. Not only is the power of darkness often presented as an equal force, there often are implications that on this earthly realm, it is primarily darkness that reigns. The whole idea of “the world” as inherently bad. And of course, another idea Swedenborg strongly rejects, original sin. The idea that we are so much doomed to sin and darkness that we need some kind of “ransom sacrifice” to make us worthy of heaven. These according to his theology, are hellish beliefs. Heaven requires no dogma, no religion, no faith, and certainly no entrance fee. It is open to all who truly wish to enter into its state of unconditional love and care. We have free will to commune with any spiritual society we please, be it heavenly or hellish.

A necessary appearance…

Sometimes, it’s tempting to understand Swedenborg’s idea of heaven and hell in a dualistic way as well. I remember one of those cool trippy editions of the writings from the seventies. It had this picture on the front with this globe and on top of it was this angelic, Christ-like figure, and on the bottom, just mirrored, it had some kind of satanic creature. While it was really cool art, I think it misrepresented a core element of Swedenborg’s view of heaven and hell. Heaven and hell, according to Swedenborg, are not equals. They are anything but equal.

Yet, the APPEARANCE OF DUALITY is essential to our earthly spiritual experience while we are bound in this physical body. It falls into the category of “necessary appearances” (see Divine Providence §310***)

Besically, necessary appearances, in Swedenborg, are beliefs and perceptions which are ultimately false, but serve a fundamental function in our psycho-spiritual reality. The appearance of a seeming balance between heaven and hell, an equal playing field, serves the purpose of maintaining our freedom of choice. In fact, he claims that this dynamic is the reason for the first advent of the Christ, who had to restore balance between the two realms by means of his human-divine incarnation of god-consciousness. Just like the false but useful appearance that we are the sources of our own being, the appearance of a duality of good and evil serves as a tool for our eventual transcendence of the latter.

Good and Evil are not two polar forces pulling at us. Heaven is reality, hell is falsity. 

I think the image that best illustrates Swedenborg’s concept of good and evil, of heaven and hell, is the image of the sun, his most common image of the divine. The relationship between good and evil is like the relationship between light and shadow. 

Light, in an of itself has power, it has life, it is animated and animating. It is SUBSTANTIVE. Meaning, it has a substance of its own. Evil is like the shadows our body creates when exposed to the sun. It has no substance of its own. It’s a distortion created by something blocking the free flow of light. In short, Good IS truth, evil IS falsity. In other words, hell is charactarized by distortion and delusion, Heaven is characterized by truth.

Swedenborg goes so far as to say that God is the only thing which is truly substantive. Absolutely nothing else has life from itself. From an ant to a flower to a human being, the animating force which truly gives life and substance is Divine Love and Wisdom. If we wanted to be radically non-dualist, which I like to be, you could say that God is the only thing which TRULY exists. 

So what’s the use of even bothering with this whole hell language? Can’t we just stick with Divine Love and Wisdom?

What would be so wrong with a book called just “Heaven”, not “Heaven and Hell”?!  I personally think we would be missing out. Because what characterizes our human experience is the experience of light and darkness, as I think all of us can attest to. 

Evil might not be substantive, it might only be a distortion of divine reality, but it sure is real in the sense that we are confronted with it daily as a matter of experience. All of our lives are characterized by an interplay of light and darkness. They “mark the set times, the days, the years”, as we read in Genesis. Without the presence of darkness, at least as a concept, we can’t move towards, and embrace and reflect the light.

Is God the cause of evil?

This does NOT mean that God causes darkness or pain or sadness. Or that he somehow uses them to test us. They simply come with the package of the ego, the proprium, the notion of ourselves as a separate entity, which is subject to suffering and death. Could it be that if nobody was there to consciously ask the question “is this right or wrong?” “true or false?”, is this “good or bad”, could it be that these two seemingly essential realities are really just a product of our distinctly human imagination? After all, what seperates us from other animals is our excessive self-awareness and self-identification. Our discrimination between right and wrong, good and bad as somehow transcentent realities? 

The “Serpent”

The first time that Satan or evil comes into play in Abrahamic mythology is in the Garden of Eden, which, to Swedenborg and other esoteric thinkers, is not a historical place, but a metaphor for our original, animalistic state. Adam and Eve are just sort of chillin. And than this random lizard person comes and tells them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Note that it’s not the tree of evil, but the knowledge of good and evil. It is the tree that creates the egoic mind, which discriminates between the two. Also note that I did mean to say lizard person, not snake. Because if you think about it, it isn’t until after the “snake” tells eve and seeadam to eat the fruit, which, we should note, they eat of their own volition because it looks delicious, that God decides to curse the snake and have it crawl around on its belly. So that to me means that before that, it presumably had arms and legs, and it spoke English, I mean Hebrew.  😉

And it is here that what we know as the “human struggle” begins. It is not only something that comes with the package of being human, it is what makes us human, and enables us to seek out the light amid the darkness, I think with the ultimate aim of transcending both. 

There was a kind of mystical experience which I had that really changed my own understanding of this idea. I was at a Mahayana buddhist temple up in Mendocino County in California, and had just meditated inside. And I walked out into the garden and meditated some more there. I reached this state of total calm, bliss, and sense of unity with creation. And as I was soaking in this experience, I noticed a beautiful bird of paradise, which was walking along the hedge I was sitting next to. And as it walked, it was picking up little bugs from within the hedge and eating them. And I noticed something profound in me. I noticed that this almost morbid display of earthly reality did absolutely nothing to interrupt the state of bliss and connectedness I was experiencing. It just was. 

It was neither good nor bad, it just was. The taking and the giving of life. I had no sense of separation between myself, the bird, and the bugs. We all just WERE. 

Those, I believe are glimpses of heaven. Glimpses of eternity, where we get temporarily pushed out of the egoic mind into the state of one-ness and timelessness. 

