Lay-Led Sermon, by Pete Toot, MESSAGE – “Malice In Underland”
Well, here we are again, in Glendale, living together with a large collection of human beings and other creatures on this planet Earth, surrounded by an immense and ancient physical universe full of astonishing things that are mostly beyond our comprehension. Welcome to this little spot and this little group.
Our teachings explain that what we sense around us is mostly an appearance, a real but dim reflection of a much more intense reality. We can sense the natural world and interact in time and space with all the other objects, people, and events that reside here. It is real because it is what we are most capable of observing and affecting through our actions. We get up out of a real bed in a home, walk out into the community, travel around, talk to people, do all sorts of things, eat, sleep, and so forth. These are all very real to us.
But we are also aware, when we pay attention to it, that there are constantly things in our lives which we cannot see, hear, taste, smell, or touch. Like thoughts about things, we see beauty and ugliness, feel fear and gratitude, loneliness and fellowship, have anger, get worries, experience love and all sorts of other feelings. We are aware of these things but even our awareness is a mystery. But these are the things, we are told, that really connect us in an intimate but invisible way to a hidden deeper part of creation, the spiritual dimension.
When we do something it is because we will ourselves to act. How we behave is driven by what we want to do. What we want to do is determined by who we are, or by what we love. And how we go about doing what we do is guided by our plans, our thinking, our decisions, and our intelligence.
Using the vocabulary this church uses, we hear that we are human because we have two gifts, will and discernment. Simply put, discernment is the ability to tell things apart. It is how we tell right and wrong, helpful and hurtful, and how we expect to feel if we do one thing or something else.
Our will is what we exercise to turn something into an actual happening. Our will is the home of our loves. We have difficulty knowing what we do love, at the deepest level. In other words we can hardly figure out what our motivations are, though we may rarely care or take time to wonder about them. Our mind is busy making our surroundings familiar and understandable and storing up facts and ideas. It watches out for danger and steers us away from potential pain, avoids the unknown, and brings up ideas about why we should take a particular course of action. That’s good … It does seem to rule out the most stupid things. Yet somehow the decisions we make are generally what we want them to be rather than fully thought out. We think we know what right and wrong are, but we often confuse right with desirable and wrong with undesirable. It is because our ideas and memories and attitudes are flavored by what we like and don’t like. It is easy to justify decisions that have elements of justice and truth behind them, but mostly they just feel right. The process is very natural and instinctive, and we generally aren’t aware of it.
Meanwhile, as we are functioning consciously in this world, we are also living unconsciously in the spiritual world. If we could be conscious of it we would see ourselves as a complex and interwoven set of motivations, beliefs and attitudes, and we would be able to see why we behave in this world the way we do. This part of the spiritual world we live in is full of dead people, that is, people who have moved on from this life. Not everyone who has passed over is there, in this place we call the world of spirits, because most have moved further on, into the realms of heaven and hell. To wake up to the world of spirits we shed our natural bodies but keep our self-image, our beliefs and feelings. To get from there to heaven and hell we shed our false ideas about ourselves and are completely revealed as essentially good or evil people, good if we put wisdom and truth and other’s well-being ahead of our own, and evil if we put ourselves and whatever we can get our hands on up front, and sacrifice other’s interests. Those that go to heaven we call angels, those that go to hell we call other things, like demons or devils or satans, etc. But they are still people. These are people who discovered who they have become from a lifetime of dealing with the world here and the world of spirits and have chosen the home they like best. So much for background.
We Swedenborgians know there is a natural world we are born into, a world of spirits we are reborn into, and heaven and hell where we go when we’ve sorted ourselves out. That’s a very simple view, though, since all these places are busy and complex and have their communities just like Earth does. Today we are going to focus on how people in heaven and hell interact with us here today, and particularly focus on hell and how to deal with it. Thus the title of the message – Malice in Underland – where Underland is Hell, and Malice defines the kinds of careers those who live there are engaged in.
In our Swedenborg reading we heard him talk about people he met who were from Hell, and these appeared to be up high because, as he tells us, they were haughty, they thought highly of themselves, so they imagined themselves to be up high. We won’t try to explain how time and space are different in the spiritual world than here, we’ll just say that how things appear have a lot to do with what you believe.
An important thing he tells us is that they were demons, who exert an influence, not by spoken words, but maliciously and very cunningly by an inflow of evil desires, that they complained when other spirits kept them from pouring forth their poisons that is, their evil influences. He says they also complained about being compelled to speak, because they want to operate in secrecy. So what are they up to? Actually, they are just doing what they think is best, which is to have everyone else look up to them, to think as they do, since that feeds their desire to be in control. Just as the heavenly people, the angels, want to lead us toward a life of generosity and caring and harmony, hellish people want to lead us the other way, for they see generosity and caring and harmony as slavery, of doing what God wants to make them do. They hate slavery. They do a lot of hating. And we live, spiritually speaking – in the middle of this invisible war zone between those who want to give us every opportunity to become angels, and those who don’t. That may sound terrible, but it is because of this tension between the good guys and bad guys that we form our own consciences and grow into angelhood, or something else.
