#ThursdayTheology: Zoroastrianism & #ReligiousRoots


Back in August we posted an article about the beginnings of the Parliament of World Religions at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. That article spoke about one of the contributions from what was at the time a little known religion to people in the United States, namely A Brief Sketch Of The Zoroastrian Religion And Customs, An Essay (1893), by Ervad Sheriarji Dadabhai Barucha. In it Mr.Shaeriaji mentioned that though little is known about the early history of Zoroastrianism, it may be confidently asserted that the kings of the Achaeminian Dynasty such as Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and others (B.C. 559-329) were Zoroastrians, for they emphatically speak of Auramazda, the greatest God, as does every Zoroastrian…”
That was back in 1893 and the essay was delivered from Bombay, India, now known as Mumbai. Leading up to the 2023 convention of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, once again in Chicago, FEZANA (the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America) has contributed an online pre-Parliament event called

CYRUS’ CYLINDER: A Timeless Zoroastrian Legacy. which the public is invited to watch. To find out more about that event here is a link which describes the event and provides registration information.

As Swedenborgians are People of the Book, a name for followers of the major faiths whose sacred scriptures stem from the Old Testament Bible, our interest is in seeing what we know about Cyrus and his connection to our religious heritage, and in what ways might the Zoroastrian faith of Cyrus impacted the historical path of the Jewish people of his time.

Some extracts from the Jewish Virtual Library follow.  Note that “Deutero-Isaiah” or Second Isaiah, refers to that part of Isaiah (chapters 40-55) attributed to a second author.  The first author addresses Judah prior to the invasion of the Assyrians, The second author takes up the story much later, after Assyria, and near the end of the Babylonian captivity.  

“Cyrus holds a special place in the history of Israel. He is mentioned in the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah, in the Book of Ezra (and at the end of Chronicles), and in the Book of Daniel. In these passages he appears both as one destined to save Israel and to fulfill for it a certain mission on behalf of the God of Israel … and as one whose edict and command served as a foundation for the return to Zion and the erection of the destroyed temple. Apparently the successes of Cyrus, particularly the preparations and steps that indicated that a struggle between him and Babylon was pending, were in part responsible for rousing Deutero-Isaiah to utter his prophecies on the imminent redemption of Israel and the impending destruction of Babylon. The hopes of the prophet are clearly expressed in chapter 45:1–13: God turns “to His anointed, to Cyrus,” whom He helped in the past and will further help in the continuation of his activities (“I will go before you, and level the mountains; I will break in pieces the doors of bronze, and cut asunder the bars of iron”). Cyrus is to rebuild Jerusalem and restore the exilic community. “An explanation of the relations between Cyrus and the Jews rests upon an understanding of his general policy, particularly in Babylon itself. This policy was based upon benevolence toward the conquered, support and sympathy for their gods, and a correction of the injustices done to them by the previous ruler Nabonidus, or in the case of the Jews of Babylon, by Nebuchadnezzar. In conformity with this policy, he restored the Babylonian gods to their temples,reconstructed temples that had been neglected in the time of his predecessor, and even returned exiles to their homes. His policy toward the Jews was similar to that toward the Babylonians.”

The return of some of the Jews from Babylon is the start of the Second Temple Period, but most of them did not end up in Judah and the diaspora began – the majority of Jews immigrated to others areas in the middle east – Syria, Egypt, and later Greece and Italy. Many other changes happened in Judah – prophecy ceased, monotheism became firmly entrenched, and Judah became colonies not only of Persia (under Zoroastrian leaders) but of Greece by Grecian rulers in Egypt and then Syria. Greek-Syrian rule ended with the Maccabean Revolt, when the Maccabeans took Jerusalem and reestablished Jewish practices (though the Maccabees were neither descended from David nor of the tribe of Judah). When the Maccabeans finally controlled all of Judah they formed an Alliance with the Roman Republic. The Romans later replaced the Jewish leadership, and shortly thereafter the Second Temple Period ended when Rome put down a revolt and destroyed the temple in 70 CE. This whole period saw many major cultural, political, and religious developments, including the rise of messianic ideas and movements, and formation of the sects of the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and early Christians.
Though Cyrus was not ever thought to be a Jewish convert by any means, doing his deed for Judah out of his Zoroastrian background, he was well thought of by the Palestinian rabbis. Not so much by the Babylonians. Cyrus is supposedly descended from Japeth, a character from Genesis who demonstrated “commendable behavior toward Noah when drunk.” So there is a line through the Old Testament connecting Cyrus with from early times up through the beginning of a 500-year movement that opened the way for the initiation of Christianity. It was likely the Babylonian captivity itself that was the primary driver for the many changes in Judaism in that time, while Cyrus was the catalyst needed to return the elite of Judah back to the promised land.

#ThursdayTheology: #Regeneration, #Genesis & #Maslow

To give you an idea of where we are going this Sunday, here is Swedenborg’s idea of regeneration:

From the Montréal Theosophy Project.

