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Sermons

A Rose In Winter

January 25, 2004

Bible Reading

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy; according to the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and he became their Savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel, but his presence that saved them. In his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

(Isaiah 63:7-9)

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire, and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

(Isaiah 55:10, 11)

Reading from Swedenborg

"The word" that goes out from the mouth of God is compared to the rain and snow from heaven because "the word" means divine truth coming from the Lord, which flows into us through the Bible. "Rain and snow coming down from heaven" have a similar meaning. "Rain" means spiritual truth that has become a part of us. "Snow" means material-level truth, which is like snow when it is merely in our memory; but it is made spiritual by love, just as snow is made into rainwater by warmth. "To water the earth and make it bud and flourish" symbolizes giving life the church so that it may produce the genuine teachings that relate to faith, and the good of love and kindness. . . . "It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire" means it will be received, and will lead us to look to the Lord. (Apocalypse Explained #644.13)

Sermon

This past week I had an experience that in today's world is commonplace--a marvel of these modern times. I went into the supermarket and was greeted with the aromas of springtime. Looking around me, I saw a display of hyacinths and daffodils that were a delight to behold. I stood there for a moment to take in the wonderful scents and colors.

Although beautiful to see, I was struck with the thought that somehow this was rushing things a bit. After all, we have several months of winter before us. Then I noticed a sign that read, "Get rid of the winter blahs. . . . Fill your home with springtime." As I read that sign, I recalled a sentence I once read by Sir James Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. He wrote. "God gave his children memory that they might have roses in winter."

Then something else happened that reminded me of this same passage. I received a call from a fellow minister in Florida who asked what I had been doing. I said that one of my Christmas presents was ice skates. With great pride I explained how I have been skating three times since Christmas, and have only fallen once. I couldn't convey to him the joy I've felt in wobbling back and forth on the ice, the fun that I've had with the kids, and the dreams that I'm starting to have at night with me spinning and jumping like Kurt Browning, with crowds lining the shores of the lake at Victoria Park holding up signs of 9.6, 9.5, 9.7! No, I couldn't explain it, for all he said was, "Its 80 degrees here, and we've been out sunbathing"--as if to say that life is not worth living in cold weather.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a climate that offers a variety of conditions know full well the feeling that these two experiences raise. We do not need people from the south reminding us of winter's bleakness nor of spring's freshness. Likewise, we can appreciate the beauty of flowers in winter. But our appreciation stems from a deeper realization than exterior beauty, for we know that although roses are now faded and withered, the memory of what they were is a promise to us of that they will become again. The end of one year is the beginning of a new year; and so, by God's grace, we have our roses now, in full bloom, within the garden of our memories.

Our memory is an amazing gift from God. Our ability to recall events, to memorize multiplication tables, and to store information is a process that science is still trying to understand. The human memory has been called the last great frontier. Still, scientists have learned a lot about it. We know that our memory is really a series of three different storage systems--the sensory memory, the short-term memory, and the long-term memory.

The sensory memory records whatever we see, feel, smell, hear, or touch. These images fade very quickly, but they permit us to read, recognize a friend, hear a bird sing, avoid tripping over a toy on the sidewalk, and enjoy petting our cat.

The short-term memory holds information for about twenty seconds so that we can dial a telephone number or put together the letters on a street sign to form a word. We spend most of our waking hours making use of this ability.

The long-term memory is the storage system for information we have selected to retain as a permanent component of our personality. This determines if we are optimistic or pessimistic, cautious or bold, easygoing or bull-headed.

Whatever information is deemed significant enough to enter the long-term memory eventually goes through three stages of classification, storage, and retrieval. This processing function of memory is necessary if we are to learn. And as any amnesia victim demonstrates, it is also an integral part of our sense of personal identity.

But above all, science teaches that memory in and of itself is neutral. For it may be constructive or destructive, depending upon what is remembered, the meaning that is attached to that memory, and how and to whom it is recounted. As you can see, the world of science has revealed to us just what memory is, and how it functions.

But memory serves another function in terms of our spiritual growth, which science has completely overlooked. In Swedenborg's teachings is identified an additional level of memory that I want to touch on briefly today. Whereas we have already learned of what science describes as long-term memory, Swedenborg wrote of a still higher level, internal memory, where we store up information concerning spiritual realities. This memory is not controlled by us, but by the Lord. Its purpose is to provide us with insights when we are confronted with spiritual challenges or crises. At such times, God causes internal memories to flow into our consciousness when we can best use them.

Here are two examples that explain the function of this memory. First, when we are confronted with an illness, we may remember a fight that we had with a friend years ago. If we ask why we are remembering this, we may discover a spiritual strength that we learned from that experience that will assist us in facing the current challenge. The circumstance is irrelevant. The skill that we learned is what the Lord is bringing to our attention.

