Jacob had a dream, and behold: a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:12)
An angel from our church has just ascended that stairway leading to heaven. If anyone had any doubts that angels come from human beings, Frances Boyle would be a good example to help remove those doubts. Her life of quiet usefulness, practical learning, and heartfelt care for others was an embodiment of her deep and abiding faith. She herself would be the first to point out her imperfections as well, but any one of us could be very happy with our life if we left this earth having reached her level of spiritual maturity.
With Frances's death fresh in our minds and our hearts, perhaps this is a good time to revisit some of the new light from heaven that our church provides about the afterlife and our preparation for it here on earth.
Emanuel Swedenborg's book Heaven and Hell has always been his biggest seller. In fact, over the nearly two and a half centuries since it was first published, very few religious books have sold as many copies as Heaven and Hell. This shouldn't be surprising. Few religious topics are as fascinating to us as what happens to us after death. It is so popular with the teens that it has been the topic of our last two retreats, and it is a recurring favorite for the teen class at Fryeburg Assembly.
Up to the time of Swedenborg, the afterlife was largely a mystery, with little bits of light slipping through to us out of passages gleaned from the Bible and the occasional story told by people who briefly experienced the spiritual world during some traumatic passage in their lives. With Swedenborg, for the first time not just a crack but a large gate was opened to heaven, through which light from heaven streams through. We no longer have to grope in the dark for knowledge of what happens to us after we die.
The afterlife that Swedenborg describes is amazing and familiar at the same time. From one perspective, it is an entirely different order of existence, where we only have to think of someone we love and they are instantly present with us . . . and where we only have to grow angry at someone and immediately our skies cloud over and a thunderstorm crashes around us. It is a place where we can share thoughts directly with each other without having to speak them out loud. A place where, if we open ourselves up to the Lord, we may wear garments of gleaming light, experience the warmth of the sun as love flowing into us, and level entire mountains with a single glance--if those mountains are made of evil and falsity instead of goodness and truth.
From another perspective, the spiritual world is a place where we would feel right at home. It is a place where we go to sleep in the evening and wake up in the morning, work at a job that we enjoy, and have time for recreation, pleasure, and visiting with each other. It is a place where we can play games or go to a concert, take a walk in the woods or go horseback riding. All of the scenery and activities that we enjoy here are present in the spiritual world as well. Even the scenes we don't enjoy--such as squalid slums or parched desert land--are present in the spiritual world for those whose tastes run in the opposite direction.
We speak of heaven as a place; but Jesus reminds us that it is not a place at all:
"The kingdom of God" is another way of saying "the kingdom of heaven." Both refer, not to a physical place, but a spiritual state of being. Heaven is not a place that we get into by going through a literal gate. The gates of heaven are symbolic, and Swedenborg explains their symbolism to us in the passage that we read from Heaven and Hell:
In other words, the gate of heaven is goodness and truth from the Lord, while the gate of hell is evil and falsity from hell. This makes it clear that heaven and hell are not places, but states of mind. They are within us. Heaven is within us when we are involved in the goodness of love and kindness for each other, and when we dwell in the truth of mutual understanding and respect. Hell is within us when we are involved in the evil of self-centeredness, greed, jealousy, and a struggle for control over each other, and when we are caught up in the falsity of our own illusions of power and superiority.
The only change brought about by our death is that whereas here our inner heaven or hell may be hidden from others, in the spiritual world it soon not only appears to everyone around us, but even determines what sort of environment we will be living in. If we have opened ourselves up to the kingdom of heaven within us, then in the spiritual world our inner heaven--which always comes from God--will manifest itself in beautiful surroundings and loving human community. But if we have shut ourselves off from that heaven within--put a bushel basket over the candle, to use the Biblical image--then the darkness within us will manifest itself in dingy and squalid surroundings, and a community of mutual hatred and distrust. (In the illusions of our own self-deception, though, the squalor may look like a splendid palace to us--as long as light from heaven doesn't leak through the cracks in our basket and show what our life is really like.)
While we are here on earth, our main task is to decide which of these paths, or gates, we will choose. Jesus speaks of these two gates in the Gospel of Matthew:
Unfortunately, the time that Jesus was on earth was a low spiritual ebb for humankind. I'm afraid there may well have been few people at that time who sought and found the gate that leads to heavenly life. Perhaps the very smallness of the number of people who were seeking that gate led to the smallness of the gate and the narrowness of the road leading to life. Routes that do not get used often tend to remain narrow byways, while heavily traveled routes are broadened into four-lane highways. We have some reason for hope that perhaps more people these days are seeking the gate that leads to life. Perhaps the road has been widened!
However, we do not have to simply hope this will happen. We can do our own part to widen that gate and broaden that road. We can not only make the choice to seek out and go through that gate ourselves. We can devote our lives to leading others toward that gate using the gifts and talents that the Lord has given us.
When we make the choice not to hide our candle under a bushel basket, we still are only halfway there. If we leave the candle down on the floor, or off in some obscure nook of the house, it may not be under a bushel basket, but it might as well be for all the good it does! No, says Jesus, the right thing to do with a candle is to put it in a candlestick and place it where it can give light to everyone in the room. Or to use a more expansive image, if we have in mind an entire city of enlightenment (and I believe that we do have such a "city" in the teachings of our church) we ought to be building that city on a hill where everyone can see it, not down in some inconspicuous valley.
As a church family, we are working to put our candle in a candlestick, and to build our city on a hill. People like Frances Boyle remind us that we each need to be doing this as individuals, too. These are not separate issues. We as a church are made up of the individuals who are a part of the life of our church. And we as a church can only build our heavenly city on a hill if each of us as individual people puts our candle in a candlestick and lets our light shine before people so that they may see our good deeds and praise our Father who is in heaven. To put it plainly, Jesus is not simply calling us to believe in him, but to share our beliefs with others through kind and thoughtful actions toward them and, when it is appropriate, through telling them about the faith that leads us to live in the way that we do. This is putting our candle in a candlestick to give light to everyone.
When our life comes to a close and we climb the symbolic stairway that Jacob saw in his dream, the Lord who dwells above that stairway will not ask what we have accomplished; rather, the Lord will ask whether our accomplishments helped to lead ourselves and others toward the gate of goodness and truth that opens to heavenly life.