Sunday, January 1, 1995

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Deuteronomy 8:1-10
Matthew 8:1-13

And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God led you these forty years in

the wilderness, to humble you and to test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you

would keep his commandments or not.

Deuteronomy 8:2

In a way, Deuteronomy is a New Year's book. It is presented as Moses's address to the

Israelites just before his death, when the wilderness wandering had come to an end and

they were poised for the conquest. It reflects a consciousness of the end of one phase of

life and the imminent beginning of a new one.

Perhaps it is for this reason that it is striking to see how much emphasis is placed on

looking back, on remembering. There is clearly a fear, or at least an anxiety, that once

the nation is settled and comfortable, it will forget how it got there. It will forget the

Lord's part in the process, and take its prosperity as its right or as its own

achievement. The result of this forgetfulness will be laxity in keeping the laws on which

its prosperity depends.

It seems a distressingly familiar scenario. Sometimes when we see most clearly what needs

to be done we cannot believe that we will ever lose sight of this vision. Time and again,

though, we do. We come into circumstances that we have not anticipated, or that we have

anticipated only in fantasy, and are not able to make the connection between our high

resolves of the past and the actualities that engulf us.

This can be brought home to ministers with particular force when young couples come to

consult about getting married. Every minister has heard it--our marriage won't have all

those troubles, because we love each other so much. There is no way they can know how

different things will look in a few years--how different they will look to each other. It

will be genuinely hard to remember the marriage vows because they will seem to have taken

place in another world. "We didn't know what we were talking about. We didn't know what we

were saying. We didn't know it would be like this."

As the years pass, we should become more realistic in this regard. We should learn what

different faces the world can present to us so that we face the future a little less

cocksure that we can cope with it. We should learn, in a way, how much we can trust

ourselves, what we have to guard against. We should learn especially how badly we mislead

ourselves when we are more concerned with our image--in the eyes of others or in our own

eyes--than with actual self-understanding.

A passage from the close of John's Gospel comes to mind. The risen Christ is talking to

Peter, and says, "I tell you in all truth, when you were young you dressed yourself and

went wherever you wanted to. But when you are old, you will reach out your hands and

someone else will dress you and take you where you do not want to go." How much we can or

cannot do is simply a matter of fact. It changes in the course of a lifetime. As we move

from childhood into adulthood, our physical and mental capabilities increase. As we live

our adult lives we learn skills and, we trust, increase in judgment. At the same time, our

physical abilities begin to decrease.

Clearly, it seems, we are called on to accept more responsibility in the mental and

spiritual spheres and less in the physical. It is hard, when we have held our independence

in such high regard, when we have labored so persistently to stand on our own two feet, to

learn to ask for help. There are likely to be feelings of shame and resentment. Unless we

have begun to discover that we are essentially spiritual beings, there is almost certain

to be a kind of pessimism or defeatism, a feeling that life is not fair. We will find

ourselves looking back at the past as the good time, and trying not to look ahead.

As in crossing the street, though, we need to look both ways. All that we know about

ourselves and our world is bound up with our past experiences. All that knowledge is

pointless unless it informs our purposes. Past and future come together in our goals, in

our present purposes.

This is one of the most important facts about us as human beings. When our theology says

that we are our loves, that the love is the essential person, it is telling us that we are

fundamentally purposeful beings. We are not simply the product of the past, wholly

determined by what has already happened. What distinguishes us from animals is our

"freedom and rationality"--our freedom being our ability to make intentional, purposeful

choices, and our rationality being our ability to reflect on experience and design actions

that promise to lead us to our goals.

It is intriguing that while "hard science" formally denies or ignores the existence of

purpose and tries to account for everything on the basis of random events, the life

sciences over and over again resort to the language of purpose. Birds sing "in order to"

attract mates or warn off rivals. Predators approach from the downwind side "in order not

to" alarm their prey. The human immune system reacts in certain ways "in order to" resist

infection or disease. The blink reflex is "for the purpose of" protecting the eye.

Biologists are convinced that these behaviors are the result of learning. They are not

disregarding the past at all, and in a sense still hold to deterministic models. However,

it turns out to be terribly difficult to come up with a language that takes account of the

benefits of learning and that does not resort to the notion of purpose.

