Renewing Our Relationships
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
October 10, 1999
(Transcribed from audio tape)
Psalm 133 The blessings of
How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down upon the beard,
Running down on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Mount Hermon,
which falls upon the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
which is life forevermore.
John 15:1-17 Vine
I am the true
vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears
no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in
me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it
abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
I am the vine,
you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit,
because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown
away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the
fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for
whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this,
that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
As the Father has
loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments,
you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and
abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete.
This is my
commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater
love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if
you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the
servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends,
because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit,
fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in
my name. This is my command: love one another.
Divine Love and
Wisdom #47 What is love?
The true nature
of love is not loving ourselves, but loving others, and being joined with others
through love. The essence of love is also being loved by others. This is how we
are united with one another.
The essence of
every love is joining together. This applies to love's life, which we call
pleasure, charm, delight, sweetness, blessedness, prosperity, and happiness.
Love is giving of ourselves to others, and feeling another person's joy as joy
Behold, how good
and how pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)
Our sermon is
going to be a little bit different this morning because given the Youth Retreat
and preparing for that, it was difficult to find time to write all of this down.
But beyond that, I wanted to bring you something of the spirit of our Youth
Retreat this morning. So what I'm going to do is present to you a shortened
version of a session that we did with the teenagers yesterday evening.
I'm happy to
report that the teens are having a wonderful time there. And I'm especially
happy to report that they were so into this topic of "Interpersonal
Relationships" that our session last night went for an hour and a half
instead of the hour that was scheduled, and nobody was making a move to get up.
So the retreat is going very well! I'm not going to preach for an hour and a
half this morning, but I will try to bring you some of the thoughts that I
brought to the young people yesterday at the retreat.
In particular, my
focus this morning is on growing and renewing our relationships. Because
relationships are not static; they're growing, living things. As we all know
when we go through different things with people, our relationships with people
change: we learn more about them, we grow, and that is part of the wonder of
being in relationships with other people--that they are growing and living
Now, what I'd
like to present to you this morning is one model for bringing our relationships
to the next step--for moving forward and growing, not just willy-nilly, but intentionally;
making a decision that "I'm going to move this relationship forward."
The model that I'm going to bring you this morning is not the only one
available. But it is one that we find in our church's teachings--in Swedenborg's
writings. I'd like to read you, from the newly reprinted version of The
Heavenly City, just a few numbers about the process of regretting and giving
up our faults. That sounds a little negative, but we're going to put it in a
positive light as we go along. This is #159-61 from The Heavenly City.
If we want to be set free, we have
to recognize our faults and regret them. We recognize our faults when we learn
what sorts of things are wrong, see them in ourselves, admit them, take
responsibility for them, and criticize ourselves for them. When we do this in
front of God, we are recognizing our faults. We regret our faults when, once
we have admitted them and asked with a humble heart for help in giving them
up, we stop acting on them and start living a new life in harmony with the
rules of kindness and faith.
What I'd like to
do for you this morning is boil that down to a four step process. We like to
have these things done in steps, so we can say one, two, three,
four . . . . It's not as though we actually finish
this process--it's a lifelong and eternal process. But it helps to have some
idea of where we're coming from and where we're going. And to give you the
overall picture, this is a model that focuses on overcoming the blockages--the
things that prevent us from being in deeper relationship with one another.
The first step
for doing that is building our ideals of relationship. In this particular
passage Swedenborg talks about learning what sorts of things are wrong. In other
places he says that the first thing we need to do when we develop spiritually is
to learn what's right and wrong. In our Sunday School class this morning we
talked about going down to Egypt, and how Egypt represents learning, especially
learning spiritual knowledge: knowledge from the Bible; knowledge from
Church and Sunday School--all the things that we need to know in order to live a
spiritual life. We have to learn these things because when we first
start, we really don't know. We don't know how you go about living a spiritual
When we go into a
relationship, we can just go into it willy-nilly and say "I'm going
to hook this thing up." But it works a lot better if we have an ideal in
our mind and in our heart of what we want this relationship to be.
At the retreat we
spend quite a while (what I thought would be the first half of the session, but
what turned out to be the first third of the session), writing down on
the board different things that we see as ideals in relationships. We also did
another column of things that we need to avoid. That's learning what's right and
wrong. In the session we did it interactively: I asked the kids and they gave
ideas. I want to bring you a few of the things they wrote down, which were some
of their ideals for what they wanted in their relationships.
