You have eyes--can you not see? You have ears--can you not hear? Do you not remember?
My theme this morning is a simple one--that we are living, right now, in a spiritual world
as well as in this physical one. It is a world no one sees very often and most of us do
not see at all, and for this reason it may seem unimportant or impractical. Both Scripture
and our theology tell us, though, that it is the world we will live in forever after we
leave this one, which makes it very important indeed.
Practical people plan ahead. They look beyond short-term advantages to long-term security.
I am bewildered from time to time by newspaper accounts of people who are stopped for
speeding and are found to be driving unregistered vehicles and to have no driver's
license. One would think that drivers with that kind of liability would not want to call
attention to themselves by racing through the middle of town, but it seems as though the
sensations of the moment overrule any thought of possible consequences.
It does not seem very bright. Yet in its own way, it is a kind of image of ourselves
whenever we get so wrapped up in this world that we forget the eternal one. The ninetieth
Psalm sets things in perspective: "For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday
when it is past, and as a watch in the night." We are currently engaged in the shortest
segment of our lives, and we know--though we may try to forget it--that it is a temporary
one. It will come to an end in due time.
Some people, faced with this fact, push the panic button and virtually turn their backs on
this world. The old hymn that starts, "I'm just a stranger here; heaven is my home," is
true if we understand it right, but it is also easy to misunderstand. We misunderstand it
if we let the importance of eternal life undermine our sense of the importance of physical
life. If we plunge into some form of fatalism, thinking that nothing physical really makes
any difference at all, or turn to some kind of mortification of the flesh as though the
flesh were the enemy of the spirit, we miss the very important point that the Lord has
designed this world as a preparation for the next.
A story from my younger days may serve as a kind of parable. I had a friend who married
just after graduation for college. He said about a year later that his wife had been a
very good cook until she began to understand the principles of cooking and figured she
didn't need recipes any more. The poet Alexander Pope put it in a couple of rhymed
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
A full grasp of the principles of cooking enables us to appreciate the wisdom of recipes.
We may eventually not take them as literally as we did at first, but if we vary from them,
it will be with a knowledge of why they say what they say and a considered reason for
"saying something different."
In somewhat the same way, a shallow sense of the reality and nature of our spiritual
environment can lead to some very flaky forms of behavior. In the realm of physical
health, for example, it has all too often led to a simplistic and judgmental belief that
everything that goes wrong with our bodies reflects something wrong with our souls, so
that our physical health is a direct index of our spiritual health. It has also led, on
occasion, to a disastrous and even fatal refusal to turn to physical remedies.
A deeper appreciation of the reality and nature of our spiritual environment leads us in a
very different direction. It leads us to care for our bodies so that they can better serve
our souls. It leads us to be attentive and responsive to the signals our bodies send us
without being obsessed by them, and it leads us to mistrust any simplistic readings of
The Lord's providence, that is, is not compelling. If we have set ourselves a goal and
find ourselves faced with an obstacle, it is up to us to decide how to respond. Is the
Lord suggesting that we change our course, or is this something we ought to face and work
through? Often, a case can be made for each alternative.
The answer, according to our theology, is not to be found by looking simply at the
physical consequences. The point is made most clearly in Divine Providence (¶ 214):
"Divine providence focuses on eternal issues, and on temporal issues only to the extent
that they agree with eternal ones." Whatever our outward circumstances may be, their
central message involves our eternal welfare.
At this point, I'd like to digress a moment to make sure that this matter of "our eternal
welfare" is not understood in a way that licenses a retreat into spiritual egotism. This
can happen all too easily if I become so preoccupied with my inner life, my spiritual
state, my salvation, that I stop paying real attention to anyone but myself. Let there be
no mistake about this--our individual spiritual health, our individual salvation if you
will, is no private matter. It demands love of the neighbor. When I am faced with physical
illness, one of the benefits the Lord may intend is that I become more sensitive to others
who are ill. We healthy folk can be awfully callous sometimes. One hears occasionally
about the reactions of doctors who have finally undergone hospitalization themselves.
They can become much better doctors.
To make the same point in another way, if we are concerned about our eternal welfare, it
might make sense to take seriously the proposition that heaven is a community. It is not a
lot of individuals sitting around concerned with their own spiritual states or lost in
their own private visions. It is people living together, superbly sensitive to each
other's joys. It is people who have discovered the beauty of other souls and the delight
of openness. Negatively put, it is people who have found out that they cannot be happy in
solitude, or when those around them are in need.
