Finding Relevance In The Old Testament

By Rev. Michael Gladish

Our theme this morning is the relevance of the laws of the Old Testament to our lives now. It is not a question of whether they are relevant or not, but how they are relevant. And there are two reasons why I believe this is an important topic for us to consider: first, as I hope to show, the misunderstanding or misuse of passages from this part of the Word can get us into a lot of trouble–and not only us but others, too, as far as the credibility and power of the Word itself is concerned. Just the same, if we can understand and use the passages correctly we may get real opportunities to help people overcome negative attitudes about the Word–and religion in general–so that we can all grow in love and faith.

Second, seeing the relevance of the Old Testament laws in our own lives we may not only enjoy a more lively sense of respect for the Word in general but we may actually learn things that are vital for our spiritual health or salvation. Furthermore, when we see this principle at work in the Old Testament it may also give us food for thought about the New Testament and even the Writings for the New Church, as these also can be seen and used in more or less helpful ways.

For instance–and this is just an analogy–suppose you have a list of items with no particular distinction between one or another as to their importance, and someone tells you to get all these items for a wilderness survival hike. Included on the list are water, matches, a knife, a blanket, food, clothing and a cribbage board game. You could be forgiven for wondering why in the world a cribbage game was included on the list. In fact, unless you really liked cribbage or were a very strict literalist you could be forgiven for thinking you didn’t really need it. And in the end you probably wouldn’t take it on the hike. Worst of all, though, if when you saw “cribbage board” on the list you began to doubt the value of the entire list or even to think that the whole thing was just a joke, you might not get any of the items on the list and so begin your walk totally unprepared.

There is a sense in which the Word itself appears this way to people setting out on the path of life. They look at a list such as we read for our second lesson and they see rules like not profaning God’s name, not defrauding your neighbor, not hating your brother in your heart and not taking vengeance, which all seem pretty important, and then they see something like this: “You shall not shave around the sides of your head, nor shall you disfigure the edges of your beard” (Lev. 19:27). Or this: “You shall not sow your field with mixed seed. Nor shall a garment of mixed linen and wool come upon you” (Lev. 19:19). And then they wonder.

First of all they wonder about the relevance of these peculiar items in the list, then they begin to realize that many of the laws that worked or even were necessary for the simple, nomadic tribes of Israel 3 or 4 thousand years ago just won’t work today, and even if they did work they wouldn’t seem to have much meaning. So finally they begin to pick and choose according to their own culture and intelligence what they should obey from the Word and what they should ignore. Some end up treating the whole Word with contempt because it makes no sense to them. And worst of all in the case of the Word, there are those who pick and choose in the deliberate, conscious effort to justify some evil. This is extremely dangerous, not only for those who are misled by it but even more for those who do it, since it causes truth and evil to be linked in the mind, corrupting the soul.

Here is another example: in the same series of statutes and judgments that we read today, in the preceding chapter, there are a number of teachings condemning illicit sex and especially homosexuality, which is called “an abomination.” But since there is no distinction between the importance of this law and the importance of the law about shaving around the head or beard, or wearing linen mixed with wool, many claim that the laws against homosexuality are simply frivolous and, like a lot of Old Testament laws, irrelevant today. I’ve heard this argument and I know: it’s a tough one to beat unless you know something about the spiritual sense of the Word. And even then, it’s important to realize that the sanctions against homosexuality in the literal sense may have nothing to do with our sexual life when they are understood in the spiritual sense. Most likely we will have to look elsewhere for instruction on that issue.

So the first point that I hope you will take from this lesson is that we all need to be very careful how we use the teachings of the Word and how we understand them. They are not always what they seem to be. And in a list of things that seem incongruous together or inconsistent in their level of importance it may be especially necessary to look deeper–into the spiritual sense–to get any real feeling for what these things may mean. In fact, if we are alert we might take these odd looking teachings as keys or clues to lead us into the spiritual meaning of all the passages in the series, including the ones that seem to be perfectly reasonable in the literal sense. Then we can enjoy the blessing of a more profound enlightenment overall, including helpful insights into the progress of our own regeneration.

But now let’s look specifically at that passage about shaving the head and beard. What does that have to do with anything moral or spiritual, or of any lasting importance? Why is it included in a list of teachings that, on the whole, seem much more weighty and significant? Well, in the spiritual sense the hair of the head represents what is natural or external. Only if you look carefully at the passage you will see that the first phrase doesn’t actually mention hair, it just says that the Jews were not to shave around the sides (or corners!) of the head. Only in the second phrase do we see specific reference to the edges (or again, corners) of the hair itself in the beard.

We should have no trouble recognizing the head as a symbol of the most important things or, in spiritual matters, the more interior things within the mind. All the parts of the body from the head to the toes represent aspects of the mind, and so the head is that of the highest priority. Generally in the Word this means the good that is of the will or affection because this takes priority over anything else in defining the quality of a person’s spiritual life. The hair that is implied, and certainly the “corners” of the head that are actually mentioned represent the last or least or outermost reaches of that will or affection, namely the will to do, the determination to act according to what seems good. And it is this external will, this determination to do what is good that must not be lost or given up, for all the wonderful affections that flow into our minds from the Lord ultimately rest on this foundation–as we may well know simply by reflecting on those times in our own lives when we just didn’t care about anything, didn’t feel motivated to do anything..

But then there is the beard. Just as the corners of the head were not to be shaved, so the corners of the beard were not to be trimmed. Here again the external aspects of the mind are represented, but now by means of the hair around the mouth, jaws and chin. Of course these parts of the face are not specifically mentioned in the verse, but meaning in the Word always comes in its context, and the use of these parts has to do with eating, especially chewing, and with speech. These actions clearly relate within the mind to understanding and thought about the truth. (You know how you learn something or you get an idea and then you “chew on it” for awhile before you “swallow” it and make it your own..) So the hair of the jaw and chin represents the most natural, external outgrowth of thought, which is planning and figuring out how or what to do.

Next to the will itself taking form in some specific wish, this determination of thought into real plans is the most important human quality we can imagine. Without it (operating together with the love) there would be no focus, no freedom, no sense of ownership, no real sense of identity or personal responsibility. In fact the Writings tell us this ability to make plans is so important that it can give us more delight than the doing itself, as we read in DP 178:

“Mankind is not granted a knowledge of future events … for the reason that he may be able to act from freedom according to reason. For it is well known that a person desires to have in effect whatever he loves, and he leads himself to this end by his reason. It is also known that everything a person contemplates in his reason arises from the love of bringing it into effect by means of his thought. Therefore if he knew the effect or result from Divine prediction his reason would come to rest, and with it his love; for love with reason comes to an end in the effect, and from that point it begins anew. It is the very delight of reason to see from love the effect in thought–not the effect in its attainment, but before it, that is, not in the present but in the future. Hence man has what is called hope, which increases and decreases in the reason as he sees or looks forward to the event.”

So now we find that a simple, curious, even odd statement in the midst of a long series of spiritual, moral and ethical teachings–and also, incidentally, teachings about diet, cleanliness and animal sacrifices–actually has meaning that cuts to the heart of what it means to be human and to enjoy the blessings of eternal life. Now also we see how it applies to women (who don’t have beards) as well as men! And we understand that–in this verse at least, in the internal sense–the Lord has no particular concerns about haircuts at all.

And it’s the same with the teaching about not mixing linen with wool. In literal fact, who cares? They might actually make a nice combination. But when we understand the spiritual sense we see the problem, and the reason for this rule: without going into all the details, let’s just observe that wool generally comes from sheep, which represent innocence, the good of the will. As a material for clothing, wool represents truth, but the truth that comes from the good of love, in effect a sort of inward perception of the truth from a celestial state. Linen comes from flax, and is a totally different kind of fibre representing the truth of faith in a spiritual state, that is, the truth that comes from reasoning and understanding (AC 9470:4-6). These two ways of coming at the truth are so totally different that they simply cannot function together ordinarily in one mind at the same time.

Of course we can go through a radical change of state, growing through the spiritual way of life into the celestial. Then we might be seen as angels changing our clothing from linen to wool. But we would not be seen wearing mixed garments. Either we are spiritual or we are celestial in our grasp of the truth: when we are spiritual the celestial way is totally foreign to us, and when we are celestial it is beneath us.

But let’s not become too concerned about this or that specific rule. The purpose of this exposition mainly is to show how and where we find the true and lasting relevance of the Old Testament with all its peculiar statutes, judgments and ordinances.

It’s not always a simple matter to see exactly what is meant by an obscure teaching of the Word, whether it is in the Old Testament, the New Testament or even the Writings. In some cases it may not even matter much whether we really understand it or not–as long as we recognize that there is relevance there, and not only relevance but the most profound holiness and power from the Lord through the angels who, if we read with a sense of real reverence, are actually present with us through their recognition of the spiritual sense as we read. Of course the more we understand the better, since the more we understand the better we are able to co-operate with the Lord in the work of our regeneration. It is NOT true as some people think that the angels get more out of our reading when we don’t understand it than when we do, although there is a teaching (AC 1776) to the effect that they get more out of it when children read with innocence than when adults read in a state of faith separated from charity.

Many other examples could be given from the New Testament AND from the Writings to illustrate this point. It is, perhaps, not too hard to see the spiritual meaning of the lessons in Matthew about the internal quality of murder and revenge (as in the children’s talk). But what about the literal aspects of the teachings, such as “turning the other cheek,” or giving away anything that someone might ask of us? What about the teaching in the same context that if the right hand or eye offends we ought to pluck it out or cut it off and cast it from us? Does the Lord really teach pacifism or ask us to mutilate our bodies? Of course not! Yet the appearance may be so strong if we don’t know the spiritual meaning of these words that we might get in a lot of trouble–and not only we but those who depend on us for help and support–if we try to follow them only with the heart.

In fact, as we read in the third lesson, there are many teachings in the Word that we do NOT have to obey in the literal sense. “Some of them have been abrogated in respect to present use where the church is, which is an internal church. Some of them however are of such a nature that they may serve a use if one so pleases; and some of them are to be altogether observed and done (AC 9349:3).”

So how do we know which are which? Simple: the Lord has told us. Although much of the Old Testament concerns the laws of animal sacrifice, even in the Old Testament itself–in the Prophets–the Lord made it very clear that animal sacrifices were not the real issue, but rather the sacrifices of the heart. It’s just that the people then were too simple, stubborn and materialistic to get this point, and so they had to be compelled just to obey representative rules. Again, in the New Testament the Lord brings out the spiritual sense of many difficult passages. And finally in the Writings He discloses even more details about what is really required for spiritual life. The reading for the third lesson goes on, for example, to list the specific verses of the passages in Exodus 21 through 23 that must be obeyed, those that may be obeyed, and those that don’t really matter anymore. “And yet,” we read, “those which have been abrogated in respect to use where the church is, and those which may serve a use if one so pleases, and also those which are to be altogether observed and done, are equally holy in their internal; for in its bosom the whole Word is Divine. This holy internal is that which the internal sense teaches..”

