Not wanting to lead yourself

I do not want to lead myself. Imagine getting to a point in your life where you genuinely cringe at the thought of allowing your own heart and mind to lead you. This is the state of innocence that the angels are in. They are keenly aware of the fact that only the Lord knows what is good and true. Because they know and perceive this, they want nothing more than to be led by Him. They avoid being led by themselves like the plague.

This is such a different state of life than we often find within and around us. Spend a little bit of time on Facebook, read the paper, reflect on your own motives and goals during the day. It won’t take long to recognize that so much of our time and energy is spent trying to do things “our way”, and trying to convince others that “our way” is the superior and only legitimate way to go. We think so highly of our own point of view that we relish the opportunity to share it and to convince others of its validity. Come on, we’ve all had those moments where we’ve said something quite brilliant or clever on Facebook and wait with great anticipation for even a random stranger to “like” it : ).

Recently I’ve been reflecting on just how important it is to change this kind of attitude in order for real spiritual growth to happen. There is something enjoyable and strangely addictive about leading yourself. Our egos don’t want to give up control and allow someone else to lead. To the natural man there is no greater high than being “right” and being adored by others for the apparent wisdom you display. And yet, I’ve noticed more and more that this kind of arrogant desire to lead myself and to put my own ideas up on a pedestal for the world to admire always ends up leading to a dead end. It may feel good for a time but long-term it only results in emptiness.

dragon1I won’t go into the details, but last week I had a moment where I felt the horror of being led by myself. After allowing my ego to get a little bit out of control, I suddenly saw what life is like when we insist on doing things our way. The possibility of being led by myself – by my own thoughts and loves – genuinely felt terrifying. In that moment there was nothing I wanted more than to be led by the Lord: I wanted Him to lead my affections; I wanted Him to lead my thoughts; I wanted Him to lead my actions. Being led by myself felt like a monster that I wanted to do everything I could to escape.

How different the world would be if we all had as our goal in life to truly be lead by the Lord and not by ourselves. What if in every moment, every decision and every temptation we could all learn to say: “I’m not interested in arguing my point of view or in trying to convince people that I’m right and they’re wrong. I’m not interested in trying to do things my way. What I’m interested in is letting go of my opinion, my outlook and my loves. What I’m interested in is focusing all of my time and energy on allowing the Lord to teach me what to love, think and do.

Getting to a point in my life where I genuinely hate the idea of being led by myself, but love being led by the Lord – That would be wonderful; that would be heavenly! This is a lesson that I hope to continue to learn for myself and to teach to my children.

a-lamp-unto-my-feet-renee-dumontAs innocence consists in being led by the Lord and not by self, so all who are in heaven are in innocence; for all who are there love to be led by the Lord, knowing that to lead themselves is to be led by the proprium, and the proprium consists in loving oneself, also that he who loves himself does not suffer himself to be led by another. Therefore, so far as an angel is in innocence, he is in heaven, or to the same extent, in Divine Good and Divine Truth, for to be in these is to be in heaven. Consequently, the heavens are distinguished in accordance with this innocence. Those who are in the outermost or first heaven are in innocence of the first or outermost degree; those who are in the middle or second heaven are in innocence of the second or middle degree; while those who are in the inmost or third heaven are in innocence of the third or inmost degree, and are therefore the veriest innocences of heaven, for more than all others they love to be led by the Lord as little children by their father. For the same reason the Divine Truth that they hear immediately from the Lord or mediately through the Word and preaching, they take directly into their will and do it, thus committing it to life. This is why their wisdom is so superior to that of the angels of the lower heavens. These angels of the inmost heaven, being such, are nearest to the Lord from whom they have innocence, and are so separated from the proprium that they live, as it were, in the Lord. In external form, they appear simple, and before the eyes of the angels of the lower heavens they seem as little children, that is, as very small and not very wise, although they are the wisest of the angels of heaven; for they know that they have nothing of wisdom from themselves, and that to acknowledge this is to be wise. What they know is as nothing compared to what they do not know; and they say that knowing, acknowledging, and perceiving this is the first step towards wisdom. These angels are naked, because nakedness corresponds to innocence.” (Heaven and Hell 280)

“The Hunt For The Good Sermon”

I enjoyed this article in the Wall Street Journal for many reasons: The Hunt For the Good Sermon.

First, in today’s busy and high paced society I often find myself struggling with the idea of “entertaining” people in church.  This article speaks to this, quoting something that Shane Claiborne said on Twitter: “We won’t lose students because we didn’t entertain them, we will lose them because we haven’t given the FULL gospel.”  Did Jesus entertain people?

Emanuel Swedenborg wrote the following about preachers who are deprived of their office in the spiritual world: “I afterward heard many reasons why those preachers were deprived of their office. I was told that the chief reason is, that they did not prepare their sermons from the Word and thus from the Spirit of God, but from their own rational light, and thus from their own spirit. They begin, indeed, as a prelude, with a text from the Word; but this they merely touch with their lips, and then abandon as tasteless, immediately selecting something savory from their own intelligence, which they roll about in their mouths and turn over upon their tongues as something delicious. Such is their teaching. It was said that as a consequence there was no more spirituality in their sermons than in the songs of birds, and that they were merely allegorical adornments, like wigs beautifully curled and powdered on bald heads.” (Swedenborg – True Christian Religion 810) What a great passage!  Preachers especially seem to be in danger of developing an unhealthy need to “entertain”.