Some people believe that we can permanently inhabit this state while still alive on the earth. I find this very hard to swallow, and I’m not aware of anyone I’ve been convinced was in a permanent heavenly state. Light and darkness are what makess us human, and allows us to rtruly experience growth, love, and re-connection. In our spiritual life, I truly believe we don’t have to focus on evil and darkness. Swedenborg thought that God was unable to even perceive sin and evil, a major difference between the egoic state and the state of god-consciousness. I believe that in Christ, we have an example of someone inhabiting both realms, and integrating them, calling us to do the same. A fascinating piece of Swedenborgian theologiy is that Christ, too, was not fully aware of his own divinity until the very end of his earthly journey. He struggled with the same inner devils as we do, and seriously and painfully struggled against his own inner darkness, setting the ultimate example of transcendence and eventual God-realization by “divining his human”. As we read in True Christianity §89 : “In his human manifestation he was an infant like any infant, a child like any child, and so on with just one difference: he completed the process more quickly, more fully, and more perfectly than the rest of us do.”**

I believe that deep down, evil truly has no substance, no form, but is a perversion of divine truth. 

We are not born evil. But some of us are denied our deeply engrained heavenly longings from an early age on: Comfort, safety, motherly and fatherly affection, acceptance, benevolence… and we develop skewed, distorted ways of seeking those out and in fact perpetuating our own trauma by hurting others. We are all, to one degree or another, on a misguided quest for light. 

It’s easy for us to demonize. To project. To attribute our own faults and those of others to some abstract evil force or entity. But by doing so, we de-humanize not only the perpetrators of evil, but their victims as well. After all it is the de-humanization of people that is often at the core of harmful, controlling or dismissive actions. 

I believe that we are all programed for, and destined for heaven. It’s not that it’s a straight and narrow path. It’s that the conditions of earthly life can be incredibly deceptive. 

I invite us all to observe the next time we call something evil. In ourselves and in others. And rather than responding with condemnation and shame, let’s see if we can look beneath the face of evil and hate, and see the face of hurt, the face of darkness in desperate need of light. And when we can, let’s see if we can shine that light, knowing that darkness cannot withstand it. 

Can we befriend our inner (and outer) devils?

What if we radically shifted our perspective, and stopped seeing evil as an entity, or a force, in and of itself, and looked at it as perverted, distorted light. What if we saw “evil” through our angelic eyes, which, according to the old Swede, see the true source, the true good, in all beings, and desire their happiness. I recall a friend taling about a beautiful tradition which exists in various cultures, including Tibetan Buddhism and African Animism: When making offerings, such as food, to deities and heavenly beings, some food is also set aside and offered to the demonic spirits, to the side. They are not ignored. They are acknowledged, and treated from a truly heavenly angle: one of care, compassion, and generosity. We can’t fight shadow with shadow. Within ourselves and with each other. I know that that’s going to be a lifelong struggle for me, but it’s a fight that’s worth fighting. 

Swedenborg did not shy away from paying attention to his inner demons. He had countless conversations with them, without identifying them as originating in himself, without personal attachment. I think of him as a “holy watcher”, an observer who exposes himself to the full depth of spiritual reality, warts and all, as a means to cultivate that which brings us closer to the Source. Can we do the same? And can we do it with our angelic minds and hearts, which befriend, and never judge?

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from Swedenborg, which brings us back to what truly lies at the core of his mystical theology:

“God shows mercy to everyone, loves everyone, and wants to make everyone happy forever.”**** –Arcana Coelestia §904

*Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and Hell. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2000.

**Swedenborg, Emanuel. True Christianity. Translated by Jonathan S. Rose. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.

***Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Providence. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.

****Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Coelestia. Translated by John Potts. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1998.

You can read and purchase all of the above works by Emanuel Swedenborg here: https://swedenborg.com/bookstore/new-century-edition/

Rev. Thom Muller is managing editor of Our Daily Bread at spiritualquesters.org, as well as pastor of Hillside Swedenborgian Church in El Cerrito, CA. His passions include interfaith spirituality, comparative mysticism, and the Western Esoteric Tradition.

On Psalm one – Rev. Ken Turley

   

 “Blessed is the one

    who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way that sinners take

    or sit in the company of mockers,

but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,

    and who meditates on his law day and night.

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,

    which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither—

    whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!

    They are like chaff

    that the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

    nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.” *

-Psalm 1 (NIV)

“Everyone is formed from the harmony of many things; and such as the harmony is, such is the one:  A thing which is absolutely one cannot subsist; but only a harmonical one. Every Society in Heaven thus forms a one; and all the Societies together a one; and this from the Lord alone, through love. **

-Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven §457

I hold the existence of God as the highest truth and being of useful loving and compassionate service to others as the highest good. The Bible is my foundation and ultimate source for guidance.  Not always...

Swedenborg’s portrayal of Correspondence has allowed me to reclaim the Bible for my own. Rather than just as a questionably accurate historical record of a people 2000 years ago in a far away place and a culture with which I have very little in common Swedenborg’s presentation of correspondence allowed me to hear the speaking to me about who I was becoming in  my relationship to God.

Let me share two fundamental concepts I have learned from Swedenborg...

BASIC CONCEPT #1:

THE BIBLE IS PORTRAYING THE COVENANT BETWEEN GOD AND HUMANITY

If we accept that the Bible is The Word of God and read it as sacred text, it begins to speak not about then, but about now. It begins to speak to our own spiritual growth in our relationship to God and all that is divine and heavenly. It portrays through the characters, places and events of the unfolding story, the evolving and maturing relationship of humanity with the Divine, i.e. the relationship of our humanness with the divinity of God, and this from the moment the breath of God touches the surface of our consciousness to the point at which all that is not who we are is stripped away and we are left in our purest state before God.

The Old Testament is about agreeing to be in relationship with God. Getting to the place of learning and then out into the wilderness of life itself, of finding a sense of self and a center for our spirituality.  It portrays the guiding force in our lives changing in form from intuitive inspiration to regulated rules to the midlife crisis in which we look with mixed emotions at who we have been and where we are going.

