Getting Good Reception

Rev. Jonathan Mitchell

Wayfarers Chapel

Rancho Palos Verdes, California

July 27, 2008

Psalm 19:7-14

Matthew 10:19-20

As many of you already know, The Wayfarers Chapel is a ministry of a Protestant Christian denomination known as The Swedenborgian Church, and serves as the national memorial to the 18th century mystic theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg.

Swedenborg's early 19th century followers often used an odd-sounding phrase to describe themselves; they called themselves "receivers of the new doctrines." Receivers? Why would they call themselves that? I think it was because they saw their relationship to Swedenborg's teachings as something deeper, something more intimate than merely believing them to be true. They felt that in the process of taking Swedenborg's insights in, they were being transformed by them.

Swedenborg's reinterpretations of Christian teaching must have come as a great relief to thinking Europeans and Americans of that period. One of the early slogans of Swedenborg's followers read (in Latin): Nunc licet intrare intelligenter in arcana fidei. The usual English translation is "Now it is permitted to enter with understanding into the mysteries of faith." At at time when modern science was making so many of its early advances, Swedenborg was giving thinking people permission to seek out religious teachings that made sense to them personally. It must have been freeing as well, after so much fire and brimstone, to be told that God is never angry with anyone and never punishes anyone. And at a time when global horizons were rapidly expanding, Swedenborg offered a message that had a prophetic force which is if anything even more needed today: all are welcomed into heaven who have lived according to the best of what their own religion tradition taught them.

The word 'receiver' comes from Swedenborg's writings themselves, where he insists over and over again that we are not life, but receptacles of life. In recent sermons I have talked about claiming our own freedom, and I have emphasized our ability to change for the better, given enough commitment and persistence on our part. I stand by that of course. But it is not the whole story and today I am focusing on the other side of that coin. For whatever else we are, we are receivers. Most of what is truly valuable in life we have received. Life itself came to us a gift. All the love that comes our way is a gift. God's grace, when it comes, is always a free gift. The question before us today is this: how can we get good reception?

In today's world of wireless communication, we have a metaphor for good reception which didn't exist in Swedenborg's time. We don't usually think about it, but every moment of every day signals from radio stations, TV stations, cell phone transmissions, and indeed wireless transmissions of many kinds are passing through our bodies. The dial on a radio is designed (ideally) to tune in just one radio signal to the exclusion of all the other stations available. It allows you to choose what to tune in.

Swedenborg would say that something analogous to this is true at the spiritual level. We typically think of ourselves as separate and independent individuals, but Swedenborg and many other mystical teachers would insist that this is largely an illusion, brought on by the nature of our bodies. At the bodily level of our existence, it is natural for us to think of ourselves as ending at our skins. That makes for a very simple way to distinguish self from non-self at the physical level. But then we try to extend this thinking to the spiritual level. We tend to think of our thoughts and feelings as occurring "in our heads;" we think they are exclusively our own. In fact, Swedenborg would say, every though and every feeling puts us into communion with all those spirits who are thinking the same thought and feeling the same feeling. Thoughts and feelings are always shared. It is as if the Spiritual World, with all its heavens and hells, were made up of so many radio stations broadcasting all at once. Their signals are passing through us all the time. But at any one moment we are tuned into one (or maybe a few) of these heaven or hell signals, according to what thoughts and feeling we are currently opening ourselves up to receive.

It strikes me that if this is so, I want to try to tune out the stations called "anxiety," "anger," "resentment," "discouragement," etc. and tune in the stations called "peace," "trust," "joy," "compassion," and "hope." We are not life, we are not any of these spiritual states, but rather receivers of them. Let us try to get good reception of the good stations.

If we are receptacles of life, if ultimately it is the Divine Life which flows into us and keeps us alive, where, and how does that inflow happen? I don't see how that could happen anywhere other than in the now moment.

(Note: The following italisized section is much expanded from the spoken sermon. The reader who so chooses can skip ahead to end of this section without losing the main thread.)

