Rev. Kit B. Billings
July 25, 2004
My friends, it is a pleasure for me to be able to share with you this morning about a very special subject, one that is both mystical and practical at the same time. It's one of the many important teachings in the Lord's New Church, and is: any form of work can be worship.
In fact, when a person thoughtfully and lovingly does what is good from an intention to love God and one's neighbor, we can say that we are in the greatest form of worship there is. What we do this morning from 11:00AM until Noon is what is more properly called, piety. The Lord intended that we keep the Sabbath day holy and take rest from our hard labors and occupations. But He also intended that our worship of Him would grow and expand out of our Sunday worship and tithing and develop into the kind of living the angels in heaven have grown to enjoy—which is realizing that every day of the week is time to love and serve the Lord, and do so primarily by being useful to one another and being faithful in whatever job we may have.
“What is he saying,” you may be asking yourself? “You mean cleaning my windows is worship? Working on my roof is worshipping God? The drudgery at the office!, you mean that is somehow worshipping our Father in heaven? You can't be serious pastor! I thought worship was joyful? I thought worship was singing? I thought worship was reading and meditating on God's Word?”
And my reply: In fact you're right. Worship can be joyful and soothing, and so is prayer and reading and meditating on God's Word. Sunday piety lets God feed us His food of the Spirit. But in their truest light Sunday worship and discussions are really activities of piety; our theology helps us understand this. There is joy in singing and enjoying fellowship on Sundays, but these joys are minor in comparison to the joys of being of use. Any form of service and usefulness is a place for discovering the core purpose of life. In fact, work of any kind is a great opportunity to love and worship the Lord. This is the real truth of things given that heaven is a “kingdom of usefulness.”
Why? Because as our church teachings remind us—“all religion relates to life, and the life of religion is to do what is good.” The fact of the matter is, as God's Word reveals about Himself, the Lord is Love Itself, and Divine Love is constantly purposeful and seeking to do good things. This is why the Lord said so beautifully about Himself: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and give His life a ransom for many.” (Mtt. 20:28) And this is why Jesus Christ our Lord made it so abundantly clear that true followers of Him are those who do His commandments and make choices to serve others in preference to being served one's self. There is goodness and delight in being given to by another, but as Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 9:7, “God loveth a cheerful giver.” And yet at the same time we need to stay real with the issue that fun and recreation, in their useful amounts, are another way that Christian charity is enjoyed.
Spiritual love desires to ground itself in actions and works that bring blessing and goodness to life, which bring glory to God more than one's self. I'm reminded of Christ's wonderful words where He said in Matthew 5:16, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
With all of this said, we need to bring this subject of work is worship down into our typical, everyday experience of what challenging work often FEELS LIKE. Much of the time doing things like mowing the lawn or working away at the hospital (if my job is being a nurse or a doctor), or working hard as a garbage collector, or painstakingly figuring out computer code for Microsoft feels like hardship, doesn't it? Yes, it often does. What we do working “9 to 5” easily feels like a pain in the neck. In addition, sometimes helping our family or spouse out around the home, helping with chores and homework can sometimes feel like a serious pain.
There was once a man who finally went to the doctor after weeks of symptoms. The doctor examined him carefully, and then called the patient's wife into his office.
"Your husband is suffering from a very rare form of anemia. Without treatment, he'll be dead in a few weeks. The good news is it can be treated with proper nutrition. You will need to get up early every morning and fix your husband a hot breakfast—pancakes, bacon, and eggs. He'll need a big, home-cooked lunch every day and then an old-fashioned, meat and-potatoes dinner every evening. It would be especially helpful if you could bake frequently—cakes, pies, homemade bread—these are the things that will allow your husband to live symptom-free.
"One more thing. His immune system is weak so it's important that your home be kept spotless at all times. Do you have any questions?"
The wife had none. She just had a strange, blank look on her face.
"Do you want to break the news, or shall I?" asked the doctor.
"I will," the wife replied. She walked into the examination room. The husband, sensing the seriousness of his illness, asked her, "It's bad, isn't it?"