The other thing that struck me was Eugene Peterson’s comment, that one of the most serious threats to biblical preaching is, “pragmatic vocational embrace of American technology and consumerism that promised to rescue congregations from ineffective obscurity.”  It’s true.  Mr. Wilson ends his article with this related comment: “The obsession with measurable ‘results,’ the rebranded promise of some technique or strategy: Preachers are bombarded with this stuff every day (four keys to success, six marks of a healthy church, seven principles of growth). Many ignore it and get on with their work in “scripture, sermon, and sacrament.” Praise God for that.”

So how do we break away from this obsession?  Person by person.  I’ll start.

Shift of Motivation – I’ve had enough…I’m leaving!

We’re in to week #5 of our New Church Journey Program called, Shift: Small Changes. Big Difference.  This program follows the story of Jacob from the Old Testament.  This week’s topic is “Shift of Motivation”.

Genesis 30:25-43, 31:1-55: This week’s story involves Jacob finally deciding after twenty years that it is time to leave Laban.  He gathers together his wives, children, livestock, and possessions and prepares to return to the land of his fathers.

“Laban” represents something in our own lives called mediate goods.  Mediate goods are not 100% good in themselves, but they appear to be good for a time.  Mediate goods are useful, but only because they have the ability to lead you to something better.  One example of a mediate good is the belief that the good you do comes from yourself.  This is not true.  However, if the Lord did not permit you to be motivated by this to begin with, you would never get to the point of acknowledging what is genuinely good – that all good comes from the Lord alone.  Being motivated by the desire for rewards is another example of a mediate good.  What would be genuinely good would be for people to be motivated by a desire to serve the Lord and their neighbor.  But we will never get to this point unless the Lord allows us to first be motivated by the thought, “What can I get out of this: Praise; fame; people will think I’m important; heaven?”

Jacob living with Laban for twenty years represents times when we are motivated by these mediate goods.  This is okay because it’s a normal and necessary part of the process.  However, eventually something starts to change.  Jacob and Laban are not getting along with each other as well as they used to.  After twenty years the Lord finally says to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.” (Genesis 31:3)

There comes a time in everybody’s life when it’s time to “grow up” and move beyond some of the mediate goods that have been motivating them.  The Lord calling Jacob and telling him to return to the land of his fathers, represents a beautiful calling that the Lord gives to us: It’s time to let go of the more selfish and worldly thing that have been motivating you for so long; it’s time to move on to higher things that are closer to the Divine and His heavenly kingdom.

This is a call that we all experience in our own way.  It can be hard to put into words, but have you ever felt that something just isn’t working in your life anymore?  Perhaps you don’t feel satisfied with the direction things are going; maybe you’re tired of facing the same problems over and over again.  For me personally, I feel like I’ve felt this call at times when life seems like a big game, and I’m tired of playing it!  I’m tired of living life to please and impress those around me.  I’m tired of having my life revolve so much around money and my need to pay the next bill.  I’m tired of trying to keep up with the busy world around me that insists on chasing after so many empty joys and delights, and that defines “success” in such finite and limited ways.  I love you Laban and I appreciate all you’ve done for me, but after twenty years I’ve had enough…I’m ready to move on.

This week’s topic is about recognizing when it’s time to make a change.  Read the passage below and reflect on all the “mediate goods” that tend to motivate you in life.  Can you hear the Lord calling you to something higher…something better?  What would it look like to finally be able to leave “Laban” behind and instead allow your heart to be motivated by higher realities that are much closer to the Divine and His heavenly kingdom?  I think it would be an incredibly freeing experience…and that it would allow me to be a lot more useful!

The question is, how do you make that choice to leave Laban?  Remember that Laban wasn’t so keen on letting Jacob leave.

“Then the Angel of God spoke to Jacob in a dream, saying, Jacob.  And I said, Here I am.  And He said, Lift your eyes now and see, all the rams which leap on the flocks are streaked, speckled, and grey-spotted; for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you.  I am the God of Bethuel, where you anointed the pillar and where you made a vow to Me.  Now arise, get out of this land, and return to the land of your kindred.” (Genesis 31:11-13)

