Renewing Our Relationships

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 10, 1999
(Transcribed from audio tape)


Psalm 133 The blessings of unity

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 and branches

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 in ourselves.


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 things.

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. Swedenborg writes:

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 life.

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 relationship.

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.

One of 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."

Responsibility is 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 about."
  • 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 the changes.

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.

Within ourselves 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 relationships.

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