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Boxing Day 2004 was shattered by the developing news of the tsunami disaster in the Indian ocean and as more and more details of the horrific results of this tragedy emerged we have had to try to come to terms with one of the greatest natural disasters of the last 50 years.

Of course ‘disasters’ happen all the time and often they are close and personal or in our extended families. And then there are the larger events such as train crashes which affect dozens of lives. But this ‘tsunami’ event we have witnessed has affected millions of lives across many countries not just because of the widespread effect of the giant waves crossing the ocean but also because of the large number of people on holiday in those parts. It is, perhaps, this all encompassing effect that has made this tragedy so prominent in our news programmes and newspapers and such a challenge to our thinking about God and the way God works in the world.

To those who profess no belief in God, such a violent and destructive event tends to reinforce those views. To those who do believe in God, it raises questions about why God allows such things and why he does not intervene – and these questions inevitably bring doubt and disbelief. After all we might not be surprised if bad things happened to bad people but when bad things happen to good people or innocent people we are at a loss to explain it.

But how might we begin to try and make sense of all of this?

I think we need to start with asking ourselves who we really are. Are we just a wonderful human body driven by a vastly complex brain and so able to operate in the natural world around us? Or are we really deep inner spiritual beings with the potential to grow as we come to terms with the events that affect our lives?

I certainly feel that we are indeed spiritual beings and that the greatest gift God gives us is the freedom to choose on the one hand to be selflessly loving in our relationships with others or on the other hand to be selfishly loving towards ourselves. As we take what this freedom offers and choose the selfless pathway, then we grow spiritually, and this growth can continue past the death of our physical bodies and on to eternity.

But what if God did intervene in a disaster? What scale of disaster would merit this divine intervention? Would it only be something on the scale of the ‘tsunami’ event or would smaller scale disasters also receive God’s attention? Would family tragedies also be avoided by God’s intervention? Commonsense suggests that if God intervened at all there would be no limit to that intervention and ultimately nothing in the world would go wrong, whether caused by nature or caused by men and women. Our world would become a world in which we existed like robots, with no problems or difficulties to face and where choices to act selflessly or selfishly would be meaningless.

So we have an apparent paradox that whilst we can think of God as all powerful, nevertheless God cannot act against his love that we should live in freedom. God doesn’t want disasters or accidents or terminal illness but these are allowed because only in that way can true spiritual freedom be maintained.

Now this is an easy thing to say if you are not watching a loved one being swept away by a tidal wave or if you are not caring for someone dying as a result of some terrible accident. In these situations no words can really give comfort, however true they maybe, it is only love that can make a difference.

But don’t we often say that God is Love?. We might ask the question – “where is God at work in the ‘tsunami’ disaster?” and if we cannot find an answer it is probably because our understanding of God is limited in some way (perhaps by thinking that God should act as we act in a “quick fix” kind of way). But if this is so then we should ask instead – “where is Love in this disaster?” And surely an answer to this question comes immediately! We have seen love at work in the desperate attempts by people to save those overwhelmed by the gigantic waves, even if in that attempt they lost their own lives. We have seen love at work in the rescue workers searching hour after hour, day after day, to find those whose lives could be saved. We have seen love at work in the outpouring of concern and giving around the world. And in all this love, is God.

Bad things happen. We know that from our own personal experience and we also know it from observing the world around us. But however bad the situation it is love that can lift us up and lead us forward again. And the source of all the true love we can experience and share with others is God.

“Saying that God allows something to happen does not mean that he wants it to happen but that he cannot prevent it because of his goal, which is our salvation.”

Emanuel Swedenborg in Divine Providence 234

For a further article on disasters covering Hurricane Katrina follow this link:

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We are born as eternally living souls

God is Love

The human being by natural birth must necessarily live in a world of time and space. From daily experience on earth we quickly learn that everything has a beginning and an ending. For us, therefore, there is necessarily, A time to be born, and a time to die  [Ecclesiastes 3:2 ESV].  But this is not the whole story, for in many places Scripture teaches us that God cannot be confined or limited by time and space: –

From everlasting to everlasting you are God.
[Psalm 90:2  ESV]

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”
[John 8:58  ESV]

With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
[2 Peter 3:8  ESV]

God has neither beginning nor ending. He remains untouched by the passage of time, living in a state of eternal being. Much is revealed by his chosen name, I AM [see also Exodus 3:14]; it is the name of one who is always alive and whom death can never touch. Our own search for immortality will be in vain unless it begins with the God who is, I AM. This God is the same Lord of whom the psalmist writes: –

The Lord has commanded the blessing, life for evermore.
[Psalm 133:3  ESV]

Because the Lord is ever the I AM, he can do no other than look to what is eternal in all things. As a consequence, his view of the human race and its potential is far wider and bigger than our own. It is this bigger picture that Emanuel Swedenborg glimpses when he writes, We are created so that our inner self cannot die [Heavenly Doctrine 223].  God has put within each one of us the spark of eternal life. This promise of eternity is not written into our physical body which, like everything of the natural world, must inevitably die and decay, but rather into our soul or inner self.

If anatomical studies have never found the soul it is because the soul does not reside in the physical body.  Nevertheless this body is closely connected to the soul, drawing life from it in much the same way as a physical book takes its life from the ideas and affections in the author’s mind.  The human body draws its existence and form from the human soul. We might think of the soul as the life source and the body as an effect which comes into being from that source. Furthermore Jesus Christ teaches us that the soul has an enduring life beyond the death of the physical body, Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul [Matthew 10:28  ESV].

