Why I Am A Swedenborgian
Aug. 24, 2008
Let your Love Flow, bellamy brothers
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. (John 15:1-4)
Reading from Swedenborg
If our inner self is reborn, but our outer self is not reborn along with it, it is like a bird flying through the air with no dry land to rest on, but only a marsh where it is harassed by snakes and frogs, so that it flies off and dies. It is also like a swan swimming in the middle of the sea, unable to reach the shore and make its nest, so that the eggs it lays sink into the water and are eaten by fish. It is like a soldier standing on a wall, who, when the wall is undermined beneath his feet, falls down and is killed in the collapse. It is like a lovely tree transplanted into rotten soil, where hordes of worms eat up its roots so that it withers and dies. And it is like a house without a foundation, or a column with no base to stand on. This is what we are like if only our inner self is reformed, and not our outer self along with it; for we lack all determination to do good. (True Christian Religion #600)
Why I Am A Swedenborgian
by Rev. Wilma Wake
[reprinted from Our Daily Bread, Jan. 21, 2001]
So why am I a Swedenborgian? I asked myself that a number of times this week. This was one of those weeks when I wondered if my spirituality was of any practical use to me whatsoever. It was a week when our uncharacteristically warm winter weather turned to record cold, with snow, ice, and howling winds. My cozy little house in the country became a lot less comfortable when my wood stove door became stuck and I had to call for repairs. There was a two week wait (now one week). That meant turning on my back-up electric heat, which couldn't really take the chill out of the air.
Then I woke up Wednesday morning to no water. After thawing all of my pipes, I had to call a plumber, who told me the pump that pumps water from my well to my house had stopped working. He spent a day installing a new pump, then found that the water had frozen inside the well--something he had told me the day before never happens. He broke up the ice, and I had water again! He said it could freeze again unless I insulated my well by piling a bale of hay around it, covering it with a tarp to keep the hay from blowing away, and then putting bricks around the tarp to keep that from blowing away. I spent the afternoon finding hay and a tarp, and insulating my well as instructed. Then the water stopped again, and I left a desperate message on my plumber's home phone.
We all have days and weeks like this. Everything goes wrong. Whatever can fall apart does fall apart. For me, the things I had planned got put on hold while I searched for necessities like bottled water and hay. During weeks like this I can only ask: "Where is God for me in the midst of this chaos? What does it mean to me this week that I'm a Swedenborgian?"
For many of you, this question takes you back into a childhood, when you were raised in this church. For me, the question is both easier and harder. I "discovered" Swedenborg in my late forties as I was completing my seminary training for the Episcopal priesthood. I chose to become a Swedenborgian. So in responding to the question, "Why am I a Swedenborgian?" I'd like to start with why I chose to join this church. Then I'd like to talk about why I stay, and how my Swedenborgianism sustains me in the dead of a New Hampshire winter when my well freezes.
To tell the first part of my story I need to go back to how I got to the Episcopal Divinity School, hoping to become a priest. I had been raised as a Baptist in the Bible Belt of Illinois. I remember how proud I was when, at age ten, I chose to be baptized and was immersed in front of the entire congregation. When I was a teenager, my parents switched to the Presbyterian Church, and that's where I attended youth programs until I left for college. It didn't take long on the large college campus of the University of Illinois in the 1960s to find The Red Herring--the cool coffee house where the great rock music was played. It was sponsored by the Unitarian-Universalist (UU) church. Soon I was a UU which, to me, involved honoring all the world's religions. However, I had no religion of my own. I wasn't a Christian, and didn't accept faith as a basis on which to accept a religion.
I was jolted out of that mode by an auto accident in the early 1970s. I was in graduate school working on a Ph.D., and was on my way to class one day when I had to stop quickly and was hit from behind by a car that wasn't prepared to stop. I developed whiplash and had chronic pain for months afterwards. In desperation, I began doing weird things like Hatha Yoga exercises and meditation. They helped the back pain considerably, and opened up a new world to me. Through meditation, I experienced a sense of being part of something Larger and Greater than just me, or than any one of us. I felt Love as the essence of the universe, and as something that could flow through me and guide my life.