And now a final question–just something to think about as we go home: How does all this apply to the Writings themselves? Do the Writings have an internal sense? Generally speaking we would say “No, not in the way that the Old and New Testaments do.” But on the other hand anything that comes from the Lord is bound to be far more profound and meaningful than we may realize in one or two readings–or even in a lifetime of study! For instance, what is this business about people on other planets? What are these “memorable relations?” How can we understand the teachings about the Jews, the Dutch, the English, the Germans, Catholics, Protestants, and many other groups or even individuals who are said to be in heaven or in hell?

What does it all mean? How can we discover the relevance and application of these things in our lives today? Fundamentally the Lord tells us that there is only one way, and it is the same for all revelation, namely, to approach the Lord Himself in humility and prayer, to read His Word with thoughtful reverence–not blindly but with an open, affirmative mind, and to live according to our understanding of what we read there. We may not get it right the first time, indeed the Lord knows we won’t get it right. But He also knows and patiently reminds us that it is in the process of trying that we gain enlightenment and wisdom–gradually, step by step–from Him. If we don’t use it we will lose it. But if we do the best we can the Lord will reward our efforts. Just remember, this “best” includes our best effort to understand. If we put our doctrinal lives on automatic pilot, or try to cruise through life on the fuel of simple knowledge that we may have acquired as children, sooner or later we are going to find ourselves coming into a wilderness, running on empty. We won’t know what to think when we face the tough questions, we won’t know what to do, and worst of all we’ll probably begin to feel bitter, disappointed and resentful about what the Lord has given or taken away from us.

On the other hand, if we can appreciate, even in some small measure, that His Word is full of life and love and wisdom for whatever journey we may take, and if we can be content to search this Word as we would search a field full of buried treasure–eagerly, confidently, and with a love for the useful things that we may do with it, why then, every challenge can become an opportunity, and every opportunity a blessing.

Amen.

A Deeper Meaning To The Bible

By Rev. Peter M. Buss, Jr.

Our subject today is the Word, and the way the Lord reveals His truth to us by means of it. For guidance we turn to an interchange that the Lord had with His disciples about how He chose to teach. The Lord had just finished speaking the Parable of the Sower to a large crowd of people-about seeds which were scattered by the Sower onto different kinds of ground. When He finished, it says:

The disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (Matthew 13:10-11)

The most simple definition of the Word that I am aware of is: “The Word is what God has revealed” (New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 251). What we have in the Bible is the Lord speaking to us. It is His Word, or the things He chose to teach us.

Imagine for a moment if you knew nothing about the stories of the Bible, and just knew that God’s Word was a written document about what He wanted us to know. What subjects would it contain? Wouldn’t we expect to find teachings about spiritual life within its pages? Wouldn’t we trust we’d hear about the Lord God Himself-the kind of God He is, how He leads us, and what He expects from us? Wouldn’t we assume we’d find teachings about how to live a good life-instructions on how to treat each other, how to worship and pray, and what principles of life we should follow? Wouldn’t we hope to hear about heaven-the Kingdom to which the Lord is leading us-the promised reward for our obedience and faithfulness?

Another teaching in the New Church says that the Word teaches just that. It says:

Without the Word no one would possess spiritual intelligence, which consists in having knowledge of a God, of heaven and hell, and of a life after death; nor would they know anything whatever about the Lord [Jesus Christ], about faith in Him and love to Him, nor anything about redemption, by means of which comes salvation. (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 114)

And yet, when we look at the way the Bible was put together, and the subject matter it contains, we don’t primarily see these spiritual concepts. Most of the Bible is a history of people who lived thousands of years ago-of Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Elijah, Peter, John and the other Disciples. Why would the Lord choose to reveal His essential spiritual truth by means of stories? Why would He give us details about journeys and choices people made throughout the ages-sometimes stupid choices with disastrous consequences? In the passage we read earlier in the service this sentiment was expressed:

Taken literally the Word appears like any ordinary book, written in a strange style which is neither so sublime nor so brilliant as secular books appear to be. For this reason a person…may easily fall into error concerning the Word, and come to despise it. While reading it he may say to himself, “What is this? What is that? Can this be Divine? Could God, whose wisdom is infinite, speak like this? Where is there anything holy in it, and where does this holiness come from?” (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 1)

But we know the answer to these concerns. Most of us who have spent time with the Bible perceive its holiness, and realize that it does teach powerful spiritual truths by means of all those stories. Still another teaching in the New Church about the Bible says, “The Word of the Lord is like a body which has a living soul within it” (Arcana Coelestia 1408). Or as Jesus Himself put it, “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life (John 6:63). People throughout the ages have seen the truth of these statements, and know that the Bible is the most holy book every written-not only because God wrote it, but because they have seen its power to teach them about how to be good people.

In the New Church we call this deeper meaning of the Bible “the internal sense” of the Word. The whole Word is written with carefully chosen words and images. When we to understand the meaning, or the reason those words and images were chosen, the Bible comes to life for us-we see some of that living soul beneath the stories, and we feel fed by the straight-forward spiritual guidance it offers.

A Symbolic Meaning. “The internal sense of the Word.” Perhaps the best way to begin our discussion is to look at some of the images or symbols of the Word to see how they contain hidden messages within them. And what better symbols to look at than symbols for the Word itself.

In several places the Lord referred to the Word as “living water” or “the water of life.” In the book of Revelation He says,

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts.” (Revelation 21:6; Cf. Zechariah 14:8-9; Revelation 22:1,17)

Water is a very common symbol in the Bible. Everywhere it represents the truth which the Lord offers (or its opposite-the false ideas which can destroy). Add the adjective “living” to that symbol, and you see what the Lord is describing-the spiritual life He offers within the pages of His Word. Think of the woman at the well in Samaria to whom the Lord offered “living water.” To her He said,

“Whoever drinks of this water [from the well] will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14)

Even that well, next to which the Lord spoke these words to this woman, symbolizes the Bible. Think of how water is drawn from a well, like truth is drawn from the Word, and think of the depths of a well-the bottom of which is unknown, like the depths of the Bible which contain more spiritual truth than any person can learn, even in a lifetime.

The Word is also referred to as “treasure hidden in a field” which a man found and delighted over (Matthew 13:44; Cf. Psalm 119:162). It is even symbolized by a “seed,” as in the Parable of the Sower which we’ll look at in a minute (Matthew 13:1-23).

Many symbols for the Bible itself. And that’s true of every single image or detail in any story of the Bible. Each detail contains levels of meaning within it. Each one of them encapsulates a spiritual idea, and when we see all those spiritual ideas connected together by means of the story, the spiritual messages come pouring out. In the New Church these symbols are called “correspondences.” Of them we read:

Interiorly the Word is spiritual and celestial. It is written exclusively by correspondences, which conceal within [them] all angelic wisdom.. The style of the Word is such that there is holiness in every sentence, and in every word, and in some places even in the very letters. (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 3,8)

The Word is a Parable. One way to see the power of correspondences, or how these correspondential symbols all fit together is to look at one of the Lord’s parables. His disciples asked Him why He chose to teach people by means of parables, and this was right after He had taught the Parable of the Sower. He went on to teach them some of its symbolic meaning, which is exactly what we are able to do with any part of the Lord’s Word.

There is a whole list of details which the Lord chose to include His parable of the Sower: there’s the sower himself, the seeds, the wayside, the birds, the stony places, earth in general, the sun, roots, withering plants, thorns, good ground, crops of a hundred-fold, sixty-fold, and thirty-fold. All of these details encapsulate spiritual truths, and all of them are tied together in the story. The Sower is the Lord, the seed is His Word, or the teachings which He wants to give to the people of His church. The different types of ground are symbols for the different types of people in the church-people who either receive or reject what the Lord teaches. The wayside is a picture of a person who is hardened with false ideas, which do not allow the Lord’s teachings to penetrate; such a person is much more interested in being busy or getting on with things in this world to care about heaven and preparing for it. The stony ground is representative of the person who hears all these teachings, but does not act on them; they just sit in his or her mind and do not cause any change in the patterns of life. The thorny ground stands for people who have made some evil choices, who lash out at others instead of serving them. And the good ground symbolizes good people who hear the Lord’s Word, and live according to it. These are people whose lives bear fruit (see Arcana Coelestia 3310:2). Gathering all these symbols (the few we’ve discussed) together into the story shows us the kind of attitude we should have to the Lord’s teachings-to beware of thorny evil tendencies, of false ideas, of spiritual complacency, and remember to receive those teachings and allow them to shape our lives. Such a person is led by the Lord through His Word.

Now it might be argued that this is a relatively easy parable to understand. The internal meaning is not that hidden below the images. But there are many places in the Bible where the meaning is not so clear. What do we do with the following from the prophet Isaiah, for example:

And the LORD of hosts will stir up a scourge for him like the slaughter of Midian at the rock of Oreb; as His rod was on the sea, so will He lift it up in the manner of Egypt. It shall come to pass in that day that his burden will be taken away from your shoulder.. He has come to Aiath, He has passed Migron; at Michmash he has attended to his equipment. They have gone along the ridge, they have taken up lodging at Geba. Ramah is afraid, Gibeah of Saul has fled.. (Isaiah 10:26-29)

On and on it goes with names of places and people. Speaking of this section, the Writings for the New Church say:

Here we meet with mere names, from which nothing can be drawn except by the aid of the internal sense, in which all the names in the Word symbolize things of heaven and the church. (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 15)

There is an internal meaning, but it’s almost impossible to see in the way the prophecy has been written. Much the Word has a similar character, as for example the lists of genealogies which occur from time to time.

All this begs the question which we haven’t addressed yet. Why did the Lord choose to reveal His truth in this manner? It’s all well and good that we can see spiritual truths in some places by means of the symbols, but why does He make some parts virtually unintelligible?

This brings us back to the interchange between the Lord and His disciples during which the Lord explained to them why He taught by means of parables.

“It has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven but to them it has not been given.. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:11,3)

The Lord teaches His Word in ways that people can understand (see Arcana Coelestia 2520:5). To the ancient Israelites the Lord played out their rewards and punishment in terms that meant something to them: a secure life in a land of their own in exchange for their obedience, and a miserable life, plagued by their enemies if they failed to obey. Whatever their other qualities the ancient Israelites were not sophisticated scholars. When the Lord came on earth and spoke to them He expanded their horizons considerably. He taught them about the kingdom of heaven, about love towards their neighbors, about justice and mercy. These were new concepts to them. But He would have blown them away if He revealed the full scope of spiritual ideas He wants us to know. Even His disciples had difficulty understanding most of what He tried to explain to them, much less why He had come to earth in the first place, and how He was setting up a church which could be a means of leading all people to heaven for centuries to come. As He said to them before He left them,

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:12-13)

The time has come for us to be guided into “all truth”-to see within those stories more spiritual wisdom than has been available to people ever before. The Lord our God wants us to believe in Him, and obey Him. He wants us to understand not only what He commands, but why. He longs for us to see what kind of God He is-the Creator and Redeemer of the Word, who is intimately aware of each and every detail of our lives, who is a close and personal God, using countless Divine means to lead us to make wise choices. This is the core message of His Holy Bible, which strives in so many ways to show us His Divine qualities-through all His names, and the many, many times He forgave the people He sought to lead. He wants us to know about heaven-that it is a real place where we will continue to live as men and women, where we will live out a life of usefulness together with a husband or wife whom we love most tenderly, in a community of other people who love the Lord and desire to serve Him by means of their lives. All these truths are contained in His portrayal of the Land of Canaan as a land flowing with milk and honey-a paradise to which He led the people of His church-the Israelites. He want us to be aware of that other place, called hell, and the terrible life which people live there-people who have chosen to love self-serving lives with little or no care for spiritual things or the feelings of the people whose lives they ruin. These are all encapsulated in the repeated warnings of fire and brimstone, of dire punishments, of calls to repentance which fill the Bible. Our Lord yearns for us to know the steps towards heaven-the spiritual development He can lead us through, how He can help us to tackle our larger evil tendencies, symbolized by the enemies in the Land of Canaan, and develop strong spiritual characteristics of trust and charity, symbolized by such people as Daniel and Joseph.