“When a person is being regenerated, he is kept by the Lord in a kind of mediate good. This good serves for introducing genuine goods and truths; but after these have been introduced, it is separated from them. Everyone who has learned anything about regeneration and about the new man, can understand that the new man is altogether different from the old; for the new man is in the affection of spiritual and heavenly things, and these produce its feelings of delight and blessedness; whereas the old man is in the affections of worldly and earthly things, and these produce its feelings of delight and blessedness; consequently the new man has regard to ends in heaven, but the old man to ends in the world. From this it is manifest that the new man is altogether different and diverse from the old. In order that a person may be brought from the state of the old man into that of the new, worldly passions must be put off, and the affections of heaven must be put on. This is effected by innumerable means, which are known to the Lord alone, and many of which have also been made known by the Lord to angels; but few if any to man. Nevertheless all of them both in general and particular have been made manifest in the internal sense of the Word. When therefore a person, from being the old man is made a new one (that is, when he is being regenerated), it is not done in a moment, as some believe, but through a course of years; nay, during the person’s whole life, even to its end; for his worldly passions have to be extirpated, and heavenly affections have to be insinuated; and the person has to be gifted with a life which he had not before, and of which indeed he knew scarcely anything. Seeing therefore that the person’s states of life have to be so greatly changed, it must needs be that he is long kept in a kind of mediate good, that is, in a good which partakes both of the affections of the world, and of the affections of heaven; and unless he is kept in this mediate good, he in no wise admits heavenly goods and truths. This mediate or middle good is what is signified by “Laban and his flock.” But a person is kept in this middle good no longer than until it has served this use; but this having been served, it is separated. This separation is treated of in this chapter. “ (Swedenborg – Secrets of Heaven 4063)

Shift of Expectations – Why Was Leah Given Before Rachel?

We’re in to week #4 of our New Church Journey Program called, Shift: Small Changes. Big Difference.  This program follows the story of Jacob from the Old Testament.  This week’s topic is “Shift of Expectations”.

Genesis 29:21-35 & 30:1-24: This week’s story involves Jacob working seven years for Rachel, only to be tricked into marrying Leah first!  Even after Jacob marries Rachel as well, Rachel is barren for many years.  On the surface this seems like such an unfair story with many challenging twists and turns.  But on a deeper level this story relates an inescapable truth about how we experience life.  I’m going to start with some fairly abstract concepts, but if you can understand what is represented in this story it can change your outlook on life in a very powerful and practical way.

Rachel is the one that Jacob falls in love with and she is, “Beautiful of form and appearance.”  Rachel represents our love for the interior truths in the Lord’s Word.  Falling in love with Rachel is like developing a deep affection for the many ideals that the Lord’s Word places before us.  These ideals (or interior truths) inspire us to want to be a more loving person, a more courageous person, a more humble and useful person.  They help us to understand more clearly what it means to be human and to follow the Lord.  So if “Rachel” represents such high/interior ideals, why in the world was Leah given to Jacob first?

Ideals cannot be achieved overnight.  Even though we may see them and desire them, there are a lot of things within our own hearts and minds that prevent us from making them a reality.  Selfishness and an unwillingness to change often make ideals things that we both want and don’t want.  On one level ideals seem so nice, but on another level we are unwilling to give up the things that stand in their way.  I would love to be in more ideal physical shape….buuuuuut, I don’t want to get up early and go to the gym, or stop eating so many delicious snacks.   I would love to live in a less judgmental world….buuuuut, I don’t want to give up my own need to always be right and more important than others.  It may seem unfair, but Jacob being forced to marry Leah before Rachel represents this unavoidable reality that there are gaps between the ideal and where we are right now.

As impolite as it is to point this out, Leah was the uglier sister!  Her eye sight wasn’t very good and while it doesn’t come right out and say that Leah was ugly, Rachel’s beauty is emphasized.   This seemingly rude commentary on Leah is very important to what she represents.

More often than not, the steps we need to take in order to eventually achieve our ideals, are much less attractive than the ideals themselves.  Because we are not perfect and we do have a lot of selfishness inside of us, the Lord knows that we will not be able to make any progress in life without some less elevated and less attractive goals to work on along the way.  Leah was said to be “weak sighted” because when we are in this state of life we don’t see as clearly what the ideal is or how to achieve it.  In many ways, I think that you can tie this in to the fact that Jesus healed many blind people in the New Testament.  Early on in our spiritual development we are “blind” to the more interior truths of the Lord’s Word and how these truths lead us to be truly human – created in the image and likeness of God .  The Lord works with us in our blindness, but He is always leading us to see things more clearly.

You take something like marriage.  I may want to have a wonderfully ideal marriage, but the reality of the situation is that I have a lot of things within me that are standing in the way of this: Arrogance, a need to always be right, a love of dominion, lust, anger, and more.  Because I’m a long way off from being an “ideal husband” (Rachel), the Lord allows less attractive and more external goals and truths (Leah) to lead me for a time.  For example, sometimes I might work on being a good husband simply because I want to look good to others.  At other times I might not yell at my wife because I want to set a good example for my kids.  Sometimes I might choose to stick it out simply because I know the Lord tells me to, and I want to obey His Word.  These may be some pretty external reasons for working on my marriage, but the Lord knows that they will allow me to eventually have an ideal marriage that is much more internal.  The same thing can be said about developing an ideal faith in the Lord, and anything else that has to do with our spiritual growth and eternal happiness.  “Leah” represents our affection for more external truths and ideas that may be “weak sighted” and “less attractive”, but are still an important step towards more internal things.  You may gaze upon the mountaintop, but you must walk up a sometimes challenging path to get there.

I hope this helps you to understand what is represented in this story by Leah being given to Jacob before Rachel.  It’s a pretty big concept and hard to explain well in a short Blog post.  So do feel free to ask any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them.  Also, feel free to give your own thoughts on this representation.  Tomorrow I’m going to write Part Two for this topic where I’ll offer some thoughts on how this story can teach us to have more patience with life, ourselves, and each other.