In the New Testament, we can see the dramatic transformation of our relationship when the Living Word enters our life and we relate to God not so much by rules imposed as by love freely given. And then in the Book of Revelation, we see the final revealing of our true inner self and the annealing process testing our metal, and separating out within us the good from the evil.  When we make the final choice as to what we claim as who we are, what we let go of, and what we hold at our core being to be of ultimate value.

Somewhere in the middle of that long involved spiritual journey, which we are all engaged in right now, there are the Psalms.  A collection of poems, song lyrics which portray every conceivable thought, emotion and state of being a human can experience in life and in relationship with God.

BASIC CONCEPT #2:

WE HAVE TOREAD AND KNOW THE LITERAL WORDS BEFORE WE CAN BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND THE SPIRITUAL MEANING WITHIN

Swedenborg says that the first of anything contains the seeds of all that follows. First words of the Bible:  “In the beginning, God created

What does Psalm 1 actually say and what does it actually mean? We have heard Psalm One read, we have spoken out loud, we have heard it sung, so let’s dive in!

“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked”

  “walk” = To live, to make progress on the journey of life

“in step with the wicked” = the thinking and influence of those who promote  evil, cruelty

“stand in the way the sinners take” = life of those who knowingly do what they know is wrong, what turns one away from the way of God and all that is heavenly

“sit in the company of mockers”= to settle into cynicism and negativity, self sabotage, those who tear down others to bring them down to their own level

We open ourselves to God when we do not fill out time and attention with these kinds of influences.  We make room in our lives and in our souls for blessing from God.

Rather, “their delight is in the law of the Lord and on God’s law they meditate day and night.”  

What is the Law of the Lord? All the rules of the OT?  What does Jesus say?

“Love God Love the neighbor as your self.”  Is that hard to understand?  No.  Is it easy to forget?  Yes!  That is why it is a blessing in God’s eyes to meditate on this concept.  To empty the mind, open the heart and be with it as the guiding, uplifting, inspiring source of light and warmth in our lives.  To keep that concept before us all the time no matter what we are doing, in good times and bad.

“That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,

    which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither—

    whatever they do prospers.”

“A tree” = A living being that starts as a seed, emerges young and tender and grows into maturity with many parts, rooted in the earth, reaching out and up to heaven, serving useful functions and bearing fruit which is of benefit to others.

“Streams of water” = the ever flowing source of truth, understanding and wisdom that gives, maintains and renews life.

“Whatever they do prospers” =  think of this not as other people, but as those parts of oneself that are drawing life from God and in turn serving others in love.  This phrase does not necessarily mean our jobs and our attempts at success in the outward arena based on worldly values and criteria by which we so often measure success and prosperity.  God cares nothing for that, only about the state of our souls. 

What is wealth without love and charity?  What is power without wisdom and understanding and faith?  What is success without caring for the well being of others?

“Not so for the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.” 

Here too, we must read this not as speaking about “those other people who are evil” rather we must read this as speaking about those aspects, behaviors, patterns of our own selves that are not focused on serving God and the well-being of our neighbor, that put our own well being as what we serve as the highest good, and the neighbor being a concern only in as they serve our selfish needs. 

Each and every one of us, has our own wickedness, our own selfish tendencies that we struggle with.  Our tendencies are always there, and we are constantly making choices for God or for ourselves, to love the neighbor as ourselves, or to love the neighbor for what they can do for us.  It is such a subtle switch in values and priorities, and yet such a crucial distinction in terms of the spiritual results.  It is our hope and prayer that that which is evil in us will be blown away as chaff and leave what is of value.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous

Ask yourself  “why is this so?”  Is it because God will not allow it?  Or is it an affirmation of self selection?  I prefer to think the latter.  The wicked will not stand in judgment nor sinners in the assembly of righteous because those aspects cannot stand the comparison and will hide themselves!  All are welcome in heaven, its just that the wicked refuse to enter into heaven and reject the company of the good and kind.  It is not God’s doing, it is their own choice.  The love of evil causes them to reject and turn away from what is good and loving.

Judgment in the spiritual world is just an extension of what happens right here on earth.  Surely you have been with people who behaved in ways that made you feel isolated, afraid, anxious, self conscious and you self selected yourself out of their company.  And perhaps you have experienced being around people that made you feel uncomfortable because they were just too darned nice!   That is a subtle and gentle example of what happens in the spiritual world.  Souls gravitate to those who are like themselves, and away from those who are not.  

In fact, one way to look at the final judgment is that when you die, you are condemned to be in the company of people just like yourself!!!  Think about that for a moment!  Is not that motivation to make yourself a more loving, compassionate, accepting, kind and supportive person?  And motivation to train out our your tendencies to be impatient, judgmental , cruel, selfish?  Think about spending eternity with your good self and your not so good self.  Is that not reason to become that better self now, so you don’t get stuck in the company of your not so good self later!

What is more, to the degree you choose to cultivate your divine self, God will enter in and help you in that process.  As you embrace the Lord and the ways of heaven you are embraced in return and lifted up, even higher then you could image.  The ways in you that are evil will simply die away and be no more because they receive no life energy. But if you choose the way of evil, you turn away from and reject God and all that can be done for your benefit.  And then it is you that begins to wither and die away.  

This is portrayed in the last sentence

.  “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to distruction.”

“Destruction”= to cease being, the way of the wicked, all life is of God, so ultimately what is not of God dies away, at best it is the hell of a living death

But when we welcome and make room for God I our lives,  that which is evil we let God destroy and it ceases to be a part of who we are.  And we are lifted up and made into the angel God intended us to be from the beginning.

That is Psalm One, the first Psalm that within its few lines contains the essence of all that is to follow.  It portrays our life journey, our choice to embrace God and goodness or self and selfishness, it puts before us our choice for life or death. 