[Swedenborg describes the stages of spiritual regeneration that can be found in Genesis, in Arcana Coelestia,] trans. John Clowes, (West Chester, PA:Swedenborg Foundation, 1998), §16-85

Excerpt:

Genesis:

On the seventh and final day, God rests, satisfied with the creation

Microcosmic Correspondence:

This constitutes the highest state of perfection for the individual—a state in which there is complete union between his or her inner and outer selves.

Psycho-Spiritual Meaning:

Now, completely aligned with God’s will, so as to be scarcely differentiated from it, the celestial human being finds rest and peace: “Such is the quality of the celestial man that he acts not according to his own desire, but according to the good pleasure of the Lord, which is his ‘desire.’ Thus he enjoys internal peace and happiness.”

Here is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

The Importance of Sharing

Luke 3:11 He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise

If you need a reason to share, the above Bible passage tells you to do it! Have faith:)

Happy Toy-Swapping!

What Exactly Are You Saying?! #ThursdayThoughts

Rev. Jenn Tafel’s Sermon From June 9, 2019 at the New Church of Montgomery

What Exactly Are You Saying?!

Listen/Watch or Read

 

Good morning! I’m excited to be with you all for worship once again.

It’s been a while since I’ve shared my call to ministry story. It was the “thing” to do in theological school. We compared these stories time and again. Each time someone shared their story, there were new elements to it. Now it’s not like a traditional “fish story” where the size of the fish grows or the depth of the water deepens each time or whatever. The new elements added come from a place (hopefully) of thoughtful reflection. We knew (or maybe everyone else did) that people would ask about this part of our journeys as ordained clergy—and so it was important to hone and craft the story for the years of storytelling to come. There were moments when I didn’t think anyone would be that interested; but, we are talking about the Creator of the universe working through humans in a particular fashion (allegedly)—so yes, as it turns out—people have been interested in my story. Now, with all that build up you would think I had a fantastic or jaw-dropping story. I mean, how else does the Creator of the universe work, right?! To be honest, I’ve had more significant dreams, meditation experiences, and shamanic journeys since theological school, but this is a story that came to mind when reflecting on the lessons from Scripture and Swedenborg’s exegesis.

I floundered after college. Well, I floundered in college and before college, too. I thought I wanted to be a teacher and that’s how I got back to school full time at the age of twenty-three. And then I realized I had no business being in a classroom with the youth of America. I graduated with a degree in Communications and Theater. Super marketable by the way (if you’re interested!). I moved to the Boston area and tried to find gainful employment and I ended up in the travel industry for a time. I lived with Bill and Louise Woofenden for part of my time there. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Bill taught at the seminary for years. I attended church at the Swedenborgian church in Elmwood while I lived in that area—so did Bill and Louise.

I participated in the Sunday School program and organized that year’s women’s retreat. Louise would ask me quite often when I was going to answer the call to ministry. I returned the question with a blank stare. The women at that retreat asked me the same question. I drove teens to a Memorial Day Retreat in 2001 and realized how much I enjoyed the experience as staff. I was emailing Jim Lawrence (Dean of our theological school) about information for articles I was writing for our national church magazine and other material. Jim is a known recruiter for the school and has been for some time. He would reply to my emails asking when I was going to answer the call to ministry. I attended our annual convention that year and at a mixer with ministers (because doesn’t everyone go to those?!)—I asked one of my (now colleagues), “Don’t I have to have a call to ministry or something?” He replied, “You also have to answer the call if it comes in.” I was dumbfounded. I thought that a call to ministry would be cosmic and all the details would be handled or some such thing. I did not anticipate hearing that I had a part to play in the process—I mean I fully grasp that now, but I was taken back by this concept because I somehow negated my participation.

I had lunch with Jim during the convention and it appeared that my fate was sealed. And then I had to break the news to my parents (cue dramatic organ music). I honestly think it was easier to come out as queer identified and bi than to tell them I was going into what is known as the family business.

After I shared this story in circles with classmates and professors—I was kind of jealous of other people’s stories. I heard folks share profound dreams and mountain top experiences as their call to ministry—life events that shook people to their cores. My story feels rather matter of fact and boring. Now, I do remember asking my step dad (also a minister) at dinner one night when I was nineteen what the process was for becoming a minister. I needed a bachelor’s degree to begin the educational component. Well, that wasn’t where I was at that point in my life so I didn’t pursue things then. I remember a time at one of our church camps when I was nine or ten and I looked around my environment wondering how it all came to be. I wondered why I was there and why any of us were here. It was beyond the buildings I was next to—I wanted to know the story behind what I was experiencing. I still have this sense of wonder about the universe and construct of reality—but that’s a story for another time. The point of me sharing this is that while my actual call to ministry (and the answering of it) seems bland to me—it is part of a much larger journey.

