Our Spiritual Journey
January 26, 2003
Every year Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old they went up to the feast, according to the custom. After the feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they travelled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him.
After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you."
"Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know that I had to be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor. (Luke 2:41-52)
Reading from Swedenborg
The journeys and encampments of the children of Israel after they left Egypt stand for our spiritual stages when we are freed by the Lord. A new stage is meant by each journey from one place to another, and by each stopping place. . . . In the Bible's inner meaning, "journeys" stand for the stages and plans of our life, and "encampments" stand for patterns of truth and goodness that relate to our life. (Arcana Coelestia #8103)
Good morning! Many of you know me as a fellow church member, or as a family member, or as the organist. So when I was invited to give a sermon, I asked myself what I have to share with the congregation. You don't really know me; you don't know that I have been consciously traveling on my spiritual growth journey since 1986, and have encountered many subjects for sermons along the way. I've been saving up for over a decade, so get comfortable! It was difficult to choose one subject, so I chose the journey itself--not mine, but ours.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we are on a journey. It is not a journey by car. But if it were, everything we need to know about operating and maintaining the vehicle would be found in the owner's manual. Our owner's manual is the Bible. When you first try, it may seem hard to find help there. But did you know that it contains every trial, every emotion, and every experience a human can encounter? Whatever you're going through right now, you're not the first or last to feel the way you do. The Biblical journey, from the Garden of Eden in the very beginning to the Holy City in the Book of Revelation, is actually our story. We start in a state of innocence at birth, which we lose as we test ourselves--like the children of Israel wandering for forty years in the desert (forty representing temptation)--and then go all the way to gaining the wisdom of spiritual maturity in the Holy City.
There are parallel stories in the Bible, one about people and places in literal history, and within that a deeper, spiritual level that reflects our own individual journeys. This makes the Bible a relevant guide for today. In its literal sense there are contradictions, resulting in many different churches, each with its own interpretation. But on the spiritual level, the contradictions are gone. In order to unlock the spiritual level, God gave, through Emanuel Swedenborg, the correspondences that mankind had lost throughout the ages. I could delve into the practical applications of correspondences in our daily lives, but that would be another sermon. The point I want to make here is that if God has provided us with an owner's manual and the key to get going on our way, the journey must be very important!
What do I mean by "the journey?" Swedenborg called it "regeneration." Today it is popularly known as "spiritual growth." The fact that it is gaining popularity is exciting in itself. Our spiritual well-being is talked about now more than ever before. Even Oprah Winfrey encourages us to remember our spirit daily. This dawning of the new age as we arrive at the new millennium is an exciting time to be a part of history! We've come from an interest in physical fitness to an interest in spiritual fitness. Its appeal attracts broad sectors of society because there are many paths to take, and each journey is as unique as the person taking it.
Basically, the journey is our spiritual development: our individual self-discovery of what gives our life meaning; what our purpose is, our use, our ruling love; who we are and how we fit into God's plan. God created us with freedom to choose. It is our work to learn to make the choices that lead us to a heavenly life. God could have created beings called angels. Instead, he created us with free will so that we can fulfill his ultimate plan for us, and can choose to become angels and inhabit the heavens. The learning process we go through as we make our choices and seek answers to our questions is our life's work, and is the journey.
One part of the journey is unfolding whether or not we are aware of it; the other part requires our active participation in our spiritual growth. The first part is what occurs naturally as we go through life: we make choices, and through these choices our character is established. If we merely go through the motions, not making conscious choices, we are unaware of the particular kind of character we are forming. We are like Scrooge, who realized what kind of character he had formed when he looked back on his life, but wasn't aware of it at the time he was making his choices.
We need to learn awareness of ourselves--of our thoughts and our choices--in order to build the character we aspire to be. If we have no aspirations to improve ourselves, we remain stuck in choices that don't seem to be our own. We watch our lives go by almost like a spectator, with no influence on the person we are. We may be lulled into the belief that we are fine the way we are, and don't need any work. After all, we haven't killed anyone; we're polite and helpful. We may even think we are pretty good compared to the next guy. Here's an illustration:
We may be speeding down the highway, and someone who's going even faster passes us. Now we're not worried about speeding because with conventional speed traps, we know that if anyone is going to get a ticket, it will be the other guy. The police will be busy stopping him because he's going faster, and he's ahead of us. Compared to him, we're not so bad--even though we, too, are in the wrong. But now there's photo radar, and we would both get tickets, being judged on our own merits based on how fast we were going. We're no better than anyone else because we are not compared with anyone else.
The same is true for our lives. We are not compared with anyone else. You alone are responsible for your actions, your choices, and the character you form. Considering that you have to live with yourself for an eternity, wouldn't it be in your best interest to spend this lifetime becoming the best person you can be?
Yes, one part of our journey proceeds automatically: our character is formed as we go through life. But there can be so much more to our spiritual development if we choose to take an active part in our spiritual well-being. I believe that this is what we are instructed by God to do. We need to follow the example of Jesus and "be about our Father's business" (Luke 2:49): "Seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33)," and "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3).
Over and over again we are told what our priority should be. Why do we keep missing the point? We are spiritual beings first, clothed with physical bodies. The clothing doesn't make the person! We believe this, yet how much of our existence do we dedicate to the eternal outcome, and how much to that which "we can't take with us?" There's a joke about modern society that says, "The one who dies with the most toys wins!" When put that way, we can laugh at our futility. But the sad part is that many people waste their whole lives being busy with things that really don't matter. "For what will it profit a person if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" (Matthew 16:26).
