Rev. Steve Sanchez

Rev. Steve Sanchez
Swedenborgian Minister

Sunday, July 31, 2011

How the Lord is the living Word

      The Lord is the living Word made Flesh. This is a phrase Christians often say, but how is it to be understand.
      Swedenborg describes this process in a way I have never seen anyone else articulate. He writes that the Lord progressively became divine truth while in the world by the actions of his life, particularly each time he fulfilled the prophecies about himself made by the prophets in the Word:

Because the Lord, by the assumption of a natural human, made himself divine truth in outmosts, he is called the ‘Word’, and it is said that ‘the Word was made flesh’; moreover, divine truth in outmosts is the Word in the sense of the letter. This the Lord made himself by fulfilling all things of the Word concerning himself in Moses and the Prophets. For while every man is his own good and his own truth, and a man is a man on no other ground, the Lord, by the assumption of a natural human, is divine good and divine truth itself (D.L.W. 221).

     When Jesus declares in the synagogue the words, ‘This day the scriptures are fulfilled’, we realize that He is the fulfillment of the prophesies about the Messiah. It is an extraordinary moment that is the culmination of centuries of prophecy and preparation, and is the convergence of the divine truth of the Word with the divine good in the human, Jesus. In the light of this historical event (and many others like it where he fulfilled prophecy), the process Swedenborg is describing has profound implications that are readily understandable. Lets grapple with the basic process: the Word is divine truth itself that has been accommodated down to humans by discreet degrees. The celestial sense of the word is all about the Life and development of Christ from the time He was a baby. When the Lord came into the world He lived all that was prophesied about him, he fulfilled the prophecies by his life actions. Thus He embodied divine truth, and became the living Word. This is not a metaphor, but a historical accomplishment that was centuries and centuries in the making . So first I would like to describe how it is that the celestial sense of the Word is all about the life and development of Jesus Christ.
     Gardner Perry has pioneered the insights I am about to share, except in far greater detail than I express here. His work has to do with the correspondences between the Old Testament Genesis and Exodus stories and the spiritual development of the Lords life and mind. The story of the Lord’s life is contained in these Old Testament stories in the inner sense. Many people are aware of this, but Rev. Perry has studied the details of these correspondences that chronicle the development of the Lord’s mind, body, and soul. He also studies this subject in the light of modern psychological developments.
      For instance, his Study points out that Jesus’ first great awakening to the infinite potential of His soul corresponds to the Promise made to Abraham by Jehovah that all of humanity would become his progeny, like the ‘dust of the earth’. This is an expression that the Lords love and wisdom for humanity, and governorship over humanity would become infinite in content and depth. At the same time the Lord began to see the depth of Humanities suffering. The Lord saw the rampant nature of evil of His time, the great suffering, cruelty, and hate of humanity. Humanity was in an external state of worship and He would have to deal with this difficult circumstance. He knew his mission was to save humanity but at this point He did not know how He could accomplish it. His greatest anxiety/temptation was the uncertainty over how and whether He could save humanity from the terrible schemes of the evil forces. Like a diabolical terrorist evil sought to foil the Lord by torturing the humanity he so loved.