For me, this is an illustration of the dynamic and subtle ways that God works through humanity and this is the connection to the lessons from Scripture. While incredibly distinct and different stories from Scripture—a common thread that I heard was God’s desire to speak to humankind and through humankind and this is where my call to ministry story fits into the equation for me. God speaks continuously through a variety of methods. As one of my mentors would say, “If you are not someone who reads Scripture or other books don’t you think God is still trying to reach you? There are movies, songs, conversations with others that can be the vehicle for God’s communication. The point is that we have to be open to the ways God is communicating.”

In the story of the Tower of Babel the citizens of the planet decided they wanted to reach God and the best way they could do that was by building a structure that would reach up to heaven. While Swedenborg has specific explanations of this story that unpack each verse of this story, the bottom line is that because they spoke one language it means that they were upholding one doctrine. Because they decided what was best—building a tower to reach God, their self-hood was leading the way rather than allowing for God to be the driving force. The result was that they no longer understood one another on many levels because their language was muddled. This confusion is a state of being that is necessary when breaking the hells apart from a heavenly state. What we once knew is distorted because a new way of operating needs to take hold. Rather than build a structure “up to heaven,” our spiritual growth requires that we look inward and break the structures that already exist as barriers to the leading of God in our lives.

The story of Pentecost is not one that I grew up hearing while raised in this tradition. I can’t tell you why, but I can tell you that the story holds significance for me as I have attended ordinations of friends and colleagues on this day or with the color red (the liturgical color of the day) in the sanctuary. As we celebrate this Christian holy day and pair it with the story of the Tower of Babel, listening to God would potentially be fear inducing. I mean, the disciples and friends are in a room not exactly settled and really uncertain about the future. It’s fifty days from Easter and then they have this other worldly experience occur. While accused of drinking—because that’s an easy thing to say that causes altered states of consciousness, it’s really a direct experience of God through the Holy Spirit. So we move from not being open to God because of barriers and self-hood leading the way to God saying, “Listen up folks!” The barriers of denial become apparent in this story. However, there were enough people in the crowd hearing a message from the Divine in their native language that could dispute the need to deny.

I return to the story of my call to ministry where it was pointed out that I needed to be a participant in how God was speaking to me and ultimately leading me. To be honest, I was afraid of how this decision was going to change my life. I knew that I would have to make sacrifices and twelve years later I am still actively changing course as needed in order to follow where God is leading me. I have moved around the country (and most recently across town), established and dissolved relationships, attended countless workshops on honing skills on all levels, and more. The desire to listen, hear, and act on how God is leading in my life is far from what would be considered easy by most folks. However, at this point in the game there is no going back to any iterations of who I once was.

So where do you find yourself in the stories? Are you able to hear God? Do you have a desire to hear where God is leading you? Are there barriers to you taking action?

Pentecost is in many ways a birth story—the birth of a movement. We all have the ability to bring forth life no matter our circumstances. May the fire of the Holy Spirit burst forth within each of you here today!                 Amen

 

Lessons from Scripture

 

Genesis 11: 1-9

 

1 Throughout the earth, people spoke the same language and used the same words. 2 Now, as they moved eastward, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 They all said to one another, “Let us make bricks and bake them in the fire.” They used bricks as building stones, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top can reach to heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves, to keep us from being scattered over the face of the whole earth.” 5 Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower these mortals had built. 6 “They are a single people with a single language,” Yahweh said. “And this is but the beginning of their undertakings! Now there will be nothing too hard for them to do. 7 Come, let us go down and baffle their language so that they can no longer understand one another.” 8 So Yahweh scattered them over the face of the earth, and they had to stop building the city. 9 It was named Babel, because Yahweh made humans babble different languages throughout the world. It was from there that Yahweh scattered them over the whole earth.

Acts 2: 1-21

 

1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they all met in one room. 2 Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. 3 Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them. 5 Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, 6 and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. 7 They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! 8 How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue?

9 We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome— 11 all Jews, or converts to Judaism—Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!” 12 All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.” 14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “Women and men of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! 15 These people are not drunk as you think—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 No, it’s what Joel the prophet spoke of: 17 ‘In the days to come— it is our God who speaks— I will pour out my spirit on all humankind. Your daughters and sons will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. 18 Even on the most insignificant of my people, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 And I will display wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire and billowing smoke. 20 The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon will become blood before the coming of the great and sublime day of our God. 21 And all who call upon the name of our God will be saved.’

Message from Swedenborg

“The fact of the matter is that the more self-love or a misplaced sense of independence worms its way into our worship, the more internal worship recedes, or becomes nonexistent. Inward devotion consists in an affection for what is good and an acknowledgment of truth, but the more egoism or self-dependence advances or enters, the more an affection for goodness and the acknowledgment of truth withdraw or leave. Holiness can never coexist with profanation, just as heaven cannot coexist with hell. The one needs to separate from the other; that is what conditions in God’s kingdom, and the way it is organized, require. This is the reason why inward worship does not exist in those whose worship is called “Babel.” Instead they worship something dead and even cadaverous that lies within. It is evident, then, what outward worship is like when something like this lies at its core.”