So let us take a closer look at what happens in the now.

One of the great challenges at the present moment of intellectual history, in my opinion, is to resolve the paradoxical relationship of physical time, the time of physical science, to experiential time, the time in which a moving present leaves the past behind and moves into the future. The two are not the same. In physics there are moments and intervals of time, and there is before and after. However, in the physical laws themselves there is no reference to any special moment. None of the instants of time is 'now' and there is no sense in which time moves or flows. If there is no "now," there is no past, present and future. There is only before and after, and the amount of time between two events. One of the great breakthroughs of early modern science and mathematics was the calculus, which made it possible to understand time as a physical dimension. On this analysis, there are infinitely many point-like instants of time on the real-number line ordered in terms of before and after. And despite the seeming paradox, it became possible to talk consistently about instantaneous velocity, or more generally instantaneous rates of change.

Modern technology has made this concept of time very familiar to us. Olympic records are measured in hundredths of seconds. As I was writing this I did a quick web search and found that the current speed record for computers is just over one "petaflop," a quadrillion floating point operations per second.

So it has become natural for us to think of time as infinitely divisible. Yet our experience of the now and of the flow of time are quite different. Indeed, part of what makes the thought of a "petaflop" so mind-boggling is that events happening at that speed are invisible to us within our conscious experience of the flow of time.

The now-moment of experiential time is not a point-like instant, but has a certain stretch. If we could experience a single instant of time, it would be like a freeze-frame, but we experience freeze-frames only in photography. We never experience points in time, but always instead the flow of time. The now-moment is always long enough to contain motion and change within it. And while we can think of our conscious experience as a succession of now-moments, it is difficult to describe in language how one now gives way to (flows into? gives rise to? merges with?) the next one.

The point I want to make for today's sermon is that each now-moment can be made broader and deeper, according to the kind and degree of consciousness we bring to it. In understanding the contents of the now-moment, I think we can distinguish at least these three aspects: the situation we find ourselves in, our freedom of choice within that situation, and the desires which inform our choices.

First we have the experience of our current situation. This experience is founded on our sensory perceptions. As an overlay on our perceptual experience of the moment, we have a verbal/conceptual description of the situation we take ourselves to be in. This description draws upon our perceptions, our memories, and everything we know about how the world works—or to be more honest—everything we think we know about the world.

Second, there is at play within the now-moment the range of choices I could make. This constitutes our freedom. In a previous sermon (Looking Back to Find Yourself), I spoke of the now-moment as the seat of our freedom, as the moment where not only can we choose, but where cannot do anything other than choose. Our choices like our perceptions have an overlay of verbal/conceptual description. There is not just a raw choice, so to speak; we typically have a sense of what we are doing (or at least attempting), and we typically could say what that is if we wanted to. There is phrase I like for this which I have borrowed from the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: part of what stands before me within the now-moment is the range of "my possibilities." There stands before me everything I might actually do at this moment.

Third, there is the experience of desire. In fact, as I stand before the full range of my possibilities at any moment, some of them are more attractive to me than others, I find myself more drawn to some than others. Indeed some can be repellent, and among the repellent ones, some are more repellent than others. It is not at random that I choose among my possibilities, I am guided by my desires.

If the Divine Life flows into us, if we are "receptacles of the Divine influx," to use Swedenborgian's terminology, it is by way of expansion of the now-moment. "God" is for Swedenborg the perfect union of unbounded love and unbounded wisdom. This suggests to me that there are two processes by which the Divine flows in. First there is the influx of Divine Wisdom. Another word for this might be insight, the ability to redescribe in a more spiritually useful way the situations I find myself in and my possibilities within those situations. The second is the influx of the Divine Love. Another phrase for this might be change of heart, a shift in the relative attractiveness of my possibilities, the one to the others.

The various aspects of spiritual growth are rooted in the various aspects Divine Influx which can take place within the now-moment.