There’s no question life is a struggle, filled with beauty and blessings, but also with trials, tests and  temptations.  God offers us heavenly life but requires us to choose of our own free will.  And it is through the evil we are exposed to and the trials we suffer through, that God ensures that we are making an informed choice.  It is all there for you in those few lines of Psalm One.  “Blessed are you”…

*Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblia.Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

**Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Coelestia. Translated by John Potts. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1998.

 

Rev. Ken Turley, now retired after 30 years as parish minister and serving as president of Convention, and his wife Laurie, live in Bridgton, ME. While she continues her career as a public school music teacher, Ken devotes his time to composing music, producing music videos, gardening and keeping house. Performing and rehearsing have ground to a halt with the isolation required by the virus, but the  more solitary aspects of his life continue unabated. 

“A Big Relief!” – On Conscience

A reflection by Rev. Renee Machiniack

“When we know what is true from our faith, understand it in our own way, and then want it to happen and act on it ourselves, we build up a conscience.”

-Emanuel Swedenborg, New Jerusalem §131

Everything changes when our faith becomes real, doesn’t it? When we finally “get it” that God is real? All of life changes, we are never the same. And once we have real, living perceptions of higher and deeper things in life, and we call this “true faith”, then a real conscience is built up in us over time. Interesting, isn’t it? Our conscience is “built up” over time…

Now, faith is not a creed. It is not a specific religion. It is not a specific theology or belief system. Faith is not “going to church every Sunday”. Faith is both courageously choosing to believe in God even when life is really tough, AND faith is having a real, living perception of higher and deeper things – which is a quantum leap from being just “inspired”. Once living faith comes, it is with you 24/7, although faith can and will be tested. 

My focus in this reflection is on conscience, how it gets built up, what it is, and how it functions in our life in real ways. 

Real conscience can stop a nasty argument, from the inside out! Real conscience gets us out of ourselves and into the larger, deeper issues. The spirit of truth, the Advocate, shifts us, helps us, to love. 

Let’s take a moment and look at what conscience is, and is not…

Is Conscience a guilty finger pointing in your face? 

Is conscience someone preaching at you moralistically?

Is conscience a “big voice inside” saying you’re a “bad person”?

I have news for you: all of these are from hell. They are not of conscience, they are not of God. Now that’s a big relief. God is not about pointing a finger, shame, etc. 

Real conscience is simply caring for the good and the true in all situations. In other words, it is not being concerned about your welfare only, or the other person’s welfare only. It’s about caring for the specific kind of good and truth that’s in any situation. 

For example: Think of police using too much force. Someone might focus too much on the fact that police simply shouldn’t use too much force and leave it at that… This is as far as they go in their thinking. But a person of living faith or perception will take it deeper and see the more important and deeper truth that black and brown people need to be cared for just as much as everybody else. 

Another example: Two people are having an argument and by the fact that they are arguing, they are not going deep enough with specifics in conversation, which means they are not caring about what’s good and true for the other person, what the other person cares about, what it is that’s actually hurting them. When they are arguing, they are caring about themselves… If they did care about the good and true, which is conscience, the conversation would take a very different course, i.e. focussing on what’s important and what cane be done to heal the situation (being heard, affirmed, supported, etc.)

Conscience can also be the little voice knocking at your mind’s door saying “pay attention to the deeper issue or reality that needs to be addressed.” How many times have we said “I should have paid attention to that inner voice!”…

Real conscience is the presence of God with us, telling us what is good and what is true in any given moment. It is the Advocate with us. It’s a God-light in the mind. At the center of conscience is always the Lord saying: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

We need to value REAL conscience more, especially in today’s world. And we should never, ever, identify God with guilt and shame, only with love and mercy.

Swedenborg is very positive about this. He really helps us here, this is a big relief.

*Swedenborg, Emanuel. New Jerusalem. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2016.

Rev. Renee Machiniak has been the minister of the Royal Oak Church of the Holy City for the past 25 years, serving as a staff chaplain for both Beaumont Hospice and Oncology for 9 years and now a volunteer chaplain with Beaumont’s Ovarian Cancer Support Group and the Royal Oak Police Department. She resides in Royal Oak Michigan with her husband, Joe, her parents, Rev. John and Sharon Billings, and dog Gertie.

ODBlog: “Faces that Don’t look like me” – Rev. David Fekete

“When I even thought about two identical or equal beings, the angels were aghast”* 

-Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell §405 

No two people are exactly the same. That may seem obvious.  But when we think about Indigenous Peoples, or African-Canadians, or Lebanese, it may not seem so obvious.  And then when we think about Muslims, or Sikhs, or Catholics, or Lutherans, again, it may not seem so obvious.  I think that deep down inside, we want people to be like us, think like us, be us.  That is a form of selfishness.  And it is not only dangerous, it is sinful.

Let’s start at the top.  Let’s start with God.  We are created in the image and likeness of God.  And God is infinite.  That is why everybody is different.  Each individual expresses a unique aspect of God.  There’s the Carol aspect of God; there’s the Linda aspect of God; there’s the Barry aspect of God; there’s the Ardith aspect of God.  There’s the African aspect of God, the Lebanese aspect of God, the Chinese aspect of God, the Russian aspect of God.  And there is the Muslim aspect of God, the Jewish aspect of God, the Buddhist aspect of God, the Hindu aspect of God.  When we see the world this way, we see God in everything, in everyone.

It takes self-confidence to look outside self and see God in others.  When I was younger, I was very insecure.  I wanted to educate others about Swedenborg because if they affirmed Swedenborg, they would be affirming me.  I even handed out Swedenborg books to my graduate school professors.  I don’t think any of them read the books I gave them.  I wouldn’t if someone handed me a book I wasn’t particularly interested in.  I no longer feel the need to educate everybody about Swedenborg.  And with that religious self-confidence comes a wonderful benefit.  I can appreciate the other, other religions.

