Exodus 16:1-4, 18-20
Rev. Kit Billings
September 14, 2003
This morning I'd like to begin my sermon by lifting up the tremendous importance of your own personal, psychological and spiritual development—that is, the process of growth since you were a baby that has given you your unique sense of SELF. In other words, I'm saluting that ability within you to be able to say to yourself: “this is who I am and this is what makes me unique and special in God's eyes.” Some people might refer to this as the process by which we achieve a sense of personal IDENTITY.
I remember the first time in my life when I deeply felt my uniqueness within my family of origin. The story itself is kind of heartbreaking, but the fruit it produced is something I've always considered a blessing. When I was about 8 yrs. old our family dog, a happy female doggy we named Puffin, became pregnant. Several months later Puffin gave birth in the closet of my parents bedroom—actually, that's where my Mom and Dad placed her whelping box…this was no accident. The experience for me of watching our pet dog, whom I loved very, very much, give birth was a miracle to me. I recall that inexplicable sense of mystery and great awe that filled the room as Puffin went further into labor. The room was kind of dark and everyone was so gentle, sensitive and quiet. Puffin's pushes got harder and harder and she had a soft yet semi-concerned look in her eyes. But I could tell that she fully trusted my Dad, who paid much attention to her.
Then!, then the little squirming creatures, her newborn puppies, started slowly coming out! I could hardly believe my eyes! New…beautiful…TOTALLY ADORABLE little puppies coming out alive from the rear-part of her body! First one, then two, three and then four. Puffin licked and cleaned them all quickly and caringly to remove their embryonic sacks. And the wonderful little creatures whimpered for her love and protection. Then it happened…I'll never forget it. A fifth little puppy-dog started to be pushed out of it's mother and I could see easily that it bore the markings, somewhat, of a Dalmation-looking kind of doggie. How wonderful! You could see the combination of mostly black and white markings and instantly I fell in love with it for some reason. And I knew that this puppy was going to be my puppy! Looking back on it all I'm amazed at how instantly my heart went out to it, simply because of how it looked and how adorable that little head and body were shaped.
But then a terrible misfortune was realized—this poor little puppy-dog was dead and obviously unmoving. And just as fast as I fell in love with it my heart broke in half, and I couldn't stop myself from starting to cry and then sob. What seemed like the totally perfect puppy that came out of our beloved Puffin's body was stillborn, and my heart was crushed. I wound up crying uncontrollably for the next three days. I don't know if I've ever felt so deeply and purely sad for so long in my whole life. But, later on it hit me! I was the only person in my whole family whose heart reacted that way to that little puppy's death. And from then on I kept a special sense of uniqueness and identity that's always stayed with me. And that's one of many experiences in life that's helped me to discern what makes me unique.
What's one of your personal stories that gave you a new angle on who you are in the large scheme of things?
Learning more and more about what I love, what I value, what I believe in and have faith in, what makes my heart break, what easily brings me joy, and also what is evil and harmful to the human spirit enables us better to be able to choose between good and evil, and therefore ultimately to be able to make choices for the Lord.
As our theology reminds us, the development of one's own sense of self (or identity) enables us to achieve one of life's greatest blessings!—to know the Lord as a Person outside of one's self who has the ability to reciprocally love the Lord. Gaining a personal and unique sense of self is a prelude to one day choosing to love God. Why? Because for love to be real, it has to be freely and personally chosen. And what a day of celebration that day is, when a person discovers her own freely chosen LOVE for Christ.
Can you recall how old you were when you first started to love the Lord from that profoundly tender place inside your heart? I can. I can remember it quite clearly. And it's a day I will always cherish, to be sure. But, my own inner struggles or battles inside of me didn't end that day…in fact, in some ways they only got more intense! Our church teachings enabled me to learn why.
The “natural” part of my mind and heart was given something that all human beings receive from thousands of years of ancestry, and this challenging bit of baggage is something that innately wants to take credit or merit for both the good and the evil things I do in life. It's something Swedenborg referred to as the human “proprium” and it's a stubborn part of the natural human mind—but it's also the part of us that God wants to regenerate and transform most of all! Proprium has to do with our sense of identity or selfhood, and when it's unregenerate it deeply adores taking credit for everything and anything. After a lifetime of spiritual growth, however, the human proprium (or sense of self) yields to higher truth and can easily accept that we're always a vessel of life.
For many of us it takes at least 20 or more years of life before we begin to deeply figure out who we are…what our own identity is. Achieving that is no small task, and it's an immensely important one so that we may enter the next phase of life feeling like the choices I'm making today are MY CHOICES, as opposed to doing and saying things primarily because someone else wants me to express or do them. However, there's an awesome little twist to all this, which our New Church theology brings out with stunning importance—and the powerful twist to this is, that as good and as pleasurable it is to achieve a positive sense of self or identity, if we stop there at that point we may wind up falling into subtle self-centeredness if we're not careful. And I'm not just talking about subtle self-centeredness but also dangerous self-centeredness.
