Perceiving the Spiritual Via Contrasts


Exodus 13:17-22

2 Cor. 4:6-12

Rev. Kit B. Billings

August 15, 2004

As is always the case whenever I am blessed to go on vacation with my wife and family, many special blessings come my way from the love and wisdom of the Divine. This past week is no exception. Now, I could tell you about the riveting games of badminton we played near the shore of this lovely little lake where my parents met over forty years ago and fell in love…but I won't. I could tell you about the fun we had playing some passionate games of Risk (which is a board game my family first started playing back in the 80's)…but I won't. Instead, I'd like to share with you some special and meaningful insights that came to myself and others by means of some rather unlucky weather, which engulfed most of our time up in northwest Michigan, at that special and beloved little lake called Ford Lake.

When people go on vacation to a gorgeous lake as we did, ready and pining to enjoy the fun offered by a nice, small-sized power boat owned by my brother-in-law, Joe, having packed things like bathing suits and beach towels, they hope that God would provide plenty of warm, sun-filled days and temperatures into the 80's and 90's. Well, providence was not on our side, if truth be told. Most of our days were rather chilly and rainy. Most of the time the sunshine did not break through the dense, thick, dark covering of clouds; and often rain fell, making us wonder if our calendars were indeed in the eighth month of the year rather than the tenth. If you've ever had the blessing of camping or staying in cabins near a lake during long, rainy weather, then I imagine you know how dark and foreboding that water gets. I think one of the primary blessings that comes from vacationing during dark, cool days is that it makes sleeping-in that much more pleasurable and peaceful.

However, there wound up being another special blessing that came in and through my mind this past Friday afternoon as our vacation days were coming to a close—which was the magnified appreciation and meaning I felt inside of my being for the gift of warm, brilliant and beautiful sunshine pouring down gloriously from the heavens, turning dark and somewhat cold forests and lakefront into nothing short of paradise. The first day of our vacation at Ford Lake was a warm and light-filled day, which I appreciated a lot, but nothing like what I felt and experienced five days later after the summertime weather had departed and then returned as I shared with you a moment ago. It's amazing how much more pleasurable it is to sit and lounge or fish in a boat in warm, calm weather as opposed to cool, windy and ominous weather.

Yesterday while my dad drove my wife and I to the Detroit airport the spiritual lesson in this aspect of our vacation dawned into my understanding: contrasts of many kinds are very important to God in how He helps us grow and deepen our grasp of what is good and true and what is evil and false. In other words, while the Lord never intends for dark and painful situations and experiences to happen in life, He sure knows how to make great USE of them in His tireless work to help us appreciate His saving work in our lives and what it means to choose a life in harmony with the warmth and truth of His kingdom of heaven. What I'm talking with you about this morning is the deeply helpful co-existence of OPPOSITES, and how variations of our emotional and spiritual states of being help us in many ways to better our grasp of what is good and true as God leads us onward into growth and maturity.

So, perhaps this past week you experienced your heart and mind moving in and out of states of being where you were feeling close and connected to God on the one hand, and distant and disconnected in another? Perhaps this past week you may have been feeling peaceful and strong inside one day, and then anxious (if not despairing) another? If so, then it can be very helpful to perceive how useful such contrasting states of being are for your eternal development…, that is, for your salvation that belongs really to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Allow me to share some helpful thoughts from our special New Church theology, found in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, first in True Christian Religion 763:

it is varieties which determine quality, for quality is perfected by differences relating to what is more or less its opposite. Can anyone fail to see that truth gets its quality from the existence of falsity; and likewise good gets its quality from the existence of evil, light its from the existence of darkness, heat its from the existence of cold? How could we have color, if only white existed and no black? It is only incompleteness that produces the quality of the intervening colors. How could we have meaning without contrast, and contrast except by reference to opposites? Is not the eyesight dimmed by nothing but white, and enlivened by color; and color owes something to black, as for instance, green does. Does not the ear go deaf, if a single note is continually dinned into its organs? But it is aroused by variation of pitch, and this too is the result of contrasts. How can we have beauty without a contrast with ugliness? That is why the beauty of some young woman is vividly displayed in some paintings, which have an ugly face put alongside. How could we have pleasure and bliss, except by contrast with what is unpleasant or unblest? Does not a single idea held constantly in the mind drive one mad, unless it is varied at intervals by ideas tending in the opposite direction?