All this is why He has revealed this truth to His church-the internal sense of His Word, in the books which we call the Writings for the New Church. He has opened up the Bible. He has given us an understanding of the way it was written. He has listed the meaning of so many of the correspondential images within it. He has drawn together principles of doctrine which form a philosophy of religion-a rationale about life and the way things work which takes away “the mysteries of faith.”

We are the people He calls to become His disciples to whom it is “given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11). He will enlighten us, if we approach the Word with a sense of awe at the holiness which is packed into it-if we seek to be led by Him to live the life which leads to heaven. This is His promise. This is the message which waits to be seen within the images and stories of the Bible-the internal sense, the spirit and life of the Word, which can allow the Lord to bring His life and His love to us.

Amen.

When You Have Eaten and Are Full

By Rev. Dr. Reuben P. Bell

“When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you. “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today. [Deuteronomy 8:10,11]

This, as always, is good advice coming from Moses. He had been giving good advice to the children of Israel for forty long years–as they had wandered the desert in preparation for their entrance into the Promised Land, and the settled life they would find there. It had been a long and difficult forty years. And now, the wandering just about to end, we find Moses rehearsing and expounding the laws the Lord had given them along the way. His job was just about finished. So for one last time, he assembled the people, and reminded them to remember the Lord their God.

He knew how it worked when the going got tough: great attention to the Lord in times of great temptation; and the desert had been one great temptation after another. The children of Israel knew how this worked too. They were veterans of this unsettled life. But Moses was more afraid of what they did not know: prosperity and plenty, eating to the full, abundance and power and wealth.. Dangers as lethal as the scorpions and fiery serpents of their desert life. How would they handle these new dangers?

So, as always, we have good advice coming from Moses. And, as always in the Word, good advice is directed to us as well. This is our narrative–our regeneration story–as much as it is theirs. Let’s see what kind of advice the Lord had Moses give.

First of all, Moses knew that paying attention to the Lord is easy, when terrible things are happening all around–when there is the present threat of death and destruction. He knew, just as we do, that “there are no atheists in foxholes;” he knew that repentance comes best and easiest on the death-bed. But he also knew that when the threat had passed, and the fear had subsided, and things got quiet again, promises would be forgotten. He could see the future because he was a keen observer of the past. Human nature was his business. So he was telling them again. Let’s listen in:

“The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, that flow out of valleys and hills; “a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; “a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing; a land whose stones are iron and out of whose hills you can dig copper.”

Can you imagine how this would have sounded to those tired, poor nomads who had been living hand-to-mouth in the desert for forty years? I think it is safe to say that he had their attention, for this last big speech.

So first he reminded them of what the Lord had done. He had led them into the desert to test them (prepare them) for their new life. The Promised Land was a long way from Egypt–it required a different kind of person: obedient, faithful, courageous, and strong. It took hard training to forge these “chosen people,” and Moses reminded them of the Lord’s guiding hand in this ordeal:

“So you should know in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord God disciplines you. Therefore you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and fear Him.”

Simple: He did it for you, now don’t forget to return the favor. Sounds easy.. But it’s not. It is the hardest thing they or we could ever do. What did the Lord tell the young man, in our other lesson today? It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for us to remember the Lord when we are in a land of plenty. We’ll return to that story: it holds the key to this whole problem. But first, let’s see what the internal sense of this ancient narrative has to tell us about our lives.

We are told in the Writings that the Promised Land–all its individual characteristics and geographical features–represents the things of the church (AE 30459). The wilderness represents those who are in temptations prior to becoming a church–or those who are becoming this church in least form–you know, you and me. That’s our wilderness. We wander in it every day. And that’s our Promised land. And those temptations are ours too, because it is victory in these necessary battles that make us the church we want to be (AE 73032; AR 546). Why the forty years? Because forty signifies a complete state–in this case “the duration of vastation and temptation (AC 7304).” If you want to get out of the desert, it’s going to take you forty spiritual years: you have to finish the job; keep at it till you get it right.

And one more very important lesson, from the internal sense: who do you suppose led those children of Israel out into that desert? The Lord, that’s who. Now what are we to think about that? Didn’t we just ask Him (about 20 minutes ago) not to lead us into temptation? What can this mean?

“And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.”

The Children of Israel were led into the wilderness in order that they might undergo temptations and that they might also represent them, we are told in the Arcana Coelestia (AC 8089). The wording here is very precise. The Lord leads us into the desert–but not into temptation. Our temptations are our own–tailored especially to the specific affections and evil loves we choose to remove at any particular time. No two people are alike in this regard. The Lord leads us into the arena where this great work can happen. He leads us by His truths, and our battles are defined by which of these we choose to wrestle with. Where did the Lord have to go to find His temptation? The desert.

So let’s say we make it through the desert, into the Promised Land; from reformation into the process of regeneration . The children of Israel did, and they certainly weren’t perfect when they entered there. They had plenty of spiritual work yet to do, when they crossed the Jordan River. Let’s say we become a church, to some degree. It’s certainly not impossible. That’s what this narrative is all about: regeneration. So what next? What comes next is perhaps the greatest challenge of them all: the “as of self;” the “good life;” the “eye of the needle.”

How did that story go? The rich young man came to the Lord and asked what he might do, to assure his eternal life. The Lord said, predictably, to follow the commandments. And in all humility, the young man said that he always had: “All these things I have kept from my youth,” he said. “What do I still lack? ” He had crossed his desert; he was in the Promised Land, by nature of the life he had lived. He was a good guy. So what was next, for him?

Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

What is the spiritual message for this young man, and for us? Are we to follow the literal sense here, and throw ourselves into poverty? Is the Lord telling us to join the homeless in order to find salvation? I don’t think so.

Our lesson from The Apocalypse Explained holds the key to this very understandable quandary:

“To sell all that he had” signifies that he should relinquish the things of his religion, which were traditions, for he was a Jew, and also should relinquish the things that were his own (or of the proprium), which were loving self and the world more than God, and thus leading himself; and “to follow the Lord” signifies to acknowledge Him only and to be led by Him.

The Lord is telling us, in Matthew 19 and in the Writings for His New Church, that these “riches” represent the things we love most dearly–luxurious things of the self and the world–and if we cannot “sell them,” or get rid of them–put them last in order of importance–then despite our lives of external order and confessions of faith, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. We have to complete the process–put those loves in Divine spiritual order, by “following the Lord:” let Him lead us to the desert, let Him lead us to the Promised Land, but mainly just let Him lead .

What is the problem here? Great attention to the Lord in times of great temptation . And complacence and apathy when we’re not. Moses knew this. The Promised Land is the land of plenty, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing.. and in this land the urgency of the desert is gone.

Here we find the increasing presence of the natural life–the senses find delight in “a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, that flow out of valleys and hills.” What a beautiful land it is! Is there anything wrong with this beautiful land–the delights of the natural world? Of course not. It’s a theater representative of the Lord’s kingdom! Are these riches somehow bad? It doesn’t say so in either lesson. Riches, like all the other things in this natural world, are neutral (not to mention relative)–in and of themselves they matter not at all, if they are in their proper place. The young man didn’t understand. Material wealth is not the danger Moses saw coming for the children of Israel and for us as well. It was the easy life that abundance allows. He knew that in trouble, we look to the Lord. In the land of plenty, we must exercise the self-discipline to continue that practice. And that’s not easy. Moses knew. He warned us.

So what can we do? What’s the cure for spiritual malaise? For spiritual atrophy? Athletes know. “Use it or lose it,” they say, because from their experience with muscles and tendons, and ligaments, this is all too true. And in direct correspondence to this natural model of spiritual development, we find the answer to our question. You stay connected to the Lord by staying connected to the Lord. And staying connected is up to you.

In times of plenty, it is natural to lose our focus on tomorrow, and on the necessity for connection to the Lord, our strength and our Sustainer. But like any wise manager, who budgets his resources, be they time, money, or materials, we have only to plan ahead and practice daily maintenance of the most precious commodity we have: spiritual life from the Lord. How? It’s not all that hard–it just takes practice until practice makes a habit, and finally the habit is automatic, and there you are. What are these things we must practice?

Regular worship–with the proper elements of humility, instruction and praise–will keep the lines open for spiritual life–nourishment–to flow in. Regular active study, of the Word in its literal and internal senses, and of the Writings for the New Church: a constant infusion of Divine truth, accommodated to our understanding. Individually and in groups, Word and doctrinal study is pure conjunction, for when we read and meditate on the Word, we are told, we are in the presence of whole societies of angels. What else? Regular prayer is essential to our connection with the Lord. Prayer doesn’t have to be a complicated thing; it is simply conversation with the Lord–Savior and Friend. Learn how to pray, and make it a habit. The Lord would love to hear from you.

Worship, study, and prayer. Three elements of conjunction, that can keep us rooted in the spiritual life, despite the distractions of the land of plenty. Those riches of that land–they are not evil. But they are powerful loves, and they must be kept in order, behind love to the Lord and behind love to the neighbor. In their place they can be the proper delights of life. The rich young man “went away sorrowful,” we read today, “for he had great possessions.” What are the possessions that are holding you back from the promised land? Think about it.. Identify them, confront their hold on you (because in truth these possessions own you ), and put them in their place. Then live life to the fullest.

And when you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you. Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today.

Amen.

They Lie In Wait For My Life

By Rev. Donald L. Rose

“All their thoughts are against me for evil. They gather together, they hide, they mark my steps, when they lie in wait for my life” (Psalm 56:6).

There was a shepherd boy, strong and handsome. The meaning of his name is “beloved.” The name is David. The shepherd boy was destined to become king, destined to live a life of great adventure.

It was a life repeatedly attended with mortal danger. There were dangers that he was aware of. They were clear enough: danger from a lion and a bear; danger from a giant named Goliath; danger from hosts of Philistines with swords and spears.

But there were other dangers, more subtle but very real. And if he had not been told about those dangers, his life would have been short indeed. What we see happening in the story of David is his being warned of such dangers, particularly being warned about the intentions of King Saul. Saul was his king, his protector, his benefactor, and beneath it all his deadly enemy. Jonathan, David’s dear friend, saved his life by warning him. And David’s wife Michal warned David one night when the house was surrounded, saying, “If you do not save your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed” (I Sam. 19:11).