Secrets of Heaven 1326

Sunday Sermon: “Growing Mustard Seeds” 5/19/19

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Rev. Betsy Coffman
Bible Readings and Message

Old Testament: Psalm 1: (Stephen Mitchell translation)
Blessed are the man and the woman
Who have grown beyond their greed
And have put an end to their hatred
And no longer nourish illusions.
But they delight in the way things are
And keep their hearts open, day and night.
They are like trees planted near flowing rivers,
Which bear fruit when they are ready
They leaves will not fall or wither.
Everything they do will succeed.

New Testament: Mark 4:30–32, World English Bible
He said, “How will we liken the Kingdom of God? Or with what parable will we illustrate it? It’s like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, yet when it is sown, grows up, and becomes greater than all the herbs, and puts out great branches, so that the birds of the sky can lodge under its shadow.”

Emanuel Swedenborg: “In the Bible, ‘seed’ means truth, ‘field’ means doctrine, and ‘garden’ means wisdom.” (True Christian Religion #350)

Growing Mustard Seeds

My message today focuses on how our “ruling love” develops as we explore the spiritual symbols of Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed, one of several parables on “The Kingdom of Heaven”. I particularly like this because this is such a beautiful of time of year – planting and new growth – and planting the seeds and nurturing what becomes our ruling love is what this is all about.

So first, let’s look at what Jesus says about the Kingdom of heaven from Luke 17: “Neither shall they say, Lo, Here! Or there! for lo, the kingdom of heaven is within you.” So, we immediately see that we are looking at inner spiritual realities and in this parable, how we develop “heaven” within ourselves.

I will be borrowing from two sermons on this subject, one from Rev. Lee Woofenden and another from Rev. Kevin Baxter.

Rev. Lee, points out that the mustard seed parable “is [about] one of the ‘smallest becoming the largest’. Mustard seeds were one of the smallest seeds commonly planted by the people of ancient Palestine for their use. And further, though the variety of mustard Jesus was probably referring to (black mustard), when planted in the garden, will usually grow about three or four feet high – if it has enough water, sunlight, and soil, it can and does grow to be ten or even fifteen feet high—which approaches the size of many of the common trees that grow in that part of the world. But unlike trees, the mustard plant, which is an annual, does this in a single season. In other words, given the right conditions, it is a phenomenally fast-growing plant. All this [as well as] the hot and pungent flavor of the seeds themselves —made the mustard seed an ideal image for Jesus to use in showing how the initial seeds of spiritual love and understanding that are sown in us grow up into lives of righteousness and praise’, in Isaiah’s words.

Another aspect of this parable, pointed out by Rev. Kevin Baxter (sermon 8/12) is this; “The great thing about a seed is that it contains all of the genetic information of the plant to come. All that is required to bring it forth is the right conditions. A seed symbolizes the basic elements of being; spiritually, we might understand those elements as will (intent) and understanding. When the seed’s will (intent) and understanding are filled with the love and wisdom of God, it sprouts forth its hidden self. A seed embodies potential.” So, we also, created as “images of God” have all we need to grow into the angels and heavenly life for which we were created.

Rev. Baxter notes that, “…comparing the kingdom of God to a mustard seed [might] seem…a bit ridiculous…why not use a more impressive image?”  The point here is that “The kingdom of God does not initially appear in our lives as something big and impressive, but as something unassuming and small, yet hard to destroy—something that contains a tremendous amount, if only we nurture it. In Jesus’ image of the mustard seed, something that needs to be nurtured transforms into something that nurtures: a seed becomes a bird sanctuary.” So, what we are looking at, is how our innate spiritual potential – the “seed” that is the implanted ability within each of us to recognize good and truth and to choose to act upon it (nurture it), can, in time grow into a life of spiritual vitality – we become that “sanctuary for birds” – a person whose life nurtures and expresses God’s love and purposes – and creates seeds for new plantings and growth – seeds that add zest and flavor to the meaning of our lives.

This “implanted knowing”, then, is part of our spiritual heritage and it is what the Lord uses in his attempt to guide us, helping us to discern the wisest and best choices throughout our lives, as we deal with the often confusing and less-than obvious possibilities with which we are presented. However, from this beginning, we, too have a responsibility to play our part in continuing to plant and nurture seeds that support our spiritual growth.

And we can be sure we will face challenges on this journey from “little to big”. Sometimes when we look at the world around us,

“spiritual truth and love do, indeed, seem like ‘the smallest of all seeds.’ What are most people engaged in most of the time? From the look of it, most people are engaged most of the time in making money and pursuing enjoyment, pleasure, [achievement] or power.  We have built up vast economic and governmental systems that are geared almost entirely to providing for our material well-being, and asserting our economic and political power as far as it will extend. In the face of that [reality], what hope do truth, spirit and love for God and the neighbor have? They seem almost to be swallowed up in the human hubbub-tiny, insignificant seeds that almost disappear because their presence and influence seems so slight in our ordinary, worldly consciousness.

