Once upon a time there was a very poor person who lived in the city’s streets. He was down on his luck and had the dice stacked against him all his life. He was in need of empathy and neighborly love.
He would beg for money and although he could scrape enough pocket change to keep his body and soul together, it seemed that those who were more fortunate than he were not really deeply concerned with his wretched predicament.
Then one day the pastor of a neighborhood church found the suffering man sitting on the curb. The pastor held out his hand to the poor man and said, “Let me help you get back on your feet, my brother.”
The poor man was in a desperate position and agreed to go back to the church with the caring pastor. At the church he was able to get a warm shower and, thanks to the generosity of the congregation, the pastor was able to give him new clothes.
The pastor was well connected to the various helpful services offered in the community and was able to get the man some medical attention and a shelter to live in. The pastor even provided the man with a paid job to do maintenance work in the church building and some outside landscaping chores.
The poor man was not living like a king, but at least he no longer had to give thought to the cares of the world and of the physical body. Then one day he walked into the pastor’s rectory to give his thanks. “You have removed the hard suffering from my life. In fact, you have saved my life.”
The pastor looked at the man with caring eyes and said, “No, I have not yet begun the real process of saving your life. Because in order to do that I must expose you to suffering hard things all over again.”
“But you are supposed to offer me comfort and protection,” replied the stunned man. “I don’t want to go back out into that miserable world again.”
“In order to truly save you I must introduce you to a whole other world, the world of the spirit,” explained the pastor. “You must learn new things about yourself and the spiritual world that you will, no doubt, find most challenging and even discomforting. In fact, you must die to be saved.”
“What are you saying?” said the poor man in disbelief. “First you save me, now you want me to suffer and die! First you build my self-esteem and next you challenge it!”
“You have to be reborn in spirit,” said the pastor in a most serious tone. “For that to happen, old beliefs and behaviors have to die. You will begin to suffer in a new way when your old compulsions burst forth to rebel against the spiritual lessons I will be giving you. I took you out of one hell so that you could face another.”
“But I am a good person,” snapped the poor man.
“Your goodness comes from the Lord, not from you,” returned the minister.
“I find that statement condescending!” said the poor man, “Heck, I am going to find another church—one that will always comfort me, tell me I am a good person and how much I am loved by God. I am going to find a church that guarantees heaven and wonderful mansions for all people, where angels will minister to all our needs and ensure our eternal happiness.”
As the poor man left the rectory in a huff, the minister—who was Swedenborgian—found himself in a dilemma. How do you save people when they have little knowledge of the extent of the poorness of their own inner spirit? How will he help God increase the population of heaven with a generation of citizens who feel eternal happiness is a divine promise and a sacred entitlement program?
Hugs, smiles and words of encouragement only go so far and don’t get at the core of the problems in the world. The minister shrugged his shoulders and got up from his seat. The world was full of many more needy victims that could at least physically benefit from his pastoral care. Maybe one of them would rise to God’s challenge.