“With a person who feels an affection for internal truth, that is, has a desire to know the more internal arcana of the Lord’s kingdom, those arcana are not in the beginning joined to him even though he knows them and sometimes even though he acknowledges and seemingly believes them. For worldly and bodily affections are still  present, and these cause him to take them in and seemingly believe them. But insofar as those worldly and bodily affections are present those truths cannot be joined to him.”
(Swedenborg – Secrets of Heaven 3834)

 

 

Shift of Focus – Opening the Well

We’re in to week #3 of our New Church Journey Program called, Shift: Small Changes. Big Difference.  This program follows the story of Jacob from the Old Testament.  This week’s topic is “Shift of Focus.

Genesis 29:1-20: This week’s story involves Jacob meeting his future wife, Rachel, for the first time.  He meets her by a well of water with a large stone over its mouth: “And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel…that Jacob went near and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother.” (Genesis 29:10)

One challenge that I find a lot of people have is finding real meaning within the Lord’s Word.  Many people know and believe that the Word is a holy book; they know that it is filled with wisdom and offers guidance in all areas of life.  And yet, you’re not alone if you sometimes struggle to find this wisdom and guidance.  In our story for this week, the “Well” with the large stone over its mouth represents the Word of God and times when that Word appears closed to us.  We might be thinking, “How can there be Divine wisdom within the violent and often immoral stories of the Old Testament?”  Or, “I believe in the Lord’s Word, but I’m not finding any light or guidance for the hard situations I’m facing right now.”  There seems to be a rock, preventing us from drinking from the water of life. (John 4:14)

The first thing to recognize is that learning to ”drink from the water of life” is a process.  Don’t beat yourself up too much if you have times when you do not find the Word of God inspiring; we all have times like this.  Part of the process of life is going through times of drought; we have times when we see things clearly and other times when we’re in the fog.

Having said this, I want to mention three things that a person needs to do if they want to allow the Word of God to “open” in their life.  How do you allow Jacob to, “Roll the stone from the wells mouth?”  Books could be written on each of these points.  So I will be brief and hope that people feel free to ask questions and add their own ideas to this list.

1. Understanding the Style the Word was written in.  This is a big one.  There is wisdom and guidance that you can gain from reading the Word of God on a literal level.  This is why even simple people and children can benefit from it.  However, in order to open up the Word more fully a person needs to understand that the Word of God was written in the language of correspondences.  All of the literal stories and images in the Word “correspond” to spiritual realities that have to do with your own spiritual growth, the Lord’s heavenly kingdom, and ultimately the Lord Himself.  A bit of a difficult idea to get your head around if you’re unfamiliar with it; but here’s a good passage to get you started.  I like the example of hieroglyphics:

“Heretofore the spiritual sense of the Word has been unknown. That each thing and all things in nature correspond to spiritual things, and in like manner each and all things in the human body, has been shown in the work on Heaven and Hell (n. 87-105). But heretofore it has not been known what correspondence is; yet in most ancient times it was very well known; for to those who then lived, the knowledge of correspondences was the knowledge of knowledges, and was so universal that all their manuscripts and books were written by correspondences. The book of Job, which is a book of the Ancient Church, is full of correspondences. The hieroglyphics of the Egyptians, as well as the fables of most ancient times, were nothing, but correspondences. All the ancient churches were churches representative of spiritual things; their rites and the statutes according to which their worship was established, consisted of pure correspondences; as did all things of the church among the children of Israel. The burnt offerings, the sacrifices, the meat offerings, and the drink offerings, with all their particulars, were correspondences; likewise the tabernacle and all things in it; also their feast, as the feast of unleavened bread, the feast of tabernacles, and the feast of the first-fruits; also the priesthood of Aaron and the Levites, and their garments or holiness. What the spiritual things are to which all these things corresponded has been shown in the Arcana Coelestia, published at London…Since then, Divine things present themselves in the world in correspondences, the Word was written by pure correspondences; and because the Lord spoke from the Divine He spoke by means of correspondences for whatever is from the Divine falls into such things in nature as correspond to Divine things, and these then store up in their bosom Divine things, which are called celestial and spiritual.” (Swedenborg – True Christian Religion 201)

2. Study.  There’s no getting around the fact that if you want to understand anything, you need to put the time and effort into learning about it.  As a Pastor, I always find it both humorous and frustrating that people complain about not finding wisdom and guidance in the Word of God when they aren’t taking the time to read it!  You wouldn’t expect to both understand and see the practicality of calculus, world history, or biology without taking the time to study them; why should the Word which contains infinite wisdom be any different?  Jesus Himself spent much time studying the Scriptures.

