My name is Solomon Keal. I am a minister for the General Church of the New Jerusalem, which is a Swedenborgian Christian denomination. These are some of my thoughts about the Lord, the symbolic meanings in the Bible, life after death, faith, charity, usefulness, loving the Lord and one's neighbor, the 2nd Coming, Swedenborg's Writings, and other theological stuff.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Avoiding Spiritual Drunkeness
Lessons: Genesis 9:20-29; Matthew 7:1-5,12; AC 1079
(If you would like to look up the references that appear throughout this sermon, copy and paste them into Small Canon Search.)
“And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard.
Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent.”
In Genesis chapter 9, Noah planted a vineyard and got drunk. Just like when a person gets physically drunk, we can have a tendency to get spiritually drunk. This can lead us to behaving irrationally, to not being able walk a spiritual straight line, to lashing out at people we love, to thinking we are invincible, and to endangering ourselves and others. So what are some examples of this sort of behavior? One example is that we might find ourselves talking about our friends or classmates behind their backs saying things like: “They are so mean; they talk about me behind my back all the time!” Another example is with political parties: Some of us may belong to a specific political party. Let’s ask ourselves: ‘How often do we speak well of people in other political parties?’ ‘How often do we criticize, mock, or even get angry at people from other political parties?‘ and say things like: “Republicans are stupid, or Democrats are dumb.” Another example is with people of different religions or churches, or even people in the same church: How often do we find ourselves thinking: “I know what’s right for them, and if they would only listen to me, then they would get their life straightened out!”? These are signs of spiritual intoxication.
The story of Noah getting drunk, and how his son Ham behaves, is a great example of what happens when we get spiritually drunk. The internal meaning of this Biblical story is explained in Swedenborg’s book: Heavenly Secrets (from numbers 1067 to 1105). Today I’m going to walk you through one way that this story applies to our lives.
The story begins with Noah becoming a farmer and planting a vineyard. Noah represents a spiritual person. A vineyard represents the church, or “the spiritual things of the church” (AC 1069.3), in other words, our religion or faith. People who plant and work in a vineyard are people who work with the spiritual things of the church or their religion. So Noah as a vineyard farmer represents us as a religious or spiritual person, or someone who has faith.
This idea makes a lot of sense when we compare it with other places in the Word where a ‘vineyard’ is mentioned. In Matthew the Lord tells a parable of workers in a vineyard who all get the same amount of pay for working different amounts of time (Matt 20:1-16). It’s not hard to see that this is referring to people getting to heaven. And the means to heaven is the life of religion, which is represented by working in a vineyard. In John, the Lord said, “I am the vine” (John 15:5), because He is the source of Divine Truth for us, just as a vine is the source of grapes that become wine. This is why we drink wine in the Holy Supper. The wine represents the Lord’s Divine Truth; “the new covenant” (Mark 14:24) that He gave us. And drinking the spiritual wine of the Lord’s truth in His Word is what gives us our faith.
So as a spiritual person we like to drink wine. We like to learn truths. This is a necessary thing to do. This is why we plant a vineyard and work it. But as the saying goes: ‘everything in moderation.’ When our faith, our spiritual vineyard is plentiful and we drink too much wine (truth), then we can become spiritually intoxicated just as Noah did.
Why does this happen? The Lord designed it so that we are capable of understanding spiritual things. This is really an amazing concept. Our natural brain is capable of comprehending spiritual and heavenly things! A common phrase in our church is, “Now it is permitted to enter with understanding into the mysteries of faith” (TCR 508.3). But this doesn’t mean that we can completely understand every mystery of faith. After all, we have finite minds. We will never fully understand the mind of God and His infinite wisdom. “For spiritual and celestial things infinitely transcend human apprehension, and hence arises reasoning” (AC 1071). And just like spiritual and celestial things transcend human apprehension, too much alcohol transcends human digestion. We can take it in manageable doses, just like we can understand some spiritual and heavenly things. But we can’t consume too much of it. When we think that we can understand the truth completely, then we take everything into our mind and try to fit it into our own limited mental structures. And if it doesn’t quite fit, then we make it fit. This is the ‘human reasoning’ that we have to be wary of.
When we consume too much truth, what usually happens is that we begin to think that we know everything. We begin to think that we are more wise than other people because of what we know. It’s stimulating to think about all those truths. Just like with alcohol, it gives us a buzz. It makes us feel confident; often over-confident. Heavenly Secrets says that people like this “are called 'wise in their own eyes, and in their own sight intelligent' because people who [are like this] reason against truths of faith [and] imagine that they are wiser than everybody else” (AC 1072.5). And later in that passage it says that “people who are 'drunk' in this sense imagine that they are more alert than anybody else, yet they are in a deep sleep” (AC 1072.6).
