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
Readings: Psalm 15, Matthew 5:43-48, AC 612.2, AE 799.7, AR 586.3
(If you would like to look up the references that appear throughout this sermon, copy and paste them into Small Canon Search.)
“Who may worship in Your sanctuary, Lord? Who may enter Your presence on Your holy hill? Those who lead blameless lives.” (Psalm 15:1,2, New Living Translation)
Sometimes it can feel like the Lord is asking for perfection in our lives. The opening words of this psalm might really speak to how we might sometimes feel inadequate, or like the life of heaven is unattainable. “Who could possibly live in the Lord’s tabernacle, or on His holy hill? Who is that good? How can I possibly live a blameless, or perfect life?”
But the truth is, “it is not as hard to follow the path to heaven as many people believe” (HH 359). But it does require learning some steps. It’s like walking up a long flight of stairs. If we focus on the fact that we have to get all the way up to the top, we can feel discouraged. But if we focus on one step at a time, it’s very manageable. This psalm goes into some of the steps involved in ‘walking blameless’ on the road to heaven. As it says in the Gospels: “With [us] it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:27)
The Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg tell us that the main point of this psalm is essentially that “those who love the neighbor and God, will be of the Lord's church” (PP 265). This makes sense, because that’s what Jesus told us in the Gospels:
“ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:37-40)
On the surface it’s pretty straightforward, but it can sometimes feel impossible. “Love the Lord with all of my heart, soul and mind? Is most of it OK? Do I have to love my neighbor the same amount that I love myself, or is ‘almost as much as myself‘ OK?” Taken as a whole it can feel like an impossible flight of stairs. This psalm attempts to break it down into small steps. Let’s examine those steps.
The psalm opens with describing that goal; the top of the long flight of stairs; that state of heaven. It describes it as living in the Lord’s ‘tabernacle,’ and living on His ‘holy hill.’ The Writings tell us that living in a ‘tent’ or ‘tabernacle’ represents living in the holiness of love (AC 414), or in the good of love (AC 10545:6). Love is holy because the Lord is Love Itself. When we live in love towards Him and our neighbor, we are living in His holiness. This is why the tabernacle in the Word represents the church and heaven because the church and heaven are essentially a life of love (AR 585:2) This is why in the book of Revelation, when John saw the Holy City New Jerusalem coming out of heaven, he heard a voice saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev 21:3).
This state of heaven is also described in the beginning of this psalm by living on the Lord’s ‘holy hill.’ Technically this is referring to Jerusalem, or Mount Zion, both of which were on mountains or hills. But the Writings tell us that in general a ‘mountain’ represents the good of love (AE 405:26), so once again this is describing the true state of the church or heaven as being a life of love. So how do we go about living this life of love? Let’s delve into the verses:
To get an overview: Verse 2 of this psalm contains a nice little progression of three things that we should do to live this life of love. Verse 3 contains a nice little progression of three things that we should not do to live this life of love. Verse 4 describes three ways that this can be tricky and confusing. Verse 5 begins by describing two ways that the hells can trap us, and then verse 5 ends with an incentive for working on living this life of love. Now let’s examine each verse:
Verse 2. “He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart.” This verse describes the trinity of end, cause and effect. Or we could think of it as 1. the source of love, 2. the intentions of love, and 3. the actions of love. The source of love is the Lord. This is why the beginning of verse two says “He who walks uprightly or blamelessly.” Different translations use different words to try to express this idea: Blameless, flawless, uprightly, perfect, in integrity. All of them capture this idea of something that feels unattainable. And yet this is the first thing we are commanded to do to live this life of love! This idea appears in other places in the Word: In Genesis: “walk before Me and be blameless” (Gen 17:1), in Deuteronomy: “You shall be blameless before the LORD your God” (Deut 18:13), and even in the Gospels: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48). How can the Lord expect this of us? How can I be perfect? The point is He doesn’t, and we can’t. The reason for statements like these is that we need to be reminded to be humble. We need to recognize that the life of love (which is blameless and perfect) is not our life; it’s the Lord’s life. The Lord is the only one who is blameless, flawless, and perfect. But He wants to give that life to us. And so if we turn to Him, and ask for His help, we can receive that perfect life. This is why it says in Samuel: “God is my strength and power, And He makes my way perfect” (2 Sam 22:33), and in Matthew “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matt 19:21).
The 2nd part of verse 2 says “He who... works righteousness.” This is about the intentions of love. Some translations say “He who... works justice.” The Writings say that ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice’ has to do with goodness (AE 799:7; AC 9263:9). If you look at the places in the Word where the word ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice’ comes up, you will find them associated with concepts like love, generosity (Deut 10:18), goodness (Psalm 33:5), lovingkindness (Psalms 36:10, 119:149), mercy, and compassion (Zechariah 7:9). If we think about someone who seeks justice in a healthy way, it is someone who seeks fairness for other people.
Now this concept can be twisted by us. We can engage in self-righteousness, and seek revengeful justice. But the Lord warns us that this isn’t true righteousness. In the Word this kind of righteousness is associated with being stiff-necked (Deut 9:6), seeking dishonest gain (1 Sam 8:3), being stubborn-hearted (Isaiah 46:12), and being a hypocrite (Matt 23:23).
