3. The Gospel of New Beginnings
When my wife and I were in the Holy Land, we saw several high artificial mounds called "tells." There are others scattered all over Syria and Mesopotamia. They are ancient cities which flourished for perhaps thousands of years, but which have long since become extinct. The buildings were of mud brick. When an old house collapsed it would be beaten down, smoothed out, and a new one built on top of it. From time to time invaders would destroy the whole city and lay it level; later, the surviving inhabitants would return and build a new city on top of the old. The level would rise, and the result would be a high, steep-sided mound: a great clay chest containing the whole history of its past. "Why," you may ask, "did they rebuild on top of the old? Why not somewhere else?" The answer is, "For continuity with the past: to preserve the city's identity." This illustrates very clearly to me the way in which we ourselves can, and should, keep continuity with the past and retain our own identity, and yet make new beginnings.
There is a passage in Swedenborg which emphasizes that every smallest thing we do, say, or think, has repercussions which continue to eternity. Causes produce effects, and so one thing follows from another, and you cannot stop it or reverse the process. This is a solemn thought. We are responsible for a whole train of events every time we do anything. Yet, on the other hand, we are told that we can begin again whenever we wish, that the past is done with and can be forgotten, and that the Lord will forgive us and wipe out our sins so that we need not worry about them any more. Is that true? It is true in the sense that a new house can be built on the ruins of an old house. But the old will always continue to be there and have its effect on its own level. It is this matter of what level you are working on that explains the seeming paradox.
A lady once came to me for counseling. It was a long story. A difficult and unhappy situation had been created. Both she and her husband had made mistakes. She readily admitted her own part in it. Now they were in a mess, and there did not seem to be any way out of it short of suicide. She realized they were paying for their past sins, and it looked as if they would have to go on "paying" for the rest of their lives! I said, "You can always begin again." She said, "How?" I said, "By accepting the situation as it is, repenting of it, paying what must be paid by way of restitution, but at the same time building a new house on a higher level, a higher principle, using the ruins of the old as a foundation." I tried to get over to her the Gospel of New Beginnings, which is the key to the whole of Christianity. You can always make a New Beginning.
In some parts of the world divorce is fashionable. People remarry over and over again, and each new marriage repeats the pattern of the previous ones. That is not "making a new beginning." It is carrying on as in the past. To make a new beginning, you must see that a situation is bad, repent of it, decide to accept it since it cannot be altered, and then, using the experience of the past, you must build anew on a higher plane, nearer to the Kingdom of Heaven.
This concept of various levels of life, one above the other, is typically Swedenborgian and is very helpful in understanding many situations. On every level there is absolute continuity which is completely ruthless, each action leading to its inevitable outcome. You cannot escape it; everything must be paid for, to the utmost penny. If you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind. Is there no hope of forgiveness? Not on that level. But you can step up to a higher level! Then you are no longer bound by the old. You are no longer subject to its laws of cause and effect. You are in a New Beginning and everything before you is fair and hopeful. The old is still there, working itself out according to its own laws, the laws of death. But it no longer has any power over you. You have come under new laws of life.
Take the case of a person in an unhappy marriage, or any other situation which cannot be changed. Take a prisoner who is paying for his past misdeeds in jail. All of us, in fact, are paying for some past misdeeds somehow. But this need not trouble us. We can, at this very moment, start building a new house on a higher level. Jesus said, "Resist not evil." Do not resist it; by-pass it. Say, "I know about it now. How can I learn from it so as to avoid making the same mistakes in the future?"
When I was doing mission work in South Africa, people would sometimes bring their quarrels to me to settle. I would listen to evidence on both sides. Endless wranglings! He said this, the other man said that. And so on, and so on. When I had listened for a long while, I would say, "I have heard enough! It is quite impossible to prove who is in the right and who is in the wrong! Do. you want to be friends?" "Yes, Chief!" they would protest. "Then you can be. All you need do is to accept the fact that the other fellow was mean, but still love him! Think that he was to blame in some things, and you were to blame in others. You have got yourselves into a mess. Accept each other for what you are, rotten human beings, but potential sons of God, and build up a new friendship on that basis!" The appeal did not always work, but sometimes it did.
The same principle applied in the case of the man Jesus invited to follow him, who said he could not come because he first wanted to bury his father. I do not think his father was already dead. What the man meant was that he wanted to stay at home until his father was dead, then he would follow Jesus. To which our Lord replied, "Let the dead bury their dead; but go thou and preach the kingdom of God." In other words, let the present deadening situation continue as it is. It has no future anyway; it will end in ruin and ultimate burial. Just step right out of it, and become a joyful citizen of the kingdom of God.
It was the same with the Prodigal Son. Was he told to try to improve his condition in that far country? No, he was to snap right out of it, and go home to his heavenly Father. That does not necessarily mean we have to change our situation in the worldly sense. You might get another job, you might go to another country, but if you took the old pattern of life with you, you would not be any better off.
I once saw a cartoon of a family whose house was haunted by a mischievous ghost or poltergeist, that banged things and slammed doors and upset the milk. Eventually they could take it no longer, and decided to move to another house in the next town. All their furniture was packed into a moving van and off they set. But there was the little ghostie in the moving van, having the time of his life climbing all over the furniture. "We're moving house," he said. Yes, we take our ghosts with us. We should do better to stay where we are, and change the mischievous spirit into an angel.
Do you believe you can make a new beginning in this way? You can! At any time. No matter what your situation, no matter what your problem, no matter how deeply you are involved in past sins and mistakes, no matter how firmly you seem to be in the grip of bad habits, no matter what kind of image you have of yourself and others have of you, our Lord can forgive you and lift you out of it. And you can forgive yourself and start again on a higher level. There will still be much to do, of course. A whole new house must be built, brick by brick and stone by stone. But the Lord will provide the material, and he will be your co-worker. What a wonderful time you will have working alongside of Him, seeing the beautiful new building take shape and form according to His blueprint! Jesus went about the countryside preaching forgiveness for the remission of sins. He began as a carpenter making new tables and chairs. He ended by making new men.
"Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth," says the Lord, "and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice forever in that which I create: for behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy." The Latin for New Beginnings is "Regeneration." Regeneration does not come from below. It comes from above, but it rests on that which is below and glorifies it. So the holy city New Jerusalem does not come from below; it is not built by man. It comes down from God out of heaven, but rests and settles on the top of the hill. It rests on the highest level of the tell, or city mound. Our lower selves are there below - accepted, forgiven and forgotten. The dead have buried their dead. Come into the glorious city New Jerusalem! Become disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, and go, preach the kingdom of God!