“His delight in is the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1)

“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6)

3.  Motive.  For me, this one is perhaps the most interesting.  The entire purpose of the Word of God is to help you change.  The Word was given by God to help you become a better and more loving person.  This means that the Word is only fully opened to those who approach it with a humble desire to amend their life.  Read this passage several times and it will hopefully change the way you read the Word of God:

“To the extent that someone is under the influence of self-love and love of the world, and of the desires that go with these loves, the Word is to him closed up. For those loves have self as the end in view, an end which fosters natural light but extinguishes heavenly light. As a result people see clearly the things that belong to self and the world but nothing whatever of those that belong to the Lord and to His kingdom. When this is so they may indeed read the Word, but their end in view is the increase of personal position and wealth, or that they may be seen by others; or else they read it because it is the done thing and therefore merely from force of habit, or they read it as a religious duty, but without any amendment of life in view. To these people the Word has in different ways become closed up, for some so closed that they do not wish to know anything at all apart from that which their own teachings – whatever these may be – declare….People like these can see nothing at all of the truth contained in the Word and do not wish to see it. Instead they adhere rigidly to their own doctrinal opinions….So the Word has been closed up. Yet the Word is such that it is open right into heaven, and through heaven towards the Lord, and is closed only in relation to man, that is, insofar as he is subject to the evils of self-love and love of the world where the ends in view of his life are concerned, and is subject to false assumptions resulting from those evils. From this one may see what is meant by ‘a large stone over the mouth of the well’. (Secrets of Heaven 3769)

Do any of these passages speak to you or bring up questions?  How else to you think the Word of God is “opened” to us?

Shift Of Perspective – Are you ready for the next step?

We’re in to week #2 of our New Church Journey Program called, Shift: Small Changes. Big Difference.  This program follows the story of Jacob from the Old Testament.  This week’s topic is “Shift of Perspective.

Genesis 27:42-45 & Genesis 28:1-21: This week’s story involves Jacob being sent to his Uncle Laban to find a wife.  During his journey Jacob sleeps and has a wonderful dream: “And behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  And behold, the LORD stood above it.”  I’ll pause here while you find your Bible and take a few minutes to read the rest of the story : ).

This story reminds you that the Lord is not only present, He is always providing you with the steps necessary to move forward and upward in your life.  Wherever you may happen to be right now the Lord’s message is that He has great dreams for you, He’s providing you with a ladder to gradually achieve those dreams, and He will not leave you until these dreams become a reality.  You’re welcome to listen to the sermon I gave last Sunday about this: Shift of Perspective.

It’s good to know that the Lord is always providing you with the steps necessary to move forward; but it’s also very important to understand how He does this.  How does the Lord lead you from where you are right now, step by step to a better place?  One way is through your understanding of truth.

It’s humbling to realize how much your perspective on life changes over time.  At any given moment I understand specific truths and ideas that cause me to see the world in a certain light.  But this changes over time.  I learn new things, my understanding of reality changes, and I realize that what I once thought was the most important thing in the world really isn’t that significant.  If in ten years you think back on your life today, you will likely laugh at how little you knew on February 15th, 2012 and how misguided your priorities were.  Yes, right now your future self is remembering how ignorant and foolish you once were!

What does this have to do with the story of Jacob’s dream?  In Jacob’s dream, the angels of God that were seen ascending on a ladder represent the various truths we know and understand at different stages of our life.  The angels that were low on the ladder represent things we know and understand early on in our spiritual development; the angels that were higher up on the ladder represent things we know and understand further along in our spiritual development.

Even though you may not realize it, angels are with you all the time.  Most people who believe in them think of angels as “guardians” who help to protect us from evil and harm.  Angels do this.  However, the angels with you also inspire your mind with various thoughts and perspectives on life!  Right now angels and good spirits are enlightening your mind, inspiring various thoughts, and helping you to understand the world around you and the world inside of you:

Rembrandt - St Matthew and the angel

Both kinds of life residing with a person – the life of his thought and the life of his will -flow in from heaven…through the angels and spirits present with him. But when it is said that they flow in from heaven, this should be taken to mean that they flow in from the Lord by way of heaven. For every trace of life residing with the angels is received from the Lord, as they themselves with one accord confess, for they see with perception that it is so. And since every trace of life residing with the angels is received from the Lord, so is every trace of life residing with man received from Him; for man is governed by the Lord through angels and spirits in particular, and through heaven in general.” (Swedenborg – Secrets of Heaven 6466)

Wow!  One of my favorite topics is the presents of angels with us and the influence they have on us.  Our lives would completely change if we both believed in the presents of the spiritual world AND understood how this presents influences us every moment of our lives.  This is amazing and important stuff.

What’s wonderful about the angels that are with you is they are experts at giving you the exact amount and quality of truth that you are ready for in life.  Under the Lord’s guidance angels are like the perfect teachers who know exactly what grade you are in and what you are capable of understanding.  They know that if they try to push you too hard or too fast up onto the next rung of the ladder they’re going to lose you – If only us ministers were more angelic in this regard : ).

This is especially true when it comes to the Lord’s Word.  The Lord’s Word is a fountain of limitless truth and wisdom.  However, the Lord does not expect you to understand it all in one sitting.  Little by little, step by step, the Lord enlightens you to see and understand the various levels of truth in His Word when you are ready….and then He builds on that.

Soooooooo…..the big question is: When are you ready?  If the Lord is always with you and is always providing you with the steps necessary to move forward in your life, when is it time to take that next step?  If the Lord in His infinite wisdom knows that you are currently only capable of understanding the truth about life that exists on “rung four” of the ladder, when are you ready to move on to the understanding of truth that exists on “rung five”?  There’s a hint in the passage below.