A second example of our internal memory can be seen when we visit an aging relative who does not remember us, but thinks we are someone from his or her childhood. In this instance, the Lord is using the higher internal memory to prepare the person for entering the spiritual world. Rather than being sad at their deteriorating condition, we can rejoice in the process that is underway.

Scripture is a marvelous tool for understanding our internal memory. In the Old Testament there are numerous references to it, and to the roses it contains. The prophets seemed to be most in tune with this information, for when Israel was faced with a crisis, the prophets over and over again ignored the present situation, and urged the people to recall events of the past. It was not the past events that were important, but how God had been present with them. Thus, in today's reading from Isaiah, the prophet proclaims to the people that he will "recount the Lord's gracious deeds . . . for the house of Israel." Micah begs the people to "recall our days in Egypt, for God will show us marvelous things again" (Micah 7:15). And Jeremiah even implores God himself to "remember how I stood before you" (Jeremiah 18:20).

By looking at the words of prophets in this way, we can understand how within our internal memories lie the seeds of hope for the future. For how we face a current situation is shaped by how we remember and recount the past. The present may seem as cold and bleak as a winter day. But there is a rose waiting to blossom within our memories. Roses can bloom in winter, and dispel fears, resentments, anxieties, and disappointments.

The purpose of the internal memory is to transform us into spiritual people. We do this by responding to all of life's situations by viewing them in the light of God's love and mercy. In doing this, God miraculously transforms negative situations into opportunities for growth. We can learn to interpret whatever situation that is before us in the light that comes from God. But this is not always easy.

I had this lesson drilled home to me when I was cleaning out my father's belongings from his house after his death some years ago. You see, just two months before he died, Dad had driven the twenty or so miles from his home to Urbana, Ohio, where we lived at the time, in order to attend Toby's school Christmas pageant. He had never been able to attend these, since we had always lived in Michigan. I was overjoyed that he was at last able to do so.

I wanted the night to be perfect. I put a pot roast in the oven and began cleaning house. I remembered the roast when I smelled the burning meat all the way upstairs. Dinner was ruined. I ended up going to the store to get cold cuts. Dinner was a disappointing array of sandwiches and potato chips. This made us late for the pageant, and the only available seats were in the very last row. It was crowded, and the small auditorium was overwhelmingly hot.

When his class sang, in typical Toby fashion, he yelled out the words to the songs, and in order to give them extra emphasis, he swayed his body back and forth with each word. He could be heard above all the other children. I was embarrassed. And I knew that when Dad left early, he was thinking that I was a failure as a father for having a son who would act that way.

While cleaning out Dad's drawers, I was surprised when I ran across the program for that night's festivities. I couldn't understand why he had kept it. But written across the top of the program was, "From Toby's first Christmas pageant. Had a wonderful supper with Ron and Val. We got to talking and laughing so much that we were late for the program. The gym was packed. It was good to see so many parents there. I was glad to see Toby perform, and he showed his appreciation by singing loud enough for me to hear every word. Since it was foggy out, I left early, but heard Toby singing all the way home."

Here was one and the same situation, remembered from two entirely different perspectives. One offered a faded rose, one offered a bud for growth. Whose memory offered a rose in winter? Whose memory offered them a gift from God? Who was remembering that night with God's love and mercy?

Science may teach us that the memory is neutral. But as a tool for our spiritual growth, nothing is farther from the truth. We have the ability to decide how we will remember something--whether we will do so in the spirit of winter's coldness, or with the beauty of a rose. That choice was constantly before Israel, and it is constantly before us.

In light of this, our Psalm for today takes on an entirely new meaning when considered as a way of making use of our memories for positive spiritual growth. Thus, I leave you with the last passage of the 111th Psalm:

Remembering in God's light is the beginning of wisdom.
     All those who practice it have a good understanding.
          Thus can God's praise endure forever.

Prayer

It is good to sing praise to our God; it is pleasant and right to praise him. The Lord is restoring Jerusalem; he is bringing back the exiles. He heals the broken-hearted and bandages their wounds. He has decided the number of the stars, and calls each one by name. Great and mighty is our Lord! His wisdom cannot be measured. He raises the humble, but crushes the wicked to the ground.

Sing hymns of praise to the Lord; play music on the harp to God. He spreads clouds over the sky; he provides rain for the earth, and makes grass grow on the hills. He gives animals their food, and feeds the young ravens when they call. His pleasure is not in strong horses, nor his delight in brave soldiers; but he takes pleasure in those who trust his constant love.

Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion! He keeps your gates strong; he blesses your people. He keeps your borders safe, and satisfies you with the finest wheat. He gives a command to the earth, and what he says is quickly done. He spreads snow like a blanket, and scatters frost like dust. He sends hail like gravel; no one can endure the cold he sends! Then he gives a command, and the ice melts; he sends the wind, and the water flows. He gives his message to his people, his instructions and laws to Israel. . . . Praise the Lord! (from Psalm 147)

Rev. Ronald Brugler