Lessons from Eternity

Sometimes in my work as a hospice chaplain, I feel like I’m a citizen of two worlds. In the here-and-how, I’m supporting patients and families in whatever way seems to fit the needs of the moment best: just being there, listening, caring, exploring questions, reading scripture, getting coffee, holding hands, offering prayer. But I am also, when you look at it in a certain way, a kind of ambassador for eternity, helping patients think about how their life goes on from here and what they believe God might have in store for them next. We all want to know what the next chapter will be in our spirit’s big adventure.

Some patients have fun with this kind of idea. Some time ago a wonderful lady I visited regularly asked, “I’m just a little concerned about what heaven will be like. What do you think we’ll do all day? I’ll be bored sitting around on a cloud!”

I admitted that I would have the same problem, and so we talked about the possibility that whatever we have loved doing in this life—something we have a talent for, like gardening or cooking, caring for children or fixing things—God will count on us to use that skill in the next realm as well. We have that love for a reason. It is a taste of eternity in our present lives. She liked that idea because she was an avid gardener with a special gift for roses. After that day, she spent time thinking about—and looking forward to–all the gorgeous roses she could care for in heaven’s gardens. That simple idea made eternity more beautiful for her personally. And it took away some of the uncertainty, some of the unknowns that can cause anxiety when we’re trying to envision what’s next. Because there is a next and we instinctively know that, deep down.

This idea of what we love in this life carrying on into eternity isn’t something I came up with myself. It’s actually the idea of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist, inventor, theologian, and eventually, mystic. He’s also known as a polymath, which is someone who is successful in a number of diverse areas in life. He was a brilliant thinker in the 1700s, an engineer and city planner, and he actually designed the first flying machine on record, in 1714, and it’s on display at the Smithsonian today. He also was a genius with amazing bursts of creative insight. He talked about the existence of the neuron more than one hundred years before science would discover nerve cells in the human body. He also had early ideas about the cerebral cortex in our brains, the way our central nervous systems operate, what the pituitary gland was for, and how different areas of our brains map to different types of thinking we do. All inspired ideas that were truly ahead of their time and discovered and proved by scientists decades later.

With such a powerful and creative mind, Swedenborg at age 55 decided that he wanted to explore his faith in the same way he had approached science. In some of his scientific studies, he had become interested in exploring the life of the soul within matter—he was curious about how the finite and infinite related to one another. So he took a leave of absence to research a book called Kingdom of Life to explore the relationship between the soul and our physical world.

Swedenborg began having strange dreams about that time, which he recorded faithfully in a journal. And after he wrote down the final dream in the notebook—which seemed to indicate that from that point forward his work was all for God–he had a personal experience with the living Christ, not unlike the experience George Fox had on the hillside in England some 90 years before. Following his experience, in which the Lord told him to write what he saw (which you may remember was also an instruction to Isaiah), the spiritual world was opened to him and he had visions and dreams that taught him about the nature of life in this realm and the next. Like being given a key to a heavenly library, Swedenborg was able to research and write many volumes about his experiences. He spent ten years working on a commentary of the Bible that gave a spiritual interpretation of every verse and in total, over the next 25 years, he completed 14 books that attempt to explain how our limitless, loving God reaches from eternity into our daily lives–and how we can live each day in service to that fact.

Some of Swedenborg’s books were well-received and respected in his day—he was known as a brilliant thinker and a humble and kind man. Immanuel Kant and John Wesley were one-time supporters, although Kant later changed his views. Some books were seen as heretical and dangerous, and some writers in later years suggested that Swedenborg may have had a mental illness, like schizophrenia. (The same has been suggested about George Fox.) Of all the books Swedenborg wrote that are still in circulation today, his most popular is one I read several years ago, entitled Heaven and Hell.

One of the most compelling and original ideas in Heaven and Hell that stays with me in the work that I do is his suggestion that heaven, like earth, is a place of communities, and that we are drawn to our place based on what we have loved truly in this life. So those of us with similar loves—love of people, love of music, love of animals, love of God—will be drawn together with those who love what we love and we will live together in harmony and kindness, with mutuality, care, peace, and truth ever present. Heaven. Those partners who loved deeply in this world find themselves still bonded and blessed by that love in the next, proving that love is truly, eternally stronger than death.

