How the Light Gets In
November 10, 2013
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Reading from Swedenborg
Anyone who looks at larvas can decide in favor of Divinity on the basis of observation of nature. Larvas are moved by the pleasure of some impulse to exchange their earthly state for one that is a parable of heaven. So they crawl off to particular places where they put themselves into a kind of womb in order to be reborn. There they become chrysalises, mature pupas, caterpillars, nymphs, and eventually butterflies. At the close of this transformation they are equipped with beautiful wings according to their species, fly in the air as though it were their heaven, play in it cheerfully, form marriages, lay eggs, and provide themselves with descendants. All the while they are nourishing themselves on sweet, soft food from flowers.
(Divine Love and Wisdom 354)
I’d like to share an old Chinese tale about a woman who had two large pots. Each hung on the ends of a pole, which she carried across her neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water.
At the end of the long walks from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water.
Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the woman one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself because this crack in my side causes water to l eak out all the way back to your house.”
The woman smiled. “Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your crack, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you water them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.”
We are like the cracked pot. Usually something must crack our surface for us to wake up to the deeper spiritual dimensions of our life, to be useful and create beauty.
We are much like eggs, too. We need to be cracked open to be used for a purpose—be it scrambling or bearing a chick. The crack in the shell of a “perfect life” lets the light in—“Godlight,” C. S. Lewis called it.
Our journey of life on this beautiful planet is an adventure in change. As we grow and mature, it becomes a very specific journey—actually, a pilgrimage. We are all pilgrims, for we all have a purposeful, sacred destination, and everything that happens to us happens under the watchful eye and loving hand of God. He guides us along our pathways, and he provides for us the opportunities that enable us to change—if we choose to change.
“Spiritual formation,” wrote Henri Nouwen, “is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection. It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms, that reunites us with God, each other, and our truest selves.”
Change? Why change?
W. Edwards Deming said, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” In other words, we must change to survive physically. To survive spiritually, we must change, as well. The writings of Swedenborg teach us how the Lord regenerates us and gives us the second spiritual birth that Jesus describes in our New Testament reading.
“Everybody changes,” taught the Buddha.
Growth is about change.
Maturing is about change.
Reformation is about change.
Regeneration is about change.
And change can be so hard! Good changes also can be challenging, even as they bring new possibilities.
“The only person who looks forward to change,” said Mark Twain, “is a baby with a wet diaper.”
The first half of our life is for learning, for acquiring foundations of knowledge about life, about love, about what is right, wrong, good, bad, acceptable, or unacceptable. Though this developmental framework is not life’s great purpose, it creates the container for later spiritual content. It is a means toward a purpose that is spiritual and eternal.
Psychologist Carl Jung wrote a great deal about the process of maturing. He said, “The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half is going inward and letting go of it.”
Eventually (it may be when we are thirty, or it may be when we are seventy-five, but sometime during our adult years), we will perhaps move or be moved from the security and safety of that first-half-of-life-foundation into new ground. We will be nudged or called or inspired to begin a new journey, one that we will not even realize we’ve begun at first. One day it occurs to us that there’s been a shift. This is the awakening that all the great spiritual teachers speak of. After all, what does “Buddha” mean? It means “the awakened one.” “There comes a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom,” said Anais Nin.
We do not like change. We resist changing. Who wouldn’t? It is the unknown, it is scary. And yet we cannot advance on our spiritual journey unless we do change.
And so, lovingly, the Lord allows events to cross our path—events that will help us to change. Events that will allow some Godlight to shine, if we let it, into the darkness of our hereditary selves.
How we react to what happens to us on this pilgrimage is of course our responsibility, and in that lies our freedom of choice—freedom to choose our attitude, if nothing else. Carl Jung said,
“Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life . . . we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve as before. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning—for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”
The question is, how do we deal with all of this? It’s one thing to have some understanding of the spiritual processes involved. It’s another thing to get through the day, care for your family, your spouse, your job, your profession, your own health and worldly concerns. The second half of life is rich and full and alive with wonderful potential and possibilities, but it is also a time of tremendous challenge. It is good to know life’s journey has purpose and a Divine plan. Hope is essential—the kind of hope Vaclav Havel describes: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” This making sense often doesn’t, when seen from the outside or “at the time,” but the deep, abiding faith that God’s plan makes sense does, even if we don’t understand it.
There is a rightness in the wrongness of it all. When Saint Julian of Norwich says, “All is well,” she is not saying life will be comfortable, perfect, and safe. She is describing the deep-down design, a rightness in the wrongness, like the still floor of the ocean while a storm rages on the surface.
Can we see the rightness in the wrongness of it all—an underlying meaning, a plan—at least an allowing it to happen for our highest good, our spiritual future? Because in order for God’s kingdom to come, our kingdom must go!
Martha Washington said this: “I am still determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may be, for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not on our circumstances.”
Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, wrote, “Your religion is as good as it helps you with your pain.” Do we find that to be true? Or we could say our pain is named, understood, and transformed by religion lived? Religion can give meaning as well as purpose, conviction, conversion, boundaries, comfort, community, and support.