I really enjoyed my time at the Edmonton Interfaith Centre.  There I met Jews, Muslims, Indigenous, Buddhists, Catholics, United, Reformed, Coptic Christians, Ukrainian Orthodox, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and more.  First and foremost, we were united as friends.  Friendship came first.  Imagine an organization where Muslims and Jews met at the same table as friends.  Imagine an interfaith organization that had a Swedenborgian as its president!  And we shared our differing approaches to religion.  I grew spiritually through the mutual sharing of religions.  Instead of trying to make everybody into a Swedenborgian, I would say to myself, “Now that’s a good way of seeing God I hadn’t thought of.”  

One striking experience was when we visited a Coptic church.  Their sanctuary had several icons of saints on the walls.  Not only that, the stints were martyrs.  So the paintings were sort of gruesome as they depicted the way the saints died.  Now as a Swedenborgian, I don’t believe in saints.  In fact, I recall one member whispering to me that his Protestantism recoiled against all these icons of saints.  But I didn’t have a problem with it.  I kept an open mind to see the way they saw it.  I even noticed a pamphlet that read, “I will merit heaven by my good deeds.”  A cardinal Protestant doctrine is that claiming merit for good deeds defiles them with self interest.  I never saw it stated as clearly as this before and now I knew what Swedenborg means when he denounces the concept of merit.  But none of this offended me.  I saw how they saw faith.  And I learned another aspect of God, another way God is invoked.

Maybe these days my experiences with my Muslim friends is most significant.  In a time when Muslim extremists are getting a lot of media coverage, it was instructive to have friends who are liberal, moderate Muslims.  At a gathering of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, I recall talking with an Orthodox friend about Muslims.  He was genuinely surprised to hear that there are liberal, moderate Muslims.  In a time of war, refugees, and intolerance, the messages of Jesus and Isaiah are of particular import.  

Listen to Isaiah!  Really listen:

“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,

    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people; 

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

    who choose the things that please me

    and hold fast my covenant,

I will give, in my house and within my walls,

    a monument and a name

    better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

    that shall not be cut off..”**

-Isaiah 56:3, 6-7

The first verse in this passage includes foreigners in God’s kingdom.  However, it is not as sweeping as is the next verse.  The first verse says that the foreigners need to be bound to worship of Yahweh.  But listen to the second verses, “all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain.”  Keeping the Sabbath means revering God and all that God stands for.  It means having a sense of reverence and a sense of the sacred.  Holding fast to God’s covenant means following God’s ways.  It means keeping the 10 Commandments.  It means loving the neighbor.  It means worshipping God.  Everybody who does this will come to God’s holy mountain and will find joy.  No matter what God they revere.

This openness to foreigners comes through in the story about Jesus.  A woman from ther region of Tyre and Sidon, which is modern Lebanon, begs Jesus to heal her daughter.  Jesus was a Jew from Israel.  And at first, he objects to the woman because she is a foreigner.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  The woman persists and says that even dogs eat crumbs from the master’s table.  Jesus exclaims that this foreign woman has great faith and he heals her daughter.  

This is common in the Gospels.  The Gospel writers often use foreigners and religiously unorthodox characters to teach Jews about God’s kingdom.  We all know the story of the Good Samaritan.  But we rarely reflect that the Samaritans were foreigners.  Not only that, they had a different Bible than the Jews had.  Not only that, the Samaritans worshipped on a different mountain than the Jews.  The Jews worshipped on Mount Zion; the Samaritans worshipped on Mount Gerizim.  So the Samaritans used a heretical Bible, they were a foreign race, and they worshipped on the wrong mountain.  The Jews hated the Samaritans.  Yet Jesus uses the Samaritans to show the Jews what love for the neighbor is.

Paul went even further.  He said you don’t have to follow Jewish religion and rituals.  Then he invited Greeks, Romans, Galatians, Macedonians, and all kinds of non-Jews into this new Jewish offshoot religion.  There was great conflict between Paul and Peter about this, Peter being an observant Jew.

Swedenborg’s vision of heaven is a place of immense diversity.  “there are infinite varieties in heaven—since no community and in fact no individual is just like any other” (HH §20).  Both heaven and hell are comprised of variety, no one’s heaven or heavenly joy is the same as another’s, 

Almost all the people who arrive in the other life think that hell is the same for everyone and that heaven is the same for everyone, when in fact there are infinite variations and differences in each. Hell is never the same for any two people, nor is heaven. In the same way, no one of us, no spirit, and no angel is ever exactly like any other, even facially. When I even thought about two identical or equal beings, the angels were aghast.”

Heaven and Hell §405

Swedenborg explains why this is the case philosophically.  Perfection consists not in sameness.  Perfection is variety that unites for the common good:

A form makes a unity more perfectly as its constituents are distinguishably different, and yet united. . . . Still, the truth is that a form is more perfect as its constituents are distinguishably different but still united in some particular way. In support of this, angels have cited the communities in the heavens. Taken all together, these communities make up the form of heaven. They have also cited the angels in each community, saying that the more clearly individual angels are on their own—are therefore free—and love the other members of their community on the basis of their own affection, in apparent freedom, the more perfect is the form of the community. ***

-Divine Providence §4

The true nature of love is not to love self, but to love others outside of self.  Self-love is selfishness.  Loving others is neighborly love.  It’s a fact of life that no two people are the same.  No two ideas are exactly alike.  No two belief systems are the same.  That’s the way things are.  Real love is to accept this, in fact, embrace this.  That is exactly why we are instructed to love the neighbor.  Everybody is the neighbor.  Foreign races, foreign nationalities, and foreign religions.  God is so big no one person, no one race, no one belief system has it all.  We can learn more about God by learning from foreigners.  All who keep God’s covenant are invited to His holy mountain.  He’s got the whole world in His hands!

*Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and Hell. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2000.

** New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

***Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Providence. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.

Rev. David Fekete, PhD, is pastor at the Church of the Holy City (Swedenborgian) in Edmonton, Alberta, and contributing editor of “Our Daily Bread” at spiritualquesters.org. His passions include literature, ecumenism, music and the arts, as well as interfaith dialogue.

“On Humility” -Rev. Julie Conaron




Humility is a very important part of our spiritual life… 

How is this achieved? 

