Building a Heavenly Self
the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Maine, August 20, 2000
30:11-20 The offer of life or death
what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for
you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so
that you have to ask, "Who will ascend into heaven
to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey
it?" Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to
ask, "Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim
it to us so that we may obey it?" No, the word is
very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so
that you may obey it.
I set before you today life and prosperity, death and
destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord
your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands,
decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and
the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are
entering to possess.
if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and
if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and
worship them, I declare to you this day that you will
certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the
land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you
that I have set before you life and death, blessings and
curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children
may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen
to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your
life, and he will give you many years in the land he
swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and
Luke 9:18-27 Peter's confession of Christ
when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples
near him, he asked them, "Who do the crowds say
that I am?" They answered, "John the Baptist;
but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the
ancient prophets has arisen." He said to them,
"But who do you say that I am?" Peter
answered, "The Messiah of God."
strictly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone,
saying, "The Son of Man must undergo great
suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests,
and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be
he said to them all, "If any want to become my
followers, let them deny themselves and take up their
cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save
their life will lose it, and those who lose their life
for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if
they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit
themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words,
of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in
his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy
angels. But truly I tell you, there are some standing
here who will not taste death before they see the
kingdom of God."
Arcana Coelestia #5660 A heavenly self
heavenly self comes from a new motivation that the Lord
gives us. It is different from our own selfhood. When we
receive a heavenly self, we no longer see only ourselves
in everything we do and in everything that we learn and
tell others about. Instead, we see our neighbor, the
general public, the church, the Lord's kingdom, and the
said, "Those who want to become my followers must
deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. For
those who want to save their own life will lose it, but
those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
(Luke 9:23, 24)
who want to save their own life will lose it, but those
who lose their life for my sake will save it." This
is the paradox in which we live. The more we focus on
our own wants and needs, the less alive and the more
frustrated we feel; but the more we forget ourselves and
simply live from the best we know--which, in the
end, is living from the Lord--the more alive and
fulfilled we feel.
week at Fryeburg New Church Assembly we have been
focusing on the human "proprium," a Latin word
that means our ego, our sense of self, our self-image.
This is what we identify as "I," whereas
everything else we identify as "not I." To use
my father's phrase, it is our "necessary illusion
self-ownership or selfhood is an illusion. We
know from our church's teachings and from common
spiritual sense that everything good and true comes
from the Lord and belongs to the Lord. So nothing
good and true in us is really ours. We also know that
evil and falsity are simply perversions of goodness and
truth, with no real life of their own--so claiming them
as ours is claiming an illusion on top of an illusion.
Swedenborg is fond of saying that by ourselves, we are
nothing but evil. But we could also say that by
ourselves, we are nothing at all, since
everything we have and everything we are flows into us
either from the Lord or from hell. Nothing is really our
our sense of self-ownership and selfhood is also
entirely necessary. Without it we would never be able to
exist as human beings. We could never do anything from
free choice according to our own values and beliefs.
This means we could have no real relationships with one
another or with the Lord. So the Lord, who wants to be
in relationship with us, gives us as a gift this sense
of self-ownership. And the Lord allows us to do whatever
we want with that sense of self possession--and thus
with our lives.
here we are, living in this paradox. By ourselves we are
nothing, and if we try to claim anything as our own, we
automatically plunge ourselves into fallacies and
illusions. Yet we are given the gift of feeling
that we own ourselves so that we can become truly human,
and be in loving relationship with one another and with
most of the time we are not bending our brain around
paradoxes, fallacies, and spiritual concepts. Most of
the time, we are simply trying to get along in our lives
and do what is in front of us--perhaps with some goal in
mind as to where we want to be in an hour or a week or a
month or a year or a decade from now. And even if we do
have long-range goals, most of the time we are too busy
with the tasks of our lives to be consciously thinking
about those goals more than a fraction of the time.
as long as we are driven by our own sense of
self, having long-range goals is essential to moving
forward in our lives. Without goals, we are leaves
driven by the wind, blowing this way and that according
to the various currents that swirl around us. So rather
than starting with a rather depressing recitation of how
we humans are born into evil, I would like to offer you
one of the beautiful statements from Swedenborg about
what we can hope for when we have run our course, fought
our battles, and emerged as a new creation in the Lord.