Just as the burning of a book cannot destroy the ideas and affections that gave it life, so the soul remains unaffected by the death of the physical body.  In order fully to understand this we need to know that, Human beings have been so created as to be at once in the spiritual world and the natural world [Swedenborg Heavenly Doctrine 36]. Even while the physical body is alive and conscious in the natural world, the soul or inner self dwells in the spiritual world. There it receives life from the Lord. We are not human, nor do we have existence, from the physical body but from the soul which, Is the prior or primary form from which anyone becomes and is a human being … these inward aspects possess no life in themselves but are recipient forms of the Lord’s life [Swedenborg  Arcana Caelestia 1999].

The human soul, residing as it does in the spiritual world, not only survives physical death but also afterwards remains complete in all respects.  It is sustained by God, from whom it receives an unbroken stream of life.  Does this perhaps go some way to explaining why even as people grow physically older they still feel young inside? Despite the ageing and weakening of the physical body, a person’s inner love and faith can, and often does, grow stronger.  The inner soul is not dependent on the body for its life but on God, in whom we live and move and have our being.

Even as we live on earth we are already, in our inward parts at least, in the spiritual world. The deepest experiences of the human soul are first and foremost experiences of the spiritual world.  And when the physical body finally dies we are released from this natural world of time and space to enjoy the fullness of the soul’s life in the heavens. Many have imagined that this will be a rather ghostly kind of life, for what else can there be if our physical body has been cast off and returned to the dust of the earth?

The apostle Paul, however, suggests something rather different. He writes, So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable … It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body [1 Corinthians 15:42,44 ESV].  Paul seems to be saying that after death we are gifted with a new spiritual body within which our soul remains the essential human life. Emanuel Swedenborg writes at some length about this new spiritual body, reassuring us that it is both human and substantial:

After the death of the body a person’s spirit appears in the spiritual world in human shape, exactly as in the world. He also enjoys the faculties of sight, hearing, speech and feeling as in the world. He has to the full his faculties of thinking, willing and doing, as in the world. In short, he is a human being in every detail.
[The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 225]

The spiritual body has all the same organs, limbs, and senses as does the physical body, but is different in that it neither grows old nor sick. This body enables the human being to live a full and active life in the spiritual world, where we continue to enjoy marriage, friendships, work, worship, and play. All this is possible because the Lord, the eternal I AM, continually bestows life upon all human souls. His whole being finds its meaning and joy in creating, loving, and bringing to eternal life, souls other than himself. In him we shall always have life and have it in great abundance.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life”.
[John 11:25  ESV]

Jesus said, “That the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him”.
[Luke 20:37,38  ESV]







We live in two worlds

God is Love

living in two worldsOne of the problems with our busy materialistic world is that we seem to get very little time to think more deeply about what is going on in our lives. Everyday is made up of all sorts of practical and physical activities. We go to the shops and buy food. We cook our meals and wash up. We clean the house and read the newspaper. We mow the lawn or put our feet up in front of the television. We go to work by car or bus or train and come back late and tired. So much can get crammed into one day that we begin to feel unable to cope or at the other end of the scale we may have so little we can do that we feel lonely and cut off from the world around. If we are blessed with all our senses we can see the world around us, we can hear it, touch it, smell it and taste it. And particularly during the spring, when all sorts of flowers are coming into bloom, the physical world around us offers a wonderful array of stimulants for our senses. And we mustn’t forget our interactions with other people: a wave across the street, a smile to a passer-by, a chat over coffee, a lengthy phone call, a letter or text message from a friend, a kind word or a loving kiss. There is so much going on in our physical world that it is not surprising that many people live as though there is nothing else – that everything that goes on in our lives can be explained in physical terms.

But is this really so?

roseImagine you are holding a fragrant rose in your hand. You see the wonderful colour and texture of the flower, you touch its soft and smooth petals and you smell its intoxicating fragrance. So far you have been involved in a physical way with this rose but how does it make you feel? Do you feel happier and a little brighter inside, does a smile come over your face, does it evoke distant memories, do you feel more peaceful, do you feel more loved or more loving? In a wonderful way that rose, out there in the physical world around us, has touched something deep inside you and you have responded.

This is just one example of the countless situations we can find ourselves in when we realise that there is something much deeper to our lives than our physical being. Whilst our lives appear dominated by the physical world around us there is another world within us of feeling and thought where our deepest experiences take place and where we develop our real character. It is our inner world where, for example,  we can feel deep joy when we are very close to someone we love and deep pain when we are separated.

Throughout the ages wise people have realised that we live in two worlds at the same time, a physical outer world and a deeper inner spiritual world. The problem is that we get so absorbed by the state of our physical outer world that we don’t spend enough time on the spiritual world within us. How many people, for example, struggling in a gym to improve their physical well-being, would spend just a little time on spiritual exercises to help them develop their inner world? Is this not a distorted view of our priorities?

Jesus highlighted the need to change our priorities in favour of the inner spiritual life when he said:

Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.   Luke 12:29-31 ESV

And the apostle Paul gave some insight into living in two worlds in his first letter to the Corinthians when he wrote

It [the resurrection body]  is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body …  It is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual.
[1 Cor 15: 44,46 ESV]

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the visionary Jesuit priest, wrote in the 20th century:

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

George Harrison, the particularly spiritual member of the Beatles, echoed these words when he wrote:

Remember – we are not these bodies – just souls having a bodily experience.

Emanuel Swedenborg not only recognised that we are living in two worlds but also that when we die our real inner spiritual self goes on living:

As regards the soul, which – it is said – goes on living after death, it is nothing else than the actual person living in the body. That is, the soul is the person’s inner self acting in the world by means of the body and imparting life to the body. When his inner self is released from the body the person is called a spirit and then appears in a completely human form. Arcana Caelestia 6054

Should not our emphasis be on developing the quality of our inner life rather than worrying excessively as we do about our outer physical world?