Was it easier when we were little? 

How do our lives look to us? 

Do we feel we run our own life? That we truly only need our own choices, believing we have life of ourselves?



Quite early in our lives we start doing things ourselves. As we develop so does our Proprium (what is our own, another mixed blessing), but we still rely on our parents. 

In the teen years the process continues, but now we “really” know we are our own person! And we value and honor our peers more than our parents.

As an adult, some changes take place. As Richard Rohr writes in his book Falling Upward, early on, in our “first half of life” we are climbing up, battling through our lives “getting ahead.” However, we may be struggling to survive, rather than thriving.*

The first half of life is discovering the script, the second half is actually writing and owning it: “Falling Upwards” so to speak. Holding our inner blueprint, which is a good description of our soul, and returning it humbly to the world and to God by love and service is indeed of ultimate concern. One of the best kept secrets is “the way up is the way down”…

With aging, the changes can be sudden or gradual. Loss of our job, and with it our feeling of being worthwhile hurts. We can lose loved ones, health, maybe our home, losing our independence and needing to move into a facility. This can invoke feelings of isolation, loneliness, unworthiness and loss of our identity…

How do we achieve the balance of feeling worthwhile and yet being humble in our lives? 
 
We need to go through the process of repentance, spotting when the “Little Self” is trying to become the “Big one.” Reformation is acknowledging we really don’t have life of ourselves. It’s a wonderful illusion/paradox from the Divine. 

Regeneration is done almost entirely by the Lord. We have to meditate, pray and ask for Divine help to take away our evils. When that happens, God implants the equivalent good to the evil that is “taken away,” so to speak.

What do we read in in Swedenborg? 

Apocalypse Explained §291
“It is said humility, and then acknowledgment in heart, namely, that from the Lord are all good and all truth, and thence all intelligence, wisdom, and blessedness, since this acknowledgment is not given with anyone except in a state of humility; for when in humility, then we are removed from what is our own; and what is our own [proprium] receives and acknowledges nothing of good and truth from the Lord, for what is our own [proprium] is nothing but evil, and evil rejects all good and truth of heaven and the church. 
From this it can be seen why there must be humility, and why “falling down and worshiping” signifies humility, and then acknowledgment in heart.” ** 

Basically, the importance of spiritually falling on our knees to allow the Divine to change our hearts.

Arcana Coelestia §5135
“The things which we as little children in our first age learn eagerly or believe, and which we afterward either confirm, or doubt about, or deny, are especially these: there is a God, and He is one; He has created all things; He rewards those who do well, and punishes those who do evil; there is a life after death, in which the evil go to hell and the good to heaven, thus there is a hell and a heaven, and the life after death is eternal; also that we ought to pray daily, and this with humility; the Sabbath day is to be kept holy; parents are to be honored; and no one must commit adultery, murder, or theft; with other like things. 
These things we imbibe and are imbued with from early childhood; but when we begin to think from ourselves and lead ourselves, if we confirm such things in ourselves, and add to them things which are still more interior, and live according to them, then it is well with us….” ***

Return to childhood, but with the wisdom of old age not the innocence of ignorance is a long journey!

The take home message is humility is a journey to the Divine. We need to become like a little child, not in ignorance, but in wisdom: the wisdom to know we have no life of our own: everything we have is from God.


*Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. United Kingdom: Wiley, 2011.

**Swedenborg, Emanuel. Apocalypse Explained. United States: American Swedenborg Printing and Publishing society, 1897.

***Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Coelestia. Translated by John Potts. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1998.







Julie Conaron is an Interfaith and Swedenborgian minister, after more than 20 years as a microbiologist. Now officially “retired,” she served as a Hospice Chaplain for 8 ½ years, an occasional minister for 5 years, and a volunteer in a local hospital in Pastoral Care and Hospice for 2 ½ years. She now provides short, virtual services for 2 facilities and others until she can provide actual services again.




“Cultivating Resiliency” -Rev. Kit Billings

Suggested Readings: John 15:1-8, E. Swedenborg: Secrets of Heaven §6489

“The nature of the Lord’s Providence is such that it is linked together with Foresight; the one does not exist without the other. For evil things are foreseen, but good ones are provided; and the evil things that are foreseen are constantly being turned towards what is good by means of the Lord’s provident arrangement, since the Divine end, which has good in view, governs everything. Nothing is therefore allowed to happen except to the end that something good may come out of it.”SH §6489

For me, the theme of cultivating resiliency in God is extremely important. I say that because we all can bear witness to the truth that life at times becomes very difficult: we go through cycles of spiritual battles or temptations that test us greatly (coming face to face with selfishness in ourselves requiring courage and faith); we face serious losses of many kinds, and so we therefore go through grief, with all of its layers of pain, sadness and heartache; and we must deal with our own failures at times, which are not easy either.

Resilience is this remarkable power and ability to bounce back from major challenges, stress and disappointments in life.  It is about being spiritually rooted and consciously connected to the Lord and learning how to use spiritual skills when things get thorny and complex.  Using biblical imagery, resilience is like a bruised reed bending to and fro in the wind, but not breaking.  

Why do we not break?  Because we’ve learned to feel, believe in and trust that God Himself is literally holding our hand along the way!  It doesn’t mean we can avoid feeling at wits end at times, and it doesn’t mean we won’t need to do what Jesus did, to bear our own “crosses” in life, and to weep…just as Christ wept one day overlooking Jerusalem who was about to betray Him at the end of His Holy Week before Easter morn.

Spiritual resilience is born out of learning and knowing the living truth of God’s Word this morning, that the Lord is personally keeping us and safeguarding us within His awesome powers of Divine Providence.  It’s about being able to apply the truth that the essential story of Scripture is also our story. 

Yes, my friends, God is personally making sure that no matter what happens to us in life, His Divine Forces of Loving-Wisdom continuously and invisibly are guiding all of our good and bad times toward our eternal good. 