So for us to truly work righteousness or justice in our life, we need to try to to have attitudes that are loving, generous, and compassionate.
The 3rd part of verse 2 says “He who... speaks the truth in his heart.” The Writings say that this could also be described as ‘judgment’ (AC 2235:4). The previous phrase was talking about goodness or justice, and this one talks about truth or judgment. Truth is the outer expression of goodness. The previous part described our intentions and attitudes, and this describes what we say and do. Notice that it doesn’t just say “He who speaks the truth,” but “He who speaks the truth in his heart.” Speaking the truth by itself can actually be hurtful. For example: “You know, you are really bad at saying ‘thank you’ when you receive gifts!” It may be true, but it’s not tactful and not a nice thing to say. We need to not only speak the truth, but speak it from the heart; from those attitudes of compassion, generosity, and kindness. When we do this, we are exercising good judgment.
So we’ve examined how verse 2 is describing three things that we should do: Humbly recognize that only the Lord is perfect, try to have good attitudes towards people, and exercise good judgment in what we say. Verse 3 describes a progression of three things that we should not do, so that we can live a good life. “He who does not backbite with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor does he take up a reproach against his friend.”
In the first part, the word used for ‘backbite’ literally means ‘to spy-out.’ So this part of verse 3 is telling us that we should not ‘spy with our tongue.’ Essentially this is a poetic way of saying ‘don’t gossip.’ But it could be useful to think of it as ‘spying with the tongue.’ It could help us to remember how it might feel to that person who we are gossiping about.
The second part simply says not to do evil to our neighbor. This is a pretty broad suggestion. It could be useful to think of this as a reminder to obey the 10 commandments. If we want to ‘do no evil to our neighbor’ it means that literally we should not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet. However on a deeper level, all of these describe various ways that we can hurt people.
The third part of this verse says that we should not ‘take up a reproach against our friend.‘ This isn’t the way we would say it these days. Today we might say, ‘we should not be critical of our friends.‘ This brings to mind teachings of Jesus such as “Judge not, that you be not judged.... And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Matt 7:1-3). And also “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (John 8:7).
If you look at the places in the Word where the word ‘reproach’ comes up, you will find it associated with concepts like scorn and derision (Psalm 44:13), shaking one’s head at someone (Psalm 109:25), showing contempt (Psalm 119:22), insulting (Isaiah 51:7), shaming or disgracing (Isaiah 54:4), taunting and cursing (Jeremiah 24:9), humiliating (Jeremiah 31:19), mocking (Ezekiel 22:4), and making arrogant threats (Zephaniah 2:8-10). We may have enough restraint to not do these things to someone’s face, but we really have to be careful that we don’t do these things behind people’s backs too.
So now we’ve examined how verse three is describing three things that we should not do if we want to live a life of love in the church and in heaven. Namely that we should not gossip, we should not hurt people with things like being deceitful, and we should not be critical of other people. These bad behaviors could come up in many places in our life. With our children or our parents, with our spouse, with our boss or coworkers, when speaking of political figures, when speaking of our teachers, our siblings, and even our friends. We are not truly a member of the church when we are engaged in doing these things.
Verse Four. This next verse is tricky. It begins by saying, “In whose eyes a vile person is despised.” This seems to go against everything that was just said in verse three! “I thought I was supposed to love my enemy, and not show contempt for people! And now this verse is saying I should despise evil people?” It really should be taken in context with the next part which says, “but he honors those who fear the Lord.” So we should despise evil people but honor good people? What does this mean? I like the way the New Century Version Bible translates this part: “They do not respect hateful people, but honor those who honor the Lord.” The idea here is getting at what the ‘neighbor’ really is. The ‘neighbor’ really is goodness (TCR 418). When we love or honor someone, if it is a genuine love and a genuine honoring, then we are honoring the goodness in them, which means we are honoring the Lord in them. And along the same lines, we should not love or honor the evil in another person. This is what it means to ‘despise a vile person.’ For example, we might have a friend who likes to tell dirty jokes. For the sake of the friendship we might be tempted to laugh at those jokes. But if we are trying to live in integrity, then we should not laugh at the those jokes. In our eyes, those jokes should be despised.
Verse four ends with, ‘he who swears to his own hurt and does not change,” or “he who promises to afflict himself and alters not.” The Writings say that this self-affliction means “the mastering and subjugation of the evils and falsities that rise up from the external [part of a person] into the rational [part of a person]” (AC 1947:6). So in other words, if we promise to people that we will work on our faults and problems (which is a painful process), but then we don’t, then we are not living the life of love that makes us a true member of the church. On the flip side, that number from Secrets of Heaven goes on to say that we should also not make a big deal about how painful spiritual growth is solely for the sake of gaining recognition and a sense of merit. As Jesus said in Matthew: “when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Matt 6:16).
Verse Five. Then verse five contains two references to money: two references to doing something for the sake of reward: “He who does not put out his money at usury, nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.” The Writings say that the first part is describing doing something good for the sake of reward, represented by lending money for the sake of earning interest on it (AC 9210:5). A true life of love doesn’t seek reward. Anytime we are thinking of reward, our actions are somewhat tainted with selfishness. This doesn’t mean that we won’t have mixed motives, and engage in mediate goods in which we find pleasure in reward for a good deed. These things can point us in the right direction. But the point here is that doing good for the sake of reward is not the end goal. The end goal is to do good without thought of reward.
