Message: Lent to the Church
Host: Pete Toot
Today’s message is an adaptation of the one I prepared for Advent, but didn’t deliver since
we had adequate activities and worship that day anyway, the day of the Annual Meeting.
Advent is preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s birth. Though not so much anymore, historically it has been a period of penitence, reflection of where we see places in our lives that need improvement, where we most need the Lord to be born into our lives to help us out.
Lent is traditionally, and still is, another period of penitence and reflection. Usually the church is sparsely decorated, and in our own lives we either do without something intentionally, or we go out of way to do extra for others. Lent looks forward to Easter as Advent looked forward to Christmas, it is a time of preparation. While at Christmas time we welcome the internal coming into our lives of the Lord, of Love and Wisdom, at Easter we welcome the opportunity to take part in resurrection, to appreciate the path that the Lord made and continues to make available to us to be with him eternally, through the process many churches call salvation. So we’ll look at that path and how it fits us as a church.
I wanted to connect three very important elements today that may not always be thought about as Lenten topics, three things that our teachings talk about as the major steps in piritual growth. Let’s see how these apply to an institution, and what the consequences are for each of us. The three things are Repentance, Reformation, and Regeneration. As Swedenborgians we are more or less familiar with these words being applied to personal growth. Today we’ll take it a different direction, though in the end it still all comes back to our individual paths.
Let’s look quickly at what we sometimes call the 3 R’s, and give a short set of definitions:
Repentance: Not an every-day word, but not strange either, it generally means recognizing some shortcoming that we wish we could overcome, or an opportunity for being better that we didn’t take, for which we wish we could get a do-over. Contrary to the usual sense of the word which implies apologizing, we focus on the aspect of repentance that looks forward to the future, where if we don’t change something, we will continue to live unhappily with these shortcomings, or faults. It is the recognition that there is something aboutourselves that we know we need to change to become better.
Reformation: Not a familiar word these days, it means making something new from what it was. In spiritual growth terms, it means taking this shortcoming or whatever it is and having accepted that it needs changing, we work to do that. Almost always the thing we want to change about ourselves is not ready to be changed. We are usually fighting the
temptation to not change. Reformation has to do with quenching that love of the status quo, doing without what it desires, and letting its place in our lives be filled with other better ways. Lent is an excellent model for that.
Regeneration: Not a familiar word in most circles, we hear this one fairly often in this church. This is the part the Lord plays most directly in our spiritual journey. For it is the
Lord, and not us, that has the power to move the loves and motivations we are trying to
reject to the background of our lives, to where they are no longer central and are less apt to
create stumbling blocks in our path.
In summary, repentance is accepting the problem, reformation is actually doing something about it, and regeneration is becoming successfully free to move on to the
How can we see this in the context of groups of people? First we need to understand how
making progress in spiritual matters feels. The Lord grants us the pleasure of warm feelings when we have been of use to our friends, or to strangers, to any of God’s children who need support. And as a church, working to be useful is what we try to do with our community service projects, and also in our Sunday services where we reinforce our connections with one another and the Lord, and keep ourselves available and aware so we can be useful, can be helpful to each other as we struggle with being the good and
understanding people we really want to be and were created to be.
Being useful is one thing, but the Lord encourages people to be useful regardless of
what motives rule their lives. Thus a first step is to understand WHY we are being useful – to see our motivations, and decide if our behavior is God-centered, that is, love
centered – or self-centered. The cover image on today’s bulletin is a tree that as shown here symbolizes growth. It is guided by loving and understanding on one hand, and by
selfishness and worldly ambitions on the other. One side flourishes and the other side
withers. We would say we are pulled in two directions by influences from heaven and hell,
2in a balance between the two, and as we mature we change, sometimes one way,
sometimes the other. Deep joy comes from living the kind of life that changes us for the
better, which leads to regeneration, that lets the Lord be more connected with us.