I needed help understanding all of that, but didn't find it with the Unitarians. Nor did I feel that returning to the Baptists or Presbyterians would help very much either. I began a search to find a spiritual home. I spent some years exploring the New Age, where I felt supported in exploring meditation, yoga, world religions, an understanding of psychic phenomena, and a mystical approach to spirituality.
Then my mystical experiences led me back into Christianity. One Easter week, after an Episcopal Eucharist service, I felt the presence of Christ in my life. It was something very real and vibrant to me. I felt I was being called to ordained ministry to serve Christ. Yet as much as I valued this love of Christ, I was also open to all religions and all paths to God. I had found God and my own spirituality, but I felt alone. Where would I find a denomination to support my commitment to Christ, my acceptance of all religious paths, and the mystical spirituality that had brought me to Christ? I had found the Eucharist to be a powerful way of opening myself to Christ, so I became an Episcopalian.
As I pursued my path to ordained ministry, it became clear to me that I was not in the right church for my beliefs. I felt that I could be at home within the Anglican tradition, and within the larger Christian tradition. I felt that the way I saw Christianity was a perfectly valid way of viewing things based on the Jesus of the Bible, rather than on how the churches had come to understand and teach that Jesus. But those in charge of the ordination process in the Episcopal Church had concerns about my theology, and put me on hold indefinitely from moving into the ordination track. I continued my seminary studies anyway, while also making plans to begin training as a social worker.
While at the Episcopal Divinity School, I was in a spiritual growth group that consisted of students from a variety of traditions. One of them, a Unitarian, told me about the works of Emanuel Swedenborg. I began reading, and loved what found.
I thought of Swedenborg as a great mystic and writer, but had no idea that a church had grown up around his writings. (Obviously, my course in Church History was incomplete!) I learned about that from my friend Ann. She and I had been in the same curriculum conference (a study and support group for first year seminarians), and we had had many conversations. She was very interested in holistic health and spirituality. She decided as one of her field experiences that she would work with a physician on developing a holistic counseling center.
She needed to have special supervision for this, so she found her way to a pastoral counselor who understood about holistic health: the Rev. Cal Turley of the Swedenborg School of Religion. I had only a vague awareness that Ann had found a supervisor she thought was marvelous. She said I absolutely had to meet him. I added it to my list of hundreds of other things I hoped to do sometime! I remember the day Ann came to class very distressed, saying that Cal Turley had died suddenly of a heart attack, and she was deeply grieved.
The next spring, as Ann and I prepared for graduation, we spent a weekend at my house in New Hampshire talking about our futures. I shared that I didn't feel at home in the Episcopal Church. Ann said she didn't understand why I didn't just join the Swedenborgian Church. I was stunned--and didn't understand what she was talking about. I had read works by Swedenborg, but had no idea there was a church based on his writings. Ann was amazed that I didn't know this, since she had been talking to me about her work with Cal Turley, the Director of Field Education at the Swedenborg School of Religion (SSR). I was astounded! There was a church based on the writings of my favorite mystic! In the next few days, I made an appointment to visit SSR and started attending the Swedenborg Chapel in Cambridge, located just a few blocks from my seminary.
As I began my social work studies and Doctorate of Ministry work the next fall, I also took courses at SSR. The next summer, I attended the convention held in Massachusetts. I was so pleased to find that I enjoyed the Swedenborgians as much as I loved the writings of Swedenborg!
It didn't take me long to join the church and apply for the ordination track. I felt I had arrived in heaven when I realized that there was a group of people whose spirituality was formed in the context of Swedenborg's writings. I had found a spirituality that made sense for me, and found it affirmed in the writings of Swedenborg. When I learned that others had found comfort in those writings, I was so excited! I was amazed that some people actually grew up in this church and with these writings!
