On Not Speaking for Oneself
June 12, 2011
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the first birthday of the Christian church. It is the third most important feast in the Christian calendar after Easter and Christmas, and for good reason: Pentecost was the day, fifty days after the feast of the Passover, after the Resurrection, after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, that his followers got the sense that maybe they hadn’t imagined the whole thing after all. Pentecost was the day that the disciples received the Holy Spirit, the breath and clarity and truth of God.
The Holy Spirit, we are given to understand, is the presence of the Lord with the church in the world— “the church” meaning the church on every level of magnitude, from our individual spiritual lives, to the church community, to the world. Swedenborg tells us that the Holy Spirit is the Divine Truth that finds its source in Divine Love, the breath of God at work in us, “that enlightens us, and flows into us, when we are being reformed and regenerated.”
The Holy Spirit is powerful. I am frequently awed, when reading Scripture, watching the news, or puttering around in daily life, by the way in which God, through the Holy Spirit, gives people the ability—the power, or hope, or eloquence—to do things they could not otherwise have done.
And here’s something worth noting: The Spirit— the life-giving breath of God, the hand of God, the Lord’s presence with us—does not speak for itself. We hear this in the Gospel of John: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears… The Spirit will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:13- 14)
Paul tells us of the same thing: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness…and God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints”—that’s us—“according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27, selected).
It’s not that the Holy Spirit belongs to the Father and to the Lord Jesus—it’s one with the Father and the Lord Jesus. The Spirit does not need to speak for itself, or from itself, because the Spirit is God. God’s goodness and wisdom are completely one. Divine truth speaks what Divine love gives it the will to speak. The Holy Spirit, Divine truth, gives form to the desire that Divine love whispers—tenderly, fiercely, joyfully—in its ear. God, you see, always speaks the truth in love. The Spirit can intercede for the saints— for us—precisely because it is the expression of the Lord’s will.
And so today, I want to talk about the virtues of not speaking for oneself.
I want to be clear. When I talk about “speaking for oneself,” I do not refer to self-expression, or selfdefense, or finding one’s own voice in the world. All these acts are crucial to our humanity, and they are crucial in respecting others.
When I talk about “speaking for oneself,” I am referring, really, to speaking from oneself—speaking from what Swedenborg called the proprium, or what is our own. By “speaking for oneself” I mean speaking (or acting, for that matter) under the impression that we are the ones coming up with the great ideas, that we are the source of our own life.
But we are not the source of our own life. Swedenborg tells us that “Whatever is living within us comes from the Lord’s life…we are organs of life.” When we speak for, or from, ourselves, we limit severely the life of our speech. Our words become at best boring and irrelevant, at worst arrogant, dishonest, even hateful and death-dealing.
Our reading from Ezekiel this morning illustrates, in dramatic fashion, the power of speaking from the spirit.
Ezekiel is brought, in a vision, to a valley full of bones. “They were,” he notes, “very dry.” And God wants him to bring life from these bones.
Prophesy to these bones, mortal, and tell them that I will open up the heavens and breathe my life into them. Prophesy to these slain, to this multitude who lie here without spiritual life, without hope.
Ezekiel doesn’t speak for himself. He speaks the words that the Lord gives him to speak. It is because he speaks from God’s script, and not his own, that a vast boneyard becomes a valley filled with the living. “Prophesy to these bones,” says the Lord, and prophesy Ezekiel does.
What happens next is downright astonishing: “Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them.”
But there is, as yet, no breath in them. There is no Spirit, no life.
And so Ezekiel does as God tells him, one more time: “I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
Ezekiel, mortal, son of man, raises the dead. Not only that, he gives life to the dead: “their breath comes into them.” By speaking from his true source of life, speaking from the Spirit, he is empowered to do that which only God can do: he gives the Spirit to another, to a vast multitude. He gives life to the house of Israel.
It’s not easy, getting out of one’s own spiritual way, speaking from the Spirit—and it surely isn’t often a recipe for fame and glory. Frequently it gets us into trouble. Speaking from the Spirit is an act of obedience, a spiritual discipline.
And it’s an act that makes us human, that gives us real life beyond just physical existence. Swedenborg tells us that “when this flows into a person’s good which he seems to himself to will and perform from his own, the good is then made alive, and from the good the truth also; and out of the dry bones a human being is made.”
So this is the question I put to you:
What happens if we do not speak for, or from, ourselves? What happens when, like Ezekiel, we listen to the Holy Spirit, and speak with God’s words, from God’s script?
What happens if you and I speak, not from our propriums, not from ourselves or from what we understand to be our own resources of intelligence and love, but from our true source of life? What happens when we get out of our own way and allow ourselves to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s life within us?
Left to our own devices, we are a not much worth talking about: Swedenborg tells us, remember, that “a person’s proprium is something altogether dead, though it has the appearance to that person of being something; indeed it appears to be everything. Whatever is living within us comes from the Lord’s life; and if this were to leave us, we would fall down dead as a stone.”
But add the Holy Spirit, and we become much more. If we speak not for ourselves, but listen for God’s truth, take in God’s breath, we become inspiring. We become the conduit for endless life and illumination in others, if only we speak from the Lord. In other words, we bring life to the dead.
“The hand of the Lord came upon me,” says Ezekiel, “and he brought me out in the spirit of the Lord…and I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into those dry bones, and they lived.”
Leah Grace Goodwin