There were things
like trust: being able to trust the other person. There was communication:
being able to share. When you have that trust, you can share things with the
other person that you couldn't share if you didn't have that trust. So they also
wrote down a sense of caring for one another: that if you share something
with the other person, instead of putting you down for it, they will sympathize
with you and help you. If it's something that you're having difficulty with,
something that's really hurting you at the time, they will help you to overcome
it. So there's a sense of compassion and helping in that
They talked about
wanting to have fun in the relationship. It's important to be able to
laugh sometimes and have fun and enjoy yourself and realize that life isn't all
serious--that we're meant to have those Sabbaths of rest. In terms of our
living, Sabbaths of just enjoying life together and having fun. They also
mentioned having common interests: that some of the things you like are
also things that they like, so that you can share with that other person or
those other people the things that you enjoy. They talked about maybe going to
movies or liking the same books, or liking the same sports. We had a couple
teens there who, every time we had a break, they'd get out their Field Hockey
sticks and whack the ball around the field. They were sharing common interests
and activities with one another.
These are some of
the things that they mentioned as their ideals for relationships. There were a
number of others as well. On the negative side, on the "don'ts" or
things to avoid, they talked about criticizing; they talked about not listening
(and so on the positive side there was listening to the other person);
they talked about talking behind others' backs, sharing secrets, and hurting
people in that way; they talked about not trusting. They talked about a
lot of different things that are blockages to relationships, which end out
breaking up and destroying our relationships.
So this is the
very first step that we need in order to be conscious and intentional about
growing in our relationships. What are our ideals? What do we want this
relationship to look like? What should a relationship be like? And on the
other hand, what are the things we want to avoid? In Swedenborgian or Christian
terms, this is learning what's good and evil in relationships. This is the
foundation on which we build.
Now, the next
step is to take a look at the ideal we have and identify places in our
relationships with the other people or person that we're thinking about where we
don't quite reach our ideals. In every relationship there are good and bad
parts. Some people say, "We should just always focus on the good, and not
pay any attention to the bad." But paying attention to the bad at least sometimes
is where we manage to grow. We need to rejoice for the good, but we also need to
recognize that in some areas we fall short.
Perhaps, as in
the example that I used at the retreat, we have a hard time saying "I'm
sorry." Perhaps we sometimes do things that hurt the other person. And we
feel, "If I say 'I'm sorry,' they're going to say, 'I told you so, you
dummy!'" And then we're going to feel bad. And so we hold it in and we
don't apologize when we really need to apologize for something. Maybe the
other person is thinking the same thing--they felt bad about it too. And now we
have these two people, both wanting to apologize, but neither one of them has
quite taken that step.
Then we realize,
"Now wait a minute. My ideal is to be open and honest with my partner, and
to be thoughtful and caring. And here I am not even willing to apologize for
that thing I said or did." There's a break here. There's a dichotomy
between my ideal for this relationship and what is actually happening. So we've
identified a problem. Of course, it will be all different things for different
people. This is just an example. But when we compare our ideals with what is
actually happening, we'll find places where we fall a little bit short.
Swedenborg's helpful of pieces advice here is: Don't try to do the whole thing
all at once! Don't try to say, "I'm just this terrible, awful person. I've
got all these problems and there is no way I can ever be in a healthy
relationship." Just pick one or two things that you want to work on--things
that you think you can deal with. There may be things that are just too hard for
you to work on at this particular time. Don't set yourself up for loss and
defeat right at the beginning. Pick a smaller one where you think you can make
some progress, and identify it.
That is, then,
step two: to identify the problems in ourselves. And that's important.
It's easy to identify problems in the other person. But that's not where
we can have our best effect. Because we really can't change the other person.
But we can change the way we are acting in the relationship, and
we can change our own attitudes.
Usually when we
do . . . usually if we decide "Well, I am going to
apologize," and if we go to the other person--yes, every once in a while
they do say, "Yeah! See, you dummy!"--but most of the time the other
person is feeling bad too, and they say, "Well, I'm sorry, too," and
you make up in the relationship, and things can move on. Usually the other
person responds. But we can take the first step.
And that is step
three: to take personal responsibility for our place in this
relationship. As long as we're blaming the other person and saying "They've
got to change," that means that we've given away our own power and ability
to make a difference. We don't have to say, "I'm a terrible person."
We don't have to do the guilt trip thing. But we have to say, "I'm going to
take responsibility for what's going on here . . . for my part
in what's going on here."
a positive word. It's saying "I'm going to take to myself, with the Lord's
help, the power to make a difference for good in this relationship. And if
there's any place where I've been wrong--where I've been making a mistake--I'm
going to try to make amends for that. And if there's any way that I can be
better and more thoughtful and caring in this relationship, I'm going to do that
no matter what the other person does. Because it's the right thing to do.
