Now Abraham was tending the flock of his father in law Jethro, the priest of Midian: and
had led the flock to the back side of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, to
Two weeks ago I spoke about a pattern that recurs in Scripture when there is an appearance
of the Lord to particular individuals. We looked briefly at five such instances, involving
Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Peter, James, and John on the mount of transfiguration, and John
on Patmos. In each case, there is a setting and an appearance of the Divine, in each case,
an initial response of abject humility or fear. In each case, there is the granting of
divine absolution or reassurance; and in each case, this is followed by a commission.
I noted then that our own worship service follows the same pattern, with one exception,
and promised to look at that exception next. The exception, the element of the Biblical
pattern that is omitted from our worship service, is the very first one--the setting. I
was alerted to its importance some years a go when a parishioner was telling me about a
friend of hers. This friend, a catholic, I believe, had once had a totally unexpected
vision. My parishioner had heard her tell the story several times, and was puzzled by the
fact that she always started it the same way--"I was vacuuming the living room, and had
just gotten to the end of the sofa, when . . . ." Surely the important part of the
experience was the vision itself. Why did this rather mundane detail seem to be such an
integral part of it?
Part of the answer may be fairly obvious. It is impressive to discover that the Lord is
that present in such an ordinary setting. Everything seemed to be exactly as usual. There
were no special circumstances. There was no church service, no prayer for enlightenment,
no discipline of meditation. If the Lord can be that present when I am vacuuming, with my
mind on goodness knows what, then the Lord must be present everywhere.
This is surely part of the message of the Biblical instances as well. The Lord breaks
through into the here and now, into particular situations that may or may not seem
otherwise special. Moses' leading his flock was really very much like the woman vacuuming
her living room. He was engaged in an everyday task. Isaiah was apparently in the temple,
but Ezekiel was by the river Chebar in Babylon. The three disciples had been led up a
mountain by the Lord--something he did when he wanted some time away from the crowds.
John was in exile on the island of Patmos. This does not mean that there was or is
anything special about those places. It would presumably not do us any particular good to
travel to them, if we knew exactly where they were. The message is not that God is in
those places more than in others, but that God is everywhere, and can break through to our
consciousness whenever it is appropriate and wherever we may happen to be.
It may seem an obvious point, but it has profound implications. It means that there are no
moments in our lives, no places in our worlds, where we are hidden from the Lord. There is
no place where we can go from the divine spirit or to which we can flee from the divine
presence. In heaven or hell, in any corner of the globe, in darkness or in light, the Lord
is there. Every situation we find ourselves, in, every person we meet, is a kind of
representative of the Lord. "If you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren,
you have done it to me."
Wilson Van Dusen for some years objected that Swedenborg never wrote a "how to do it"
book. Our theology says a great deal about our relationships to the Lord and to each
other, a great deal about our inner natures, but especially in comparison with Eastern
religions, there does not seem to be much about how to become more conscious of the divine
presence. More recently, though, Van Dusen changed his emphasis on this point. The
technique he finds our theology advocating is inconspicuous because it does not involve
any radical changes in our behavior. It does not ask us to meditate or pray or study a
great deal. It asks us instead to pay closer attention to what we are doing and to what is
going on around us.
The phrase that sticks in my mind as summarizing this "technique" is "Enter into dialogue
with your works." Look at what you have done or said a moment ago, or yesterday, or last
week, or last year, and try to understand what it is trying to tell you. He tells of
reflecting on his favorite kind of eraser and coming to a fresh awareness of the principle
of use. In Swedenborg's terms, the whole world is a theater representative of the Lord's
kingdom. There is a message for us in the way a tree grows or in the way the snow drifts.
There is a message for us in the way we walk and see and breathe and eat and sleep. There
is a message for us in the way we react to difficulties and in the way we react to good
fortune. There are searching messages for us in the ways we react to each other--and to
In fact, we are faced not with too little information about the Lord's will for us, but
with too much. There is vastly more happening in and around us than we can possible
comprehend. We may be impressed with how much some people know, and feel ignorant in
comparison, but if someone seems to know twice as much as I do, then that person knows two
things out of the millions there are to know instead of knowing only one. The difference
is not nearly as great as the similarity.
As a result, we select. We focus our attention on those aspects of ourselves and others,
of the world around us, that we feel are most significant. Some people, for example, are
alert to the financial or the legal implications of everything that goes on around them.
Others are highly sensitive to moral issues. Some people are intensely aware of anything
threatening, while others seem to be tuned in to appeals for help. It is probably safe to
say that there is a great deal wrong with the world we live in, and that there is a great
deal right with it. Some folk believe that it's a wonderful life, and some that it's a
rotten life, and circumstances are only part of the reason. The larger part is determined
by what we choose to focus on. A few years ago, on a lovely day in May, I was driving two
Sharon chorus members to a rehearsal. At almost the same moment, one exclaimed what a
beautiful day it was, and the other said, "It's too bad weather like this never lasts."
Believe it or not, this has a great deal to do with our text, and with the relationship
between our text and our worship service. Moses was tending his flock when he saw the
burning bush. We go through our everyday chores largely unaware of how close to breaking
through the divine presence may be. Formal worship gives us a chance to refocus our
attention. Perhaps there is a burning bush there, but we have been so wrapped up in our
sheep that we have not noticed. It may be that all we need to do is to lift our eyes.
If this is to happen, though, we cannot leave our daily lives behind when we come to
worship. This must be a place where we bring our concerns, not a place where we retreat
from them. Our prayer that all the earth keep silence before the Lord does not mean that
all our worldly concerns should vanish. It means that they should stop chattering so that
we can hear what the Lord is trying to tell us through them. To disinter the antique
illustration of the parishioner whose mind is on the roast in the oven at home and not on
the lofty thoughts of the service, that may be perfectly appropriate. There should not be
an impassable gulf between the Psalm or the Scripture or the sermon and the roast in the
oven. The question just under the surface is, "Have I tended to my responsibilities," and
that is a question with religious dimensions. Just under the surface of that question is
another--"Am I a responsible person?" And this in turn is only a hair's breadth from the
question, "What does the Lord think of me?"
What would happen if we took more seriously the fact that the Biblical instances all begin
with attention to the setting in which the Lord appears? It surely suggests that for our
own worship, we should, so to speak, bring our lives to church with us. We should take
time, perhaps on the way to church, perhaps before the service opens, to ask ourselves
where we are in our lives. How did we spend our time during the past week? What was our
general mood? Do we have a feeling that we gained ground, or lost ground, or held our own?
Were there any particular discoveries, any particular challenges? What people loomed
largest in our lives? Did we move closer to some, or further from some? Is there one
incident we would pick out as typical of the whole week? Did we feel engaged and involved
or relatively detached?
Each of us, I suspect, could come up with a little list of "review questions" that worked
best. The answers would give us our "setting," our equivalent to tending the flocks by
mount Horeb or sitting by the river Chebar or off on a mountain apart from it all. It
would be important then not to try too hard to make connections with the service. After
all, the burning bush did not seem to have much to do with the sheep. It is rather a
matter of realizing that something may suggest itself. A phrase from scripture may flare
up. An unsuspected connection may come to light, like a spark jumping a gap.
Or, perhaps more often, nothing special may happen, which is perfectly all right. We have
not arrived at the point where we can see the view, but we are on the road. If we keep on,
we may be very sure that gradually, we will see more clearly. If we keep bringing our
lives to church, we will find ourselves more spontaneously bringing the church into our
lives. They will be less and less separate compartments, there will be less and less
distinction between the secular and the sacred. We will become more and more aware that
"The Lord is in his holy temple," and that this temple is the whole of creation.