And then the second part, “nor does he take a bribe against the innocent,” is describing doing something evil for the sake of reward. These ‘bribes’ come from evil spirits in hell. They want us to think that we will earn happiness and satisfaction if we hurt someone who we dislike. They might have convinced us to publicly point out an area where we are right and a friend is wrong. The bribe is that this will make us feel better. The bribe is also a lie. It may give us a short term buzz, but it won’t last, and it will be replaced by bad feelings. In Deuteronomy it says that taking a bribe like this “blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous” (Deut 16:19).
The psalm ends by saying, “he who does these things shall never be moved.” When we follow these steps and try to do these things in our life, then we start to become filled with the Lord’s strength. We gain protection against the onslaught of the hells. The hells are constantly bombarding us with negative thoughts and feelings; trying to knock us off our feet. But by living in the Lord’s life we begin to take on His strength, and so there is the promise that we will never be moved.
Taken as a whole, all of these things might feel like too much to remember, let alone apply to our life. There are a lot of steps that lead up to the the Lord’s holy hill. But what this psalm is pointing out, is that if we keep walking up those steps, we will eventually get there. The Lord isn’t asking us to be perfect from ourselves. But He is offering us a chance to live in His perfect life. He’s laid a stairway in front of us. If we take it one step at a time, we can get there. These steps are the steps of repentance. This is a life-long staircase. So today, just choose one thing that you want to work on. That’s one step closer to the Lord.
Readings: Genesis 33:1-17. AC 4353.3, 4377
(If you would like to look up the references that appear throughout this sermon, copy and paste them into Small Canon Search.)
“Please let my lord go on ahead before his servant. I will lead on slowly at a pace which the livestock that go before me, and the children, are able to endure, until I come to my lord in Seir.” (Genesis 33:14)
Did you ever wonder why, in the story of Jacob reuniting with Esau, Jacob wrestles with an angel? Or why Esau isn't mad at Jacob? Or why Esau initially refuses Jacob's gift, but then accepts it? Or especially, why Jacob says he will follow Esau back to Seir, but then he snubs him and doesn't follow him? What does that mean? In this sermon we will examine those questions.
Like this story, sometimes it can feel like our spiritual journey through life is also really confusing and really difficult. For example, we might struggle with yelling at our children. “I really want to change, but in that moment when my kid has destroyed yet another wedding dish, I fall right back into yelling at them again. Why is it so hard to change, even when I want to change?” Or we might struggle with perfectionism: “I know that being a perfectionist is ruining my relationships with people. But in that moment, I still want to spend one more hour doing research, or making that project better than it is now. I know it’s not healthy, but I can’t help how I feel. How can I change that feeling?”
The Jacob and Esau story—like our own story—is about the difficulty of moving from trying to do what’s right to loving to do what’s right. And the only one that can accomplish this change is the Lord. Swedenborg’s book: Secrets of Heaven (AC 4337-4387) can help us to understand more about our own confusing and difficult spiritual journey, and how it is represented in the journey of Jacob.
But first let’s get a bit of recap: In this story we hear about Jacob and Esau meeting again. The last time they were together, Jacob steals the birthright and the blessing from Esau; essentially stealing his entire inheritance. As you can imagine this makes Esau very angry. Jacob then travels to Haran in Padan-Aram under the cover story that he needs to find a wife, but in reality he needs to get away from Esau who has promised to kill him as soon as their father Isaac has died. Jacob then falls in love with Rachel, is forced to marry Leah, has 11 sons and one daughter, becomes very wealthy working for Laban his father-in-law and uncle, then decides to sneak away from Laban and return to the Land of Canaan with all of his family and flocks. He is still on the east side of the Jordan when he wrestles with the Angel of God. This is what happens right before Jacob meets Esau again.
Then Jacob’s messengers tell him that Esau is coming with 400 men. You can imagine that Jacob would be really scared. This is why he sends a present of over 500 animals ahead to try to appease Esau. But Esau keeps coming. So he lines up his family with the least important in front, and the most important (Rachel and her children) in back, and he prepares for the attack. Then as Esau approaches, Jacob bows himself to the ground seven times. And then... Esau hugs and kisses him? I don’t think that’s what Jacob was expecting.
So then Esau says “hey, who are these?” and Jacob says “this is my family.” And then Esau says, “what’s up with all the animals you sent to me?” and Jacob says, “that was a present for you.” and Esau says, “thanks, but I really don’t need them, I have plenty of my own.” and Jacob says, “no really, I insist.” and Esau says, “OK.”
So then Esau says, “let’s travel together” and Jacob says, “I can’t keep up with you. You go on ahead, and I’ll catch up.” So Esau goes back to Seir on the East side of the Jordan, but Jacob doesn’t catch up with him. Instead, he goes across the Jordan into the Land of Canaan.