So what happens next in the story? When Noah became drunk he also became naked. Clothes represent truths (see AC 1073). So thinking that we know everything really just points out how much we don’t know. We are actually lacking in truths when we think arrogant thoughts. The truths of the Word are for a specific purpose: the purpose of loving the Lord and loving the neighbor. So when we abuse those truths and use them for a different purpose, namely: loving our selves and despising others, then we actually end up not knowing anything at all, and we become spiritually naked.
This also happened to Adam and Eve when they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They thought they could know everything and be like God. Well, that just pointed out how naked they were, how lacking in real truths they were. Because the truth is that we are finite, and that involves a necessary attitude of humility.
So getting spiritually drunk leads to a process where faith and charity are separated: We know the truth, but we are arrogant about it, which is not living in charity. This is where Ham enters the scene. Ham sees his father drunk and naked and tells his brothers about it. We might imagine that he was laughing while saying, “Hey! Dad’s naked!” The main character of the story now shifts to Ham. I want to stop and point out that all the characters in the Bible represent parts of us. Sometimes it’s confusing when there are multiple characters in a story, but it’s important to remember that they all represent parts of us. So in this case, as the story shifts, we are no longer represented by just Noah. Now we are Ham too. Ham represents faith separate from charity (AC 1076) and the kind of person that that creates. Without charity, without love, without thoughtfulness, we become critical, judgmental, harsh and mocking of others, just like Ham mocked his father Noah. Heavenly Secrets has a great description of when we are like Ham:
"Such people see nothing else but errors and perversities residing with a person.... With those who have no charity, a feeling of hatred is manifest in every single thing; they wish to try everyone and indeed to pass judgement on them. Their one desire is to discover what is evil in them, all the time having it in mind to condemn, punish, and torment." (AC 1079)
When we know what is true, it is very easy for us to see what is wrong with other people, just like it was very easy for Ham to see that Noah was naked. But what we do with that knowledge is what’s important here. Do we gossip about people behind their backs? Do we secretly laugh at other people’s faults and mistakes? If we do then we are being like Ham.
Shem and Japheth:
Ham’s brothers represent good parts of us that we can choose to act on. ‘Shem’ represents internal charity, and ‘Japheth’ represent external charity (see AC 1083, 1091). Shem represents thinking and willing good things for other people, and Japheth represents saying and doing good things for other people. These are the true brothers of faith. But unlike people in faith alone or truth alone, people in charity don’t like to point out what’s wrong with other people, as it says in Heavenly Secrets:
"Those who have faith that inheres in charity are different. They notice the goods, and if they do see evils and falsities they excuse them, and if possible endeavor with that person to correct them, as is said here of Shem and Japheth.... Those who have charity hardly notice the evil in another person, but instead notice all the goods and truths that are theirs; and on their evils and falsities they place a good interpretation. Of such a nature are all angels, it being something they have from the Lord, who bends everything evil into good." (AC 1079)
When we decide to excuse or put a good interpretation on what we see as wrong with other people, and focus only on the good in them, then that is like Shem and Japheth not looking while they put the garment (good interpretation) on their father (see AC 1082).
Now the story shifts back to Noah, and we are once again represented by him. It says that “Noah awoke from his wine” (Gen. 9:24). This is where we spiritually come to our senses (see AC 1090). When we drink the wine of the Lord’s Divine Truth in the Word, and begin to be drunk with the arrogance of thinking we know everything, the nice thing is that we don’t usually stay drunk. The truths of the Lord’s Word work their way through our system. The Lord’s truth describes love and charity. So we eventually come to our senses and recognize that we haven’t been living in charity and thinking good things about other people. This truth that helps to wake us up is also represented by the garment that Shem and Japheth laid on Noah, which covered up his nakedness. When other people treat us well, we are reminded of the truths of charity that we already know.
This is all the more reason to excuse the evils and falsities in other people, because all people have this potential to awake from their ‘wine’ and come to their senses about what is good and true. We just need to give them time to discover for themselves the Lord’s love and wisdom. This is is like Shem and Japheth covering up their father and then leaving him in the tent to wake up for himself. We can present truths to people in a non-judgmental way, and we can treat people with loving kindness, both of which are like Shem and Japheth walking backwards with the clothes for Noah. But the story didn’t describe them staying in the tent and saying, “C’mon Dad, wake up!” The story describes Noah waking up on his own. When we believe that we know what is true, and we think that it could help someone who is spiritually naked, we need to be very careful about how we give them that truth. It’s not our job to slap them in the face with truth until they’re sober. It’s our job to leave people in freedom, just as the Lord leaves us all in freedom. That desire to help people is like Shem, and doing it tactfully is like Japheth. This is where the New Testament teachings of forgiveness come in. The Lord tells us to forgive people not seven times, but seventy times seven (Matt. 18:21-22). And in the Lord’s Prayer itself, we say “forgive us our trespasses, as we also forgive those who trespass against us.” When we do this, we are being like Shem and Japheth.