And yet, those tiny, insignificant-looking seeds have a quality about them that causes us to ‘plant them in the field’ of our minds. [This may well occur at times in our lives]…When pursuits and pleasures of this world begin to lose their savor, we are [finally] attracted to the heat and pungency of spiritual ideas that challenge everything our materialistic mind takes for granted, and promise a very
different life than the one that has already begun to grow old and stale for us. We plant those seeds of spiritual possibility in our minds and hearts, and wait to see what will come of them.” (Woofenden)

It may have taken coming to a point of inner desolation and meaninglessness in spite of all that we have – or even worse, experiencing personal chaos, pain and/or tragedy before we truly come to acknowledge that we need something more – that everything we have and try to do is just not enough. So, it stands to reason that our initial acceptance of spiritual possibilities often comes out of a hope for something better for ourselves – and this is not wrong or bad – it’s often just the way it is. And what’s amazing, is that it is this very wish and hope for “delights” – for feeling good, that the Lord uses to guide us toward a new inner life of spirit. And as most of us know, when we have experienced personal pain and turmoil, we begin to appreciate feeling a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. It’s a motivator to keep moving forward. This too, is part of the way we were designed, for as Swedenborg
notes, “We cannot have an exquisite perception of what is good, or what is blessed and happy, unless we have been in the opposite state, in which we experienced what is not good, not blessed, and not happy.”

Now this parable is seen as more symbolic of our “earlier stages of our spiritual growth,” that may only really begin in the second half of life, as Richard Rohr points out. “One of the reasons the focus is on the ‘smallest of the seeds’ is because at this stage, we are only beginning to turn the focus of our lives from our own comfort and possessions and those of our families. Our habit is still to think of ourselves first, with service to others still being something of an afterthought. In other words, we’re still looking at how this new spirituality is going to make our own life better.” Even though there is an important change in focus, we are still very much focused on ourselves and, “a long way from being angels of love and light.”(Woofenden).

At this point, the seeds of a greater understanding of truth and goodness in us are still pretty tiny, but they are there – it’s a start. It’s not the same type of symbol as that of a tree, for instance, which develops deep roots over time, while also growing upward. There is still more we need to experience and learn on our journey to our inner “kingdom of heaven”. We often find ourselves in doubt at this stage and faced with whether we will confirm or deny what we are beginning to perceive and understand about the direction in which we must go. We are very vulnerable and yet it is so important for us to affirm (or cultivate) those seeds within us that tell us to choose the spiritual rather than material path.

When we allow doubt and negativity to rule our hearts, the seeds cannot be nurtured and as Swedenborg says, “one misgiving avails more than a thousand confirmations. One misgiving is like a grain of sand placed before the eye; although it is single and small, it takes away all sight.” And so, in a way, we have the “battle of the smallest” – on the one hand, we have the smallest seed, which can grow and
bloom quickly into the beginning of a new spiritual life – and on the other hand, we have the tiny grain of sand (notice that sand does not have the life potential within it for growth, as does a seed), which can block out our [spiritual] sight if it gets in our eye. So, at this stage especially, we may go back and forth between a sense of knowing and a sense of doubt – each time we ignore or deny the reality of our
spiritual existence and act contrary to spiritual design, we make it impossible for the Lord to lead us forward, [remember that the Lord never forces us, but can’t guide us to goodness if we won’t choose it].

To be loved, we must love—and vice versa. Loving is the first step, but nurturing things in our lives does not stop with us; caring for others creates a vibrant tree that nurtures heavenly thoughts and transforms the people around us. Yet the wonderful thing about our Creator God is that he comes right to where we are in the present, especially in our struggles, and uses whatever openings he can find, to guide us and help nurture those little seeds of desire for spiritual growth and transformation. And it is that desire in us (will) to be better, more loving human beings that creates an opening so that we are actually led away over time, from our self-centeredness and our illusions, through “our delights”. Swedenborg tells us that, “So far as we allow, the Lord leads us to what is good. So it is that the Lord leads us through delights. He also leads through illusions and resulting false assumptions, gradually guiding us away from these.”(AC6472)

Remember our reading of Psalm 1? Here we really see a description of spiritual growth and maturity – having grown from our early, more self-centered focus – to experiencing a new reality of being and a new connection with the Divine…that’s the direction in which we are taken, if we truly desire it.

