Sunday, September 9, 1991

Location - Brockton
Bible Verses - Exodus 16:1-21
Matthew 16:24-34

And Moses said, Let no man leave of it till the morning. Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto Moses: but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and stank: and Moses was wroth with them. - Exodus 16:19f.

I want to talk this morning about good and bad ways of ¡°living in the present.¡± This is prompted by a paragraph in Arcana Coelestia (n. 2493), in a section that deals with the kind of memory we have after death. I¡¯ll quote the first part of it now, and the last part later.

I have talked with angels about the memory of past events and a consequent anxiety about things in the future, and have been taught that more more inward and more perfect angels are, the less they care about past events or think about future ones. This is a source of their happiness. They say that the Lord provides them with what they think about moment by moment, with a sense of blessedness and happiness, so that they have no cares or worries. In the inner meaning, this is what is meant by the manna that they received ¡°daily¡± from heaven, and by the ¡°daily¡± bread of the Lord¡¯s Prayer. It is what is meant by not worrying what we should eat and drink and what we should wear.

I suspect that this raises caution flags for most of us, that we want to say, ¡°Yes, but . . . .¡± Little children live in the moment, and we are adults. We have learned to pay attention to lessons from the past, and to give thought to the consequences of our actions. We are supposed to be the industrious ants and not the hedonistic grasshoppers. Of course, we can carry this to extremes. Abby had a letter a couple of years ago from a woman whose quite prosperous husband would not spend money for travel because he was saving for the future. I believe he was ninety years old.

We have also known people who live in the past. Their primary reaction to the present is to compare it to the way things used to be, and it never manages to measure up. You used to be able to walk the streets of Boston at night, or we never used to lock our doors when we left the house. Somehow they never seem to remember that there used to be signs saying ¡°No Irish Need Apply,¡± or that one thing that prevented juvenile delinquency was the exploitation of children as cheap labor.

But the opposite failing seems much more common. From time to time, I read in the Police Blotter of our local paper about someone who is arrested for speeding through the middle of town, and it turns out that this person is driving an unregistered car without a license. One would think that in such a legally precarious situation, the driver would not want to draw the attention of the police, but there seems to have been absolutely no thought about the consequences. Speed feels good, or there is a sense of urgency, and nothing else comes into consideration. We have just been through a decade of piling up debts, and are realizing that it may take a good many decades to undo the harm. It was a bit startling a month or so ago to hear a Wall Street type saying on television that even though he had recovered financially, he was not going to buy whatever he felt like any more.

This kind of short-sightedness is so obvious that we may have a special need to be reminded of the right kind of ¡°living in the present.¡± That ¡°right kind¡± is giving our full attention to the situation we are in--to the task at hand, to the people we are with. It involves accepting things the way they are rather than wishing they were the way they used to be or waiting for them to get better.

I hasten to add that this acceptance is not the same thing as approval. Suppose, for example, that my washing machine breaks down while it is still under warranty, and that the person I call about it makes things as difficult as possible. One dimension of the situation is that this shouldn¡¯t be happening, but that is a minor dimension compared to the fact that it is happening. This is the situation, and I have a certain amount of freedom as to the way I will handle it. It may be perfectly true that in the Old Days the local dealer stood behind his product. It may be perfectly true that the consumer ought to have better resources for dealing with such problems. I do not have to approve of the way things are. I do have to accept, to face the facts, and to deal with what is rather than with what used to be, or ought to be, or might be.

One of the areas in which this is most critical is in our conversations with each other. It is obvious when we stop to think about it that when you are talking to me, the moment I start thinking about what I am going to say next, I am not giving you my full attention. It is also obvious that when I am talking to you, the moment I start wondering what you are going to say in reply, I am not giving my full attention to expressing what is on my mind. An old cartoon from Punch comes to mind. An elderly clergyman is leaning out of the pulpit over a few obviously rustic parishioners, one of them complete with haying fork, and thundering, ¡°Now you may quote Eusebius against me . . . .¡± This is just an extreme form of a common failing, that of trying to do other people¡¯s thinking for them rather that doing our own, and then listening to theirs.

