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Breaking Up Complacency
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
July 12, 2015
1 Kings 19:1-18 Matthew 8:23-27 Psalm 88
The path of spiritual attainment is not always a smooth, straight, path. It is not always peaceful. In fact, it can, perhaps must, be accompanied by distress and conflict. In our Old Testament reading this morning, the prophet Elijah stood in the presence of God. But before he stood in God’s presence, he was reduced to a state of utter despair. He came to a broom tree, sat down, and prayed that he might die. He said, “I have had enough, LORD, take my life.” And it was in this condition of utter despair that God appeared to Elijah in the form of a soft, still voice. And there are times when the currents of our life become furious storms and, like the Apostles, we cry out to God, “Lord, save us!”
There is a good reason why spirituality often exacts a high price from us. When things are going our way, we get complacent, self satisfied, and forget about spirituality and our continual need for God in our lives. There is a poem of Wallace Stevens that illustrates this idea well. I have been reading it for 25 years and it still moves me. In this poem there is a woman who reflects on mortality and the good things of this earth. Yet her reflections are qualified by her complacency with the good things of earth she knows. So the poem begins:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe . . .
There are a couple things I would like to emphasize about this opening stanza. First, the woman is complacent with her peignoir, coffee, oranges, and sunny chair. She has all the comforts of this life, and they have made her complacent with life. All these good things “mingle to dissipate/The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.” I take this line to mean that she has no place in her world for religion, called by the poet, “The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.” And with no religion in her life, death is something fearful, called “the dark/Encroachment of that old catastrophe.” Without spirituality, death is a catastrophe. It means the end of all those good things of this world with which the woman is so complacent. This woman would like the things of this world to equal the eternal blessings that only spirituality can give. And she resents religion:
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright green wings, or else
In any other balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
She wants to cherish the things of the earth like the things of heaven, in fact, claims that the things religion teach do not equal the beauties of the earth:
She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
There is not any haunt of prophesy,
Nor any chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.
However, content as she is with the beautiful things of this world, there is still something missing: “She says, ‘But in contentment I still feel/The need of some imperishable bliss.’”
The poem never gives her anything more than the transitory, passing things of the world. Her contentment with the things of the world has rendered her spiritually blind. So, too, do we all have the potential to lose ourselves in the world, and to forget about the spiritual things that really matter. The truths about God that we learn in early childhood can become covered over with selfish concern and worldly interests. When this happens, we need to be shaken out of our complacency. We need to pass through sorrow, and trials in order to wake up to spirituality. When we have been brought through distress, the truths which are stored deep within us come to light:
These are stored up, and not manifested until he comes into this state; which is a state rarely attained at this day without temptation, misfortune, and sorrow, that cause the things of the body and the world, and thus of man’s own, to become quiescent, and as it were dead (AC 8).
Swedenborg refers to these shocks to our system as temptations. In his system, temptations are more than just struggling against our craving for chocolate when we are trying to eat healthy. Temptations are more than just trying to resist bad impulses. They are mortal struggles in which our very lifestyle is threatened. In temptations, we let go of our worldly inclinations, and open ourselves up to God’s inflowing life and love. We are shaken out of our complacency and our consciousness is lifted up to spiritual issues. When this happens, the truths we have learned cease to serve our own glory and become serviceable to God and our neighbor. Before temptation, the truths we know, which are vessels that receive God’s life, are turned away from God, toward self.
When therefore these vessels, which are variable as to forms, are in a contrary position and direction in respect to the life . . . it may be evident that they must be reduced to a position in accordance with the life, or in obedience to it. This can in no way be effected so long as man is in that state into which he is born, and to which he has reduced himself; for the vessels are not obedient, being obstinately resistant, and opposing the heavenly order according to which the life acts; for the good which moves them, and with which they comply, is of love of self and the world, . . . Wherefore, before they can be rendered compliant and fit to receive anything of the life of the Lord’s love, they must be softened. This softening is effected by no other means than by temptations; for temptations remove what is of self-love and of contempt for others in comparison with self, consequently what is of self-glory, and also of hatred and revenge arising therefrom. When therefore the vessels are somewhat tempered and subdued by temptations, then they begin to become yielding to, and compliant with the life of the Lord’s love . . . (AC 3318).
When we have been shaken up enough, we begin to look at ourselves and our place in the world differently. Our personality changes. When we are seeking glory and power, we are savage, competitive, and harsh. When we have been broken down by temptations, our whole personality changes. “He is afterward gifted with another personality, being made mild, humble, simple, and contrite in heart” (AC 3318).
I remember when I first finished my Ph.D. program. My head was full of a multitude grand theological theories, historical details, and cultural creations. But where my own faith was in all this, I didn’t know, or care. I was also drinking alcoholically. At that time, I thought that what I needed was a full-time university teaching position. Then I could continue to drink and theorize about religion and have the respect of a university position behind me. But this didn’t happen. I ended up in a state in America that was the third lowest in education. There was no university in the city. There was no library to speak of. There were a whole lot of bikers and rednecks who cared little for the things I cared most for. I used to sit in a bar and stare into the crowd, unable to imagine where I was. I found out later from a waitress that she though I was high on drugs because of that blank stare.
But what happened transformed me for the better. Being forcibly removed from the university and all its theorizing made me take a look at myself. I turned within and asked myself what I could take from my education and make my own. I began to form, or reform, a personal belief system. And as you all know, losing a teaching job in Florida is what led me to quit drinking. In the rooms of AA, I learned a whole new way of approaching the world. All the ego and perfectionism, and insecurity that drove me to drink was undone. In my 12 years in Florida, I became a new man. A better man.
This transition period was not easy. Most of my ideas about the kind of life I should be living were challenged and changed. This change was pretty much forced on me. I wouldn’t have freely chosen it. But I feel that where I am now is better for me—and those around me—than where I was then. Those truths were reduced into a greater place of compliance with God’s inflowing love than they were when I had just graduated. My personality did change into a more accepting, more mild condition.
This is the kind of distress that spirituality can bring upon us. This is the kind of change that only hard knocks can bring about. This is the power that shakes up our complacency and self-glory and lifts us into spirituality. I think that this process is what the Swedenborgian poet Edwin Markham has in mind when he writes:
Defeat may serve as well as victory
To shake the soul and let the glory out.
When the great oak is straining in the wind,
The boughs drink in new beauty and the trunk
Sends down a deeper root on the windward side.
Only the soul that knows the mighty grief
Can know the mighty rapture,
Sorrows come To stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.
(“Victory in Defeat”)
Dear Lord, We know that our spiritual journey is not always smooth and straight. We know that there can be difficulties for us to overcome. We know that we may go through hard times and trials. But these struggles are all for our spiritual welfare. Even as we know that we may find hardships, we also know that we can become complacent with the good things you have given us. We can forget that all of our blessings come from you. We can forget to thank you for the good things we enjoy. We may even forget our utter dependence on you and your leading. It is in times of distress that we remember you and look for deliverance from you. May we not need to await misfortune in order to recognise your gifts and your care for us. May we always be mindful of your love, and may we always give you thanks.
And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.