     At the same time, while on the earth, the Lord was working in a community teaching people how to be in internal relationship and worship, and not in external worship: because the vast majority of society at this time was mired in external worship. This ministry of the Lord on earth developed the seed for the new church to develop from, while, at the same time, in the spiritual world, he was subjugating the hells and progressing toward divinity.
      I share these few details of the Lord’s inner development according to the celestial sense to provide a deeper picture of the tension between the internal and the external state of the Lord. I also share this with the reader to give a feel for how the celestial sense of the Word is one with the life of the Lord, in the sense that He is the living Word. Holy Scripture is joined to the Divine of the Lord by discreet degrees: first there is the divine truth of the Lord, then the celestial sense is joined to the spiritual sense, and the spiritual sense is joined to the natural sense, and the natural to the literal sense, which is the published Bible. This is how the Word is the living body of Jesus, as Christians say. According to Swedenborg it is not a metaphor, but a metaphysical reality. The Word is a nexus that conjoins the Lord and humanity. This is important to keep in mind because divine love and truth is the first cause of all things and this is what the Lord was conjoining himself to as He progressively fulfilled the prophecies. I believe this is part of how He gradually “returned from whence He came”.
       How the Lord is ‘the living Word’ is still an illusive idea to grasp, so lets look at this process from the perspective of our daily life. There is a common saying that holds a great truth – ‘A man or women becomes what they do’. What we believe and will leads to what we do. The essence of our humanness is in our will and understanding, and what we actually will to do forms our soul. When we are stripped away of all the externals, as we will be when we die, we are left with what we really love and believe, because this is what composes our internal soul.
     It is the same thing with the Lord. He became what He did. By coming here he separated himself into an external and internal, which is the situation of all humans who are born. There are many places in the Bible where it says that Jesus performed a deed ‘for the sake of the fulfillment of prophecy’. I can't repeat them all here, but there abut 20 to 30 in each Gospel. In his last temptation on the cross when Jesus speaks, “It is finished”, he accomplished fulfilling all prophecy. By progressively fulfilling all prophecy in the Word to the end, He made his external body and internal divine soul one, so there was no more separation. Therefore his physical body became divine, because that which merges with the divine is divine. When you break metal in two and then weld it back together, the weld becomes the strongest part. He became what He did, and what He did in his life is fulfill the prophesies about Himself from the passion in his soul. He embodied divine truth. 
     We take all this now as a foregone conclusion, but He risked everything by coming here. The fate of the universe was in a little baby. Unlike the disciples, all hell knew who he was on site, and they attacked him and tried to foil his mission with unrelenting fury. Evil spirits tried to bring despair upon him by destroying humanity, for the salvation of humanity was and is the love of loves in his heart. Evil used the age-old tactic of all terrorists - destroy the leader by destroying those he or she loves. Nevertheless, the Lord only willed love and mercy, and He defeated the evil forces continually. He did so by His might alone, a might far beyond our ability to imagine.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Case story about a man's experience of hell