Let’s begin by looking at what these characters represent in our lives. In this particular story, Esau represents the Lord. Specifically he represents the feeling of the Lord’s goodness and love in our natural minds (AC 4336, 4340). He represents: actually loving to do what’s right, rather than struggling to do what’s right. We get that feeling only from the Lord. Jacob even calls Esau: ‘my lord,’ and calls himself: ‘your servant.‘
Why does Esau represent the Lord? You might remember that Esau was the older brother; he was born first. Jacob steals Esau’s birthright and pretends to be the firstborn. Goodness (Esau) is always the firstborn, the most important member of the family, even when it looks like we need to learn truths (Jacob) first.
In Secrets of Heaven it says that Jacob comes to represents the ‘good of truth’ (AC 4336-4337) in this part of the story. The ‘good of truth’ means the good that comes out of doing what’s right. The ‘good of truth’ is like the loving feelings that we can have towards people because we have practiced doing what’s right, and going through the motions of love to the neighbor. Before Jacob was the ‘good of truth’ he simply represented ‘truth.’ Truth in action. The mechanics of loving the neighbor. This is like treating someone with courtesy and politeness because we know it’s the right thing to do, even if we don’t actually feel like being polite to them. At first Jacob represented those times in our lives when we are ‘faking it till we make it.‘ But by the end of this story Jacob represents ‘making it,’ when we actually feel loving towards people, rather than simply acting loving.
Sometimes it can feel like simply doing the right thing is the end of the story. After all, Jacob is heading back to the Promised Land. Isn’t that all? “Look at how many wives, children and flocks I have. I’m doing good things for people. Isn’t that the life of heaven?” No. The final piece is that we need to actually feel loving towards people. But this isn’t something we can just change. This is something that the Lord changes in us. And this story describes how He does that.
Now back to the story: Jacob is scared, because his messengers tell him that Esau is coming with 400 men. Those ‘400 men’—like the ‘40 years’ that the children of Israel spent in the wilderness—represent a state of temptation, or spiritual struggle. Heavenly Secrets says that “temptations come when good starts to play the leading role” (AC 4341). So when we actually start to live a life of love, because we want to do what is right, then evil spirits are going to attack us. For example: we might have worked hard to learn how to be a better parent, or to learn how to not be a perfectionist. This may work for a while, until we find ourselves falling back into our bad habits. “But wait! I’m learning truth. I’m trying to do what’s right. Why isn’t it working? Why is God punishing me?” This is why it says that “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed” (Gen 32:7) when he heard that Esau was coming with 400 men. It’s also why just before this story, Jacob wrestled with the Angel of God. We can get very scared and distressed when it seems like the life of religion that we are trying to live isn’t working. “I’m not feeling any different. I’m not seeing a change yet.” Evil spirits want us to think that the Lord is the enemy, just like Jacob thought Esau was the enemy.
But the problem isn’t the Lord. The problem isn’t Esau. The problem is with us, with our misconceptions of what life is all about. When we live our life based on love—even if at first we are just going through the motions of love—that begins to bring the Lord closer to us. But in the process of letting the Lord into our lives, the Lord’s love and wisdom shine a light on our imperfections and we see them more clearly, and that is painful (AC 4341.2)! We see that we’ve been living life from a sense of merit. We see that we’ve fallen into the trap of believing that if we just know enough truth and do enough good things—like Jacob accumulating wives, children, and flocks—then that will earn us a ticket to the Promised Land, a ticket to heaven, a ticket to happiness and peace. But this is not the truth. All goodness, all truth, all true feelings of love come from the Lord alone, and not from thinking that we’ve earned them.
Jacob was a pretty cocky guy. He tricked Esau out of the birthright and the blessing. He tricked Laban out of a lot of his flock. When we begin to live our life based on the truth, we can also get cocky, and think we’ve got our life under control. But thinking that we are in control doesn’t allow true goodness from the Lord to flow into our actions. We need to be humble, and recognize that Jesus is Lord—just like Jacob referred to Esau as ‘lord’—before we can be filled with His goodness (see AC 4347). And so we need to begin a process of bringing humility into our lives. This is represented by Jacob bowing seven times. This is what Secrets of Heaven describes as ‘truth being conjoined to good’ (AC 4345.5). For example, we might spend a day doing really well as a parent. We might be not yelling at our kids, and very intentionally expressing love for them. But if we think that that good behavior is coming from us, then we’ll think that it should earn us some happiness. But if we recognize that all goodness comes from the Lord alone, then we can continue loving our children, no matter how they treat us in return. This is peace. Being humble allows the Lord’s goodness and peace to flow into our lives, no matter what happens (AC 4347.2,3).
So Jacob humbles himself to Esau, and what does Esau do? He runs to him and gives him a big hug and a kiss! The Lord always loves us! He always wants to join with us and bless us with His love. And specifically the Lord wants to join His love with the truths that we have learned and put into action, which you could think of as our good habits. In Secrets of Heaven it says that “action comes first, then the desire for it in the person’s will follows” (AC 4353.3).
So now comes the part of the story where the Lord begins to actually fill us with His goodness; with the feeling of love for other people; the willingness and desire to do good things. This process is described by this strange little back and forth between Jacob and Esau: Jacob offers the gift to Esau, Esau refuses it, Jacob urges him to take it, and Esau accepts it. Now you might think, “If Esau is the Lord, and Jacob is us, then how does ‘Esau accepting a gift from Jacob’ represent the Lord giving us His goodness?” Isn’t that sort of backwards?