The intriguing thing is that this language comes in even when our own experience says it

is inappropriate. The blink reflex is not intentional. We do not deliberately turn on our

immune systems when we feel threatened by infection or disease. This is very different

from using a potholder to take something out of the oven or buckling the seat belt when we

get into the car.

The fact is that we do have a sense of purposes not our own. We think of our organic

systems as constructive--as designed to nourish and to perceive and to accomplish. Legs

are for walking, eyes are for seeing, stomachs are for digesting, even though we did not

design them. It is no easier for us than for biologists to describe how our bodies

work--or even to think about how they work--without words that imply purpose.

Theologically, of course, we are on solid ground. Creation itself is intentional. The

source of everything that exists is the Lord's love. There is a providential reason for

everything that happens. Swedenborg spent a full book on this--Divine Providence. It is a

sequel to Divine Love and Wisdom, and in fact begins by defining providence as "the

government of the Lord's divine love and divine wisdom" (Divine Providence ¶ 1). When it

lists the laws of divine providence, the very first is "that we should act in freedom

according to reason" (¶ 71). It makes it very clear that the Lord allows some things to

happen without "approving" of them--bad things happen only to prevent worse things from

happening (¶¶ 234-274). And in a short but important section (¶¶ 175-190) it argues that

it is critical that providence remain invisible to us except in retrospect. We can always

be sure that the Lord is at work, but we can never be sure exactly how. Our confidence

need not be entirely blind, though, because from time to time we can look back and see how

we have been led or protected.

This brings us directly back to our text. "And you shall remember all the way which the

Lord your God led you these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and to test you,

to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not." This is a

good time to look back, not in nostalgia for the good old days, but to try to discern how

the Lord has led us.

At a workshop on church growth last year, the leader outlined a program for church

planning that has been developed through the Alban Institute. It involved a very carefully

thought out balance between committee work and meetings of the whole congregation; and one

of the features that appealed to me particularly was the inclusion of a "history night."

On one evening fairly early in the process, the congregation would gather. Sheets of

newsprint would be put up around the room with the names and dates of service of the

congregation's pastors as far back as anyone could actually remember. Then under each one,

people's memories would be indicated. What was this pastor like? What were the major

events during that pastorate? What was particularly treasured from that era?

The point was not to go back and live in the past, but to recognize how much of that past

was still very much present. The sheets would include many if not all of the values that

the congregation did not want to lose, true, but they would also inevitably show how the

church had actually changed. The congregation that was planning for the future would do so

with a fuller consciousness of its own character, with an awareness of things about itself

that it had tended to take for granted. The goal was not so much change for its own sake,

but was best expressed as the discovery of "how best to be ourselves in these new


Our text tells us what to look for when we look back. It resolves the Lord's purposes into

three basic elements--to humble, to test, and to know whether we intend to keep the

commandments. I suspect that if we look back at the past year with these issues in mind,

we will find plenty to think about. There have been situations that humbled us--that

reminded us that we are not in ultimate control of our world. This strikes directly at one

of our greatest enemies, the one Swedenborg calls "the love of dominion." There have been

situations that tested us, challenges that we met as best we could. We have found

ourselves capable to some extent, but with very definite limits to our capability.

And then there is the biggie--whether we will keep the Lord's commandments or not. We are

not talking simply about the literal side of the Ten Commandments. We tend to lead quite

orderly and productive lives. We tend not to go in for theft, murder, perjury, or

adultery. It is on that deeper level disclosed in the Sermon on the Mount that we are more

likely to have gone astray, in being so wrapped up in our own needs and preferences that

we were effectively blind and deaf to those around us. It is also on that deeper level

that we are likely to have had our most rewarding experiences, moments of wonderful mutual

affection and understanding, of light and warmth.

Perhaps we can set these experiences, the rewarding and the dismaying, in their various

contexts, and catch at least a glimpse of the interplay of the expected and the

unexpected. We have been caught unawares, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. On

the other hand, sometimes things have actually turned out pretty much as we

anticipated--again for better or for worse. This says something about the Lord's

providence and permission, and something about our expectations. We may come to know each

a little better.

As we do, we can look ahead to the new year a little more constructively. We are less

likely to make sweeping promises, more likely to focus in on some of the little pivotal

things that we can actually attend to. Given the fact that we really do not know what is

going to happen to us, one of the best things we can do is design ways to remind ourselves

of our ignorance--partly to humble ourselves, perhaps, but largely to awaken us as

observers. We have so much to learn.


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