Two of the psalms were composed at a time when David had learned that his life was in peril. Psalm 59 was composed that night when Michal revealed Saul’s plot and when David knew that he was in a house surrounded by those ready to kill him. The psalm begins as follows: “Deliver me from my enemies, O my God. Defend me from those who rise up against me … For look, they lie in wait for life … Not for my transgression nor for my sin, O Lord.”

Another psalm was written when David had sought refuge in Gath but there found that people were talking about him and planning to kill him. “Now David took these words to heart and was very much afraid of Achish king of Gath” (I Sam. 21:12). Because he knew of the danger he was in, he was able to pretend madness and make his escape. The fear he felt before he made that escape is evident in the psalm which he then composed. But infinitely more is contained in the psalm, for it is the Word of God. In it David says, “All day they twist my words; all their thoughts are against me for evil. They gather, they hide, they mark my steps when they lie in wait for my life” (Psalm 56:5, 6).

The psalms sometimes portray man as under siege. He is in a predicament, surrounded by dangers and anxieties and fears. The psalms continually speak of “enemies.” Man is portrayed as being the object of threat and hatred. What is the reality? The Writings say that an incredible “intense hatred” prevails in the spiritual world against things relating to love and faith in the Lord. In fact they say that unless the Lord defended a person every moment he would perish as a result of this hatred (see AC 59). Jesus warned His disciples, “You shall be hated” (Matt. 10:27, Mark 13:13).

In our lesson from Divine Providence 211, we read that Divine Providence is like a person “in company with an enemy who intends to kill him which at the time he does not know, and a friend leads him away by unknown paths, and afterward discloses his enemy’s intention.”

When we say that a person is his own worst enemy, we are usually talking about a person who does not know is not aware of his problem. If only the person realized how much he or she is sabotaging his or her own happiness. It is not easy for another person to get the message across. To do it takes patience and tact and real caring. In the Divine Providence in time we learn about the things in our lives which we thought were our friends, which are our enemies. We walk through life with some loves which do a lot for us, just as Saul did a lot for David. There are many examples, such as a pride that has us taking credit and basking in the warmth of self-merit, even thinking that taking credit and bragging can be a source of happiness. If we think that, we have a lot to learn, and we may learn it very slowly through many experiences.

The Lord said, “A man’s foes shall be they of his own household” (Matt. 10:36). Our own evils, as dear to us as the inhabitants of our house, can be the foes of which the Word warns us.

But there is another sense in which we are in danger. The danger is from outside the house; it surrounds the house. We mean those forces from hell which intend us harm. The evil spirits who associate with us can stir up the evils within us.

There is a chapter in the book Heaven and Hell that is entitled “The Malice and Nefarious Arts of Infernal Spirits” (HH 576). In it we learn that evil spirits are subtle and devious, and we learn that they have a malice, that is, that they intend harm. “All their thoughts are against me for evil. They gather, they hide, they mark my steps, when they lie in wait for my life” (Ps. 56:5, 6). The teaching is that “so far as anyone is innocent they burn to do him harm; therefore they cannot bear to see little children, and as soon as they see them they are inflamed with a cruel desire to do them harm” (HH 283).

What are some of the things they endeavor to do? They are in a constant endeavor to dissolve marriages (see HH 382). They endeavor to stir up enmities. They lead a person into thoughts about himself (see HH 558a). Indeed, by leading a person into thoughts about himself, they can stir up those enmities. We read, “There is a certain kind of spirits, who … stir up enmities, hatreds, and fights among others. I have seen the consequent fights and wondered at them. I inquired who they were, and was told that they were that kind of spirits who excite such passions because they are bent on being sole rulers, according to the maxim, Divide and rule” (AC 5718). “Wondered” at them. Do you ever wonder at the fights you observe, or have you ever stood back far enough from the fights in which you have been involved to wonder at them?

We will return to that word “divide” in a moment, because the effort of evil spirits is to tear asunder, to dissolve, and to divide so that they can rule.

The effort of evil spirits is to destroy happiness. One way they do this is to accuse. They stir up memories of anything that one has done wrong, and they even take innocent memories and turn them into subjects of accusation. “They call up all the wrong things that from his infancy a man has either done or even thought … and condemn him” (AC 741). “They call forth from a person’s memory whatever he has thought and done from his infancy. Evil spirits do this with a skill and malignity so great as to be indescribable … This a person perceives “only by the recalling of such things to mind and a certain anxiety there from” (AC 751).

The word in the New Testament that is related to worry or anxiety is the word merimnao. Its root connotation is dividing. The root word to “divide” is merizo. It is used in the saying, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25, Matt. 12:25, Luke 11:17).

The Writings mention an old maxim, “Divide and rule” (see AC 5718, SD 1793, TCR 133e). There are spheres that can affect us inwardly that can divide things in our minds. We read of spheres which pose blocks in our minds between faith and charity. We read in TCR: “I have felt this sphere, and at such times, when I thought of the conjunction of faith and charity, it interposed itself between them and violently endeavored to separate them” (TCR 619:6).

An experience described in the Arcana Coelestia seems a little closer to what we experience.

“The effect of this sphere was to take from me the power of close application, and to make it so irksome for me to act and to think in serious matters, true and good, that at last I scarcely knew what to do. When such as these come among spirits, they induce on them a similar torpor” (AC 1509).

Does this relate to times when we just can’t make decisions of what to do or to times when we simply procrastinate and seem somehow unable to do the thing that most needs doing? Here is the same passage in more recent translation: “Their sphere was such that it took away from me my whole concentration and made it so extremely troublesome for me to carry out and to think about serious things, true and good, that at length I hardly knew what to do. When such individuals as these come among spirits, they bring upon them a similar listlessness” (AC 1509). There is a word used particularly in psychiatry which describes an inability to get started doing something or to decide what to do. The word is “abulia.”

If the core of happiness is in useful activity, then we are not surprised if the enemies of our happiness in various ways cripple our application to use. If they endeavor to harm innocence, to dissolve marriages, and to stir up fights among friends, they will undermine our love of use. Idleness is said to be “the devil’s pillow” (Charity 168). For, “In idleness the mind is spread out to various evils and falsities, but in work it is held to one thing” (SD 6088:4).

In the book Conjugial Love there is a chapter on causes of cold in marriage. One of the causes given is a lack of devotion to any useful pursuit or business. Here we read,

“While a man is in some pursuit and business, that is, in some use, his mind is bounded and circumscribed as by a circle, within which it is successively integrated into a form truly human. From this as from a house he sees the various lusts as outside of himself, and from sanity of reason within, banishes them” (CL 249).

Any focus we have on what is useful is like a house, a house in which we can find comfort and from which we can view life with good perspective. If you know that your purpose in life is to promote the happiness of others, you look out upon the world with a sane perspective and with some taste of heaven’s delight.

The text from the psalms seems to picture one looking out from a house threatened with dangers. “They hide, they mark my steps, when they lie in wait for my life.” Does the knowledge that there are dangers make us feel less secure? Do we get a paranoid attitude, a persecution complex, from the knowledge that evil spirits would divide our house, would dissolve our marriages and interfere with our delight in use?

Well, the context of statements about this is not a fearful one, but rather one that has a special sense of security. We are reminded of the Lord’s saying, “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The Lord said, “Blessed are you when men hate you” (Luke 6:22). “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you, and say all kind of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad” (Matt. 5:11).

Let us conclude with one example from the Writings and one from the Psalms. In the Arcana Coelestia we read:

“I have sometimes been surrounded by thousands to whom it was permitted to spit forth their venom, and infest me by all possible methods, yet without their being able to hurt a single hair of my head, so secure was I under the Lord’s protection” (AC 59).

And in the Psalms it is said, “I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around” (Ps. 3:6).

There are indeed dangers and threats that surround us. Let the knowledge of this make us value all the more what we have. And let us, if we know there is a danger, always know at the same time that we have a Divine Protector. This is the reality of our lives. The passages about our enemies shows them turned backward, confounded, defeated and subjugated.

We have a shield, a rock, a fortress, a shepherd who prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies, the Lord Jesus Christ who says,

“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you … If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:19, 20).

“In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Amen.

The Way THE LORD Strengthens and Refreshes Us When We Discover We Are In a Desert Place

By Rev. Ian Arnold

In the internal sense sustainment is nothing else than the influx of goodness and truth from the Lord by way of heaven. This is how the angels are sustained, and it is how a persons soul, that is his internal man, is sustained.

This sustainment is what the sustaining of the external man by means of food and drink corresponds to; and for this reason good is meant by food and truth by drink. The nature of this correspondence is also such that when a person is eating food, the angels present with him think of goodness and truth; and, what is amazing, their ideas vary according to the different kinds of food that he eats.

When, therefore, in the Holy Supper a person receives bread and wine, the angels present with him think about the good of love and the good of faith, for the reason that bread corresponds to the good of love and wine to the good of faith. And because they correspond to them, they also carry the same meanings in the Word.

The fact that a persons soul, that is, his internal man, is sustained by spiritual food and drink, which are goodness and truth, is clear from the Lords words in Moses: Man does not live by bread only, but man lives by every utterance of the mouth of Jehovah. [Deut 8:3; Matt 4:4]

(Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 5915)

I would like you, friends, to focus on these words from Mark’s gospel, chapter 6:

When the day was now far spent, [Jesus] disciples came to Him and said, “This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat.” But He answered them and said to them, “You give them something to eat.”

As I pondered and reflected on those words during the week, it came to me more and more how shocked and how taken aback the disciples would have been to have the Lord swing the situation back onto them as He did do. It was totally unexpected, because immediately beforehand they were saying to Him, “Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat”, and I assume that they expected Him to do exactly that. But no, He answers and says to them, “You give them something to eat.”; and I guess they thought to themselves, “Is he joking? Did we hear Him correctly? What is He going on about here?”

And they said to Him, “Shall we go and buy 200 denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?”

Thats their response you see, and they are incredulous. “What do you mean? What are you getting at here?”

But He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.”

So He’s not going to cave in. Instead there is something that is enormously important highlighted here, and which I want to spend a moment or two with you talking about.

The Lord typically, and this is not out of character, put the responsibility back onto the disciples. He wasn’t going to be some sort of rescuer. He wasn’t going to provide the answers. He wasn’t jumping up with a solution like they expected Him to do. He fairly and squarely put the responsibility onto them:

“Send them away, [the disciples are saying] that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat.” But [Jesus] answered them and said to them, “You give them something to eat.”

Difficult, like I say, but by no means out of character. The Lord never takes responsibility away from us when the responsibility should be ours.

On another occasion, the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus and asked Him, “Are you the Christ, or do we look for another?” By this time, John the Baptist was in prison and he wanted to check Jesus out. And Jesus does not give them a straightforward answer; He does not give them the ready solution they were looking for:

Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

You see what He’s doing here? He’s not taking responsibility onto Himself, He’s leaving people to work through issues and come to their own conclusions.

