But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven. - Matthew 19:14
I would not have thought of presenting a Children¡¯s Sunday sermon to this particular congretation, but the monthly bulletin of our Fryeburg church just arrived, and in it Gard Perry mentions having seen a bumper sticker--¡°It¡¯s never too late for a happy childhood.¡± It reminded him, as it does me, of the Lord¡¯s statement that we need to become like little children if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven.
It also reminds me tnat a reader of Swedenborg named Jes Weiss has just come out with a book entitled Overcoming the Fear of Death and Dying. This was the title the publisher wanted. Mr. Weiss¡¯s original title was How To Die Young Late in Life, and the book certainly resounds with youthful vigor. It is the vigor of a veteran of World War II, which gives a clue as to his age.
Going one step further, this calls to mind a paragraph from the Arcana (n. 5726) which starts out in startling fashion.
Since the only source of death is sin (sin being everything that is contrary to the divine design), evil closes off all the tiniest, absolutely invisible vessels which are woven together to compose the next largest (and still invisible) ones. These smallest, absolutely invisible vessels extend to our deeper levels. This is the cause of the first and inmost blockage and therefore the first and inmost impurity in our blood. As this impurity increases, it causes disease and eventually death.
If we had lived good lives, though, our deeper levels would be opened into heaven, and through heaven to the Lord. This would mean that all the tiniest, invisible little vessels would be opened as well , , , , so that we would live without disease. We would simply decline toward extreme old age, when we would become children again--but wise children. Then when our bodies were no longer able to serve our inner persons or spirits, we would cross without disease from our earthly bodies into the kind of bodies angels have--straight from this world into heaven.
Whatever we may think of the medical details of this statement, there is a growing body of evidence that the principle involved is both valid and vital. Perhaps the most appealing testimony is Norman Cousins¡¯s in Anatomy of an Illness. He was diagnosed as having a rare and incurable disease of the connective tissue, with a prognosis of painful death. He chose laughter as his therapy, wathich such things as Marx brothers movies, regained his health, and lived another twenty-six years.
From the usual adult standpoint, Marx brothers movies are pretty childish. But the iomage Cousins offers is that we can kill ourselfes with our adult anxieties. Laughter can bring a juge relief from suppressed tension. It seems to involve a letting go, an ¡°opening up,¡± and ¡°opening up¡± is exactly what Swedenborg was talking about.
But we need to back up a little and look at the beginning of the Arcana quotation. It seems strange indeed to find Swedenborg telling us that ¡°the only source of death is sin.¡± This sounds like the old doctrine that we were meant to live on this earth to eternity, and that only Adam¡¯s sin brought death into the world.
Cearlly, though, that is not what our theology teaches. It tells us that w3e are essentially spiritual beings, and always have been. This world is simply the arena in which we make our choices between ehaven and hell. The Lord has never wanted us to spend eternity in this in-between state. The whole purpose of creation is ¡°a heaven from the human race.¡± The very passage we are looking at goes on to say that if we had not lapsed into evil, we would still make the transition from this world to the next.
So when Swedenborg says that sin is the only source of death, he must be using the word ¡°death¡± in a kind of non-literal way. He meams death not as the weldome transition from this world to the next, but death as the threat that we fear. He means the decline and disability, the ¡°disease,¡± as he says, that tend to make old age burdensome. This is the consequence of sin.
It is not necessarily the direct consequence of our own individual sins, though.j We cannot judge our spiritual states by looking at our medical charts. We are integral membvers of the human family and paarticipants in its general spiritual state. Physically, we cannot help but recognize that we are affected by our surroundings. Our codies are affected negatively by pollution, but communicable diseases, and by accidental traumas. They are affected positively by fresh air and healthy nourishment. We need only remind ourselves that the same holds true for our souls--we are susceptible to the good and the evil in our spiritual environment.
A factor in Norman Cousins¡¯s ailment, for example, was intense exposure to the fumes from jet fuel. We can hardly blame him for this. We can, however, see clearly that the exposure was not the end of the story, It affected him, but he was not helpless.
I would take this as a marvelous parable. We are indeed affected by our culture and by our spiritual surroundings, but we are not helpless, except in that deepest sense that our strength is not our own. We are left to choose what we will take to heart. The essence of the childlike attitude, the heavenly attitude, is simply a profound trust in the perfection of the Lord¡¯s care. It is the avbility to focus ourselves completely on whatever difference we can make, and leave the rest to the Lord.
In a non-reflective way, children do this all the time. They become completely absorbed in what the yare doing, and let the rest of the world take care of itself. In fact, they let themselves be taken care of. Then they become just as completely absorbved in something else. Granted that there is an appreciable amount of unconscious egoism involved, this still represents a kind of spintaneous self-giving that is immensely attractive.
The message of our Gospel reading is that it is also immensely healthy. For our own souls to thrive, we need to discover that kind of self-forgetfulness. As long as we insist on carrying the world on our shouldres, we are trapped in the sin of self-importance. We are burdening our souls, and as our theology points out, this imposes severe stresses on our bodies.
Another way the Lord tries to get this same message across is through his command not to be anxious about tomorrow. He assures us that he will feed us. We need of course to be careful not to use this as an excuse for irresponsbility. There is a vast difference between planning and worrying, between prudence and anxiety. The main intent of the Lord¡¯s words is surely that we will never find peace of mind and heart until we realize now constantly the Lord supplies our souls.
Sometimes it seems as though it is a matter of being able to shift our mental gears. While we are engaged in a particular task, it can help to give it our total attention, as though it were the only thing in the world that mattered. Wilson Van Dusen has done a lovely job of indicating how much we can learn if we look for the Lord¡¯s presence in our uses. The Lord has brought us to this task, and the mindful doing of it will lead to discoveries about ourselves and about the Lord¡¯s will for us.
The alternatives are familiar and unattractive, We can work distractedly, with our minds elsewhere. The job will almost certaqnly take longer, turn out worse, and lack any sense of satisfaction. We can work resentfully, with a secret hope that something will go wrong. This leaves us dissatisfied if things go right and irritated of they go wrong--it is the complete no-win situation, and we set it up for ourselves.
Perhaps we should visualize more often a child bent over a project, utterly oblivious to everything else. Then we should think of how much the child is taking in by this concentration. This child¡¯s mind and heart are being nourished as we watch.
This is what is so perfectly imaged in the Lord¡¯s Supper. Here we have the food that we are unable to create, offered to us freely. Whether there is a corresponding nourishment for our souls depends on the attitude with which we come. Distraction, resentment, or any other self-centered feelings are causes of spiritual starvaton. Openness, willingness to accept, and gratitude enable us to be fed.
So again, we are left in freedom. Now we look not at the evil that impinges on us, but at the good that is offered us. We can accept this support, this nourishment, as children accept the support of their parents, or we can go on trying to stand on our own. If we take the former course, it will not be a return to childhood, for children do not choose this attitude, or understand what is involved in it.
No, we will be what our Arcana passage describes as ¡°wise children,¡± whose trust is based on experience. We will trust in the Lord against a background of years of reliance on ourselves. We will be recognizing and welcoming the childlike impulses that arise, knwoing where they come from and where they lead. And above all, we will know that they lead to heaven and to the Lord, and will be willing to be led there.