In this blog I am sharing a story I was told by someone I met. I am mostly telling his story here without interpretation, so that you can share your ideas about what it mans to you. For instance do you think the man's description of hell is real, as he says, or a dream, or a vision. I will share more about the how things went with him in the next blog.
I met with H the first day he came in. He was in a car accident and broke the front and back of his neck. His face and upper body seem mostly unaffected. He has a strong upper body, except that his fingers are curled, but his lower body is paralyzed. He has a round head, mostly bald. On first impression he sort looks like a fighter. He has earthy good looks and a big smile. His face is engaging and he makes strong eye contact. There is charisma in his smile, but it sometimes fades to weariness.
When he had the accident he had two kids with his wife, and his wife also had a son before they were married.
He launched into telling me the following story: Early in his life he had done drugs and was heavily caught up in the gang world in LA. Some of his own gang members turned on him over a girl and tried to kill him, but his mother saw what happened and tricked him into moving to a central CA city. He got out of gangs, and got married. One night his stepson wanted to go out to some SF clubs. His wife let him because his son was a little depressed and getting over a break-up. His stepson was only 20. At the club there were not many people and H felt like they should leave. The club had three dance floors. His stepson sees a girl and followers her to the ‘underground’ floor and starts to drink. H goes down, and in the corner of the room he sees 5 demons. He said they were black, shadowy, and kind of see-through, and had red horrid eyes. He asks his stepson if he sees anyone in the corner, and his says, “No, what are talking about’. H still sees the demons and they beckon him to come over. But he goes with his stepson to get a drink. After that he doesn’t remember anything for almost two hours, but he must have been partying. Later it was told by doctors that his stepson had ecstasy in his blood. H conjectures that someone might of slipt him ecstasy, but doesn’t know. (Others suggested that sometimes devious people slip ecstasy into drinks just to watch how people act). In any case at around two in the morning when they leave, and as soon as H steps outside he faints, and can’t stay awake. His stepson who is waisted drives home, and they get into a terrible accident.
In the hospital he finds that his wife is only concerned about her son and doesn’t pay attention to him. The doctors tell him they can operate on his neck but they don’t have much hope that he will live. His wife has power of attorney for, but she doesn’t attend to H properly. He feels abandoned by his wife. He tells the doctors to operate now, and his wife finally comes to agree.
He has a series of operations and each time the doctors are surprised he recovers better then they thought, and they keep taking further steps because he is improving. He begins to regain feeling in his body. During this time of his operations he said he was in an induced coma for three months. While in a coma he experienced the following:
             He saw a light, and it was an opening to a tunnel. He went through the tunnel and on the other side he came out. He saw a black and red sky, and a demon flying in the air. He noticed the demon had broken wings, though this didn’t affect the way it flew. He looked down and saw a large river. It was very bright, like hot lava. He said that as he looked closeley he saw people in the river making horrible screams and trying to get out. He said there were thousands and thousands of people in it. He saw that the river led to a lake.
He was on a sort of ledge above watching, and then the 5 demons came near. They came after him, and he felt there was nothing he could do. He felt terror and that this was it - the demons were going to throw him in the river like the others, and he would be like this forever. Then he heard someone speaking in his ear. He felt the presence of the Lord. He felt the Lord enter his ear and move through his head, then down through his body into his heart. The demons tried to grab him, but somehow they couldn’t touch him. They were hideous, powerful, and enraged, right in his face, but could not touch him to throw him in. Then he felt something pull him from the back of his head and spine as if he had hair. But he was bald. He felt the Lord lifte him out from hell, and he woke up.
C4 – What did you feel when the presence entered your ear and your heart?
P4 – He was talking to me. It was the Lord. I felt so happy. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was done for the rest of my time. I have been bald for a long time. He lifted me by my body.
C5 – How come the demons couldn’t get you?
P5 – He was protecting me. They were so mad, but they couldn’t touch me. I was so thankful and happy. There was nothing I could do. I owe everything to him for saving me.
C6 – What was the point that you feel that you changed?
P6 – You know when I was younger I went to church sometimes. I knew that I was moving too fast and doing some wrong things. I heard God’s voice, but I didn’t pay attention. I said, “I’ll do it later”. But when he came in me I felt joy, and I said I am never letting go of this, and I never did. This is my witness.
P7 – What happened with your wife?
P7 – Things were still hard on me when I started to get better. I lost everything when this happened. My wife wasn’t there for me and left me, and I lost my kids. I only see them sometimes now. I can’t do anything to take care of them or get them back. I lost my job. I lost everything.
C8 – My God, that must of hurt so much. You must of felt abandoned.
P8 – Yah it hurt me a lot. Everything was so hard after that, trying to move and being helpless. But I had to let go of all that. I put all my heart in prayer and God, and knew that he would help me to get better. I had to focus on healing.
The weariness in him seemed to be from all the difficult things one after another that he went through, from the pain of operations and having to fight back.