Friends, we can and do choose how we live and who we want to be – and it’s often not the big things that define us but the small things—the little choices we make each day about what thoughts we will entertain and what actions we express. We can choose to sleep through life, controlled by the things of this world; or we can choose to seek out points at which God is active in our lives. If we choose the latter, we become active agents in how we see the world. We nurture the seeds of love and life and

“…the mustard seed [within us], something that needs to be nurtured, transforms into something that nurtures: a seed becomes tree in which birds can nest [a sanctuary] and produces more seeds that can be planted, [seeds that bring zest and flavor to our lives].(Baxter)

And we are gradually transformed into the within into the unique images of God that we were created to be – angels of light and love…..
Amen

flight landscape nature sky

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

#ThursdayTheology “Of What Use, Theology?”

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Photo by Maggie Panyko, 2018, Montezuma’s Castle, Arizona

“Of What Use Theology?” by Pete Toot, a sermon.
From the May 6, 2018 service, New Church of Montgomery

Good morning. Welcome to the New Church of Montgomery Sunday morning worship. As we will see as the service progresses, I have taken the liberty of selecting a somewhat contentious topic for today. The question for the day is, of what use is theology? I have asked that question to myself, and even out loud on several occasions, often enough that it became quite clear to me I didn’t know the answer.

So, what can I say to introduce this potentially heretical theme? For what if theology is useless? I do like theology. But…What IS the big deal about it? Why can’t I just be a good person, live a friendly, helpful, and generous life? You know, get along well with my neighbors and friends; help people out when the opportunity arises? Isn’t that all that is necessary? Why on earth do I have to know about the structure of heaven – apparently it has different regions and is peopled by communities of all sorts of different souls. But certainly, I will find that out soon enough – what good does it do me now?

Swedenborg speaks about correspondences. According to the writings everything in the natural world, what I see around me, exists because there is a corresponding spiritual something that connects it to, and sustains it from the spiritual realm that I don’t see around me. Is there some way that can help me lead a good life and make me a better person? Let’s assume there is a heaven, though it hasn’t been proven to me. Will knowledge about heaven help me get there, in the end? And, if there are good and rational answer to these questions, where do I go to find them? Who do I think can give a straight answer?

To some extent I am quite sure theology is a head-trip. We use that phrase “head-trip” derogatorily. But is a head-trip a bad thing? Is it useful or just an engaging waste of time and energy?

It may have been a mistake to just dive in and ask the theologians. I started with Christian theologians and experts. The first thing I found out was that theology didn’t mean to some of them what it meant to me. And frankly, some of the narrower views insisted that if one believes the Bible is the infallible Word of God with no contradictions of significance, and is the only presentation of the Word of God, then other texts can offer only opinions, not valid knowledge of God, and therefore no theology can exist outside Christianity. Those who know me can appreciate that I rebelled at this. I simply cannot believe God is so limited in connecting with His people that He would not use all possible means. What I would suggest is that this comes from a false assumption that when Jesus says He is the way, He means the Christian Church’s scripture is the
only vehicle God has to offer us revelation. But that seems to work for some folks.

I do know that other religions claim to have revelations and their scholars are very clear that God is way beyond what we can understand directly, so they also rely on faith being involved in understanding God. To be fair, there are also plenty of Christian sources which are not so rigid as to declare those of other religions incapable of seeking to understand God in their own way. Nevertheless, I came to the conclusion that nothing in these discussions helped answer my question about usefulness, and did not seem to do much in terms of answering other questions about validity, applicability, and so forth, a subject for a future sermon, perhaps.

I started from the premise that living a good life is indeed important for spiritual health, so I looked for the ideas that various religions’ authorities present about the what besides living a life of charity is also important, specifically to see if acquiring religious knowledge though the study of theology is worthwhile.

I went to Judaism first. We know Swedenborg had some things to say about the representative nature of the Jewish church that would make one think theology is a really big deal for Judaism. It was harder to find justification for that than I thought. Maimonides wrote in the Mishnah Torah back in 1180: “For it is said, ‘You shall strengthen the stranger and the dweller in your midst and live with him,’ that is to say, strengthen him until he needs no longer fall upon the mercy of the community or be in need.” This sounds like an instruction to be charitable and lead a good life. Since in this quote I find the message saying to be good and generous, I looked to see if the Misnah Torah also says anything specific or helpful about the use or need for any theological knowledge. I didn’t find that in my abbreviated search, but since the Misnah Torah is mostly trying to describe how to understand and obey the Law, it became apparent this might not be the best source.

So let’s go back to the Hebrew Bible itself. Again, we are looking for both instruction on leading a good life, and of what use is theology. Oddly, I found most English translations of the Old Testament never use the word “charity”. though I found places where the idea of charity is very clear, first in Isaiah: “… learn to do good! Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend orphans, plead for the widow.” And this in Daniel where the word charity was used: “… please take my advice: break with your sins by replacing them with acts of charity, and break with your crimes by showing mercy to the poor; this may extend the time of your prosperity.” And I also got a lesson in Hebrew from which I learned that the Hebrew word for “charity” is often translated as “justice”, and that when it is, justice is said to be done when those-who-have-enough give what they can to the poor, and the poor receive what they need so they also have enough. There are plenty of places in the Old Testament where justice is demanded. Nevertheless, in the Old Testament the encouragement to live a good and generous and just life are overshadowed by the requirements of being lawful and obedient. Obedience to the Law is important, but not the same as understanding about God. And though it requires study to know the Law, it is not the same kind of knowledge. At least from what I have heard said, God gave us the Laws, but is much more than the Laws. So, still looking for input on knowledge of God.