So the third step is to take responsibility, at least for our part in the
relationship. And that give us the power, from the Lord, to make a difference--a
good difference--in this relationship.
So we've started
with an ideal for the relationship, we've moved to comparing the
reality to the ideal and seeing where we're falling a little short, and we've
moved to taking responsibility for those parts and deciding that we want
to do something about it.
And then what I
have written down here is the second step three, but it is actually step four:
to make the changes. If we need to change our attitudes--if our attitude
is that the other person has to apologize first, that's an attitude that is
going to keep making breaks in our relationships. If we say, "I'm going to
apologize because it's the right thing to do, and because that can help this
relationship, and because it is caring, then we've changed our attitudes. And we
change our actions when we actually go and apologize to the person.
We have to make
the actual change. It may not be easy. We may have to drag ourselves over to the
other person and we may mumble it through our lips at first. But when we make
ourselves actually take the steps and make the change, that is, in a sense, the
final step. That's where the rubber hits the road. That's where the benefits
start to come in.
So we have to go
ahead and do the change. And of course, one of the greatest helps for doing this
is to ask the Lord for help. To pray and say, "Lord, you know I would like
to do so-and-so, and this is the way I usually do it. Help me to be a little bit
different now. Give me the strength and give me the inspiration to take this
step in this relationship that I need to take. So we ask the Lord for help.
We may also need
to ask other people for help. If it's a difficult problem and we can't handle it
by ourselves, we may need to go to a counselor. We may need to talk to our wife
or husband if it's somebody outside of that relationship. We may need to go to
some special friend and say, "I need your help now. I'm dealing with a
difficult problem. Would you just give me a little help and support." So
asking for help is very important.
And the wonderful
thing about this is that it is part of building relationships. We're not meant
to just tough it out all by ourselves and bust our way through. The whole point
of all of this is to build connections; to build union with one another; to join
together with other people. That's what Swedenborg talks about in our reading
from Divine Love and Wisdom: that the essence of love, the very nature of
love, is to join together with other people from love; to give of ourselves to
them; and to feel their joy as joy in ourselves.
So when we reach
out to another person and ask for their help, we're making a deeper relationship
with them. We're trusting them with one of our problems, with one of our issues
or difficulties. And that builds a relationship with them. And when we reach out
to the Lord, we're also building that relationship with the Lord that can be
with us all of our lives, growing and building all the time.
Just to look back
for a minute:
- Step 1: Build our ideals of
relationship. It's a matter of learning and visioning for what we want this
relationship to be.
- Step 2: Identify certain
specific places where we're falling short, and where we think we can make a
difference--where we think we can make some changes.
- Step 3: Take personal
responsibility. Say, "This is something I need to do something
- Step 4: Pray to the Lord, and
with his help make the changes in our lives. If we fall down sometimes in
this step, don't beat ourselves over the head and be guilty about it. Pick
up again and start over again where we left off. But make
Then we will be
able to move to the Sabbath state. We talked about four steps here. We could
have done it in seven if we wanted. At the end of this work, there is a Sabbath
of rest. There is a "reward," in a sense. There is a feeling--a
wonderful feeling--that this relationship has gone somewhere new; that we
have built a deeper connection with one another.
there is a new strength because we realize, "I, with the Lord's help and
with my friends' help, have overcome something that's been a problem for a
while. And I am actually able to do this." So the next time we face
something, maybe a little bit harder, we have a winning track record that we can
go from, to say "I managed to take care of that last one with the Lord's
help. Now I think I can handle this next one, too." So we gain strength
within ourselves to face the different issues that come to us.
We also become a
person that others can come to when they need help. Because now we've
struggled our way through, we've asked for help, we've gone through the process,
we've made some progress. And people see that in us. They recognize that this is
a person who is really working to be helpful and loving and caring and kind. We
become people that others can come to as well when they need help. That also
builds our relationships, because now we have this deeper connection with all
these people that we may have only known on the surface before.
So there are
wonderful things that come from this process. And I would say that the most
wonderful is that we not only make deeper relationships with one another and
make progress in that area, but we also bring God consciously into all of our
relationships. When our relationships are really a triangle with the two people
(or a quadrangle, or however many people) and God present in them, then they are
always going to grow. Because God is the greatest ideal that we can have for our
And so I would
like to leave you with the words of Jesus: "This is my commandment: that
you love one another, just as I have loved you" (John 15:12). Amen.
Music: Heart and Soul
© 1999 Bruce DeBoer