“When we are being regenerated we are gradually led…into a state when we think that deeper things lie with the Word [Bible] which we do not yet know…When we are being regenerated and are living according to this truth…our state is angelic, and from this we now see the things we had known previously as things which follow in order one after another and which flow from the Divine, like steps of a stairway, at the top of which is Jehovah or the Lord, and on the steps themselves His angels going up and coming down.” (Swedenborg – Secrets of Heaven 3690) 

Shift of Awareness (Part 2) – Don’t flatter yourself; your heart is much more corrupt than you think

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everybody followed their heart.  All countries would destroy their nuclear weapons.  Nobody would have to lock their doors at night.  Little puppies would never be abused.  People would give to everyone who was in need.  World peace would arrive and heaven would come to earth!

I hate to be so pessimistic but…..WRONG!  Actually if everyone followed their heart, hell would arrive pretty quickly.  Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if people really did follow their hearts desire!?  Even on a civil level we have laws to prevent people from doing everything that they want to do.

The story of Jacob begins with a conflict between himself and his older brother, Esau.  From the time they were in their mother’s womb, “The children struggled together within her.” (Genesis 25:22) As they were being born Jacob’s hand, “Took hold of Esau’s heel.” When they were older, Esau sold his birthright to Jacob; and Jacob stole Esau’s blessing.  Read Genesis chapters 25 and 27, and you will clearly see that these two brothers did not get along.

The symbolism in this story is pretty simple.  Esau, as the first born, represents the more emotional side of us; the part that has to do with our loves, affections and feelings.  These maters of the heart reside in something called our WILL.  Jacob, on the other hand, represents the more thinking and rational part of our mind; the part that has to do with learning what is true, thoughts and the intellect.  These matters of the mind reside in something called our UNDERSTANDING.

Just as Esau and Jacob struggled against each other, these two internal parts of us very often struggle for dominion.  Especially when you have a difficult choice to make or when you’re facing a hard situation these two brothers wrestle inside of you.  Should I follow my heart (Esau) or should I follow my head (Jacob)?

People often talk about how important it is to follow your heart.  We shouldn’t over think things.  There are stories about people who feel like they have let their entire life slip away because they didn’t follow their heart; they didn’t follow their dreams.  There are certainly times when we need to follow our heart, but that is not what this story is about.

The literal fact that Jacob took away Esau’s birthright and blessing, represents the spiritual fact that early on in our regeneration we need to let our understanding of truth lead the way in our life, over our loves and our emotions.  Why is this?  Isn’t following your heart more important than following your head?  Not at first.

The problem is that when we are still spiritually very immature, our Will (our loves and emotions) tend to be very misguided.  We don’t love what is good or particularly care about heavenly things; instead we tend to love very selfish and worldy things.  If you don’t believe me, try reading William Golding’s, Lord of the Flies.  One passage from the book Divine Providence points out very bluntly that when we start off adult life our corrupt heart has a tendency to pull us straight towards the lowest hell!:

“For man from his hereditary evil is always panting for the lowest hell; but the Lord  by His Providence is continually leading him away and withdrawing him from hell, first to a milder hell, then away from hell, and finally to Himself in heaven.” (Swedenborg – Divine Providence 183)

Come on now, isn’t this a bit harsh.  Panting for the lowest hell…really!  Yep.  Given that we start off life with a lot of selfishness in our heart, how does the Lord lead us away from hell and towards heaven?  He starts by teaching us the truth from His Word; AND He asks that we allow His truth to lead us rather than our corrupt loves.  That’s allowing Jacob to take the birthright and blessing instead of Esau.

In our seven week program called, Shift: Small Changes. Big Difference., This week’s task is to notice the conflicts in your life, and to see them as opportunities for growth.  Where in your life might you need to allow the truth you know in your mind (Jacob) to lead the way; rather than your heart (Esau)?  Remember that early on in your
spiritual growth your loves can be quite corrupt, impulsive, and misguided.  The fact that at times you can follow what you understand to be true from the Lord’s Word, rather than what your heart desires, is a great gift!

Important Note: Eventually the Lord gives us a new heart.  Love and charity is the firstborn, and ideally should rule in our lives.  That’s where we’re headed, but the journey must begin with truth leading the way.  If you’re willing to see the truth in this, good news is coming up in the next part of the story!

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)

Shift of Awareness

This week the New Church of Concord began a seven week New Church Journey Program called – Shift: Small Changes. Big Difference.  This program follows the story of Jacob from the Old Testament.  Participants have the opportunity to learn about how this story relates to our own relationship with the Lord and each other as we explore our need to make various kinds of shifts in our life.  You can learn more about the program on the New Church of Concord Website.

Last week I was preparing a sermon to introduce this program and the first part of the Jacob story.  You can listen to the sermon here.  One of the concepts that I found most interesting was the idea that human beings tend to know very little about what is going on inside of their own hearts and minds!

People are often very unaware of their surroundings.  When we’re walking down the street, in a hurry to get somewhere, it’s amazing how much of the world can go by without us even noticing it.  We can be very unaware of what is going on around us.  But how aware are you of what is going on inside of you?  Initially you might think, “Of course I know what is going on inside my own heart and mind!”  But do you?