In our reading this morning from Job we heard is a long passage about the fate of the wicked and what it is like where they live. I won’t repeat the reading here, most of which describes the terrible conditions of the wicked, except to say it ends with the line: “Surely such is the dwelling of an evil man; such is the place of one who does not know God.” It says that where the wicked are, one does not find those who know God. The implication is: one better know God. But even here knowing God seems to mean knowing what the God of Abraham wants people to do. But not who God is or why God wants what He wants. In my search I did not find any place in the Old Testament where it says one should know about God.

So, I looked into the Kabbalah. The Kabbalah is quite different. In a parable from one of the Kabbalah’s primary texts, the Bahir, Kabbalah is described as the path for those who seek to see the face of the King. It is generally understood there is an inner sense to the Bahir, so what does seek to see the face of the King mean? Briefly, the King means the Divine, the face is not a biological face, but means what is encountered when one approaches God. Kabbalah leads its student to see, that is understand, the nature of the Divine from studying the encounter of God, who is the Torah.

This should sound familiar to anyone who has read the opening lines of John where he says: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Understand God for what purpose? One purpose claimed is that it leads the individual to see that he is nothing without God, and that his ego is to be overcome so he can be a conduit for the will of God. Further, to see that the natural world is illusion relative to a deeper reality. So at last here we get some rational use for theology – it instructs us on how to put aside selfishness and is a tool for knowing ourselves in a new way. The word Kabbalah stems from the word for “receiving”, and relates to the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai – but this is an active receiving, meaning a welcoming of God into a relationship through which one is invited to leave the self-centered-life for the people- or God-centered-life. OK, so that is a good start. The study of the Torah is a study of God in the world with us, which gives us a context for seeing ourselves acting in the world. So let’s count that as a yes vote for “theology is useful”. To me at least, to seek to see the face of the King sounds a lot like studying the knowledge about God.

So now let’s look at what Emanuel Swedenborg says. First we’ll see what he says about getting into heaven. Keep in mind, in his writings, he is trying to convince reformation theologians and clergy about the problems of seeking salvation based on faith alone, among other things. He describes at length the process by which we improve and develop spiritually and so become heaven-bound. He teaches that we do this by “shunning evils as sins”. If we follow this recipe, do we need to know about God? Do we need to know why it works? Is it that simple? Swedenborg also has something
to say about what kind of people can get into heaven, and I’ll just share two readings here from Heaven and Hell. One relates to the heathen and the Christian; the other to the rich and the poor:

Note: The following readings were read by volunteer liturgists during the sermon in sequence shown.

HH324. … This makes clear that at the present day the heathen come into heaven with less difficulty than Christians, according to the Lord’s words in Luke:
“Then shall they come from the east and the west, and from the north and the south, and shall recline in the kingdom of God. And behold, there are last
who shall be first, and there are first who shall be last.” (Luke 13:29, 30).

HH 365. … The rich and the poor alike come into heaven, the one as easily as the other. The belief that the poor enter heaven easily and the rich with difficulty comes from not understanding the Word where the rich and the poor are mentioned. In the Word those that have an abundance of knowledges of good and truth, thus who are within the church where the Word is, are meant in the spiritual sense by the “rich”; while those who lack these knowledges, and yet desire them, thus who are outside of the church and where there is no Word, are meant by the “poor”

Both of these are talking about the same thing! The difficulty some have getting into heaven stems from them being rich (in knowledge) or having been taught the problematic Christian teachings prevalent in Swedenborg’s time. In other words, those more exposed to theology had more problems. So does this say theology is better off avoided? Maybe it does for some people, though he doesn’t say it is impossible, just more difficult. There are some key phrases in these readings I would point out. In the first (HH324) reading, note the phrase “at the present day”, whereby Swedenborg is describing the messed up theology of the Christian world he lived in. In the second (HH365) reading find the phrase “and yet desire them” – means those poor can be described as those who “seek the face of the King” – that is, those who live in accordance with some internal sense, conscious or not, about what motivates their behavior, about right and wrong in some objective sense. The heathen, like the poor, are less encumbered by having their attitudes towards proper living constantly undermined by dubious or confusing teachings, and neither are they regularly bombarded by a plethora of competing philosophies and belief systems such as happens in a modern culture. So now let’s look at the last Swedenborg reading, from New Jerusalem 51, where Swedenborg is speaking about the inner and outer self, and about knowledge.

