The Gate of the Year
A sermon by Rev. Emily Jane Lemole
Isaiah 26:1-4, 42:5-8
Secrets of Heaven 2851
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
by Minnie Louise Haskins
We are standing at the Gate of the Year, a threshold to the unknown in many ways. “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
We read many passages from the Word and the Writings about gates. Gates provide a connection between what is inside and what is outside. They suggest a choice – whether to open or shut it – whether to come in or stay out.
A closed gate makes us hesitate and stop. In this Sufi saying the gates provide thoughtfulness and reflection about what we say:
Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates.
At the first gate, ask yourself, “is it true?”
At the second ask, “is it necessary?”
At the third gate ask “is it kind?”
How best to begin this New Year? There are the usual resolutions – to lose weight, be healthier, be more organized, and spend more time with loved ones. But there are deeper resolutions or intentions that are crying out for a new start, a fresh beginning. Number 1 – putting God in the center of our lives – seeing the Lord Jesus Christ as the beginning, middle and end of our day. A good habit is to pray – a lifting up of our perspective – of our priorities – several times a day. Even the physical action of looking up and pausing can shift an annoyed, resentful mood into a moment of correction – a turnaround of most of what we fuss about.
Sub specie aeternitatis is a great reminder. Under the auspices of eternity – what matters? Not most of what worries and upsets us. In the long view, with God at the center, what really matters becomes evident and what doesn’t diminishes.
So how do we put our hand into the hand of God? How do we open the gates of our minds and hearts to all that is good and true, wise, kind and peaceful? How do we shut the door to selfishness, unkindness, resentfulness, ingratitude and violence?
By what we do every day.
“The way we do anything is the way we do everything,” says Fr. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest.
What do we pay attention to and give our time to? What do we love?
A New Year seems a good time to take inventory, a reflection on last year, not so much what we have accomplished as who we are becoming. What matters most to us? What are our priorities? Or as Swedenborg would ask, What do we love? For we are what we love!
We learn that there are two gates that are in each of us. The Gate to Heaven, surrounded by angels, leads to what is good and what is true.
And the Gate to Hell, surrounded by evil spirits, leads to what is evil and false.
These gates are in us. We get to choose, and what determines our choice? What we love!
Every year, every week, every day, every moment we have the freedom to choose who we are, what brings us pleasure, how we spend our precious time – what we love and how we love.
And let’s remember that if we don’t honestly like what we see in our inventory, we can repent! Turn around! Change our direction! Change our minds! Change our loves!
Swedenborg describes what we cannot see – our spiritual companions – the company we keep and are for the most part unaware of. Like guests, they come by invitation.
We are surrounded by spiritual guests, invited by our states of mind and heart: Through the Heavenly Gates come the angels and good spirits; from the Hellish Gates come the evil or bad spirits. My highschool Latin teacher used to refer to these as the “Basement Boys”.
It is out of fashion today to speak of evil, guilt, repentance or hell. These terms have become obsolete, uncomfortable and ones we really don’t want to be reminded of. But from everything Swedenborg teaches, these are spiritual realities.
Evil is very much alive and well in our world (if one reads the papers and watches TV) and in each one of us, recognized with some introspection! When we honestly become aware of our own intentions and emotions, we know this!
Evil, with its twin, falsity, is everything that is against God, that is selfish, dishonest, greedy, mean and cruel. But evil can also appear with a deceptive face – we can justify our resentments, our ingratitude, our unforgiving stance. Sin means missing the mark, the mark being God. All that draws us away from God makes us miss that mark!
Guilt – a very necessary emotion that makes us want to repent – not to wallow in, but to lead us to repentance – to persuade us to change course!
And evil spirits – these are the very real spiritual companions that we are told are fighting for our attention, and in the end, for our spiritual life. We are in the balance. We are between two gates.
An ancient Buddhist proverb teaches: Everyone is given the key to the Gates of Heaven; the same key opens the Gates of Hell.” The key is what we love.
Every decision we make feeds either our proprium (our unregenerate will) or feeds our "remains" – that inviolate treasure, a storehouse of all the good and true things we have experienced since before birth. Remains are our birthright, and we draw from it and add to it forever with true thoughts and good deeds.
Since the number one focus of most New Year’s resolutions is to lose weight (and I’m not against that, if needed) let’s try to use that concept for a spiritual weight loss – losing the burden of negative emotion, the bad habits of criticism, complaint, gossip, irritation, annoyance, being easily offended, anger – the list we know goes on and on. The diet for this weight loss is good thoughts, honest behavior, truthful intentions. Turning off the bad news, turning on the good news. Supporting a hopeful optimism that encourages others; kind acts that look for no return.
Think on these things, Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians.
“Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy meditate on these things.” Philippians 4:8.
And the exercise required for this transformation of the soul’s health is spiritual practice – the exercise that brings the abstract into the real, the doing of what we say we believe. Perhaps this year we can embrace a spiritual exercise:
- Lectio Devina – slow, purposeful reading of Scripture and other Holy Books.
A dear friend of mine makes a habit of thinking about which type of spirits are influencing her, and then asking the Lord to send away the harmful influences, when there. Also, she has developed a practice of thanking the Lord for all good things when they happen.
We can open the Gates of Heaven. Angels can rush in at any time that we cause the gates to swing open by loving what is good, what is true, the Lord and one another. These choices open those gates.
We all need reminders to help us make the right choices. We forget so quickly and are distracted by the loud noise of our times. We are plugged into T.V., radio, our computers, phones and i-pads -- a secular culture that is immersed in what is natural, not spiritual. But it is not natural for us to turn away and turn toward God and the Heavenly gates. It is unnatural. It is spiritual. Here are a few reminders that I have found helpful.
SET A TIME FOR AN APPOINTMENT WITH THE LORD: Every morning and before bedtime are two commonly used times to reserve for the Lord. When feeling angry, raise your thoughts and vision upward, and ask for the angels at the gate for assistance. Try a phrase learned from one of our daughter’s friends: Bless and release! Work toward seeing God in everyone and in all things.
Let ugly states pass – bless your enemies, remembering that those who disagree or dislike us are likely our best spiritual teachers. We can see our response to them, usually a response that mirrors the behavior that irritates us. Love our enemies, we are told, as well as our neighbor.
We need to watch our thoughts.
From the Ancient Vedas:
"Watch your thoughts, they become words.
Watch your words, they become actions.
Watch your actions, they become habits.
Watch your habits, they become character.
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny."
Most important is to detect what we love, for that will determine which gate we hang around, and later, enter.
How auspicious it is that we have Holy Communion as we enter the New Year. What better way to begin, seeking first the kingdom of Heaven – putting what matters most into the forefront?
This is a beautiful prayer by Sister Joyce Rupp:
Waiting on the threshold
of this new year,
you open the gates
And beckon to me:
(You say) “Come! Come!
Be not wary of what awaits you
as you enter the unknown terrain,
be not doubtful of your ability
to grow from its joys and sorrows.
For I am with you,
I will be your Guide.
I will be your Protector
You will never be alone.”
Guardian of this new year,
I set aside my fears, worries, concerns,
I open my life to mystery, to beauty,
to hospitality to questions,
to the endless opportunity
of discovering you in my relationships,
and to all the silent wisps of wonder
that will draw me to your heart.
I welcome your unfailing Presence
And walk with hope into this New Year.
“Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.”
It really matters as we stand at the Gate of the New Year whose hand we will take – whose inspiration we will follow and whose influence may determine who we are becoming.
From Psalm 118:19-20:
“Open to me the gates of righteousness;
I will go through them,
And I will praise the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord,
By which the righteous shall enter.”