Curse of Canaan:
So Noah finds out what Ham did to him, and so he curses... Canaan, Ham’s son? This sounds a little odd in the literal sense. What did Canaan do to deserve being cursed for his father’s faults? But it makes sense if we remember that all the characters in this story represent parts of us. So once again the story shifts to a different character, and we are now Canaan. Ham can’t be cursed because Ham represent faith, and we need faith to be the brother of charity. We need to learn truths that lead us to a life of religion. In Heavenly Secrets it says that the “truths of faith are the means by which this [gaining a conscience] is achieved, that is, by which a person lives according to the things faith teaches, its fundamental teaching being to love the Lord above all things and the neighbor as oneself” (AC 1077). So we can’t do away with ‘faith’ represented by ‘Ham,’ even when it has the potential to lead us to bad places if it is separated from his brothers Shem and Japheth which are ‘charity.’ But the son of ‘faith alone,’ represented by Canaan, can be cursed. Canaan represents a worship or a life in external things which are completely devoid of faith and charity (see AC 1091). Canaan’s descendants were the Canaanites who lived in the Land of Canaan, who had to be purged from the Land because they represent evils (AC 1573). The curse of Canaan is really a curse that we bring on ourselves. When we treat other people with contempt for the fact that they think differently from us, then we become cursed. “It is a person who brings the curse upon themselves by turning away from the Lord” (AC 1093). Since we’ve turned away from the Lord, who is the source of faith and charity, or truth and love, then we’ve opened ourselves up to being influenced by hell, and hell gets us to feel anger at other people. This is a curse. Anger is not a nice feeling. “With the Lord therefore anger is never present, only mercy” (AC 1093).
When our life is devoid of charity, charity being the whole point of the spiritual church, then we end up worshipping false gods; gods like ourselves. We think we know more than others and that it is our job to save other people from their sins. Wrong. It’s the Lord’s job to save people. He is the only Savior (AR 279). We are worshipping the false god of Self when our life is devoid of charity. This is the merely external worship represented by Canaan (AC 1094.2). Heavenly Secrets says that we are like this when we
"do nothing from charity and conscience, and yet very strictly [we] keep up the external things of the Church, and even condemn those who do not do the same. But because no charity and no conscience exist with [us], and [we] make worship consist solely in external things devoid of internal, [we] are 'slaves' in the Lord's kingdom." (AC 1103)
Canaan’s curse said that he would be a slave to Shem and Japheth. We feel like a slave when it feels like love and charity are really hard work that we would rather not do.
However, if we do live a genuine life of charity--in our hearts and minds, and in our words and actions--then those good parts of us, represented by Shem and Japheth, become blessed. But they are only blessed because we recognize and acknowledge that the life of charity we are living is not from ourselves but from the Lord. “The member of the internal Church ascribes to the Lord all the good he [or she] does and all the truth he [or she] thinks” (AC 1098). We become blessed by living a life of charity because, “It is in charity that the Lord is present” (AC 1096.2). And the Lord’s presence in our lives brings us all the blessings and joy of heaven. If we become arrogant like Ham, and worship the false god of ‘Self’ like Canaan then we are turning away from the Lord. Heavenly Secrets says, “Where there is no love, the chain is broken and the Lord not present” (1096.3). But if our attitudes and actions include humility, forgiveness, kindness, and love towards others--which is dwelling in the tents of Shem and Japheth--then we are opening ourselves up to the Lord and His love and wisdom. Only then do we become truly spiritual and religious people.
So the next time you interact with someone and you think that they are ‘spiritually naked,’ try to stop yourself from being judgmental, or criticizing, or mocking them like Ham did. Instead, present them with the truth as you understand it, and leave them in freedom to ‘awaken from their wine.‘ Only say what is kind, true and useful. Try to look for the good in what they are saying or doing. Forgive them. This is what the angels do. And as this story points out, it is really the main character (our self) who is naked and drunk. And we would want people to forgive us for our mistakes. So as the Lord taught in the Gospels, “whatever you want people to do to you, do also to them” (Matt 7:12).