And this has immense practical, pastoral and emotional implications for us. It is not the Lord’s way to be a rescuer in the way we would sometimes like Him to be. He doesn’t do for us that which we can do for ourselves. The Lord doesn’t just provide the answers, saving us the trouble of working through to those answers ourselves. The Lord sometimes allows us to hang out there for our own good. We wonder, we anguish; we yearn for Him to give us a sign or to step in, as we often would like Him to do so. We may complain that He does not do these things, but that is not His way. The Lord does not take the responsibility onto Himself when that responsibility should be, and needs to be, ours.

Now having said that, what we need to bear in mind so as to balance that particular point, is this: whilst it is the case that He does not step in as a deliverer in that immediate and obvious way, He nevertheless provides the resources for us to deal with the situations that arise. This is incredibly important also.

I’ve been in touch for several years, as some of you know, with a young Christian pastor in Pakistan; he’d email three times a day if I let him! But just now, this very week just gone past, he’s raised with me his expectation, that he shares with a whole group of Christians, of the Lord intervening in human affairs. Things have got out of hand! The problems are too big! Hurricanes and all these other things that are happening! (Goodness, doesn’t our heart ache to hear about Bali again and what has happened there overnight?) And so he’s saying to me, “Look, I believe that the situation is ripe for the Lord to intervene.” How coincidental (but theres no such thing as a coincidence) is it that I should be working on a sermon about this? My reply had to be, “No, I’m not comfortable with what you’re saying because the Lord never has, and never will, step in to rescue the situation.” This is what they expected Him to do in His first coming. The words of the disciples walking to Emmaus on the evening of the resurrection, along the mines of: “We thought he was going to come and rescue us,” best describe what they thought He meant. But He doesn’t do it! He does however give us the resources to deal with the problems and the challenges and the needs that arise along the way.

So friends, dont buy into the doomsday talk that the problems that we grapple with in our day and age are insolvable. They will be solved, with the Lord’s help working in us and through us. He will resource us to see through all these challenges and difficulties and needs that arise. And that’s why I read from 1 Kings, chapter 19. What does Elijah the prophet do? Remember, at that time he is wanting to throw the towel in: “Take me out of this, Lord; rescue me!” And the Lord doesn’t oblige. But what the Lord did do was make sure that he was sustained for the journey. And so the human race will be sustained for the journey, but not rescued, because we would be the poorer if we were. If it weren’t for that attempt, if it weren’t for people giving attention and thought and study, and accepting the challenges to the human situation in any given day and age, we would be the weaker for it. What sort of people would we be, if we were constantly being rescued out of situations that, and I stress with the Lord’s help working in us and through us, are solvable?

Another thing I reflected on, so far as this passage is concerned, is the way that the disciples underestimated the Lord. In fact, I was quite astonished that they had been with Him now for months: seeing miracles (of which there are many recorded up to this point), hearing Him teach they must have known something of what He was capable of; and yet it doesn’t seem to have dawned on them that He could handle or manage this situation that had arisen:

When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, “This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat.”

Not a hint, not a suggestion that He might do something amazing in this set of circumstances.

But then it occurred to me: would we be any different when it comes to underestimating the Lord? When we are faced with challenges and needs, hungry and unsatisfied within, with the sense that our life is a dry place, even a wilderness, we too underestimate the Lord’s ability to respond to our need. We too think that we will find relief in places where, in fact, it will not be found. We forget so easily our experiences of the Lord working within us and we cannot believe it, any more than the disciples believed, that the Lord will come from within us and strengthen us in our present time of need.

When we look out on the world, friends, there are indeed a multitude of needs and challenges: huge needs and huge challenges, almost unending. And one of the lessons we can take from this particular miracle is this: whilst we look out on these challenges, as the disciples looked out on the multitudes, those same needs and problems and difficulties and challenges that are too big for us are not too big for the Lord, they are not too big for the Lord.

As it is with the world around us, so it is with the world inside us. “The multitudes”, so far as this world inside us is concerned, is the multitudes of needs and challenges, the times of doubt and uncertainty, decision-making occasions which come upon us. They are too big for us on own, but never too big for the Lord working with us, in us, and through us. I wish the message here in the Word could be proclaimed amongst people who face despair, discouragement and depression: what looks so big for them is not too big as far as the Lord is concerned.

The Lord sustains us. And here’s how He does it:

But He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they found out they said, “Five. And two fish.”

Five loaves and two fishes are all about the basics. If the Lord is going to be able to sustain us and see us through, then we need to identify the basics of what He asks of us. The basics, the five loaves and two fishes; the basics. Its not so much about quantity; its more about quality. Many is the time when we are faced with decisions regarding other people: how to respond to them, “What should I do?”, “Should I or shouldn’t I?”, “What does this situation require of me?”; and we can thrash around and we can ask the Lord, “how should I react to this situation?” And the Lord says, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.”

What are the basics? The basic thing in most situations is the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So, if for the sixteen-hundredth time, someone rings you in the middle of your dinner asking you to sign up with a new telephone company, put yourself in their shoes and tell yourself, “Do unto them as I would have them do unto me”. Dont abuse them, or shout down the phone at them. Put yourself in their situation. “How many loaves have you?” I’ve got the Golden Rule. Another one comes to mind, another basic more specific to this church: the doctrine of use. Shall I buy a car? Shall we change our home? Should we get the floors polished? “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” Well, there is the doctrine of uses: is this useful? Will it enhance my ability to live a life of service to my family, to my neighbour, to my God?

Five loaves and two fishes: they are the basics that the Lord challenges us to identify. And once we have identified them, then amazingly He causes those basics to become such that we see all sorts of implications and applications in them, such as to fill twelve basketfuls. Never-ending are the implications and the insights that we can see once we have identified what those basics are.

Friends, I never preach a sermon unless I have preached it to myself first. I believe it is as true of you as it is of me, that we have our times when we are in a desert place, a wilderness: we have needs that we feel are unfulfilled and unsupported. We feel as if our strength is draining from us and we are becoming weak in certain areas. Who doesn’t know times and occasions like that? And yet here is this amazing, wonderful miracle, the feeding of the 5000, in which the Lord is assuring us, affirming and teaching us, promising us that however desperate and unpromising a particular set of circumstances may be, He can with our cooperation work in partnership with us to turn it around.

Amen.

The Spiritual Benefit of Hypocrisy

By Rev. David A Moffat

Divine Providence, paragraph 145

V. IT IS NOT CONTRARY TO RATIONALITY AND LIBERTY TO COMPEL ONESELF

It was shown in what has gone before that man has an internal and an external of thought; that these are distinct like what is prior and what is posterior or like what is higher and what is lower; and that, because they are so distinct, they can act separately and also conjointly. They act separately when from the external of his thought a man speaks and acts otherwise than as he thinks and wills interiorly; and they act conjointly when he speaks and acts as he interiorly thinks and wills. The latter is generally the case with the sincere, but the former with the insincere. Now since the internal and the external of the mind are in this way distinct, the internal can even fight with the external and by combat force it to compliance. Combat takes place when a man thinks that evils are sins and therefore resolves to desist from them; for when he desists a door is opened, and when it is opened the lusts of evil which occupied the internal of his thought are cast out by the Lord and affections of good are implanted in their place. This is done in the internal of thought. But as the delights of the lusts of evil which invest the external of thought cannot be cast out at the same time, a combat takes place between the internal and the external of thought. The internal wishes to cast out these delights because they are delights of evil and not in accord with the affections of good in which the internal now is; and instead of the delights of evil it wishes to introduce delights of good that are in accord. The delights of good are what are called goods of charity. From this opposition arises a combat, and if it increases in severity it is called temptation.

Now since a man is a man by virtue of the internal of his thought, this being the spirit of man itself, it is evident that a man compels himself when he forces the external of his thought to compliance, that is, to receive the delights of his affections, which are the goods of charity. It is evident that this is not contrary to rationality and liberty but is in accordance with them; for rationality causes the combat and liberty carries it on. Liberty itself with rationality also has its seat in the internal man and from that in the external. When, therefore, the internal conquers, as happens when the internal has reduced the external to obedient compliance, then liberty itself and rationality itself are given to man by the Lord; for man is then withdrawn by the Lord from infernal freedom, which in itself is slavery, and is brought into heavenly freedom, which in itself is freedom itself, and he is granted association with angels. That those are slaves who are in sins, and that the Lord makes those free who receive truth from Him through the Word, He teaches in John 8:31-36.

A recent edition of New Church Life (Vol. CXXIV, No. 9, September 2004) published a sermon by the Rev Michael Gladish entitled, “The Dangers of Prayer.” It certainly made me stop and think, “What’s he talking about?!” I offer the title of today’s address in the same spirit.

What is hypocrisy? We may think of it as, thinking one thing and doing another, or teaching what is good and failing to apply it ourselves. If I had read more of chapter 23 of Matthew’s gospel, you would have heard that this was very much in the forefront of Jesus’ mind as he criticised the Pharisees. Searching the teachings of the church, I found these three definitions:

… evil appearing outwardly as good, but within is filthy from false and profane things. (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 3812.10)

… to do truths without willing them is hypocrisy, because it is before men and not before the Lord (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 10645.3)

a hypocrite wants to speak otherwise than he thinks; from which there comes an opposition in the mouth (Divine Providence, paragraph 231.4)

To be double minded, or to be hypocritical is universally recognised as a bad thing. I suppose one of the criticisms we’ve become used to hearing of the church is that it is “full of hypocrites”. In the reading from Divine Providence, Swedenborg talks about the ability of the internal and external mind within a person to work together or against each other. He comments:

“[The internal and external of thought] act separately when from the external of his thought a man speaks and acts otherwise than as he thinks and wills interiorly; and they act conjointly when he speaks and acts as he interiorly thinks and wills. The latter is GENERALLY the case with the sincere, but the former with the insincere.” (Divine Providence, paragraph 145, emphasis mine)

Notice the word, “generally”. It may be easy to skip over quickly but it is an important one. There are instances when this doublemindedness is of spiritual value to us. One such situation is temptation, or spiritual battle against the falsities and evils which emerge in all our lives from time to time. Let’s see how.

Exodus chapter 17 illustrates for us the processes of temptation and spiritual growth. “The people thirsted for water” (verse 3). Like the children of Israel, I begin with spiritual dissatisfaction. I sense that I am not happy with my present life. I recognise a lack of something, although I may not know what, and my thirst drives me to cry out to the Lord. I may blame Him or wonder why I ever wanted to improve myself. I might even begin to think that spiritual happiness is a pipe dream. But even though my attitude is founded upon self-interest, the Lord is merciful enough to supply what I ask for. New truth is given, or some new insight emerges from the things already present in my mind, things I assumed to be barren and lifeless (verse 6).

This new insight satisfies and fascinates me for a time. But as the reality of it sinks in, and it begins to demands that I change my life, I realise that I don’t actually want to change. So, while my mind affirms and cherishes my discovery, the old attitudes and habits emerge and seek to destroy the insight I have been given. This is represented by the attack of the Amalekites (verse 8). They are the evils present in our lives which would rather have us stay exactly where we are. This is what temptation is – it comes about when a new truth challenges my status quo, and the status quo fights back!