Monday, July 11, 2011

How Does Trauma Relate to Belief in God? Some Pastoral Thoughts

       I developed the following ideas from my experience at seminary and as a chaplain in a world class rehab center. I was doing both simultaneously, and it was painful for me to see the place where others had a hard time believing in God. I had to process through my experience, feelings, and perception about these things. It was not easy because everyone has different views for different reasons. In seminary it was a very political situation, because the Pacific School of Religion is very progressive, and all too often some people there move into an ideological corner. You'd be astonished how many folks there don't believe in the spiritual world, and certainly not that there is a hell. And some don't believe in God, or at least a Christian God.
        My interest is in the practical application of theology, so I would like to offer some thoughts on the pastoral implications of the belief that God is the cause of evil, and that God inflicts harm. I do not believe he in any way shape or form is the cause of evil, but I will address that theological question in another blog. To believe that the Lord inflicts evil in the least degree can have destructive consequences. What pastor has not heard the question in time of crisis, “Why did God allow this to happen? Why did this happen to me? Is God punishing me?”  I asked a patient recently how he expressed his sense of spirituality. He said, “I guess I don’t. My wife has Parkinson’s and I blame God for it. I am angry at God for it.”
       The feeling is understandable, but this is reasoning from emotion. The questions above are a first response when the shock of tragedy begins to set in, and one has to deal with it. Often as people begin to talk further about their feelings and beliefs, they reveal that they do not really believe God is punishing them, but they are still angry. It is normal and healthy to feel so; in fact, it is very Biblical. In lamentations the response to deep suffering is modeled for us; the people wail with complaints at him, and wrestle with what God is doing, but they are taking their feelings to him. Lamentations shows how God is big enough to handle all our anger and despair, and that these feelings are safe with him. When we open and witness our feelings to each other and to God, they are shared suffering and gradually transformed into thankfulness and love.
       There are other times that people get stuck in their anger. Reasoning that God is punishing them involves the assumption that God is inflicting evil on them; that is how it may appear and how it feels. To work with this pastoral it helps to seek to discover the root of the anger and emotion, because it is trapped emotion that drives this belief. One needs to offer deep acknowledgement and compassion for the cause of the emotion. (This is the primary factor in all of this, but not the focus of this essay). Later, at the appropriate time it may be possible to help them rethink theology from a place of loving God. There are other times though when a person does not change the feeling of anger nor their intellectual belief that God is punishing them. Lets explore how this works a little bit.
A friend approached me yesterday and we talked about his marriage struggles. He described how his wife was so emotionally attached to her family and their drama that she can’t bond with him. He has tried to help his wife’s family with their many compelling dysfunctional issues, even helping some of them by letting them live in his house. When he had to stand up to certain issues he got a lot of grief, not only from his wife’s family, but to his dismay – from his wife. He said he suffers because his wife’s love-hate relationship with her family prevents her from being able to fully bond with him. She is psychologically consumed in battling with, and trying to prove herself to her family. He said she suffered a lot of trauma in her youth and the unresolved anger around it is booby trapped with self-protect mechanisms against dealing with the pain. He said that she has even let go of her relationship with God, and refuses now to talk about God. This is a hardened place for her.
With the first shock of trauma we react from a default place of emotion, and think from appearances. The natural reaction is felt in this way: if no one cares about me, then I don’t care about you, or me. This is a cut-off, and feeds the forsaken feeling that ‘God is punishing me’. This may explain what is happening in the story above. These feelings are not necessarily bad. As I said above, often after the first shock people are put in a position to wrestle with God, and are able to incorporate a more spiritual perspective. They re-define and deepen their connection. But other times the pain of trauma is too deep, people have erected hardened barriers around it, and will not let their position be budged. Swedenborg gives us a great framework for understanding this subject. He writes:

  To think and conclude from the internal is to think from ends and causes to effects, but to think and conclude from the external is to think from effects to causes and ends. The latter progression is against order, but the former is according to order; for to think and conclude from ends and causes is to think and conclude from goods and truths clearly seen in the higher region of the mind. Such from creation is the nature of human rationality itself. But to think and conclude from effects is to conjecture causes and ends from the lower region of the mind where are the sensual things of the body with their appearances and fallacies (CL, 408). 