To return to our theme, then, we find ourselves in this world that dominates our
perceptions and tries to lay total claim to our attention. We know that there is a world
we cannot see--that the mountains around us are full of horses and chariots of fire. In a
way, it is because we have physical eyes that we cannot see this spiritual army, it is
because we have physical ears that we cannot hear the voices of angels.
What we do have is two major sources of enlightenment, that work for us only when we put
them together. We have the Lord's teachings in scripture and in our theology, and we have
our capacity to examine ourselves. We have been taught that we are spiritual beings, that
our affections and thoughts are not just side effects of our physical experiences. We have
been taught that there is a kind of hierarchy of loves within us, that we begin life with
love of self in the driver's seat, so to speak, and that our life assignment is not to
destroy that love but to lead it into its proper role as servant of love for the Lord and
love of the neighbor.
What each of us must then do, and what no one else can do for us, is to be as honest as we
can with ourselves about our motivations. It is hard to do this if we are prone to get
caught up in guilt, so let me put it this way. If I want to get to San Francisco, there is
nothing wrong with being in Chicago, or in Cleveland, or in Boston. I need not blame
myself for being a long way from the goal. In fact, I might better blame myself if I
pretend to be where I am not, or if I simply refuse to look at the map at all.
The really good news is that if we are honest with ourselves, and if we look deeply
enough, we discover that deep down inside we really do want to reach this goal. Through
all the distortions the world presents us with, through all the scars we may have
suffered, there is something in every one of us that longs for openness and intimacy.
There is something in us that wants to know and to understand, and that wants to be known,
to be understood.
Perhaps the hardest step is the next one, that is to trust that the Lord is in control of
everything that we cannot control, so that our task, in the words of our traditional
burial service, is "to make the most of the duties and opportunities which are left for us
hear on earth as our best preparation for the life of higher service."
There is no way we can prove that the Lord's providence exists, let alone that it is
perfect. There is no way anyone can prove that it does not exist, or that it is not
perfect. Often, when discussions about this take place, emotions masquerade as reason, and
our individual experiences of providential guidance or of flagrant injustice lead us to
choose which side we will argue for. No, both belief in providence and rejection of that
belief are "acts of faith" in the sense that they represent ultimately not what we cannot
help believing but what we choose to believe. The Epistle to the Hebrews, though,
describes faith as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen"
(Hebrew 11:1), and it is worth noting the words "substance" and "evidence." The Greek word
translated "substance" is used to refer to foundations, to solid underpinnings. The Greek
word here translated "evidence" has connotations of testing. This faith is not romantic
dreaming; it is grounded and critical.
The evidence is there if we look for it. We do know what kinds of choices leave us at
peace with ourselves and foster mutual understanding and appreciation. We can tell when we
are trying to deceive ourselves. We know what it is like to feel guilty or resentful or
envious or rejected, and how different these feelings are from feelings of security,
acceptance, understanding, and love. We are acutely aware of the huge difference between
comprehension and confusion, between knowledge and ignorance, between fact and error--and
we must confess that we do not always prefer the uncomfortable truth to the
self-gratifying distortion. None of us is a complete stranger to denial.
All these are, we might say, the shadows that spiritual realities cast on our natural
senses. Like shadows, they are not precise pictures of the solid bodies that cast them.
Their shape depends also on the terrain they fall on, and our sense of our spiritual
states does depend in part on our outward circumstances, on the terrain of our lives.
When misfortunes pile on top of each other, the most loving and enlightened of souls can
cast a grotesque shadow.
It is vital that we acknowledge this. We need to be able to avoid passing "last judgments"
on ourselves and to practice instead a kind of ongoing provisional evaluation. "This is
what I think is happening to me spiritually at present. Let's see whether it holds true,
whether it continues to make sense. Let's be open to revise it."
Above all, our recognition that we are spiritual beings should make us more attentive to
each other. For one thing, because those around us see us from the outside, they see some
things we cannot see from the inside. More deeply, though, none of us is complete. We need
each other, and we are needed. The healthy side of our spiritual environment is heaven,
and heaven calls us out of solitude and into community.