Imagine if you were asked to write a biography of your life.  But this biography could NOT include a single description of any of your external achievements – where you worked, when you got married, how many kids you had, where you lived, how much money you made.  This biography was a spiritual biography and could only include descriptions of what was going on internally; inside of your own heart and mind during the different stages of your life.  Could you write that biography?  How well do you really know yourself?  How aware are you of the various thoughts going on in your mind?  Are you aware of your motives; your deepest loves; your internal evils?

One reason that we tend to be oblivious to what is going on inside of our own hearts and minds is because we are so focused on external realities.  In the book, Heavenly Secrets, there is a wonderful description of how uninterested we tend to be with internal things:

“But such [internal] states are not known about at the present day, because…those who are being regenerated do not stop to reflect on these matters. No one is interested at the present day in what goes on in a person interiorly, because external interests have a complete hold; that is, when external interests are the ends in view in people’s lives, internal interests are of no importance at all to them. Regarding the obscurity referred to here they would say, Of what concern is that to me when there is nothing to be gained from it, and no honor in knowing it? Why give any thought to the state of the soul or state of the internal man?…What advantage is there in knowing this?…These are the kind of things that the member of the Church says to himself at the present day and the kind of thoughts he has when he hears or reads anything about the state of the internal man. From this one may see how it comes about that the things which go on inside a person are in obscurity and wholly unknown about at the present day.  Such obscurity of understanding never existed among the ancients. Their wisdom consisted in fostering more internal things and so in perfecting both powers of the mind, which are the understanding and the will, and so consisted, because they did this, in seeing to the needs of the soul. The fact that these were the kinds of things the ancients were concerned about is plain from their writings which are extant at the present day, and in addition to this from everyone’s desire to hear Solomon: Therefore they came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all the kings of the earth who had heard about his wisdom. (1 Kings 4:34)  This was the reason why the queen of Sheba came to him; and because of the blessing she received from Solomon’s wisdom she said, Blessed are your men, blessed are these your servants, who stand continually before you and hear your wisdom (1 Kings 10:8).  Would anyone today say that he is blessed on that account?” (Swedenborg – Heavenly Secrets 5224)

I find this to be so true.  We tend to be so focused on what is going on “out there” – what we are accomplishing in the eyes of the world, what other people think about us, our worries about things that are for the most part out of our control – that we lose interest in what is going on inside of us.  I love the phrase, “External interests have a complete hold on us.”  And the question would be, is that true with you?  Is your life so filled with external noise, that you aren’t taking the time to learn about and reflect on what is going on inside your own heart and mind?

Tomorrow I’ll offer some thoughts on the first part of the Jacob story.  But I wanted to begin with the vital recognition that if a person wants to grow spiritually they need to be willing to take the time to reflect on the internal elements of their life.  I am struck by how important this is AND by how little we do it.  One question might be, How do you get to better know yourself!

“The kingdom of God does not come with observation, nor will they say, See here! or, See there!  For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)

A Child’s Perspective On Heaven

One of the wonderful things about having children around is being blessed by the sphere of their innocent acceptance of the truth.  I have four children and I am amazed at how willing they are to accept the fact that there is a life after death.  When my two older boys (8 and 5) found out that their Grandaddy had “died” they understood that they wouldn’t get to see him for a while.  But at the same time there was not a doubt in their little minds that Grandaddy was still alive.  He had just moved on to heaven and they would see him again soon enough.

As adults we tend to have doubts about the life after death.  Even if you grew up with a strong belief in it, you still question at times whether or not this fairy tale really is true.  Not my children.  Instead of questioning or looking for indisputable evidence that Grandaddy is still alive, they get ready for bed and ask questions about what exactly heaven is like and what we do there.   They love thinking about how beautiful heaven is, meeting people you haven’t seen in a long time, discovering new kinds of flowers and animals that simply don’t exist in this world, and what your special use (job) is going to be in heaven.  Children know that there is a life after death and they are fascinated with it.  In fact, children seem to understand much better than we do that leaving life in this world isn’t such a bad thing after all.  The entire point of living in this world is to eventually take the step that we call “dying”.  And what a wonderful step it is!  Funny how we mourn, but my children light up with a sense of wonder and get excited when we talk about how Grandaddy has died.  Why?  Because they aren’t thinking about his death; they’re thinking about his new life.

One example of this is a conversation I had with my oldest son Laban (8) a few days after Grandaddy had passed away.  He wanted to know about the difference between a person’s “natural body” verses their “spiritual body”.  We talked about how you only need your natural body for a relatively short amount of time (while you’re alive in this world), and how in heaven you have a ”spiritual body”.  We talked about how a person in this world can’t see angels with their physical eyes, but that sometimes the Lord allows a person’s spiritual eyes to be opened and then you can see angels.  “Kind of like when Mary and the Shepherd were allowed to see angels,” he said.  Exactly.  The conversation ended with Laban very enthusiastically reflecting on the fact that heaven isn’t really up above us, in the clouds; heaven is all around us!  He laughed and said, “It’s so funny to think that we could be starring at that wall and seeing nothing, and yet maybe Grandaddy is right there doing a jig!”