This is where we need to talk about affections: Secrets of Heaven says that “the Lord leads everyone through the agency of his [or her] affections” (AC 4364.2). So for example: Jacob was led to acquiring his wives, children and flocks by having an affection for those things, just like we are led to learning truths by having an affection for knowing what’s true. Like wanting to learn parenting skills. But our story doesn’t end with us simply knowing and loving the truth. Our affection needs to be changed into an affection for goodness, kindness and love, and that can only be done by the Lord being present with us. And this passage from Secrets of Heaven describes the mysterious way that the Lord often does this:
"One sometimes refuses an offer when in fact accepting it, to the end that affection may be instilled. That affection is also increased by such a refusal and so advances from the thought of what is good to the desire for it. [A person] is led by the Lord in the spiritual life by means of things that are virtually the same as those by which one leads others in everyday life. In everyday life it is quite normal to refuse an offer so that the one who makes it may do so with affection, thus not simply because he has thought of making it but also because he desires to do so. Should the offer not be accepted the ultimate intention would perish, and therefore that intention incites the one making the offer to think more intently about it and so to make it his heart's desire." (AC 4366)
It’s as if we start by saying, ‘OK Lord, here’s my life. As you can see, I’m trying hard, but it’s not working.’ And then we believe we hear the Lord saying, “I have enough my brother; keep what you have for yourself” (Gen 33:9). Almost as if we think He is saying that He has enough life, or enough people who love Him, and He doesn’t need us. Then something inside of us is taken aback, and we react with “But Lord, wait! What’s wrong with my life? Please show me how it can be better! Please! I really want to learn how to love You better. I really do want to stop hurting the people I love. You’re the only One that can help me!” And then the Lord says, “Now that’s the attitude I was hoping for. I will gladly accept that attitude.” We tend to want what we think we can’t have. The Lord can use this to change our attitude, and then fill us with His goodness.
So in that short, seemingly awkward exchange between Esau and Jacob, we are changed. We started off being someone who had an affection for truth for natural reasons: “I just need to learn something that will make me happier.” Now we begin to have an affection for truth for spiritual reasons: “I really want to stop hurting the people I love, and become a better person” (see AC 4368).
But the story doesn’t stop there, because hey, it’s just not that easy. We may now have a genuine desire to change for the sake of the Lord and for the sake of the people we love, but we still feel like we get slowed down by our old habits. It’s like we just can’t keep up with the Lord’s goodness all the time. After Esau accepts Jacob’s gift, Esau says, “Let us take our journey; let us go, and I will go before you” (Gen 33:12). The Lord wants us to walk with Him on our spiritual journey. And ideally this would be the end of the story. We would just always walk with the Lord in whatever we do. But Jacob says, “I can’t. I’ve got little kids and baby animals. We won’t be able to keep up with you.” How often do we say this to the Lord?: “I can’t keep up.” It’s really quite simple: if we walk with the Lord, we will be safe, happy, and provided for. The Lord’s yoke is easy. But for some reason it’s hard for us to do this. We tend to forget about the Lord in the details of our daily life. The cares of this world drag us down and slow us down like Jacob’s many children and flocks. If you have children, or you own animals, it may even be actual children and animals that make it feel like you can’t keep up with your spiritual life. But whatever it is, there are things in our lives that make it feel like we can’t maintain the pace of always living and walking in the Lord’s love. We fall back into loving ourself and just wanting happiness and peace for ourselves. We haven’t completely received the Lord’s goodness yet (see AC 4377, 4378).
But we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this. The Lord knows that this is our tendency. The Lord knows that we can’t keep up with Him. Esau’s meeting with Jacob represents the joining of good to truth in general in our life; in theory. We get it now; that we need to walk with the Lord. But the joining of good to truth in every single detail of our life takes more time. Each ‘child’ and ‘animal’ moves more slowly in our spiritual journey (AC 4379). We may have come to know and even embrace the concept that loving the Lord and the neighbor are the primary things of the church (just like Jacob embraced Esau). But how we apply that to each and every circumstance in our life may take some time (the flocks and children move slowly). Secrets of Heaven says that: “This is the way in which people who are being regenerated are led by the Lord, for they are endowed with general things having within them those which follow later, which also come forth successively, doing so in an order and sequence beyond description” (AC 4383).
Esau then says, “Let me leave some people with you to help you.” This represents the fact that because of this process we’ve been enlightened by the Lord about ourselves, about the Lord, about the spiritual journey. These truths that we now see are represented by the people Esau wanted to leave with Jacob (AC 4385). Jacob then responds by saying, “What need is there?” Almost as if it’s us saying, “Yeah, I see, I get it now” (see AC 4386).
And then the story ends with what seems to be Jacob snubbing Esau. Esua returns to Seir on the East side of the Jordan. But Jacob doesn’t follow him there like he said he would. Instead he crosses the Jordan into the land of Canaan. Why? It doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface. But the underlying meaning makes perfect sense. It was through Jacob’s interaction with Esau, through our meeting with the Lord on our spiritual journey, through our renewed desire for His help, that we are able to come into a more heavenly state, a state represented by the Promised Land (see AC 4388, 4394). We now have an affection for goodness, and enlightenment about how our mind works and how the Lord’s kingdom works. Jacob is now a more complete person because of meeting with Esau. He probably felt relief in the reconciliation. He probably no longer feared his brother. These are heavenly states. These states of peace are ones that we can experience on our journey if we meet with the Lord on the way.