In Arcana Coelestia #5660, a little later in the
same number that I read from earlier, Swedenborg writes:
are given a heavenly self, we enjoy a state of
serenity and peace; for we trust in the Lord and
believe that no evil at all can come to touch us. We
also know that no strong evil desires can molest us.
Further, when we have received a heavenly self we
enjoy true freedom; for being led by the Lord is
freedom, since we are then led within an atmosphere of
goodness, from goodness, and toward goodness. So it is
clear that we then enjoy bliss and happiness. There is
nothing that can disturb us--no selfish love at all,
and therefore no anger, hatred, or desire for revenge.
Nor do we have any materialistic love. Because of
this, we have no desire to deceive anyone, no fear,
and no uneasiness at all.
if you already have no fear and no uneasiness at all in
your life, feel free to take a blissful nap for the rest
of this sermon! But for all the rest of us, let's take a
look at this business of building a heavenly self.
be true to Swedenborg's statement here, I should say being
given a heavenly self. We are told both in the Bible
and in Swedenborg that we can do nothing by ourselves,
but everything good comes from the Lord as a free gift,
given out of pure divine love and compassion. How, then,
can we speak of building a heavenly self?
paradox that we live in is that even though we know in
our better moments that everything we have and
everything we are is really a gift from the Lord, we
must act as if it were all up to us. If we sit around
doing nothing, waiting for the Lord to flow into us with
all that wonderful love, peace, joy, and bliss, we will
never do anything at all--nor will the Lord be able to
flow into us with anything but a continuation of the
status quo. Even though we are merely vessels that can
receive love and understanding from the Lord, we still
must do the work--as if it were up to us--of making the
vessel that is us receptive to the Lord's presence.
means giving up everything in our character and
self-image that stands in the way of the Lord's living,
growing presence of our lives. And this is what Jesus
means when he tells us that if we try to hold onto our
own life, we will lose it. Let's face it: when we start
out on this journey of life, we are generally operating
from a lot of faulty feelings and attitudes, which tend
to be focused on our own happiness and comfort. And our experience
of holding onto our own lives is that if we don't stick
up for our own needs, and go after our own happiness and
comfort, nobody else is going to do it for us.
a material perspective, and in our current society, this
is true. Yes, our parents will take care of our basic
needs while we are growing up. But once we reach
adulthood and are out on our own, it is up to us to
provide for ourselves the necessities of life. In fact,
one of the goals of our upbringing and education is that
when we reach adulthood, we will have the knowledge and
ability we need in order to support ourselves in this
society. And it is a healthy part of our
spiritual journey to get to a point where we are pulling
our own weight by contributing usefully to our community
and the human economy generally. If most of us did not
do this, our society would fall apart.
irony is that once we have spent all those years
learning how to be self-sufficient, we have to spend
just as many, if not more years learning to give up
our sense of self-sufficiency, and to trust in one
another and in the Lord's leadership. Yes, most of us
can support ourselves materially and get along
reasonably well through our own work and initiative. But
after we've proven to ourselves that we can do it, the
challenge is gone and it simply becomes work. At that
point, we may continue to go for more and better
positions for ourselves, and more material possessions
and accomplishments. But if we are at all open to the
deeper dimensions of life, sooner or later we will
become dissatisfied with what this world has to offer.