New Jerusalem 51

“There are bodies of knowledge of an earthly nature that have to do with our civic condition and our civic life; … with our moral condition and our moral life; and … with our spiritual condition and our spiritual life.  For clarity’s sake … I refer to knowledge [of an earthly nature] about our spiritual condition and our spiritual life as “spiritual knowledge,” which mainly consists of theological teachings. (Emphasis mine)

“It is important for us to become steeped in worldly and spiritual knowledge, because it is through this that we learn to think, then to understand what truth and goodness are, and eventually to be wise— that is, to live by what we have learned.  Worldly and spiritual knowledge are basic things on which our life is built and founded—both our civic and our moral life as well as our spiritual life; but they need to be learned with the goal of living a useful life. Spiritual knowledge opens a pathway to the inner self and then joins the inner and the outer self together according to our usefulness. Our rationality is born by means of worldly and spiritual knowledge, yet it is not born through that knowledge itself, but through and according to our desire to put it to use. The inner self is opened and gradually perfected through worldly and spiritual
knowledge if we seek good and useful goals, especially goals related to eternal life. Then spiritual insights from the [inner person] encounter the knowledge of worldly and spiritual things that is in the earthly [person] and adopt what is suitable. Then … the Lord, by means of our inner self, draws out, refines, and raises up what is useful for heavenly life, but information that is incompatible or conflicting is pushed aside and excluded. … Worldly and spiritual knowledge is gradually sown in our loves and takes up residence there. If we were born loving the Lord and loving our neighbor we would be born into all knowledge and understanding, but since we are born loving ourselves and the world we are born into total ignorance. Knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom are the offspring that are born of love for the Lord and love for our neighbor.”

He says, “It is important for us to become steeped in worldly and spiritual knowledge, because it is through this that we learn to think, then to understand what truth and goodness are, and eventually to be wise— that is, to live by what we have learned.”  So, here is a theological teaching that speaks about why theological teaching or for that matter any teaching about values is useful. If we are open to Swedenborg’s writings, we can hear the message that the acquiring of knowledge and testing it out — putting it to use that is — is necessary to engage our conscience. In other words, we can sense the rightness or wrongness of a new behavior in relation to past experiences. Putting it into use can let us identify and label motivations which are messed up (called repentance), and from there lead us to modify our behavior and attitudes (called reformation) such that the Lord can bring about the hoped-for changes in our will (called regeneration). I can accept that. I see myself as easily giving in to the temptation to remain unchanged (unrepentant I guess). Unless I force myself to step away from that easy path and search for hope that I can keep it up, I don’t make much progress. But I know I have made some progress, so the idea seems to work. At least for me.

The formula of shunning evils as sins that I mentioned earlier is not the same as being good and generous. It is more than that. We can be good and generous and still be motivated by selfish goals. Growing spiritually is different from behaving well. Shunning evils because they are painful or unpleasant, unfashionable, inconvenient, reflect poorly on our reputation, or adversely affect our net worth, does not mean shunning evils because they are sins. To see bad behavior as sinful we need an internal compass. Managing our behavior is a thinking process, a decision-making process, a choosing between options process. It takes engagement of the brain, application of our discernment. It takes awareness of the interaction and tension between motivation and behavior. And to the extent that we rely on a relationship with God to pull us along, that is, to give us strength to be changed in spite of our egotistic tendencies, we can build this relationship by learning about how God operates. That is the usefulness of theology. Scripture and other places reveal God, but it is God within that we encounter when we seek strength or guidance. In the end, theology is still a tool – it does not save us. It is a tool for shaping a behavior that not only embraces a good and generous life, but behavior that includes examination of our motivations. It is a tool that leads us to become able to find strength we cannot otherwise draw upon, to step out into areas of vulnerability and discomfort for the sake of growing closer to God. Maybe most important, having a developed and tested sense of the Divine working in us allows us to come into relationship with God. It is the relationship that in the beginning can bring strength, then peace, and eventually is what salvation is all about.

So my conclusion is that theology has a use. It is to make us think, lead us to understanding; help us become wise. The knowledge itself is not the important part. It is what we do with it to find ourselves. It can bring wisdom, the wisdom that combined with our selfless loves makes us more open to the Lord, and more useful. More useful – that is – more suited for heaven.  Amen.

5 Things you didn’t know about Divine Providence

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Via Swedenborg.com:

…he (Swedenborg) explains that the Lord’s goal is the formation of a heavenly community, bringing everyone—every human being on earth—into heaven. Divine providence is the way he works to do that.  Swedenborg systematically describes the way that divine providence works in our lives by condensing it into five laws:

1. We should act in freedom and in accordance with reason

2. We should reject any tendencies toward evil that we notice coming into our mind

3. We cannot be compelled to think or believe in a certain way

4. We are taught and led by the Lord, although it may appear that we are acting independently

5. We will not feel the workings of divine providence in our lives

Read explanations for these laws: here.