She nodded, tears welling up in her eyes.
"Tell me, what is it?" he asked her. With a sob, the wife blurted out, “The doctor says you're gonna die!”
Well, I agree that work or volunteerism of any kind can feel like slavery or hardship, but that's because some how or in some way at those times we may well be spiritually disconnecting from the Lord. And this is ever so easy for the natural level of the human mind to do. That is, to engage in any manner of service and usefulness and make it something of a headache…something unpleasant, unfair, and perhaps even depressing.
Swedenborg is ever so clear that we inherit many, many different kinds of serious self-centeredness (evil inclinations, to use the proper phrase), which live and thrive in the lower aspect of our minds—what some have called the “natural self.” The evil inclinations within our natural mind love, in fact are PASSIONATE!, about turning the truth upside down so that we are convinced that what is false is true. Said differently, the hells want us to believe that work is only negative and not truly positive. They want us to believe that the major thing to live for in life is the weekend, when we can get away from our job, which is the primary means through which we serve the Lord and His children. The evil energies we inherit from many ancestral generations of the past enjoy twisting the truth, so that we get bamboozled so much as to believe that each morning that being of service to our fellow women and men (or children or whoever) is terrible and awful—drudgery in the worst degree!
But God in His Holy Word shines the light of truth on how the hells have twisted things up so much for us. The truth is that when we “carry the burdens” of one another we are fulfilling the law of Christ. And in such service where no reward is thought of the genuine, soft and supple joys of love from heaven make their way into our inward being. The truth is, actually, that we follow and revere God when we “carry our own load” and are willing to help someone else carry theirs. As Paul poetically expresses it so well, “A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” He goes on to say, “Let us not become weary in doing good,” which I interpret to mean, “let us try deeply to stay in tune with the spiritual blessings from the Lord and heaven by being useful to one another, by being mindful of God in whatever it is we are doing.” Whatever your form of work is each week, therein lies your perfect opportunity to love God and your neighbor.
As Dr. Wilson Van Dusen wrote so well, who is an intelligent interpreter of the teachings of our church, uses are a great way of personal and spiritual growth. For being useful takes us out of ourselves and focuses us back on doing good to others. Whatever form of work you see before you, however, will not automatically be worshipful toward God. If work is to be worshipful, and for it to be a journey of spiritual development, one must choose to embrace it in these ways and look to God both before and during the service one engages.
Swedenborg was wise to point out that there is both an external and an internal to all things we do. The external is the outward layer, our behavior, our actions; the internal is our intentions, our attitude, the deeper affections from which we do things. The internal level is the spirit, where either angels or devils are at play. Two people can do the same exact use, such as doing the weekly grocery shopping for example, but the substance of the deed can be either splendid or rotten. You've heard the illustration of the apple that's all shiny and red on the outside, but is brown and rotten to the core, full of worms and bad things. Well, this is very important, because now we're getting to the distinction between works that glorify and serve the Almighty, and those that glorify ourselves and ultimately do nothing for our spiritual rebirth and transformation within.
If you want to make work a true act of worship, then it is vital to heed the wisdom of the theology found in the New Church about genuine Christian charity. We begin by seeing that salvation in God rests in the combination of charitable (or compassionate) intentions, having faith in the Lord, opening up to the Lord's presence within the moment I am in, and letting these good things flow into the usefulness that stands before me. Opening up to God like this is the best way to let Him inside where spiritual regeneration can proceed! For to be sure, love, faith and good deeds are joined together as if being one, the way that sunshine is warm, full of light and brings new fruit upon the trees. We can distinguish between the three aspects of the sunshine, but they are always interconnected—joined, flowing and part of the “whole.” God is living, moving, Divine love in purposeful action, and choosing to be in Jesus and letting Christ be in you means we let His love live and flow through us, carrying us into good deeds every day, making this world shine more brightly.