So when you are struggling with trying to do what’s right, but not feeling any change, try to remember to meet the Lord on your journey. Embrace Him! Present your life to Him. And then keep walking. It may take a long time for us to learn how to walk with the Lord in every part of our life. And it may take even longer to actually feel loving. We won’t be able to keep up all the time. This is normal. The Lord knows this. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Have patience. Trust in the Lord. It may have taken Jacob a while, but he did eventually make it into the Promised Land. And if we embrace the Lord and try to keep up with the Lord in our life, the Lord promises that we can make it too.
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).
(If you would like to look up the references that appear throughout this paper, copy and paste them into Small Canon Search.)
As a musician, and a minister-in-training, the subject of the ‘role of music in worship’ is near to my heart. This paper will be a reflection on three things: 1. A reflection on the chapter entitled ‘Music in Worship’ in the Liturgics Notes compiled in the 1970s by Martin Pryke, for the Academy of the New Church Theological School. 2. A reflection on the current role of music in some of the various worship services around the General Church of the New Jerusalem today, and 3. My own reflections on what I think the role of music in worship is or should be based on my understanding of the Word. Past, present and future.
Music is first mentioned in the Bible in reference to Jubal, “He was the father of all those who play the harp and flute” (Genesis 4:21). The Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg tell us that at least as far back as the Ancient Church, there was music involved in worship (see AC 8261). And we know from many places in the Old Testament that music and musical instruments were involved in worship. These facts have led to the continuation of music being used in Christian worship and in Swedenborgian worship.
It’s interesting to note that dancing is also referred to as being used in worship in both the Ancient Church (AC 8339) and in the Bible; for example: David dancing before the ark, (2 Samuel 6), and also: “Let them praise His name in the dance, let them sing psalms to Him with timbrel and harp” (Ps. 149:3; 150:4). And yet these days--and especially not long ago--dance tends to be a much more controversial aspect of worship than music. Maybe it’s because of its visual and sensual nature, or maybe it’s because it is an art that focuses more necessarily on the performer than music does.
But with dance, as well as with music, and with any of the arts, we should examine what the Word says about them, and that should ultimately trump any traditions that we have. “'Dancing' is mentioned in the Word, [because it means] the glad feelings that belong to affections for truth, or to faith grounded in good or charity” (AC 8339) Raymond Pitcairn said in a 1920 article in New Church Life that, “Power resides in ultimates, and through correspondence the two are one. The forms of art are ultimates, and they are powerful. ... The truth is that all the arts are gifts of God, intended primarily to be the hand-maidens of religion” (Christian Art and Architecture for the New Church, p. 612).
In the past, it has been thought that one of the only styles of music appropriate for worship was classical music. Maybe this was due to the fact that Bach devoted all of his music to God. But there is plenty of classical music which was not created for a religious purpose, such as Mozart’s music. When it comes to instrumental music that is used for worship we can take one of two approaches: We could say that the only instrumental music appropriate for worship is that which has been created for religious purposes, or we could say that all music is a tool, which can be used for various purposes including worship. My belief is in the the second approach. But that still leaves us with the problem of association. If a piece of music is used for both secular and sacred purposes, then many people find that hearing that music used in worship can bring up secular associations for them. This is a valid concern, and one that needs to be dealt with carefully and with compassion.
“Heavenly songs are nothing else but voiced affections, or affections expressed and varied in musical tones. For as thoughts are expressed in spoken words, so affections are expressed in the singing of songs. Angels perceive the subject of the affection from the balance and flow of the musical variations” (CL 55). Music is a wonderful part of worship because it so wonderfully arouses our affections. And it’s almost indescribable as to how it works. Why does one particular progression of notes arouse feelings of praise, while another progress inspires feelings of humility? Why does one particular rhythm or tempo arouse feelings of joy, while another inspires feelings of peace? The Writings of Swedenborg say that angels can perceive the specific subject of a song simply from the melody, even without the words. We can do this too, to a lesser extent, when we perceive that a song is either sad or happy from the music and not the words. But all of this simply points out that music is effective at arousing our affections and emotions. So why is that important in worship? In our church it is said that the three main elements of worship are humility, praise and instruction. Humility and praise are attitudes, affections, and feelings. Music has the ability to arouse these. And the arousal of affection is even needed for instruction: “Every implantation of truth or good in a person, as well as every joining of them to him, is effected by means of affection. The truths and goods which a person has learned but for which he has no affection do indeed enter the memory, but they are lodged there as insecurely as a feather on top of a wall which is blown off by the slightest puff of wind” (AC 4018) Music is something which can help to inspire the affections that help those 'feathers' of truth stick to the 'wall' of our mind.