Swedenborg has a simple recipe for this – he would say “shun evils”. He is making the point that it is much easier to tell when we are giving in to temptations that are hurtful to us, and refrain from giving in, than it is to tell what might be the best path of many options to follow. It is by being aware what temptations are for us, and resisting their appeal that bring us what the Old Testament reading spoke of as “reward” [Isaiah 40: 9-10]. In Apocalypse Revealed n. 695, Swedenborg offers the following, and I’ll paraphrase…
As few know what is properly meant by “reward” it shall be told. “Reward”
means properly that delight, blessedness, and happiness that is in the love … of good and truth. This love … has in itself all joy of heart, which is called heavenly joy,… for the reason that the Lord is in that love …; consequently such joy, or such delight, blessedness, and happiness, is what is properly meant by the “reward” that those will receive who do good and speak truth. As they do this from the Lord and not from themselves it is not
reward of merit but a reward of grace.
… From these few words the signification of “reward” in the following passages can be seen. In Isaiah, “Behold the Lord Jehovah cometh in strength; behold His reward is with
The bottom line here is that as individuals we grow spiritually by using this formula of fighting off temptations, and we can experience great joy as a result. Lent for an institution is a little harder to see. In True Cristian Religion, Swedenborg talks about churches:
775. The situation with the people who make up the church collectively is much
the same as with the person taken as an individual. People taken collectively
are a church of many [parts]; and the person taken individually is the church
in each of those [parts].
In short, people as individuals are churches. Looked at in this perspective, Lent in a church can be seen to be very much like what it is for individuals – a time of getting the house in order, searching out bad habits, doing some repenting in terms of steering into more useful paths, etc. But what constitutes a temptation for a church?
There is a connection between how the church behaves, through its programs in all the forms we’ve just talked about, and the true purposes these programs are directed towards. To see what temptation is about for a church, let’s look at how the church as a whole
organization interacts with its congregation.
Church members all have shortcomings, some are visible to them and others hidden. As they guide the church on its path, whether through board or committee work, through choices about what to participate in, or through conversation, these play into the new ideas suggested or discouraged, and tend to shape the programs to do what the individuals feel comfortable doing. If it seems too hard they shy away from it. If it doesn’t conform to their idea of what people need, they shy away from it. Those are examples of temptations for a church, staying in its collective comfort zone.
Then what happens? The church as an institution behaves in accordance with the
loves, good or bad, that are brought to the altar, so to speak, by its members. Of course
that is true of any organization, but there is another dimension with a church.The church’s value system is evident by its programing, and it is expected to be something for an individual to look up to. If it OK for the church it is OK for me. I can be justified by that adhering to that ideal. This value system can become a model to compare personal behavior to, which will of course be a favorable comparison in most cases, and so that behavior is encouraged and reinforced.
That is all pretty much inevitable, but you can see we have a circular situation – a positive
feedback loop: We guide the church and then we let the church guide us and then we guide
the church some more. There may or may not be any growth in that process, but it is hard to see how this dilemma contributes anything much at all to revitalizing the church.
Easter with the resurrection story approaches. And here we are, in our own institutional resurrection, and with the gradual sale of our property, we are gaining in the ability to build and solidify new models. I am thinking that as we move forward we ought to start to look at how the church as an institution can “shun evil”. I believe one way to do that is to
question where the church is being self-serving. Examine the actions of the church
and see where they suggest it has its own human shortcomings and gives in to institutional temptations? In this regard, I have some ideas, but it is not for me to say – it is for all of us to consider. But let’s look at the tools we have. We have a purpose statement we can keep in front of us. And we certainly have scripture and the teachings as guidance as well. For any decision, it may not be obvious what the driving motivation is – I expect it to be obscure sometimes just as it is with each of us. We are not going to talk about programming here in the worship service; but let’s keep in mind that doing the planning work of the church is a form of worship, too. We need to consideration whether or not we are brain-washing ourselves. The Lord can help us with that. The Lord engages people to build the kingdom in the world, and as we focus on that engagement in church, we can pray the model that emerges is one we can really rely on to support our church growth as well as our personal growth and that of all we meet.
As the Board looks at future programming, and you feed in your ideas, I suggest that we do
this sort of spiritual double-check. As far I know we’ve never explicitly looked at the
church body as a human … being, but I think it can be helpful. I think that as the church
pushes itself to be a better church, it will also be rewarded with the warmth and joy that we experience when we push ourselves to become better people. How that is manifested
I do not know, but I suspect it will show up by being increasingly attractive to others and a
more exciting experience for all of us. Think about it.