How different would life be if we believed in a life after death as strongly and with as much innocent wonder as our children?  Would you make different choices?  What would you choose to focus on if you genuinely acknowledged from the heart that life in this world is a drop in the bucket, and that we are only here to prepare for a life in heaven?

As a Pastor I spend a lot of time trying to convince adults (myself included) that there is a life after death and that we are only here to prepare for it.  Strange that we adults need much more convincing of this than our own children.  I think that this is one of the special gifts that children give to us skeptical adults.  If you want to regain perspective on life, go spend some time with some little children.

“In childhood everyone, when being for the first time endowed with goods and truths, is maintained by the Lord in the affirmative attitude that anything said or taught by parents and teachers is true. With those who are able to become spiritual this affirmative attitude is strengthened by means of facts and cognitions, for whatever they learn and is relevant introduces itself into the affirmative outlook and strengthens it, leading more and more towards affection for it. These are ones who become spiritual in accordance with the essence of the truth in which they have faith, and who are victorious in temptations.” (Swedenborg – Arcana Caelestia 2689)

It’s not so bad to be the “Black Sheep” after all!

I love it when I’m reading the Word (Bible) and am surprised to find out that part of a story represents or symbolizes something that I never would have guessed.  Sometimes there are people, animals or things in a Biblical story that I am sure represent something bad.  Obviously the snake that deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden is a representation of something evil (Genesis 3).  No doubt that the golden calf made by Aaron represents a lifestyle and attitude that we need to avoid (Exodus 32).  But be careful!  There are many examples of stories in the Word where without real study, you may end up misinterpreting what the Lord is trying to tell you.

One wonderful example of this is the concept of the “Black Sheep”.  The dictionary defines a Black Sheep as, “A person who is regarded as a disgrace or failure by his family or peer group.”  Nobody would want to be the black sheep!  Surely if there is a story in the Word where a black sheep is mentioned, it represents something you want to avoid.  Sometimes, yes.  But not all the time!

Recall the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis.  Jacob worked for His uncle Laban for many years as payment for his two daughters, Rachel and Leah.  When Jacob’s years of work were complete, he told Laban that he was ready to go back to his own county.  Laban then said to Jacob, “Name me your wages, and I will give it.”  Jacob could have asked for anything.  He could have asked for the best of the sheep and the cattle.  But what did he ask for? “I will pass through all thy flock this day, removing from there every speckled and spotted animal of the flock, and every black one among the lambs, and the spotted and speckled among the goats, and these shall be my wage.” (Genesis 30:32)  Jacob wanted the black sheep!

There is a wonderful representation here, that may come as a surprise.  In order to receive what is good and true from the Lord you must have innocence.  Part of innocence is being willing to acknowledge that without the Lord in your life you are nothing but evil; if left to yourself you tend to love evil things and think evil thoughts.  In this story ”Black sheep” represent people who have this innocent acknowledgment that they are not perfect; that they do tend towards evil and false things.  “White sheep” on the other hand represent people who think that they are perfect; people who think that they merit heaven and all the good things there.  Which does the Lord want, the white sheep or the black sheep?  In this case he wants the black sheep!  He knows that only those who are innocent enough to acknowledge their “blackness” are spiritually open to receiving His Divine love and wisdom.  Below is a passage from the book Arcana Caelestia by Emanuel Swedenborg that explains this much better than I ever could.

So surprise, surprise!  It’s not so bad to be the “Black Sheep” after all.  How wonderful a place the world would be if we were all “black sheep” instead of “white”.  Be careful.  It may seem obvious what certain things in the Lord’s Word represent.  But with a little extra study and guidance from heaven you may find that the Lord is giving you a completely different message than you first thought.

“In all good there must be innocence in order that it may be good. Charity without innocence is not charity; and still less is love to the Lord possible without innocence. For this reason innocence is the very essential of love and charity, consequently of good. An own that is innocent is to know, acknowledge, and believe, not with the mouth but with the heart, that nothing but evil is from one’s self, and that all good is from the Lord; and therefore that what is man’s own is nothing but blackness; that is to say, not only the own of his will, which is evil, but also the own of his understanding, which is falsity. When man is in this confession and belief from the heart, the Lord flows in with good and truth, and insinuates into him a heavenly own, which is white and lustrous. No one can ever be in true humility unless he is in this acknowledgment and belief from the heart; for he is then in annihilation of self, nay, in the loathing of self, and thus in absence from self; and in this manner he is then in a state capable of receiving the Divine of the Lord. It is by this means that the Lord flows in with good into a humble and contrite heart.  Such is the own that is innocent, which is here signified by the “black among the lambs” that Jacob chose for himself; but the white among the lambs is the self-merit that is placed in goods… This Jacob did not choose, because it is contrary to innocence; for he who places self-merit in goods, acknowledges and believes that all good is from himself; because in the goods he does he has regard to himself, and not to the Lord, and accordingly demands recompense on account of his merit. Such a one therefore despises others in comparison with himself, and even condemns them, and consequently in the same proportion recedes from heavenly order, that is, from good and truth.” (Swedenborg – Arcana Caelestia 3994)