As our theology puts it, the Lord foresees all of the evil and bad things before they strike, and then He moulds and shapes life—ensuring that our painful and trying times are always being “turned towards what is good by means of the Lord’s provident arrangement, since the Divine end…governs everything.  Nothing is therefore allowed to happen except to the end that something good may come out of it.”*

Resilience is God’s way of helping us ultimately not to break under heavy loads.  This is an essential ability for us because much of life involves cycles of temptation struggles, where we choose to either accept things for what they are, or with God’s help and our own deepest determination to overcome life’s problems, discovering amazing courage in the process as the Lord again and again regenerates us in His goodness and truth.

Spiritual resiliency enables us to learn how to navigate our toughest and roughest times in life (going through cycles of temptations) and doing so within real perceptions of high things (also known as “faith”).  And all along the way, as we experience our trials and temptations and as we learn how to be a compassion ally to those in need, God teaches us through layers of meaning in life how to become like our Lord in yet another way:  He teaches us genuine humility.  Resilience blesses us with yet another gift from Heaven, which I refer to as waking up in the morning and actually wanting to get out of bed, because I get to simply show up in the world with love for the Lord and the neighbor.

Dr. Robert Wicks in his great book, Riding the Dragon, tells the true story of a young woman who was in school studying to become a therapist “who volunteered some of her free time to sing and play the organ for funerals at her church. During one such occasion, a small, slender little boy came upstairs to the music loft to see her after the service. For him to come upstairs alone was a little odd since children usually don’t wander around at a funeral. She asked him if he knew where his parents were. He [then] told her in a very matter-of-fact way, “Well, my mommy is downstairs and she said I could come up to see you. But my daddy is over there” (pointing to the casket downstairs). Unbeknownst to her, the boy was the son of the man who had just died. She caught her breath and willed herself not to cry, since she was sure this boy had seen enough tears already.“ **

She could not help but wonder to herself, though, what in the world was his mother thinking to send him up here [to her loft]? Trying to smile, she looked at him and said, ‘Oh.’ As a counseling student she thought there must be something better to say to a seven-year-old boy who had just lost his father. As it turned out, that one word was sufficient. It reassured him and gave him enough confidence to then tell her, ‘That song about eagle’s wings was my daddy’s favorite song; he sung it real loud in church. Now, it’s my favorite song too.’ In response, she nodded her head, smiled, and didn’t say another word for fear of crying.

“The young boy then went over to the balcony rail and looked down at the casket with the beautiful white lace cover over it sitting in the aisle. He turned around, looked at the young woman, touched the organ keys very quickly, and ran down the stairs. As he left, she tried to say goodbye, but he was gone before she could get the words out. Several minutes later the widow came upstairs apologizing for her son’s intrusion. The young woman [organist] reassured her that it was no problem. The boy’s mother proceeded to tell her that her son had not spoken one word, cried, nor eaten solid food since his dad had died. And then she thanked her for playing ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ because it had opened him up.” (pp. 14-16, ibid.)

This poignant experience for that young woman in counseling studies helped her learn an important lesson from that day.  You see, that special experience nurtured her deep inside, because that day, during his daddy’s funeral, she had helped that sad little boy to open up a bit, so that he could begin his own grieving process and begin to start letting go.

In this book, Dr. Wicks shares a lot of very good wisdom for our lives.  He has learned that no matter how bright and intelligent we are, the effects of both acute and chronic stress in life sometimes gets the better of us. 

I have learned the same truth, by the way, that “the trauma, pressures, busyness, and darkness around us are not the only problems. The real difficulty arises when we don’t sit down regularly to take the measure of our lives—whether the times be good or difficult.”  But if we do take the time to reflect about how we felt during our trials, and to open up toward God and consider how did God’s grace provide me with the strength, wisdom and fortitude to make my way forward (in spite of my failures and mistakes).  In doing so, we then help the Lord’s powers of resilience to activate and blossom deep within.

It can be tempting to run away from our dark and difficult times…to “run like hell” away from slowing down and spending time with the Lord in deeper self-reflection.  But, if we choose to run like hell, and take the easy way out, we may well be abandoning crucial moments in God’s Divine-Human Presence, who is the first and best Power available to us to continue our fight for becoming a deeply joyful, sensitive, compassionate person, who is called by the Holy One to not simply live…but rather to LIVE FULLY on our way into our own angelhood while living here on Earth.

Taking time now and then, to sit down gently and lovingly and yet also very honestly with ourselves to turn over the mounds of dirt we all must slog through in life is not only beneficial to our souls, it is crucial upon the pathway of resilience-making in our Lord’s Spirit—which allows God to unleash a steady flow of resilient forces that guide us forward into the good of life our theology teaches.

I’m speaking now about the crucial skill we call “repentance.”  For indeed, some of my life’s serious problems and struggles I go through are ones mostly caused by my own inherited or personally made selfish ways, finding clever excuses for my own wrongdoings.  God needs all of us to be faithfully committed to being brutally honest with ourselves about the things within US that ARE the primary part of a problem we’re facing.  We must be willing, when appropriate, to see the reasons we are causing the hurt, pain and suffering of those around us—and then be willing to reach out passionately toward God for Divine help, mercy and strength to make the changes needed to stop one’s sins in their tracks.

These are the moments when we may actually feel like we are burning up inside from healthy guilt and remorse.  But it is from such willing and needed moments of necessary suffering where God grants us with the blessing of humility, which angels have in abundance. 

In these moments I’ve found myself staring into the darkness of the truth I must face, allowing it to soften my soul from the inside-out.  The ancient Egyptians and then the Greeks and Roman thinkers imaged this ability to rise up out of the ashes of life was best seen as the great Phoenix Bird rising from the ashes.  That’s the amazing bird of fire, the one with fiery plumage that lives up to 100 years.  Near the end of its life, it settles into its nest of twigs, which then burns ferociously, reducing bird and nest to ashes.  And from those ashes, a fledgling Phoenix rises – renewed, resilient and reborn!