When we speak of pain and suffering, we need to understand that some people have a much harder time than we do. Yet no one escapes aging or loss or death. These common experiences run throughout all of our lives, and they should give us pause to reflect on the shortness of this life, our common lot, and the little time we have to love one another.
Spiritual teacher Paula D’arcy wrote, “God comes to us disguised as our life.” If we see each event as a stepping stone, we can use it to deepen, to grow—as long as we can accept (at least part of the time) the wisdom behind it.
Misfortunes or trials can be perceived as stumbling blocks, or as stepping stones. We naturally avoid and usually resent anything that disturbs or disrupts our life, situations that make us unsettled or uncomfortable. They appear as stumbling blocks. We tend to perceive these unwanted events as random happenings, even as a Divine lapse or neglect in caring for us. Haven’t we all said, “I don’t need this!” We don’t see God in it, but as Jung said, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.” There is a Divine design.
It is often said that when hard things happen to us we ask, “Why me?” And the universe answers, “Why not you?” I’d like to replace that response. Instead, we might ask, “Why me?” And God responds, “Because I love you and this is the way home to me. Trust me.”
Our theology teaches that God has designed a plan for our transformation from natural into spiritual beings. That plan involves struggle and loss.
With loss comes an off-balancing of life that can feel like an earthquake’s violent turbulence or a slight tremor, depending on how strongly it registers on our personal Richter scale. It comes to us in different ways. Simply the process of aging “plunders” our life—as do accidents, disease, disasters, collapsed relationships, and their accompanying loss of meaning, loss of purpose, loss of trust, faith, and confidence. Especially after someone we love dies, there is a hole in our life and heart, mind and soul. Does the grief get better? Maybe with time. But it does come back in flashes that almost knock us down. We get through, not over, our deepest losses. In the case of serious disease, fear stalks us night and day, between scans and blood tests. There is no making light of loss!
And after the darkness, the Lord and our friends can bring light, but it doesn’t seem so at the time. Actually, Swedenborg teaches that the Lord is never closer to us than when we are in pain, suffering, sadness, or temptation. Our theology explains that Divine providence or God’s plan for us provides for our every spiritual need, in the smallest detail of our lives as well as the greatest.
There are steps or stages in our spiritual development. Swedenborg describes the second stage:
“At present the second stage rarely comes into play without trouble, misfortune, and grief, which enable bodily and worldly concerns—things that are our own—to fade away and in effect die out. The things that belong to the outer self, then, are separated from those that belong to the inner self, the inner self containing the remains that the Lord has put aside to await this time and this purpose.” (Secrets of Heaven 8)
Trials are wakeup calls to look at who we are and where we are headed on our spiritual journey. The Bible says we are to repent. Repentance is the third stage of spiritual growth. The Greek word for repent is metanoia, “to turn around,” “to change one’s mind.” It sounds pretty easy to think about, and to write about. But oh, it is so hard to live it! We must catch onto the positive thread—the thread of what is good and what is true in our souls and in our life.
There is a connection from one spiritual state to another, and the thread of Divine providence runs throughout our life. The thread is the meaning—the purpose of our life.
William Stafford describes it beautifully in his poem:
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
Or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
So let us hold on to that thread. We know we will go through changes and challenges, but the thread is guiding us: “While you hold it you can’t get lost.”
This is not a tidy world. It is a messy one—one in which we are all becoming (or supposed to be becoming) spiritual humans. And it seems that this takes wakeup calls in the form of troubles.
I believe we are creatures made by a loving God for a journey in this beautiful world, and endowed with a return ticket home to God. Although we did not come with instructions, we are given them, as best we can receive them.
What are those instructions? First, to “love God by whatever name we have for God.” Our theology teaches that God is the Lord Jesus Christ. Others have a different concepts and names for God, and that is fine, as planned. Second, we are to “love each other.” All faiths teach this, although many religions have badly distorted what it really means. It means to wish one another well, to want the best for one another, to bless one another.
Our pilgrimage is not a solitary journey. We have fellow travelers on this adventure. It is a journey with others to God. And the way to get there is to learn to really love each other—and not because someone looks like us, holds our opinions, or has the same religious beliefs.
<>How are we to love them? By following the New Commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. We need to spend time in the New Testament, and to understand the real importance of being kind, generous, forgiving and inclusive—just for starters!
There is a deeper level and meaning to all that happens to us. Maybe we can’t make sense of it at first—some things maybe never—but wonderfully enough, in hindsight, we may glimpse the thread.
Here we all are, in a life that by design will have losses, challenges, setbacks, and suffering—and at some point will be over, at least here. All this occurs, I believe, so we can wake up and experience happiness, joy, and heaven both now and later. Then we can say, instead of “I don’t need this!,” “I guess I do need this! I just can’t figure out why yet!” These difficulties are allowed from God with love, even though it doesn’t feel like that. Let us use what happens in our lives for the good that can be born from it, to wake up and see life differently through a spiritual lens—one that gives meaning and purpose, so that we can catch that thread which leads us to God, and see everything as a blessing.
Leonard Cohen wrote in “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
Rev. Emily Jane Lemole