We've heard people talking in awe about someone who is such a good worker that he or she has five jobs, makes two hundred grand a year, has houses all over the world, and is buddies with the Queen of England. Wow! While that would be amazing, these achievements in themselves would not wow me. In fact, the emphasis on material achievements makes me wonder what our human society has learned through the ages, if we promote and honor worldly greatness alone.
Please don't misunderstand me. Abundance is wonderful and positive, and prosperity is a reflection of the Unlimited Source. It is simply unlikely that a person with five jobs has the time and energy left over to enjoy all that money, let alone tend to spiritual work. The fact is, many people these days have so many demands on their time that they don't have any time left to set aside for their spiritual development.
Yet the way I see it, maybe instead of setting aside time for spirituality, we should be living it! We should be journeying with God at our side, letting the angels influence us and help us with our choices as we form our character. We have daily tasks to perform, but life itself is the workplace. If a person with five jobs is working on spiritual development at the same time, then I am wowed!
In a way, our life's work is to get spiritually fit. And just as with becoming physically fit, it requires continual effort, and is not achieved overnight. Instead of waiting until we have a disease and then trying to undo the damage, a healthy lifestyle must become a way of life. There's no quick fix spiritually, either--unless you believe in instant salvation or the "sin then repent" cycle--which may not be much healthier than the physical "binge then purge" cycle. If we sin, knowing better, ask for forgiveness, and then do the same thing all over again, it's like going on crash diets, which weaken the system in the long run. "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matthew 6:11). Spiritual nourishment does not mean "feed me on Sundays for an hour." We need to "be about our Father's business" daily, and moment by moment, as exercise for our spiritual body so that it doesn't atrophy from neglect.
Besides the fact that God wants us to--which is the best reason to embark on this spiritual journey--it is for our own good! Our lives simply work better when there is harmony among mind, body, and spirit. When we work toward spiritual well-being, our mind will benefit too, which in turn affects the health of our body. Spirit is the cause, and the physical level is the effect. When we get our priorities straight, life flows better because we don't have to use energy worrying about things which, when put into perspective, aren't all that critical. We can ask ourselves, "How important will this particular issue be next week, next month, or next year?" When we realize that we're in this for the long term--for eternity--we can make daily choices accordingly, and take the big picture into consideration.
We sometimes feel like making a new start . . . tomorrow! We have our whole lives--but how long is that? We can't get yesterday back. But each day, we have a new opportunity to take a positive step forward in our spiritual growth. Guard your privilege to do so, and don't let anything get in the way. Don't think you're too young, and it doesn't matter yet. Don't think you're getting old, and "what's the use?" You're not going to be let off the hook that easily, for you have an eternity of abundant life ahead of you. Even though our time here flies by, we have much to do and much to look forward to.
I've been talking about life's journey, and about building our character for eternity. But we're not used to thinking quite that far ahead. We like to see instant results these days. Fortunately, if we are doing our spiritual growth work, there are instant results as well. For one thing, there is the sheer joy of discovery! We are on the treasure hunt of our lives. If we get off the treadmill, we will find ourselves like little mice at the mouth of an elaborate maze, with choices at every turn. With each choice, we take something with us, like a mouse munching kernels of corn, which we incorporate into our system.
Just as physical food becomes part of our physical body, what we feed ourselves daily on our spiritual path becomes part of who we are. I'm slightly different today than when I wrote this last week. I'm different than I was a year ago. I'm definitely a different person than I was five years ago. And ten years ago . . . who was that?! We are changed by everything we learn and experience. If we never even get off the treadmill, we won't know that there are treasures awaiting us in the maze. If we have never tasted a kiwi fruit, how can we possibly have a craving for one? Once we have found a treasure, we know what we've been missing.
Once I started reading and gaining insights, they became like tasty treats, which I crave. When I walk into the book room, laden with treasures, my pulse quickens with anticipation just as if I were a kid in a candy store. When we exclaim, "That's how it works," and feel the accompanying rush, our priorities change right then and there.
How long has it been since you felt that rush from a newly acquired piece of knowledge? Have you ever felt it? It is like the rush of light that displaces darkness when the door to a dark room is opened and sunlight floods in. This rush of light into the understanding is what illuminated Helen Keller as she read Swedenborg's writings. In her book Light in My Darkness she writes:
The doctrines set forth by Swedenborg bring us by a wondrous path to God's City of Light. I have walked through its sunlit ways of truth; I have drunk of its sweet waters of knowledge; and the eyes of my spirit have been opened, so that I know the joy of vision that conquers darkness and circles heaven.
If Helen Keller, with all her disabilities, can experience such joy from spiritual discovery, can we not do the same? Those of you who have been on your spiritual growth journey know where I'm coming from, and why I am encouraging others to do the same. Now this congregation knows me a little more. You know that I can be a little opinionated--but I'm aware of it, and improving is part of my journey.
My main point is that we need to get our priorities straight. We know this. It's nothing new. We need to journey from Eden to the Holy City. The journey is our life's work. If God is asking us to "seek first the kingdom of God," what logical reason can we come up with not to obey? He's telling us that he is priority number one. When everything else is stripped away, there really isn't anything else--no priority two or three. God is all there is, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
Here we are Lord, in your presence, asking for your guidance once again. Help us learn to keep our priorities in order. Our journey is a rewarding one, filled with joys and sorrows, and with exactly what each one of us needs. We strive to put all our trust in you to lead us as we learn. Be with each one of us now and always. Amen.