What should I do now? Well, I have a choice. I can return to my old ways, or I can decide that I do really want to follow the Lord’s leading. So, I send Joshua into battle (verse 9) – in reality I engage in battle myself. Despite feeling the desire to run away defeated, with my tail between my legs, I decide that some things are worth pursuing, even when I don’t feel like it. I compel myself to obey the Lord.

The other part of the equation in the story is Moses (verse 12), standing in prayer to the Lord while the battle takes place. So we must also look to the Lord constantly throughout this battle of wills. When we keep our eyes upon Him as our salvation we find that we are able to make headway, but when we lower our eyes (to the challenges facing us on a natural level, all the difficulties and obstacles in our path), we become overwhelmed and the battle turns against us. The apostle Peter felt the same way walking on the water – although invited by the Lord, he sank when he took his eyes off Jesus, and looked instead at the wind and the waves (Matthew 14:30).

But if we persist, the Lord assures us victory (verses 13-16). And we know that we have it when our old ways no longer hold the attraction they once did. When I can look back on my old life and realise that I no longer want to be like that, even that my old behaviours repulse me, then I know that the evils which once beset me and held me captive have been destroyed. I no longer have to convince myself that I’m better off than I used to be, because I feel it in my heart.

What we have to realise in this process is that we begin our part of the battle before we feel like it. The Lord brings about our victory, but only so far as we are prepared to invest our own time, energy and effort. In True Christian Religion, paragraph 535, Swedenborg proposes what he calls an easier form of repentance:

When anyone is turning over in his mind some evil deed, and intending to do it, he should say to himself: ‘I am thinking about this and I intend to do it, but I shall not because it is a sin.’ This has the effect of blunting the thrust of hell’s tempting and preventing it from advancing any further.

I am surprised by the strength of the phrase, “I am thinking about this and I intend to do it, but I shall not because it is a sin.” It proposes that in order to fight for the Lord and to grow spiritually, we must work against our own motivation. Swedenborg tells us that if we are growing spiritually, we have an old will and a new on. Our new will strives to obey spiritual principles but the old will seeks to crush that obedience. At these times it is the old will we tend to feel most forcefully, and so we find ourselves performing actions which our hearts are not in. This really is a spiritual battle: the Lord and the heavens fight for our growth (which will ultimately lead to our eternal happiness), and the hells fight to keep us where we are. We are the battleground.

I want to emphasise further the importance of our own efforts in this process. Several times Swedenborg warns us against idle prayer in temptation. Sometimes we think his teaching is against prayer of any kind. This is not the case. He is saying that we cannot expect the Lord to do it all:

… when people are in the throes of temptation they usually stay their hands and resort solely to prayers, which they pour forth feverishly, unaware that such prayers achieve nothing, but that they should battle against the falsities and evils which the hells introduce. (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 8179)

We must certainly look to the Lord in temptation because He will bring us victory, but only if we are prepared to do our part in the battle. To resort only to prayer without an accompanying resolve to apply the principles we know to be right is tantamount to something we are all prone to – procrastination. “I’ll start my diet tomorrow.” “One more beer can’t hurt.” It’s like standing at the doors of the gym and telling myself I’ll go in and begin my new exercise regime when I feel stronger. It is utter nonsense. The reality is that I won’t feel stronger until I begin exercising. Spiritual strength is no different from our physical strength in this regard. Until we put in the effort we will not begin to grow. “The use of temptation is that good from the Lord can not only flow in, but can also dispose the vessels [of a person’s mind] to obedience, and thus conjoin itself with them” (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 3318, subsection 4). Unless we take the first steps, we will get nowhere – and that is exactly where our old will (and the hells behind it) wants us to be.

Swedenborg presents a three stage model of spiritual growth – Repentance, Reformation and Regeneration. These stages only ever take place in that order. He describes repentance as a person’s responsibility – to recognise our sins and begin a new life. Only then does the Lord take over, giving us a new understanding of reality (reformation), and a new will or desire for the goodness and truth we have been given (regeneration). Regeneration represents the end of the process, its culmination. So, we are foolish to expect Him to grant us this new desire before we have even put in the effort of repentance, which is its beginning.

Now, it is our doublemindedness which allows this to take place. It is our ability to act against what we feel, to do what our heart does not desire which allows us to grow. Without this ability we would be incapable of growth – because it is only by this process that our internal mind can defeat and cast out the evils of our external mind. It is also the expression of freedom (although it probably won’t feel like it at the time!) “for rationality causes the combat and liberty carries it on” (Divine Providence, paragraph 145).

The onlooker may not see the difference between these two forms of doublemindedness. We may find ourselves being accused of hypocrisy when we are actually seeking to follow the Lord’s commands. We may even worry about taking our first steps because they feel hypocritical – surely it is not helpful to “pretend” to be good! The real difference between this “self compulsion”, as Swedenborg calls it, and hypocrisy is our attitude and purpose. To return to one of the definitions we began with, “… to do truths without willing them is hypocrisy, because it is before men and not before the Lord.” (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 10645.3) In hypocrisy my intention is to pull wool over the eyes, to appear holy or good before other people. Self compulsion looks to God, not man. It doesn’t seek to cover up the evil found in my heart but expose and defeat it. It is driven by my need of change – to follow the Lord more nearly, to become better than I feel myself to be.

Amen.

The Secret of Life

By Rev. Brian W. Keith

Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants to feel the satisfaction that comes from the sense of success and usefulness. And some people seem to achieve it! Some people, in spite of a few difficulties here and there, seem to have found happiness. So how is it done? How have some people discovered how to be happy? Is there some secret that has not been revealed to the masses yet?

The Lord told a story that points to such a secret. He spoke of a person who after journeying for a time arrived at midnight. But the place where he was lacked food. The owner of that house then went to a friend whom he knew to have plenty of bread. Not surprisingly, at this point in the night he was already in bed with his family. and he showed tremendous reluctance to disturb them, as it probably would involve his crawling over them to unbolt the door and find the bread to give to the person. Yet, although he was reluctant, he eventually did give him as much bread as he needed. Why? Because of the man’s persistence! Because he kept asking, kept pounding on the door, kept making such a nuisance of himself that it was easier to give him the bread than to ignore him.

So that’s the secret–the squeaky wheel gets the oil! Or, if you make yourself irritating enough to someone, you’ll usually get what you want!

No, that is not the secret, although it is related to it. The secret is persistence–keeping at it, working for what is good and true even though there may not be many rewards at first.

Not a very attractive secret, is it? Not particularly glamorous, flashy, or inspiring. The fact of the matter is that, except for a few individuals who seem to have things going their way, at least for a length of time, all success, happiness, and good is achieved through persistent effort.

On the surface, the parable teaches this, but it is even more evident in looking at the deeper spiritual level of the story. For the man going on a journey is symbolic of the journeys that we make in our lives. Our minds are constantly thinking, exploring–they are traveling on a journey of understanding of the world around us, of people, and of the Lord’s truth.

But there are points during our journey when we arrive at midnight and find no food to nourish us. Midnight — a very dark and, in the plateaus of Palestine where the Lord was speaking, a very chilly time. So it described a kind of obscurity and absence of warmth in our life. This is reinforced by the absence of bread. The spiritual food we require is the satisfaction of being useful, the warmth of being in the sphere of love. When it is missing, all the understanding in the world will not comfort or inspire us.

What is being described is an occasion when we recognize how little good we actually have. Perhaps we’ve read the latest “positive self-image” books or gained an insight into the progression in regeneration, but our jobs have become tasteless to us and we feel in a rut. Or perhaps we know the value of marriage and family, but we are so caught up in the maintenance of the house and care of the children that our sense of joy in the family is far less than we know it should be.

What can we do when we sense this kind of emptiness? We turn to a friend who we know has spiritual food — the Lord, of course. As this man went to a friend’s house, so we turn to the Lord and ask Him for a greater sense of happiness, energy, and peace in our lives.

And what happens? His door is shut! He will only call out from within! And He shows no desire to give aid!

Does the Lord really keep us away? Of course not! The Lord’s apparent indifference in this and in several other instances in the New Testament is not because He doesn’t care or because He is unwilling to help. It comes from His inability to give what is not truly desired.

How can this be? It is seen in the request for three loaves of bread — not just one or two, which should be sufficient to satisfy any traveler. but three. This number is symbolic of fullness, and so indicates the desire we have to possess all good — natural, moral, and spiritual — immediately! When we find a void in our lives, all too often we think it must be filled at once. When we recognize we are not the ideal person we would like to be, we then imagine how we should be and how we want to be, and then demand to be that way, now! So we want tranquility in our natural lives, people being extremely friendly to us and everything going smoothly — a kind of natural good. We also want to have easy moral choices, and then have others recognize our wisdom and applaud our decisions. And we want spiritual good, an inner sense of the Lord’s presence and surety that He is guiding all of our steps.

These are good things to have, which the Lord wants for us. But none of us is ready to receive them all immediately. So it seems that the Lord ignores our requests or is too busy to help — He is in His house and will not give us any bread. The truth of the matter is that those and many more goods do not become real in our life until we persist in our efforts to obtain them.

The Lord said, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6). He did not say, ” Blessed are they who are bloated.” For it is only when we sense the absence of good in our lives and sincerely yearn for it that th3e Lord can provide.

It is our persistent efforts through which the Lord can achieve much, for it is a Divine quality. It describes the Lord’s continual endeavor to reach out to us. As the Heavenly Doctrines note, “The Lord draws all people to Himself; but as angels and people are finite, they can follow the current of the attraction only according to their measure, although the force of attraction persists to infinity” (TCR 350, emphasis added). Persistence is built into the very nature of the Lord because His love cannot be anything but that. The Lord stands at the door and knocks, constantly, incessantly. There is never a time when the Lord stops His efforts to reach us to lead us, for His love desires to make us happy in all things. The only issue is to what extent we receive that love. It is when we mirror Him by being persistent, by sticking to His ways even when it is not terribly easy or delightful, the doors are opened and we receive as much good as we want.

Nowhere is this more important or obvious than in our spiritual struggles, our temptations. We all face spiritual difficulties in our life, be they minor confusions or strong pulls toward what we know to be hellish. From doubts to lusts and apparently overwhelmingly powerful selfish feelings, we all at times struggle. What’s the secret to survive when we are in these states of anguish or listlessness? Well, there are certainly some things which are more productive to do than others. After all, if we are tempted to steal and we go ahead and do it, we have ended the temptation in the worst possible way! But the only real key, the secret, is our persistence in hanging on to what is good (see AC 2343:2).

There are not some people who are stronger than others, so better suited to overcome their personal hells in temptation. While in it, it may be hard for us to believe in the midst of our spiritual struggles, the Lord insures that we have sufficient strength to overcome whatever we face. The issue is not of innate ability or a skillful method that will work in all situations. Rather it is the continual endeavor to keep going even when it seems as if we have no strength left to do so. That’s how the Lord overcomes evils in our lives — we keep working at it. It may not happen as quickly as we would like, for in each temptation we are tested to the limit of our endurance. Nor may it be as easy as we would like, for our strength is always limited. But if we keep going, slugging through the mud and muck of life, we do eventually make it through, with the Lord lifting us up throughout.