I remember taking a tutorial at SSR with the Rev. Dr. Bob Kirven on Swedenborg's book Divine Love and Wisdom, and coming in to our session exclaiming, "Do those people who were raised on these writings really understand what they say? Do they realize how radical they are? How profound? How they answer so many of today's complex questions? Do they realize how lucky they are to have had these writings always a part of their lives, and not to have had to search to find them?"
Bob laughed, and said that some did realize this, although the experience of finding Swedenborg as an adult was very different from being raised with the writings. I've often envied those who grew up with the writings and the company of other Swedenborgians. Yet I also value having had a religious life in other denominations. I've been Baptist, Presbyterian, Unitarian, and Episcopalian in my lifetime! I see the great value in each of these churches; yet I also understand that I chose to be Swedenborgian because I felt a deep kinship with the writings and the people.
Because I chose to join this church, I know I could leave it and join another one. I know there are other churches filled with good people, uplifting worship services, and a spirituality based in the Bible. Yet I also know that my way of approaching life is deeply grounded in my Swedenborgianism.
When I found Swedenborg, I found a spirituality that integrated the inner and the outer for me. As I read earlier from True Christian Religion, Swedenborg writes of how crucial it is that we develop our external spirituality as well as our internal. That is important to me when I'm tempted to focus only on meditation, leaving out the uses of the world that are so important to me.
It is also important during the kind of week I've been having. I know that when everything around me seems to be falling apart, this external chaos is not the final reality. I know that there is a deeper reality within, where the Lord's influx fills me with love and wisdom. I can turn within to feel nurtured and sustained no matter how bad things are around me. I know that angels are with me, helping me cope with the hardships of earthly life. I know that the natural world will some day be replaced for me, and for all of us, by the spiritual world--and that in that world water pumps don't break down.
Swedenborg helps me to remember that the chaos and misfortunes of the natural world are temporary, while the deeper love and wisdom of the Lord are eternal. And I can remember and even experience that inner spirituality whenever I need it. So I see Swedenborg's writings as very practical and important to me in the daily living of my life.
Of course, some days I feel angry and frustrated by how hard life can be. I did have a moment of satisfaction in thinking that if I tore up my green thirty [volumes of Swedenborg's writings], I would have great insulation for my well, and save myself the five dollar cost of a bale of hay! But then, the wisdom in those writings would survive the destruction of my green thirty, and even the loss of all of our green thirties. For there is something eternal, true, and right in Swedenborg's writings that keeps me here. And it's not that no other religion or denomination contains truth and pathways to God, because I believe they do. But Swedenborg explains truth to me in a way that I can understand and accept-- that resonates within my soul.
When I talk to others about my faith, I probably have the fervor of a convert rather than the quiet acceptance of a lifelong church member. We need both kinds of us, I think, to make a healthy church. I love hearing from Swedenborgian lifers about how the teachings became integrated into the core of their beings from childhood. And I love to share with them how alone I felt before discovering the writings and the church--and reminding other Swedenborgians of how important it is that we make ourselves better known so that others can learn from what we have.
So I am a Swedenborgian. I am a Swedenborgian on the days when the sun shines and the birds sing, and also on the days when the well freezes over. And on those frozen days, I wouldn't dare use my green thirty to insulate my well. I need them to insulate my soul!
SING, SING, SING, Chris Tomlin
REIKI HEALING MUSIC
Creator God, we thank you that you are the God of all people, in all the religions of earth. We thank you that your love is universal, extending to those of every faith and creed--as well as to those who are lost and searching, or are unaware of their need for you. We thank you that your love is also deep and personal, reaching to every one of us in our times of joy and in our times of trouble.
And today, O God, we thank you especially for the religion that you have given to us, to answer our deep questions and meet our particular spiritual needs. You have blessed us with spiritual riches that go far beyond what we could ever have hoped for.
Give us a fuller awareness and appreciation for the riches of love and wisdom that you continually shower upon us, and give us generous hearts and hands to share them with others. Amen.