In conclusion, the language Christ used to teach His disciples about the importance of cultivating resilience in these ways was that of Him as the Vine and we are His branches.  This great and courageous work of wisely taking time for needed self-reflection was described by Jesus as spiritual pruning work. 

In fact, He says in the Gospel of John, “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (John 15:2)  ***

And so my friends, as we all now find our footing in this New Year 2021, I implore you to immerse yourself in the possibility that anything you struggle with today is something that the Lord is walking through with you, and that it can be used to develop more compassion in you and for others. 

Remember, my friends, whatever is happening in your life, the Lord is meeting you there.  You can learn more skills about resiliency in Christ right now.  I pray that each of us might lean on our God-given church community to remind us of these things, especially when the Lord’s presence feels more distant and when these practices feel more difficult. 

Look upon the faces of those before you now on our screens, and listen with humble appreciation to the voices of those in your phones today, for we each will be used by God’s handiwork providentially to provide the compassionate support we need throughout this year and beyond. 

Amen.

*Swedenborg, Emanuel. Secrets of Heaven. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.

**Wicks, Robert J. Riding the Dragon: 10 Lessons for Inner Strength in Challenging Times. Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2012.

***New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Rev. Kit Billings, his wife Penny, and their daughter Julia moved to LaPorte, Indiana in 2012, where he is Pastor of the LaPorte New Church, a historic Swedenborgian sacred space.

Kit enjoys ministering with people of all ages, and supporting others in their journey of growth with the Lord.

ODB Mini-Documentary: D. Gopal Chetty and The Saivite Swedenborgians of India

In this video, Eleanor Schnarr, student at the Graduate Theological Union and the Center for Swedenborgian Studies in Berkeley, CA explores the work of Hindu-Swedenborgian theologian D. Gopaul Chetty who synthesized Swedenborgian mysticism and Saiva Siddhanta.

Eleanor is currently working on a project to support the Indian Swedenborgian community, including the establishment of a Swedenborgian book room. To learn more about, and support this project, visit

https://www.gofundme.com/f/2948oob8dc?utm_campaign=p_lico+share-sheet&utm_medium=copy_link&utm_source=customer

Eleanor Schnarr is an artist, poet, and Swedenborgian mystic who lives and works at Hillside Swedenborgian Church in El Ceritto, California.
Eleanor holds an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, a Certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and is currently studying at the Center for Swedenborgian Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

A Seventh generation Swedenborgian, she has been involved in the practice and study of the work of the Swedish mystic since childhood. In her visual work Eleanor uses oil paint on paper to recreate the visionary experiences of the interior world in a language of line and color; an esthetic which evokes the stained glass windows of the cathedral her hometown of Bryn Athyn, PA.

Eleanor’s practice centers around the refinement of the interoceptive sense through Swedenborgian spirituality and meditation, or in other words, the “Yoga of the North”

“Door of My Heart” – Swedenborg and Yogananda

In this piece, Eleanor Schnarr, lifelong Swedenborgian and student at the Graduate Theological Union and the Center for Swedenborgian Studies, explores the synthesis of Eastern and Western mysticism, comparing Emanuel Swedenborg and Paramahansa Yogananda.

Click below for a printable PDF version:

Eleanor Schnarr is an artist, poet, and Swedenborgian mystic who lives and works at Hillside Swedenborgian Church in El Ceritto, California.
Eleanor holds an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, a Certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and is currently studying at the Center for Swedenborgian Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

A Seventh generation Swedenborgian, she has been involved in the practice and study of the work of the Swedish mystic since childhood. In her visual work Eleanor uses oil paint on paper to recreate the visionary experiences of the interior world in a language of line and color; an esthetic which evokes the stained glass windows of the cathedral her hometown of Bryn Athyn, PA.

Eleanor’s practice centers around the refinement of the interoceptive sense through Swedenborgian spirituality and meditation, or in other words, the “Yoga of the North”

ODBLOG: Money, Manifesting, and Spirituality

Rev. David Fekete

Due to some difficult financial issues I am being confronted with, I have been looking at the subject of money from a spiritual perspective.

Some people believe that spiritual powers will bring us prosperity. There are Christian ministers you can see on TV who preach that God will reward believers abundantly. They preach what is called the “prosperity gospel.” Some spiritually-minded people believe in something called The Secret.

This teaching says that if we manifest wealth, it will come to us. We put it out into the universe, and the universe gives us the material wealth that we want.

Jesus Himself said, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it”* (John 14:14).

Luke gives us conflicting messages about wealth. Jesus’ birth story contrasts the wealth of the Roman Emperor with the poverty of Jesus and His family. It is rustic shepherds who see the vision of heavenly glory and the army of angels, not Caesar Augustus, the High Priests, nor the Sadducees. Jesus is born in a barn. Jesus’ parents can’t afford to bring a lamb to sacrifice when Jesus is consecrated to God at the temple.

In John, Jesus does say, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). Finally, Luke’s account of the beatitudes reads, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 6:20).

These considerations make me think Luke is not concerned with material prosperity. But Luke does say that our material needs will be met:

“Then Jesus said to his disciples:

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.

Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!

And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

This comforting passage says that God will take care of our material needs. We need only not wish for extravagant wealth, and we’ll be OK. I’m holding these apparently contradictory passages in tension. I am in a difficult time, financially. My money situation is OK now, but when I look at the future, what I have now won’t be enough.

But then, we don’t know the future, do we? Luke seems to tell me that God will meet my spiritual needs only. Then he says that my basic material needs will be met.

I sure hope that means I’ll be able to keep paying my mortgage, my cable bill, my power bill, and my phone bill. But God knows what we can handle, and I think Luke tells us that we’ll manage whatever comes our way. In fact, we’ll prosper spiritually in whatever comes our way.

*New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Rev. David Fekete, PhD, is pastor at the Church of the Holy City (Swedenborgian) in Edmonton, Alberta, and senior editor of “Our Daily Bread” at spiritualquesters.org. His passions include literature, ecumenism, music and the arts, as well as interfaith dialogue.