  1. We grow whenever we learn to bring more useful descriptions to the situations we find ourselves in. For the sake of a quick example, the think of the difference spiritually between seeing something you've done as 10% irretrievably wrong as opposed to seeing it as 90% right with the chance to improve. The process of redescription or reinterpretation applies as well to the stories we tell ourselves about what has happened to us in our live so far. Some promote our spiritual growth, others do not.

  2. We grow whenever we come to have an expanded view of what we are capable of. The biggest thing that limits "my possibility" is simply not seeing all of them. I ran across a 12-step saying recently that goes: "If what I do is what I've done, then what I'll get is what I've got." I daresay that every step forward spiritually comes when the light dawns that I can do it differently this time around.

  3. Growth has taken place whenever there is a shift in what we desire, in what we aspire to. Spiritual growth is accompanied by a shift in the value system that underlies the choices we make.

In sum, if I want to use this now-moment to move forward spiritually, I can do so by a deeper understanding of my present situation, a broader sense of what I am capable of, and a purer sense of what is desirable.

What is the mindset that helps me to enter more deeply into the now-moment? As I have worked on this sermon, it has become clear to me that what I am talking about today could also be called "prayerfulness."

One of the simplest ways to define prayer is "having a conversation with God." And one of the more common forms of this conversation is for us to ask a question and to listen for the answer. There have been two particular times during my life where I experienced this kind of prayer in a particularly fruitful way.

The seminary I attended, the former Swedenborg School of Religion in Newton, Massachusetts, was located in an old brick mansion with two sun rooms, one was our classroom and the other was our chapel. That chapel was a beautiful, peaceful and for me spiritually powerful place. Towards the end of my time at SSR I got into the habit of praying in the chapel whenever I needed to choose a topic for a paper, a presentation, or a worship experience. I would sit down, relax my body, mentally follow several long, deep breaths and clear my mind for a moment. Then I would hold up to consciousness possible topics, considering one and then another and then another...going back and forth among them all for as long as it took. That, so to speak, was asking the question. As I held up the various possibilities to the light of consciousness, I would allow myself to feel the attraction that each one had for me. It could take a longer or a shorter time, but eventually, I would "know" which one I was being call to pursue. That, so the speak, was the answer.

Sometimes it is helpful to pray in that intentional kind of way, to set aside all other activities and to sit alone in prayer. But prayerfulness is not limited to that form. It can also enter into your ongoing interactions with others.

At another, earlier point in my life, I was teaching Freshman Composition. That course was set up so that students wrote a paper every two weeks. The first week they would write the first draft and come in for an individual conference to review it. I think what my students typically did was to choose a topic, write whatever came into their minds until they had the requisite number of words and then stop.

The task at hand at the conference was to organize this material into a coherent, effective essay. I was always keenly aware that it would not be truly helpful for me to share how I would write that essay—better that I spur them on to seeing for themselves how to organize and express their thoughts. I often felt overwhelmed and out of my depth as I asked myself, "What on earth can I possibly say that would be helpful?" In that situation I would give up trying to figure anything out and just let my mind go blank. When I had done this often enough, I came to trust that the helpful thing to say (or ask) would come of itself. Similar moments often arose when it came time to make written comments on the final papers. I learned to let my mind go blank and wait patiently.

Prayerfulness of this sort is an illustration of the "good reception" that we are talking about today. In it, we pose a question, clear the mind, and wait for what comes in. I commend this practice of prayerfulness to all of you. This first kind I mentioned, where you set aside a quiet time, can be helpful when there is an important decision to be made. But I particularly commend to you the second kind, where even in the midst of interpersonal interaction you take a moment or two to clear the mind and wait until you "receive" the useful thing to say. If it would seem awkward to have a moment of unexplained silence, simply tell those around you that you need a moment to think. Or if you are brave, tell them you need a moment to pray!

I believe we are at our best when we remember that we are not life, but receivers of life—when we acknowledge that we are not in charge, and humbly open ourselves up to the guidance of a much greater and wiser being. I pray for all of us in the week to come that we may get good reception.