But we need to remember that the external forms, rituals and traditions of worship are not identical to--or necessarily conducive of--true internal worship. External worship by itself is not the same as internal worship and therefore it is not what saves us or regenerates us. So it’s far less important what those external forms look like. The only thing we really need to be concerned about is how effective they are at expressing true internal worship, namely: love to the Lord and the neighbor (See page Liturgics Notes; External worship page 3). This is why we need to continually examine, and be prepared to change our worship rituals and customs. I recently heard someone say that Sunday morning worship should really just be a celebration of the internal worship that (hopefully) went on all week in people’s hearts, minds, and useful lives. “Songs were for the sake of exalting the life of love and the joy derived from it” (AR 279) Does our worship music help us celebrate that life? Is it effective in arousing an affection and joy for spiritual things? Both clergy and laity need to ask themselves this question, and be ready to change if the answer is no.
Unfortunately, because music is so closely tied to our affections, it is often the part of worship service that people feel the most strongly about, especially when there is a suggestion of change. The Writings of Swedenborg talk about how natural harmony is representative of spiritual harmony. In a musical choir, the music only sounds good when people work together, don’t do their own thing, and follow the conductor as one (see AC 3350). Spiritual harmony is the beauty of when people work together, submit their own selfish wishes to a greater cause, and follow the Lord as one. It’s sadly ironic that the subject of ‘music in worship’ is something which can cause spiritual discord in societies, rather than spiritual harmony. It’s important, both in internal and external worship, that we submit our own wishes to a love for our fellow congregants and their wishes, and of course to the Lord as a group. It’s a tall order, but if we can do this, I think arguments about music in church societies would begin to fade away. But just like it takes practice and effort to sing a difficult piece of choral music, it also takes practice and effort to ‘sing’ a difficult piece of spiritual harmony such as: exercising charity in regards to other people’s musical taste. And just like not everyone sings the same note in a natural choir, in a spiritual choir not everyone needs to have the same musical taste for there to be spiritual harmony in a church society.
So in general we know that there can be variety in the music of worship. But what are some of the specific things we can examine in the role of music in worship? Making music match with concepts is a challenge, but an important thing in worship. How do we make a melody inspire humility or praise or curiosity? It’s the challenge of every songwriter. I think in the past there has been a worry that some styles of music have the power to manipulate our emotions too much, and that if a song was too upbeat and joyful it would be inspiring only a natural or secular kind of joy, and not a spiritual joy. This points out the curious nature of our spiritual journey. To some extent, we need to ‘fake it, until we make it.’ We need to go through the motions of love to the neighbor before the Lord can fill us with the true feeling of love to the neighbor. I think this is true for external worship as well. I think songs that inspire even just a natural sense of joy, can be used by the Lord to fill us with spiritual joy. And when we have songs that inspire joy, with lyrics from the Word, used in a worship service, then those songs can hopefully leave us with a good and spiritual association. The Lord wants us to eventually have our externals be conjoined to and express our internals, but He also knows that the journey there can be a little awkward sometimes. So I think that it’s not a bad thing that we use songs in worship which express joy that we may not currently be feeling. When we “make a joyful noise to the Lord” (Psalm 100:1), that is a form that can eventually hold a truly spiritual joy, which then matches those externals. “Gladness of heart and joy of mind produce singing and joyful shouting” (AC 4215).
This paper is primarily about the role of music in external worship. But I want to briefly discuss the concept of the role of music in internal worship. If we think about the uses of our daily life as an expression of religious charity, which is internal worship, then what does that say about the role of music in internal worship? How can music help us to live a life of love and charity throughout the week? AE 376:13 talks about how in Ancient times it was a custom to sing in the vineyards and the winepresses. People today also often listen to music while they’re working. This is why I like the concept of religious music being created and used in non-church settings as well. The Christian world as a whole has done a good job of developing it’s own styles and genres of music for use in everyday life as well as worship (Christian rock, Christian rap, etc.). I hope that we can continue to do the same thing in our Swedenborgian cultures and organized religions for the sake of our internal worship. And I also think that--when the lyrics are not contrary to our doctrines--it is appropriate and even useful for us to use music from other denominations, religions and spiritual practices in our daily lives, as a way of inspiring internal worship. Not to mention the unity and charity it can help us feel towards other Christian denominations, when we value their music.
Musical instruments are mentioned frequently in the Bible. Among the instruments mentioned are the harp, horn, flute, lyre, pipe, trigon, kithara, bagpipes, psaltery, coronet, dulcimer, organ, trumpet, oboe, shofar, bells, cymbals, sistrum, tabret, drums, and tambourines. And these vary depending on the translation. And of course a biblical harp, horn, flute, organ, trumpet, oboe, and cymbals would have looked almost nothing like the ones you would see in a modern orchestra. If our worship is drawn from the Bible, then all of these instruments should be appropriate for worship. And yet not everyone would necessarily agree. I think the subject of instruments points out how we should be using the Word in worship. Namely that in the New Church we believe that the spirit of the Word gives life to the letter of the Word. Not many would argue that we should only use biblical instruments such as the kithara in worship. But on the other hand some would argue that an electric guitar is not keeping with the spirit of a biblical stringed instrument. I think someone who truly understands the Writings would acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with using an electric guitar in worship, because worship is not about external things. However a minister should be sensitive to the internal things of worship, namely: affections that could be negatively or positively stirred by the use of an electric guitar in worship. The Writings of Swedenborg talk about what various instruments represent, but like with many things, these are not meant to be taken as prescriptive of how we should form our external worship, but rather they are prescriptive of how we should form our internal worship.