Swedenborg's summation here is great: “Good works are not produced by charity alone, still less by faith alone, but by charity and faith together. The conjunction of charity and faith is like the marriage of a husband and a wife.” (T.C.R. 377)
Thus we can understand that a truly good deed is that in which we begin by looking to the Lord and seeing that all good things belong to God, and we can serve God by doing those things that please Him, giving life to His Word. You and I are simply vessels through which the Spirit of Divine Love can accomplish Its good ends. We allow our work, therefore, to be worshipful by turning our gaze “Godward” and giving Him the merit for all that we accomplish. But our theology gains immense fullness, and depth of humanness, as it expresses that it is God's will that our good intentions and feelings, and the faith we may have in the Lord, all of which flows into the joy of being useful to others should feel AS IF they belong to us, which maintains enormous freedom to take credit for the good we do or give it back to God. Without question, God has so many ways of making sure that love for and faith in Him is chosen…not forced or coerced.
Our understanding of genuine Christian charity, however, must take a serious turn at this point. For there does indeed live within our most readily conscious aspect of us many, many selfish forces, which strive hard to poison our birthright, inspiring many noxious plants and thistles to grow in the garden where God's Tree of Life longs to live. The evil inclinations living within us know where to strike most easily, and how to make the simplest of useful deeds an issue turned inward, focusing most of all on how will this deed make us prosperous or not, make us look good in the eyes of others or not, or serve some worldly or political need or not? There is nothing wrong in the reality that we all have our human, worldly needs—the issue here before us this morning is whether or not we are choosing every day to serve the Lord's will and purposes first and foremost, seeking His kingdom and righteousness first, which easily allows for our needs to follow in step too—and “all good things shall be added unto you.” Or said differently, spiritually charitable good deeds (whether we are at work or helping others outside of our work responsibilities) are those where we bring God into the equation.
In seeking to let God's Spirit live and move through us, we need to come to understand what evil is in its many, many forms, and after looking to the Lord in our hearts then shun evils as sins against God; this opens the way for only spiritually good deeds to flow through our choices. There are so many evils we need to become conscious of, which can make their way into our intentions and spoil the quality of useful work. For a businessperson, they can get too caught up in the evil of avarice, making money all-important. For the magistrate or judge, they must be wary of condemnation and believing they can judge the entire person standing before them; likewise they must avoid bribes and somehow tampering with justice. Swedenborg also wrote about the good charitableness of soldiers, whose primary duty is to defend and protect. They must avoid the evils of hatred and the enjoyment of killing and destroying. They must seek out peace and after fighting as a lion, ultimately come back to base as a lamb.
What are some of the evil tendencies within yourself that you've encountered this past week?
In short, our theology reminds us, that heaven and hell inspire their own kinds of enjoyment. When making our work truly worshipful, we must be ever ready to shun evil enjoyments of all kinds, asking God to protect and help us out of them. The wisdom here is revealed in our Isaiah reading this morning as God says to us too: “wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!” The power to resist and shun evil comes solely from God—His Spirit is what defeats evil spirits.
There is much to be learned and discussed about our crucial doctrine of charity, which brings our eyesight much higher, recognizing real charity depends upon a faithful connection to God, and doing good works from a desire that another's welfare is supported. The Lord commanded us to “love one another, as he has loved us.” The kind of love being dealt with here in the original language spoken by Jesus is actually saying, “I command you to consider the welfare of” those you encounter in life. This makes more sense doesn't it, since God cannot command us to feel loving affections for another, but He can command us to consider the welfare and eternal well being of anyone who crosses our path. Doing Christian good work remains sensitive to the welfare of all.
And so I conclude my message with you this morning by reminding you of the importance of taking your Sunday worship out to where it was primarily meant to be used—out into the workplace first of all, where spiritual goodness was meant by God to reign. In True Christian Religion 423 we read: “Charity may be defined as doing good to the neighbor daily and continually, not only to the neighbor individually, but also to the neighbor collectively; and this can be done only through doing what is good and just in the office, business, and employment in which a person is engaged, and with those with whom he has any dealings; for this is one's daily work.”
May we open ourselves more and more to the innocence of letting the sacred stuff of God enter into the ordinary dealings and responsibilities where God's Holy Spirit finds fulfillment. Amen.