In marriage we see much the same dynamic. Marriages begin from incredible heights of affection and passion. The closeness felt during the stage of betrothal and in the early phases of marriage is impossible to describe. But what most married couples find is that as the years go by, that passion or excitement seems to fade away as they are caught in all the typical concerns of life. Be it business, recreational, or family responsibilities, what takes up the most time in their life often ranks third or fourth in importance, while the love between them seems to be set on the back burner. So some of the luster comes off the marriage, and frequently there is a sense of a lack of good within the marriage. As the man taking the journey found no food where he was, sometimes marriages will have dry spells where it seems the early promises of happiness are unfulfilled.

So the love is gone? Actually, no. Those early peaks of passion were only indicative of what a heavenly marriage can be. When we lapse back into our more pre-regenerate states, as most do regularly, it is no wonder happiness in marriage is hidden!

What does it take then to rekindle those fires, to make the marriage 8exciting and happy again? While there are many good suggestions, from weekends away to giving small gifts to one’s spouse, none of them will work unless there is the desire, the drive, to love that other person. This means not approaching the spouse with demands, such as, “I could love you better if you lost some weight/didn’t work as hard/or remembered our anniversary more accurately.” It is a willingness to love the good of the other person and set aside foibles and faults. It is as the Writings say, “… if, from his soul or inmost being, the lover constantly persisted in his love for that one, he would attain those eternal blessings which he promised himself before the consent, and promises himself when consent has been given” (CL 333:2).

So how does one’s partner become more attractive and the marriage happier? By the lover’s constantly persisting in his love. However, there is a challenge here because our selfishness wants to convince us that the problem is never with us but always with the other person. Yet such selfish and destructive tendencies can be overcome if we keep working at it — if we persist in our love for the other person.

So this the great secret of life: be persistent in good. Though we experience a lack of good in our lives from time to time, it does not mean all is hopeless. Though we may desperately want everything to run smoothly in our lives, want the happiness that we see promised in the Lord’s Word, the three loaves of bread, it will not suddenly be handed to us. But if we persist, if we continue to do what we know we should, if we continue to walk along the Lord’s way, then eventually the door is opened and we are given as much good as we want. It is as the Lord said to Joshua when commanding him to lead the people, “Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).

Amen.

The Hope of Help

By Rev. Kurt H. Asplundh

“What ails you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is” (Genesis 21:17).

It is hard to imagine a more piteous scene: a woman and her son abandoned in the parched wilderness of Beersheba. The lad, faint with thirst, lies in the scant shade of a desert shrub, crying out for water. The mother, tortured by his cries and the sight of his anguish, has turned her back on the lad and gone from him the distance of a bowshot so as not to see his death. Here she weeps, not for her own plight, which is equally grievous, but as a true mother, out of love for her son. He is perishing.

Hagar wept for the lad, and in that moment of desolation and deep despair the angel of God called to her out of heaven with words of consolation and the hope of help to come: “Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the lad … Arise, lift up the lad and hold him with your hand, for I will make him a great nation” (Gen. 21:17f).

As Hagar looked up in wonder and wiped away her tears of despair, God opened her eyes to see a well of water. Here she filled the bottle and gave her son life-giving drink so that he did not perish, but lived, and grew, and fathered a nation. God saved Ishmael even though Isaac was to be preferred. Ishmael too was precious in the Lord’s eyes.

How fortunate for us that the Lord’s concern extends this far, that Ishmael too was preserved. Ishmael represents a spiritual heritage that is also ours. We are Ishmael-like, and deserve to be banished from the house of the Lord.

Ishmael represents the man who is spiritually flawed at birth, driven by self-interest and arrogance. Ishmael represents the man whose only hope for salvation is in the Lord Jesus Christ who came into the world for our welfare. The Heavenly Doctrine reminds us that “the Lord did not come into the world to save the celestial but the spiritual” (AC 2661), that is, the man of the fallen church. In the words of the Gospels: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick … ” The Lord said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Matt. 9:12,13).

The Lord spoke of His sheep who followed Him and knew His voice, “and other sheep I have which are not of this fold,” He said. “Them also I must bring … and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Ishmael represents those other sheep, those sheep that have gone astray that must be brought back to the fold.

The comforting message of the account of Hagar and Ishmael is that there is the hope of help. The promise is clear: there is no one who wants spiritual help who cannot receive it. Such is the purpose and reason for the Lord’s coming. In this way He could reach out the Divine hand to touch, to mercifully gather all those who wished His aid.

The promise of the Lord’s help is prophesied throughout the Psalms and Prophets. How true are these words, and how comforting to know they are true: “I cried to the Lord with my voice, and He heard me from His holy hill” (Psalm 3:4). “The Lord has heard the voice of my weeping. The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord will receive my prayer” (Psalm 6:8,9). “The Lord is my strength and my shield: my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped; therefore my heart greatly rejoices, and with my song I will praise Him” (Psalm 28:7). The beauty of these words, and so many others like them which can be found in the Word, is not only in their poetry but in their truth and in their promise of help from the Lord.

It is characteristic of the fallen spiritual man to believe he is self-sufficient in spiritual things. This is illustrated in the way we often approach life in this world. How often do we admit that we need another’s help? Yet we are constantly dependent upon others. So often we are afraid to admit our shortcomings or needs. We don’t want others to see our weaknesses or imperfections, or give them any opportunity to look down on us for a fault. So we maintain a bold and arrogant front that everything is all right, and that we are fully capable of succeeding in all our responsibilities and activities. As a result, we may rarely ask for the help we need.

How much more important it is for us to recognize that we need help on the spiritual plane of our life even more urgently than on the natural plane. One of the fatal errors of spiritual life is refusing to seek and accept help from the Lord. If we are too proud to do so, too self-assured, and if we rely on ourselves to attain to a heavenly state, we are doomed to fall.

Ishmael, Hagar’s son, pictures this state of mind in us. His desolation in the wilderness shows the result of such an attitude. So it is that the Lord allows us to come into spiritual states of desolation and despair. It is not that the Lord wills in this way to teach us our lesson through hard experience. We bring it on ourselves. Our desolation and despair is simply the result of our own choices and decisions. And when the state has run its course the Lord is there, offering the help we have always needed but were unwilling to accept before. This is what the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael is all about when understood as to its inner spiritual meaning.

Both Hagar and Ishmael picture faults which signify the faulty states of our own spiritual life. Hagar was contemptuous of Sarah, and fled from her mistress in a state of fierce pride when she dealt harshly with her. Ishmael displayed an arrogant self-confidence in mocking Sarah’s infant son.

Such can be our attitude toward what is Divine. Our reason and reasoning powers, based on natural experience, contend with genuine truths from the Lord. We doubt, even mock, the Lord’s truths. Who can believe that man does not live of himself but only appears to live so? Who can believe that man has no intelligence or wisdom of his own and that his having anything of his own is a mere fallacy? Our Ishmael states reject these truths. In these states we base all thought and conclusion about Divine and spiritual things on the testimony of the senses and reasonings from sense experience. We challenge spiritual truths with the conceit of a self-assurance and tacit confidence in our own insights.

If we are to make spiritual progress, this state and attitude must be changed. This is demonstrated in the account of Hagar and Ishmael, and the Writings reveal the inner significance of the story.

Abraham gave Hagar a little bread and water before sending her away with Ishmael. We may wonder why Abraham offered such meager rations for his servant and son. In fact, there was little given because a little is all that was spiritually acceptable. The bread and water signify the good and truth which the Lord wills to give us. At first we take a little but accept no more. In our early states of reformation we suppose we do what is good and think the truth from ourselves. We know from doctrinal teachings that this is not so, but that all good and truth are from the Lord. We do not deny this truth, nor yet do we really acknowledge it. It is something we just do not feel or interiorly perceive to be so. “As all who are being reformed are in such a state at first, they are therefore left by the Lord in what is their own; nevertheless,” the Writings state, “they are led by means of this without knowing it” (AC 2678).

While it appears that Abraham expelled Hagar and Ishmael, the real case is that we withdraw ourselves from the presence of the Lord and lead ourselves into a spiritual wilderness. Of such it is said in the Writings: “They are carried away into various wanderings; for it is given them by the Lord to think much about eternal life, and thus much about the truths of faith; but because from what is their own, … they cannot do otherwise than wander hither and thither, both in doctrine and in life, seizing as truth that which has been inseminated from their infancy, or is impressed upon them by others, or is thought out by themselves besides their being led away by various affections of which they are not conscious” (AC 2679). This is what is meant, we are told, by the wanderings of Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness.

Such is our typical state. We are led “here and there” in our life. Reflect on what it is that motivates or prompts us to act in one way or another. Is it not often a principle impressed on us by parents in childhood; might it be the influence or beliefs of our friends? How often, too, do subconscious affections or emotions drive our actions? When we think about it, we can see that much of our life is not directed by the Lord and His truth but by a variety of influences. Thus our life is wandering, inconsistent, lacking in spiritual purpose.

Are we content to wander through life aimlessly? At times, yes. Perhaps we are unaware that this is so. But with those who seek reformation and spiritual life, the day of crisis comes. The day comes, as it did for Hagar and Ishmael, when the bread is gone and the water is drained out of the bottle when the little truth we have received from the Lord fails.

Suddenly we come to recognize the weakness of our own rational thought. It is insufficient for us. We see the things of our life dying. We enter a state of despair. This state is pictured in the despair of Hagar who thrusts her son under a shrub and withdraws so as not to see his death. The Writings reveal that this is a state of those who are being reformed, “which is that they are reduced to ignorance till they know nothing of truth, and this even to despair” (AC 2682).

The Lord allows despair although He does not will that we suffer. It is for the sake of our benefit and is therefore permitted. Our self-satisfaction or feeling of self-sufficiency in spiritual things must be challenged and broken. So long as we live in our illusion of self-life, we cannot be saved. During this state we are gripped by what the Writings call “persuasive” light a light of falsity that darkens all light of truth. Such persuasive light is described in the Writings. “In the other life,” we read, “that which is persuasive appears like the light of winter, but at the approach of the light of heaven, instead of that light there comes darkness, in which there is ignorance of all truth. With those who are being reformed this state is called the state of desolation of truth … ” (AC 2682:2), and it is pictured by the despair of Hagar.

When despair has reached its depths and man finds himself truly ignorant of all truth and acknowledges his own ignorance the Lord brings consolation and the hope of help. For Hagar, hope came with the appearance of an angel of God. The angel consoled her: “Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the child where he is” (Gen. 21:17). For us the Lord sends consolation through the Word. Its truths still our fears and bring about a sense of hope and peace.

While few in the world may experience the desolation and anxiety described in the account of Hagar and Ishmael, those who do may find hope in it.

How beautiful is the reassurance to Hagar! “Fear not … Arise, lift up the lad … for I will make him a great nation” (Gen. 21:17,18).

And then she saw the well of water. It was there all the time but she had not looked for it. The well signifies the Word from which truths may be taken. The Word is always with us. It is there to refresh us and we often fail to see it.