It was interesting to note that in Bishop W. F. Pendleton’s time, by common consent, the pipe organ was considered the most appropriate instrument for worship (see page 132 of the Liturgics Notes). This is not common consent anymore. And--as it should--what is considered appropriate music for worship has changed and developed from generation to generation.
Traditionally there have been four types of song used in General Church worship; the hymn, the chant, the anthem, and the Psalm. A hymn is a religious song in which the lyrics have been composed by a songwriter. The writing of hymns is a great opportunity for the laity to get involved in religious expression in worship. Hymns are usually easy to learn because they are fairly repetitive; but this is also one of their negative sides. Another downside is that older hymns which are still used because of tradition and affection, can sometimes contain lyrics which are hard to understand such as the beloved: “O Precious Sign” (#915 in 2005 liturgy) which contains the lyrics “a perfect union, all the dross consuming,” which the average person will probably not understand unless it is explained to them. My wife and I have actually re-written the lyrics to this hymn to make it clearer and more understandable. But there are some who would be horrified at the thought of changing such a beloved hymn in any way. Perhaps a middle ground is to have the minister explain the meaning of certain hymns prior to having them sung. Modern contemporary hymns are much easier to understand, however some people don’t like their style or the fact that they are often sung in unison as opposed to harmony. But songs sung in unison are still a kind of harmony (see page 124 of the Liturgics Notes).
Another kind of song used in worship is the chant. Chants are songs which take their lyrics directly from the letter of the Word, but are fit to music in a loose sort of way so that they emphasize the words more than the music. The music itself is often very simple and some would say boring. Some people like this style of music, however it is a much older style, and often doesn’t appeal to (arouse the affections of) younger generations. So for that reason the use of chants should be considered carefully. One kind of chant called the antiphon (meaning ‘opposite voice’) has developed into some more modern styles of worship music which involve call and response singing and can be sometimes found in African or Gospel music. The Liturgics notes encourage the use of this style of music in worship because it can represent the ‘call and response’ that takes place between the Lord and us. If this style of singing requires a minister who can sing, it can be problematic, and so it should never be required, but when it’s possible I like the idea of the minister getting involved in the leadership of the music in worship.
Another kind of song used in worship is the anthem. Anthems are like a combination of hymns and chants in the fact that anthems are usually direct quotes from the Bible, but they are carefully fit to melodies. Anthems used to be very complex and somewhat hard to sing. These days (especially thanks to songwriters such as John and Lori Odhner) we have many anthems which are easier to sing and also very catchy. A prime example of a modern anthem in the Church today is Heather Childs’ “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Some anthems were written in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Personally I dislike this, because I don’t like the idea of singing something I don’t understand. It seems like a step backward into a time when the ritual of worship was considered to have magical or supernatural powers beyond human understanding. I understand that Hebrew is a language that is close to the language of angels, but I still think that internal worship is better inspired by a person truly understanding the words of what they are singing.
Another kind of song used in worship is the Psalm. In the General Church we were fortunate enough to have a member of the church put many of the Psalm to music, with careful thought put into their internal sense meaning. However, these Psalms are very long and complex pieces of music. While the older generations of the church think fondly of them, the younger generations tend to not like them. I would love to see a modern composer put some of the Psalms to modern music.
On page 133 of the Liturgics Notes it describes two functions that an organized choir can fill in worship. One function of a choir is to lead the singing during the worship service. Another function is to provide special music for preludes, interludes, and postludes. I would suggest a third function which is to introduce new worship songs to the congregation which could be learned and incorporated into the worship service.
Many things have changed with the role of music in New Church worship over the years. Many societies use guitars where once it was only organ or piano. Many societies use multiples styles of music, where once it was only classical. Many societies have visible vocal soloists where once that was considered inadvisable (see page 134 of the Liturgics Notes). Many societies use upbeat music where once it was only soft and peaceful. The introduction of new types of music used in church camps like Laurel, which spilled over to contemporary services, have led to ground-breaking and controversial changes in the role of music in worship as evident in things like New Church Live and the Jazz Vespers at the Ivyland New Church. People are beginning to use more modern and upbeat music in their wedding services. Who knows, maybe we will start using dixieland jazz bands in our funeral services? Personally I think all of this is wonderful, but many people don’t. So how do we maintain spiritual harmony and charity in all of this? Can we have unity in internal worship while having variety in external worship? I believe we can.
So what is the role of a minister in regards to the role of music in worship? I think the role of a minister involves maintaining the soundness of doctrine in the lyrics of songs chosen for worship. (Contrary to what was said on page 133 of the Liturgics Notes, it don’t think this has to mean that the minister is always the one who selects the hymns and incidental music.) I think it involves the minister reminding the congregation what spiritual harmony is. I think it involves the minister explaining older musical traditions to younger generations, and modern musical traditions to older generations. I think it involves the minister reminding people that the externals of worship are less important than the internals, and to encourage charity in the discussion and practice of the variety of external worship rituals. I think it involves the minister being sensitive to the often conflicting affections people have about music in worship. I think (if the minister has an interest in it) it can involve the minister getting involved in leading the music in worship when possible. And I think it involves the minister encouraging the congregation to participate in the music in whatever way they feel they can, and (if they have an interest) to get involved in the leadership and production of music for the society’s worship services.