Feeling God is punishing us is an example of coming to a conclusion from external thinking. We see the evidence of, lets say a stroke; we appropriately feel anger and pain and loss, and from appearances conclude that God is punishing us. But this is from natural thinking. As we process the situation spiritually we can see that our experience is part of the human condition, and that God is the foundation stone that we can trust in our hearts. Healthy anger springs from the desire to find, establish and reclaim our identity. When we feel the grief there is an opening up, because grief is a form of love; it is love when there is the pain of loss. Bitter, hardened anger concludes that ‘no one cares, and there fore we are not going to care’ (although this is, of course, never true; it is either defiance, or crying out for help).
       It is my experience and observation that, quite often, the cause of the stuck place is unresolved emotion from trauma. The unresolved emotion drives a wedge between our selves and our loved ones, between God and us. To maintain the wedge requires dissociating from what we really need to deal with, which manifests in all kinds of addictions, and evasive behavior. It also causes us to use ideologies as dissociative tools, such as using relativism to justify any position we want so as to not face our self, or using the dogma of religiosity to avoid vulnerability and pain. If the dissociation becomes chronic, it causes a distancing from the foundation of our being - God. The anger and pain don’t go away, and the wedge displaces our ability to receive the Lord in our hearts. This phenomena of displacement is I think very significant. Swedenborg says it this way: To the degree we harbor evil, we cannot receive good.
      Many people have suffered trauma in their youth. The trauma could be at the hands of religion, one’s parents, political organizations, schools, relatives or any number of things. Trauma due to abuse causes a deep emotional imprint in the heart, and in the neuronal networks of the brain. It can also be added to by ones own misbehavior, which compounds self-inflicted hate and poor identity. These experiences cause disillusion, suffering, and despair. People learn strategic ways to protect themselves against these emotional scars. Even those who do a lot of processing work around the issue often don’t get to the core of it. Intense emotional experiences of injustice become internalized, held in a place where they can’t cause further pain. If this kind of emotional hiding persists the ‘underground’ emotion can displace our reception of good. The stuck emotion inside feeds-off polarized feelings from childhood that habitually and reactively dart between helplessness and omnipotence. These are drasticized childhood feelings that we regress to as a default strategy. Self-protection around the underground pain has been made a matter of survival, leaving us with un-resourced places inside, at least when it comes to certain matters. When triggered, we regress back to this place and react from it, unconsciously employing tried and true self-defense mechanisms, or escaping through some form of dissociation. The stuck person protects this emotion at all costs, even if they unconsciously hurt others. It sometimes doesn’t matter how much psychological or religious information a person has gained in their life; in fact the more they have, the more sophisticated the self-protection mechanism, and the more elaborate the intellectual framework that is used to mask it.
In this condition, deep down there is anger at others, and even deeper anger at God. There can’t help but be because God is the foundation of our being, and the true source we eventually need to humble ourselves toward to resolve it. Providentially God is always working to prevent these ill feelings from becoming trapped and unseen, where they become like poison in the blood. This is the essential meaning of the Biblical phrase to be hot or cold, not lukewarm. We are to let our love or hate of God, and each other, see the light of day where it can be worked out and removed.
       To say that God inflicts evil is not only a theological falsity, but what is worse; it inflames the negative and self-destructive impulses in the suffering person. Imagine telling someone who is struggling with the feeling that God is punishing them that God is the one who inflicts evil. If they really theologically believe that God is against them, then there is nothing that can help – end of story. Such a notion arises from external thinking. God never causes evil, but allows evil for the providential purpose of removing evil. The Lord is the redemptive force in our hearts and minds. He is the comforter; and his love is closest when we are most ill and suffering.  It is irrational to blame God for the evil that happens, because God is good itself.
        When trauma causes a gap in our psyche, we suffer a distortion, at least in some areas of perception. For instance, I was in a preaching class and a man gave a sermon on the story of how Mary came to Jesus and washed his feet with her tears. The student preacher was a talented speaker, and gave a very dramatic presentation of a traumatic event. He told of being in his room at the age of seven, and hearing disturbing noises in the living room. He desperately wanted them to go away, but they persisted. He heard thumping and crying. He stepped out of his room and into the living room. His step-dad was beating and abusing his mother. This story was very intense and shocking to hear. The preacher went on to exegete the scripture by offering this provocative interpretation: he said Mary was not there to worship and seek forgiveness from Jesus, but it was Jesus that needed to seek forgiveness from Mary.
         It seems to me most people would agree this interpretation of the text is inappropriate. It appears his interpretation was made in the image of his emotional reaction and traumatic imprint. This is the distortion of trapped emotion and trauma. It is good therapy for him in the right setting, which is not to be minimized, but that is not the purpose of the situation. In a sermon one is a servant leader to the people of the congregation, and looks to the tethering of God to make meaning of the text for the lives of the people, not ones own emotional needs. One needs to pay attention to, or seek to tether themselves to the urging of the Holy Spirit to make meaning for the sake of the congregation. We are always tethered to something, whether we know it or not, and sometimes we tether ourselves to money, addictions, people, and material ambitions, and emotions all of which can displace God. The point of this is not to judge people, but to be resourced as a practitioner in assessing what is going on, and seeing what people’s needs are. By discerning the particulars we have a better chance to be present and compassionate to the needs of our self and others.