It seems, then, that we have something of a dilemma. On the one hand, we are to learn from the past and to provide for the future. On the other hand, we are to give our full attention to the present, because that is the locus of our freedom and our action. And it is right here that the rest of the paragraph from Arcana Coelestia comes in. The first part of the paragraph was saying that ¡°the more inward and perfect angels are, the less they care about past events or think about future ones.¡± It continues,

Even though they do not care about past events or worry about future ones, though, they still have a most perfect recall of past events and insight into future ones because both the past and the future are inherent in their present. As a result, they have a more perfect memory that could ever be conceived or explained.

¡°Both the past and the future are inherent in their present.¡± The reason ¡°living in the present¡± faces us with a dilemma is that we have some mistaken notions about what ¡°the present¡± actually is. It might not be too much to say that we think of the present as separating the past from the future, whereas in fact it is where the past and the future meet.

The most accessible image of the difference that I know of comes from driving, specifically from the difference between driving a new route and driving a familiar one. When we go somewhere for the first time, travelling along unfamiliar roads, it can seem to take forever. We may have excellent directions, but we are looking at every sign and every landmark, not exactly sure how far it is to the next turn, and often not absolutely sure we have not missed something. As the route becomes familiar, it feels far shorter. We know where we are in relation to its beginning and end. We know what the various decisions mean along the way.

Our theology is telling us that we can have this kind of view of our lives as spiritual beings. I trust it is clear that we cannot predict what is going to happen to us physically. We do not know how long we are going to live, how prosperous we are going to be, whether or not we are going to meet with illness of accident or some other misfortune. There is no security on that level, the level where moth and rust corrupt, where thieves break through and steal. We must do the best we can, and leave the rest in the Lord¡¯s hands.

But on the spiritual level, we know the consequences of our pride and our humility, our greed and our generosity, our resentment and our compassion, our self-deception and our honesty, our doubt and our faith--at least, we can. If we use the resources of our theology, if we truly make the effort to understand ourselves in the light of Scripture, we do begin to see patterns that we can rely on. Superficial events may be unpredictable, like ripples on the surface, but the deeper tides of our souls are strong and steady.

Swedenborg¡¯s language is not casual in our quotation. ¡°The more inward and perfect angels are . . . .¡± It is as we see more clearly what lies within that we begin to find the past and the future inherent in the present. At every moment of our existence, there are eternal issues underneath the surface. Right now, we are the result of everything we have been and done, everything that has happened to us. Right now, we are in the process of living forever, choosing, out of all the kinds of person we might become, the kind of person we want to be.

There is a particularly urgent message for us in the story of the manna. It is that the Lord does provide us, day by day, with what we need for our regeneration. This can be an awkward fact to face. It is hard for us to say that we must need this or that problem; but this is at the heart of the acceptance mentioned earlier. Wherever we find ourselves, there is something we can receive and something we can give. Wherever we find ourselves, the Lord is with us, and is offering us the inner resources we need.

This is true when things are not going well for us, and it is just as true when things are going well for us. Actually, when troubles mount we do have a tendency to ask for the Lord¡¯s help. We may be at greater risk when everything is going smoothly. In the words of Deuteronomy, it is when we have been brought into the land, given all good things, when we have eaten and are full, that we need to beware lest we forget the Lord. What lies beneath the surface of that present? What are its eternal issues? In short, if we are to live in the present, how long is the present? How much of our life is summed up in this moment?

One thing we can be sure of--there is far more involved in this moment than we are capable of grasping. When Elijah¡¯s servant¡¯s eyes were opened, he saw that the mountains were full of horses and chariots of fire around his master. What would we see? We do not know; but we do know what we need to know, namely that everything that is hidden from us is in the Lord¡¯s care. We are called to look as honestly and deeply as we can, and to deal truly and lovingly with the issues we can discern. As we do this faithfully, we will become ¡°more inward,¡± and will find in the present all the riches of past and future.


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