One of the hardest and yet most important battles we humans face throughout many years of life is a deep-seeded inclination to want to take total credit for the good we do in life. This, Swedenborg reminds us, is the easiest way a religious person can get caught up in the hells and the uncomfortable and painful psychological effects of that mistake. For in reality, we are but ingeniously created VESSELS OF LIFE created in God's image. Both love and its true thinking and evil and its false cognitions flow into us from outside of us. As the Lord said regarding the reality of our true dependence upon Him and the angels of heaven at all times: “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” (John 3:27) Hellish energy and forces also originate outside of us, which is graphically shown by Christ often healing people of possession by casting out demons of one kind or another.
Thus our challenge is to be able to get to a place where we recognize our essential identity as simply being a vessel, which is given the tremendous blessing of feeling like we create the good or evil that we experience within us. Yet as thorough as this great illusion is, Scripture reminds us of our eternal dependence upon the Lord by words such as these:
“As the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself.” (John 5:26)
“I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25)
“I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)
“In Him (the Lord) we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
Or as Swedenborg so aptly phrased it, “In a word, we are because God is.” (D.P. 46:3)
We're capable of having the kind of faith that recognizes the true reality of things, that we human beings do not live from ourselves but from the Will of the Almighty, which is why The Lord's Prayer bids us to pray: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Notice it says “thine” and not “mine.”
The paradox is, that even though this inherent and eternal dependence upon God is real, it's also just as real that the Lord is passionately committed to making certain that you will always and forever feel “as if” you are the author of your own life. You are designed to feel like you persist independently of God. This is no accident.
Why? Because that necessary illusion is what blesses you with your humanness at its most fundamental level—the blessing of having a free will and a free rationality to choose who and what you will love and believe in on a daily level of life. The Lord was eminently aware of the beauty and power of your necessary illusion of selfhood given that He spent much time telling His followers the great importance of doing His commandments and of believing in Him, which is also a matter of the will and of choice. In Heavenly Secrets we read: “…it is an eternal truth that a person does not live from himself, but that if he did not appear to do so, he could not live at all.”
But make no bones about it, the natural parts of our minds want nothing more than to take credit for both the good and evil we do. There's nothing the natural mind detests more than to hear that it owes its very existence to the free creativity of God Almighty. In fact, the stubborn natural will is what is represented by Martha in Luke's tenth chapter. Martha corresponds to those who think that they do what is good from themselves. She represents the thinking that there is no other source of goodness and that we must “serve alone.” The “Martha-mentality” creates contempt, too much worry, and a self-righteous perspective that turns our minds into self-centeredness.
Mary, however, represents the spiritual part of us that willingly and obediently hearkens to God's Word and to the truth that although we may cooperate kindly with the Lord's life-force of love and truth in reality the only altruistic person is God Himself. On the down to earth level of life it's fine to say “thank you” to others who compliment us on something well done, yet on the higher plane of life our spirit connects fully with Christ's words: “No one is good but One, that is, God.” (Mtt. 19:17)
For God's Holy Word brings out with great clarity that a good faith, if it's going to reach a more mature degree of substance, needs to be ready to acknowledge God's presence and existence not just on Sunday mornings but also during the practical experiences of life—in other words, higher faith gives us that ability to acknowledge that the good deed I will do today was possible only because God gives me the power to will its accomplishment. Thus I can say to the Lord after my good deed is done, “Thanks Lord.” And also, the power I have to resist the subtle evil I may need to shun tomorrow night is inside of me because my Creator put it there to begin with.
The wonderful key is to be able to acknowledge faithfully that God only deserves the real credit for what is good, and that my wonderful Creator blesses me with an experience of life to act “as if” the power to live well comes from my own heart and mind. This “as if” paradox is crucial, however, since it is what makes a reciprocal conjoining with my Creator even a possibility. To be able to act as if my love and charity toward others comes from me, and embrace this gift fully, passionately and certainly joyfully, while being able to honor at times that such power comes from on high produces a depth and maturity of faith combined with true charity that turns us into angels.
Missouri is often called the “Show Me” state. The Lord needs you to show Him and yourself that you recognize your dependence and faith in Him during the practical, every-day moments of living. Thus, not only during worship but especially “on the fly” as they say—right in the very moment when you're shunning some particular evil as a sin, or after you've just done something good.
In my experience, this truly angelic spiritual practice is both the most freeing thing I can do, and also the most “peace-producing” choice I can make, as well as the hardest discipline I know, since it cuts to the very root of the simplistic and selfish evil my natural proprium loves most of all. Yet just as the choice to accept the daily gift of manna from heaven enabled the Hebrews to enter the Promised Land, so too will your choice to personally follow the Lord's commandments and love as He loved allow you one day to walk victoriously into the gates of heaven! Such saving humility was shown when Jesus said to Martha, “But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”