Sooner or later we will want a deeper life.
deeper life is something we cannot acquire for
ourselves. Yes, we can study the Bible and other
spiritual books, go to church, look for spirit in
nature, meditate, and so on. But true spiritual life
comes only from a living relationship with the Lord. And
a deeper, heavenly self can come only when we open
ourselves up to the Lord's presence in our lives. This
means that we must lay down all that carefully built up
sense of being self-sufficient and in control of our own
destiny. We must let our old self-image die so that a
new self-image--one of being sustained each moment by
the Lord--can take its place.
would be too much for us to do this all at once. We
simply can't undo in one fell swoop the self-image we
have built up for ourselves over so many years.
Fortunately, we have the remainder of our lifetimes to
work on it. And we can work on it little by little,
letting one particular part of our old self-image die
and replacing that with the new, heavenly self offered
by the Lord before moving on and replacing some other
part. In this way, we can keep our overall sense of
being alive, while continual deaths of the old and
rebirths of the new are taking place in our lives.
can picture it as the renovation of a house. If we move
into a house that needs renovation, it is difficult, if
not impossible, to do it all at once. For one thing, we
have to live in some of the rooms while we're
renovating the others. So instead of doing it all at
once, we do first one room, then another, then another.
That way we always have a place to live while we're
doing the renovations.
we first move in, of course, we are living in the old,
unrenovated house. And we have to stay in the
unrenovated parts at first, while we do the initial
renovations on the most important rooms, or on the ones
that need it most. While we're doing the renovations,
the house can be quite a mess! We have to cram all our
stuff into the rooms that aren't being worked on.
Meanwhile, we have to keep carting away old plaster and
rotten boards, while tracking sawdust all over the house
and generally living in the midst of a construction
zone. It is only as we finish each room that we can
begin moving in and enjoying the fruits of our labors.
Gradually we can move out of the still unrenovated parts
so that we can take care of them in turn.
is how it is when we begin the task of building a
heavenly self. For most of us, by the time we realize
that our life is lacking in terms of love and
understanding, compassion and mutual respect, we are
already inhabiting a rather dilapidated spiritual house.
We get so used to the peeling paint and rotten boards of
our own thoughtless actions and self-centered attitudes
that once we do open our spiritual eyes, we may be
shocked by how much we have deteriorated spiritually.
this is exactly where the process of spiritual
renovation begins. This is when we can begin to
dismantle the old and faulty self we have built up, and
replace it with the new, more loving and compassionate
self that the Lord offers us. This is when we can begin
to build a heavenly self.
it's a nuisance to have to tear apart everything we've
been building up all these years. It also requires a lot
of humility to admit that we've made a mess of things,
and a lot of faith and courage to turn our lives over to
the Lord. But once we've had a vision of the
"I" that we can become, the nuisance and the
personal pain of renovating ourselves from the Lord
becomes worth it. And once we start moving into those
newly renovated "rooms" of our character as it
is being rebuilt in the Lord's image, we can begin to
enjoy the fruits of our spiritual labors.
should also realize that our previous labor is not lost.
The house itself is still there, and much of its
structure is preserved. The elements of character that
we have built up over the years are not so much swept
away as they are renewed and redirected toward higher
motivations and higher goals. We will still be able to
enjoy many of the familiar activities and relationships
that we have developed over the years. But instead of
our lives being tainted with too much concern for our
own wants and needs--too much self-consciousness--we can
go about our daily activities with the bright newness of
living from an inner sense of love and understanding for
one another, and a new peace in feeling God's presence
within and around us.
we allow the Lord to build a new, heavenly self in us,
our old doubts and fears, our old need to hide our
"real" self from others, will be gone. In
their place will be an inner peacefulness and trust, a
sense of abiding mission and usefulness in life. We will
know that whatever may come our way, God is with us, and
our lives can continue to unfold to a rich and
satisfying sense of communion with one another and with
God. Our reading from Deuteronomy expresses this with a
different image--the image of a journey to a rich, new
land of spiritual promise:
See, I set
before you today life and prosperity, death and
destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord
your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his
commands, decrees, and laws; then you will live and
increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the
land you are entering to possess.