Interestingly, Swedenborg saw hell the same way. According to his visions, hell was not a place of fire and brimstone but communities of people drawn together by what they loved in this life. If a person in this life loved wickedness, enjoyed the thrill of exploiting others, was driven by an insatiable love of money—that person will be drawn into a community of others who also love wickedness, exploitation, or greed. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But think about it for a moment. To someone who truly loves wickedness, being surrounded by beauty and peace and harmony every day would feel like hell. And of course, vice versa. This says something to me about the deep, enduring, and unlimited love God has for us and just how enormous and all-encompassing the idea of free will truly is.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, Isaiah is lifting up this same idea: How such a majestic, powerful God—the creator of everything we see and know and are—can also be such a tender and caring presence in our own personal lives. “For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity,” Isaiah says. “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit.” God dwells in eternity and in time, with us, right here in our small, confusing, and seemingly fragmented world.

About this passage, Richard Foster writes, “What is staggering about this theological characterization of God is that this same God who is remote and who dwells on high keeps company with the humble, the contrite, and the poor in spirit.” This is Jesus, he goes on to say, the very divine personification of eternity in human form. As above, so below. All he does, he does in the name of Love.

Paul is also telling the Corinthians that an encounter with Jesus—eternity in human form–transforms the human heart. We are changed by that experience and yearn to live with more light and love, forgiveness and trust as we go. We’re no longer what or who we were, tethered blindly to this world with its conflict and disdain. Now we are living connected to eternity ourselves—already living eternal life—and because we have been reconciled to God. Our lives aren’t just about us anymore; now we are channels for God’s love to flow into our world. That is how, in Paul’s words, “we become the righteousness of God.”

Emanuel Swedenborg and George Fox were nearly contemporaries. Swedenborg was just three years old when George Fox died. In addition to the similarity of them both having personal encounters with Christ, they also pushed back against the organized and dominant traditions of their day. Fox brought his message of the Inward Christ at a time when Anglican piety gave priests all the power. Swedenborg pushed back on the Lutheran idea of his training (his father was a bishop in the church) that “faith alone” is enough for salvation: he felt that it was important to put the principles of faith into action through service to others. Not that our good works have anything to do with whether we are saved—that was secured for us by grace. But service to others is the natural blossoming of a heart transformed and now led by God’s light. “Go and do likewise” is important here. This is how we learn and grow in love in this realm, which continues on in the next.

We Friends also believe that faith flowing into action is an important part of our witness in the world. We want our faith to be a sacramental one, lived out day by day in the choices we make and the testimonies we live: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship, and more. We do our best each day to “live up to the Light” that we’ve been given.

Early Friends wrote volumes about practical ways we can help ourselves remember that we are new creatures now, reconciled to God, thinking in terms of eternity in our here-and-now lives. George Fox had a deep understanding of how we so easily get swept up in ideas and experiences that take us outside of the peace of God. He wrote,

“And dwell in that which is pure of God in you, for fear that your thoughts get forth, and then evil thoughts get up, and surmising one against another, which arises out of the veiled mind, which darkens the pure discerning. But as you dwell in that which is of God, it guides you up out of the elementary life, and out of the mortal into the immortal, which is hidden from all the fleshly ones, where is peace and joy eternal to all who can witness the new birth.”

Another early Friend, John Burnyeat, was a member of the original Valiant Sixty group of Friends. He was also minister in England, Scotland, and Ireland, known for his sense of piety and strength of spirit. He suggested,

“Therefore, my dear Friends, keep your watch everyone in your hearts continually, that you may not be betrayed from that pure life, that yields virtue unto your souls, and nourishes up unto eternal life.”

Ambrose Rigge was another member of the Valiant Sixty, a schoolmaster before he met George Fox and became a respected traveling Friends minister. He writes about God’s eternal presence in this way:

“Now this testimony I must leave to the world, that God has sent his good Spirit into the hearts of the children of men, to be their guide, leader and director in all things related to his kingdom; and upon the receiving and obeying, or resisting and disobeying this Spirit, stands man’s eternal felicity or woe, for nothing short of it can give mankind the knowledge of the mysteries of God’s salvation; and all knowledge without it, is earthly and carnal, and can never give life to the soul.”

In times such as these, we can be tempted to believe that our actions don’t matter, that our efforts don’t help, that our small, quiet lives lived in the midst of a noisy, chaotic world count for little. But nothing could be further from the truth. That is one of those “thoughts…that get up out of a veiled mind” that George Fox warned us about. Don’t let it discourage you.

The truth is that eternity is present with us, now—we are already living our eternal lives. We are also all ambassadors of God, children who have been restored to right relationship thanks to the loving presence of Christ. The question now becomes, what will we do with the love God gives us today? The way we answer that question shapes our experience, which shapes our world, which contributes—Swedenborg says—to the eternity we are fashioning day by day in what we love. When God’s love is our compass, our path, and our destination, we are truly living a new life, with eternity in our present, and the kingdom of God alive in our hearts.

 

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