Sunday, October 10, 1994

Location - Newtonville
Bible Verses - 2 Kings 6:8-18
Mark 6:1-21

You have eyes--can you not see? You have ears--can you not hear? Do you not remember?

Mark 8:18

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

those signals.

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.


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