To fill the bottle and give drink to Ishmael signifies a state of instruction. When we reach a point of turning to the Lord, we are eager for His instruction. The Writings teach that “with those who come into a state of enlightenment or of heavenly light they are then in the affection of knowing and learning truths; and when they are in this affection, they are easily and as it were spontaneously imbued with truths: those who are on earth, from the Lord’s Word or from doctrine, but those who are in heaven from angels” (AC 2704).

This is the message of hope in the story of Hagar and Ishmael. It is addressed to us all whenever we sincerely seek the Lord’s help. For as Ishmael was precious in the sight of Abraham, so we are precious in the Lord’s sight.

Notice that the angel said that the Lord had heard the voice of Ishmael “where he is.” So with every man: no matter what his state of life may be, his voice is heard “where he is.” Wherever we are, wherever we may be, whether in a state of desolation of truth or in the deepest of torments, the Lord hears our cry for help.

Through the power of the Divine Human, which He put on by life in the world, He reaches out to us at any level of life. He is there to guide us to his “well of water springing up into eternal life.” This is the truth of the Psalm where we read: “If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:8-10).

Wherever we are, in whatever state of life, we are not beyond the reach of the Lord’s holy arm. Let us seek His help. He comes with healing in His wings; He brings not condemnation but forgiveness, not anger but mercy, not punishment but peace. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17).

Amen.

Swords Into Plowshares; Spears Into Pruning Hooks

By Rev. Michael Gladish

One of the most inspiring prophecies of the Old Testament, and one that is repeated almost verbatim in Isaiah and in Micah, tells about a time “in the latter days” when after a period of punishment and desolation Israel would be restored to her former glory. Then, as we read, people of many nations would gather together in recognition of the Lord to hear His Word and to walk in His paths in peace and prosperity.

“For out of Zion the law shall go forth, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and rebuke strong nations afar off; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Is. 2:3-4 & Micah 4:2-3).

The words of the prophecy are poetic, and very beautiful. As such the metaphor is well known throughout the civilized world: swords and spears represent war while plowshares and pruning hooks represent peace. When the instruments of war are no longer needed they will be converted into farm implements and people will be able to live contentedly in their own places, minding their own business. The Lord will judge right and wrong, taking away the sphere of oppression, and there will be no conflict.

“But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. For all people (shall) walk each in the name of his god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever” (Micah 4:4-5).

What a wonderful vision! What a happy state! In fact, this is another prophecy of the Lord’s coming into the world, when,

“‘In that day,’ says the Lord, ‘I will assemble the lame, I will gather the outcast and those whom I have afflicted; I will make the lame a remnant, and the outcast a strong nation; so the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion from now on, even forever'” (Micah 4:6-7).

Sometimes in our hardships and pain it is difficult to “get” this vision, and even more difficult to imagine how it might apply to us, unless maybe it’s some sort of reward that we’ll be able to enjoy in heaven, at the end of our long battle with temptations in the world. After all, when the Lord did come into the world He plainly said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword!” (Matt. 10:34). But in the spiritual sense we know that the “plowshares prophecy,” like all prophecies, doesn’t only tell us about the future in time, it tells us about the potential in our lives now – spiritually – as we learn to endure the consequences of our foolish decisions and receive the Lord (as He is ALWAYS coming to us) in the love and wisdom of His Word.

Incidentally, consistent with the Lord’s words in Matthew there is another prophecy in Joel, who may well have written even before Micah or Isaiah (certainly before the captivity in Babylon), in which the Lord says,

“Proclaim this among the nations: ‘Prepare for war! Wake up the mighty men, let all the men of war draw near, let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears!'” (Joel 3:9-10).

So the Lord does not deny the place or need for battle in the work of regeneration, but He does promise that after the battle, after the conflict with the falsities and evils in ourselves, if we accept the Lord’s judgments, there will be peace.

So now let’s look at the message about the swords and plowshares more carefully. In our recitation this morning (John 15:4-7) we were reminded of the Lord’s analogy of the vine and the branches. He is the vine, we are the branches, and as such we are in Him as He is in the Father: forms of love or wisdom that can bear fruit in useful life. But remember how that 15th chapter of John begins:

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vine dresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

This pruning should be a reminder of the “pruning hooks” of the Old Testament prophets. What actually happens when you prune a tree or vine is that you cut shoots or branches out of it; but you do it with a couple of things in mind: first you may be trying to shape the thing so that it lets sufficient light and air get into all the branches that remain, and so that the fruit is not too difficult to harvest. But most importantly you will be directing its energy so that it is not dissipated in the production of leaves rather than fruit. You will be concentrating the sap into those branches that can produce more or possibly better quality fruit than others.

All this is of course symbolic. In the Word the branches of a tree correspond to the truths or “branches of knowledge” that support the production of the fruit that is good works or the life of charity. “Pruning” keeps us from getting carried away with knowledge for its own sake, and helps us direct our energy into the good and useful things of life. Remember the fig tree that the Lord condemned? It was all leaves and no fruit. So we should beware of the condemnation, or at any rate the uselessness of faith alone. Knowing what to do is important, but knowing without doing is like saving money for its own sake, without using it.

Now think about the act of pruning. The overall image of a man in his vineyard, peacefully working his way down the trellises, evokes a peaceful feeling. But remember, the job involves cutting, and the cutting involves a separation and removal of part of each vine. So in our lives the job of pruning corresponds to the recognition of those aspects of our own character that are not worthy to remain with us – either because they are unproductive or because they interfere in some way with other aspects that need or deserve more attention. It involves the decision to cut those things out, and, in the end, to throw them away so that the better, stronger qualities in us can flourish and bear more excellent or more plentiful fruit.

So – back to our pastoral vineyard scene – as we watch the man working among the trellises we find that the picture includes small piles of young shoots and branches neatly stacked along the rows, waiting to be gathered up and – most likely – thrown in a fire. It is still a peaceful, pleasant picture, but now we can see that an important part of it is what the Lord teaches us about self-examination, or if you will, self-analysis, and genuine repentance: carefully discerning and cutting away and casting off those undesirable qualities within ourselves that would prevent the Lord from realizing His potential with us if they were left to grow.

In the prophecies of Micah and Isaiah we are reminded that when the Lord comes to us, that is, when we truly receive Him into our hearts, this pruning of our own trees or vines will replace the activities represented by spears, which are designed to hurt and kill others. In fact, spears, like arrows in the Word, correspond to the truths of doctrine we need to fight against what is wrong or false. But when that battle is over then we can turn to the more subtle task of refining and strengthening the truths that remain so that they will produce good fruit. This is the self-evaluation, self-judgment, and self-improvement that constitute the life of genuine charity once the intellectual arguments are over. This is the more interior work of directing the truth into what is good in our spiritual world so that “everyone may sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” The vine specifically corresponds to our understanding and the fig tree to our will, especially the will as expressed in a charitable outward life.

As for swords being turned into plowshares, this is another fascinating image involving a similar idea. Of course the sword is designed to cut and chop other people. It can be an instrument of self-defense or a tool of hostile aggression, but the point is that the sword is used for battle. In contrast a plow – or as the Writings translate it, a HOE, is used for cultivating one’s own land, one’s own field or vineyard. Here again we have the simple distinction between ware and peace, but we also have a lot more: for in this image the Lord is showing us the difference between cutting and chopping at things (or people) outside of ourselves, and being critical of ourselves. He is showing us the difference between judgment of others on the one hand and the cultivation of our own affections on the other. For the ground or soil in any story of the Word really corresponds to the human mind, especially as to the will or affections that are there. And to cultivate is to dig up and turn that soil over so that it will be aerated and kept free of weeds.

Going deeper, the sword corresponds to truth which is used to distinguish between right and wrong, and if necessary to cut down or destroy opposing falsity. But notice that the plow, or hoe, is also a cutting instrument. It is used to dig, to chop, to lift the soil and to turn it over. So it is another image of the truth, but this time working in the field of our affections, digging up things that may interfere with the growth and development of a good and true and useful life. Who knows what rocks and seeds and mold and fungus may lie just beneath the surface of our conscious attitude or feelings? Who knows until we dig and plow and so get into those affections, turning them inside out so that the deeper layers may be exposed to the light and air of wisdom?

This is a challenging process! And just the same as it is with pruning, the picture we get in our mind’s eye generally is of a very peaceful scene. But on closer examination there’s a lot of work involved. Digging around in the soil of our feelings, poking, chopping, analyzing, exposing things within ourselves that may not be very pleasant is a strenuous and often time consuming exercise. On one hand it may not involve intellectual conflict, for the intellect is represented by the hoe, and it is digging in the will, but anyone who has done any work with a hoe – or for that matter with an old-fashioned plow – can understand the sort of resistance that may be involved in the task.

Our will is the ground of our being. It is the basis of our individuality, our sense of identity, our proprium or “that which is our own.” What we feel is who we are. And this does not like to be disturbed. But it has to be disturbed; it has to be examined; it has to be exposed by means of the hard-edged and pointed tools the Lord gives us in the teachings of His Word. Unless we dig and open up and see what is beneath the surface of our lives we will never be able to change or grow much of anything except what is sown by the forces of nature – wild things, weak things, weeds and seeds of worldly ambition. But what is equally important about plowing and cultivating our affections is that when we do it as a regular thing it gets a little easier every time. Gradually, season by season, we clear the major obstacles – the roots and stumps and most obnoxious weeds, and we keep the soil soft and loose so that when we go over it we meet less and less resistance.

Soil that has never been plowed can become very hard. Soil that is plowed regularly will respond to the blade with neat furrows ready to receive the seeds of wisdom that the Lord can sow according to His will and providence for us as He prepares us for the fulfillment of a heavenly life.

Finally, and you may have wondered how in the world this was going to tie in, let’s remember the lesson of the second reading this morning in which the Samaritans rejected Jesus. James and John saw this and challenged Him, saying, “Lord, Do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But the Lord said, no, “For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” Then a discussion arose as they walked along the road and they talked about following the Lord. And one of them said he would follow Him but that he wanted to go bury his father first. Another said the same but that he wanted to go and bid farewell to those at his house. Then the Lord answered, “No one having put his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

Surely one of the lessons here is that once we understand the need to break and turn the soil of our own minds, cultivating our affections according to the teachings of the Word, there is no turning back. Once we recognize that the kingdom of heaven is within and that the cultivation of the ground for reception of that kingdom is up to us, and most of all once we start that process, we must realize that looking back to our old ways, looking back to our old patterns, falling back into our old habits is only going to result in crooked furrows, broken tools and a lot of frustration.

At this point there is no hope or fulfillment in a merely worldly life, and there is no long term benefit in giving up the spiritual work. We simply must go forward. We must look to the Lord, cut straight furrows, watch for the rocks and stumps and weeds that get in the way, and bring up whatever comes up to be addressed from within ourselves. Remember, we are going to plow our own field, not someone else’s. We are going to prune our own trees or vines, not someone else’s. We are going to cultivate our own thoughts and affections by removing whatever stands in the way of reception of the Lord’s eternal love and wisdom so He may grow His kingdom in us and we may indeed be called “trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified” (Is. 61:3). In this way His kingdom will come, and we will find enduring peace.

Amen.