Now we can talk about how it works. The Lord is the source of our life and the life of every person, creature, plant, living here or hereafter. Swedenborg says, and in fact many churches also say, that there is only one real life, and we are each given to share in it, and those living things that are more developed, like human beings, think it is our own life. We don’t feel as if it is God’s. We act as if it is ours. In Divine Providence 294 Swedenborg writes that we do not think on our own but receive thoughts from others, all of whom in turn are not thinking on their own but from an inflow from the Lord. People shown this claimed that this meant that they were not to blame for doing evil and that it seemed as though evil came from the Lord.
The idea that thoughts come from outside us is similar to the observation that sights, sounds, smells, tastes and the physical feel of objects clearly do come from outside us. We can see that the objects we see are outside us, we can detect where sounds are coming from, and they are coming from outside us. Swedenborg explains that just as the natural world feeds us with the light and sound waves and chemicals for smell and taste, so too the spiritual world feed our mind with thoughts and desires. All goodness and truth flow first from the Lord into the lives of all things, and these are received, manipulated and flavored by the quality of the recipients, so they can remain good and true, or be distorted to become evil or false. What starts out as Divine Truth becomes in stages the ideas and thoughts that influence our understanding. What starts out as Divine Love becomes the desires and urges that influence our motivations. Both are filtered and distorted by the paths they take to reach us, by the angels and demons and folks in the world of spirits, and we are awash in the various forms these inflows take on.
We are not accountable for what these thoughts and desires are though we experience them as our own. But we are responsible for how we respond to them. So we are not to blame for the bad ideas and selfish urges, but we are accountable for the foul deeds we do, or good deeds we fail to do, when we take these ideas and desires and act on them. Swedenborg talks about it this way:
If everything we think is flowing in from others, it does seem as though the blame [for doing evil] rests on those others. However, the real blame rests on us who accept what is flowing in, since we accept it as our own. That is all we know and all we want to know. We all want to be our own people and find our own way. Particularly, we want to think our own thoughts and make our own decisions. This is the essence of that freedom we enjoy that seems to be our very own. If we knew, then, [for sure] that what we are thinking and intending was flowing in from someone else, we would feel caught and caged, no longer under our own control, and all the joy would go out of our lives…
We cannot avoid the blame [for doing evil things] as long as we are in love with our own thinking. If we are not in love with our own thinking, though, we extricate ourselves from our engagement with these others. This happens when we realize that something is evil and want to abstain and refrain from it. Then we are moved away from the community that is focused on this evil and moved to a community that is not. However, if we recognize that something is evil and do not abstain from it, then we are held responsible for it and become guilty of that evil.
Here’s a story that may illuminate how to use this. Back when I was about 12, I was at school after everyone had left the classroom. I was looking for a pencil, and found one in another kid’s desk. I took the pencil, wrote out what I needed, and it occurred to me that I could just walk off with the pencil and no one would be any wiser. I didn’t think that I wanted a pencil especially, just that I could get away with it. But I did put it back. In retrospect, if I knew about what we are talking about today, I could have said to myself, “self, where did that idea come from?” And if I had thought it came from someone else, I would have concluded it was not a generous and caring idea, so it must have been from some bad guy. At that point I could have rejected the idea and put the pencil back just because it was a bad idea. Well I didn’t go through that process, but I’m guessing the concept that putting it back actually came from a good guy. What is most interesting to me is that I still remember the incident, as brief as it was. Hopefully that means I learned something that did help me take a step closer to angelhood than the other way, but the process is still all invisible to me.
So that’s the whole story in this message. You can take it or leave it. A lot of it hangs on what you believe about God and the afterlife, and about how you deal with right and wrong. If we have the slightest belief that what we do here will affect how we live to eternity, and we are attracted to the idea of having a life of generosity instead of a life of selfishness, it might be good to try out a fairly easy spiritual practice of questioning where that idea came from? Where did that urge to eat that donut come from … was that a good influence or due to some malicious influence from Hell, some Malice in Underland? And what should I do about it?
One more thing… When I pray that the Lord “lead me not into temptation” I don’t believe the Lord that I understand is capable of doing that anyway. But I do think He is the source of the freedom, that lets me give in to a temptation or not, and what I am praying for is strength to leave it alone and thereby have it moved further away. Amen.