It is much the same with the spiritual things of the church; here the opposites refer to evil and falsity. Yet these do not come from the Lord, but from human beings, who have free will and can apply it to good or to evil purposes. To use a comparison, it is the same as with darkness and cold. These do not come from the sun, but from the earth, which as it revolves successively withdraws from and turns away from the sun. Yet were it not for this turning towards and withdrawal, there would be neither days nor years, and so nothing, indeed, no one, upon earth.

The theme of contrasts or opposites runs strong throughout God's Word. One example in the Old Testament is found in our scripture lesson in Exodus this morning. Once the Hebrews were led out of slavery in Egypt, the Divine chose to lead them not in just one form, but in two, as they traveled circuitously toward the Promised Land by means of the wilderness desert toward Mt. Sinai. These passages tell us that God led the Hebrews by night by appearing before them in a miraculous pillar of fire, which would be an awesome sight to be sure, and then led them by day in a pillar of clouds. Isn't it interesting that the Lord led them by means of contrasting forms? I pick up some fascinating intentionality here on God's part, and a wisdom that is important for us to try to understand.

So perhaps there is some deep down spiritual usefulness in the fact that we are regularly being exposed to families that are generally strong and healthy as well as others that are weak and neurotic? Perhaps it helps us to gain greater understanding of things like freedom and liberty and the blessings of education by the fact that God has allowed for destitution and ruin and religious fundamentalism to exist when humanity chooses as a whole to let these misfortunes flourish in parts of our world, which spawn fanaticism and terrorism? I believe God's infinite and Divine wisdom is providentially governing humanity's errors and shortsightedness, and that the existence of these contrasts are helping us to potentially learn crucial lessons in life and how we can best help the Divine to bring the Holy City New Jerusalem, the spiritual riches of heaven, upon the Earth.

I hope that by addressing this aspect of spiritual growth with you today that your faith and perception of God's loving and wise presence and leadership of your life increases, whether you're on your way to work this Monday or boarding a plane bound for wherever your journey takes you. In light of such deepening faith, perhaps you've heard the one about the pastor who boarded an airplane to take the first flight he had ever flown. As they were about to take off, the flight attendant noticed his clerical garb and also his panicky look and his white knuckles as he gripped the seat in semi-terror. She walked over to the pastor and said, “Sir, I'm surprised at you. You are obviously a man of faith—you shouldn't be so nervous about flying. Don't you have any faith in God? The cleric looked at her and said, “Look, young lady, the promise of Scripture is, `Lo, I am with you always.' It doesn't say anything about `High.'”

Paul in his second letter to the early Christian Church at Corinth draws heavily upon the usage of contrasts and opposites to help his friends understand the Lord's saving work within us. He wrote that God's Light is shining out through darkness, and that the Lord's saving Light is beaming into and through your heart every day. He used the contrast of the Divine's Spirit living within earthen jars of clay, an apt symbol Paul employed to describe our finite human bodies and spirit in relation to God's infinite Love and Wisdom, which is the sole power of our salvation, which energizes our wills to love and serve the Divine. Paul explained how the opposites of the Lord's natural death and His spiritual resurrection are both present in us every day.

Isn't that an awesome usage of contrasting realities—talking about both death and life in the same sentences? Paul was sharing about how the sacrificial love and goodness of Christ, brought into our world and lives by means of the Lord's willingness to die for the sake of humanity, enables a wondrous spiritual life (God's Divine life!) to live and move and make a good spiritual home within us. Likewise, there is a perfecting and sharpening of our own grasp of and feeling for good, spiritual living by the fact that we are confronted by our physical mortality, and how death and resurrection are playing out in thousands of lives every day.

We can recognize this powerful experience of contrasts finding fulfillment in our daily life journey by means of the most intense and difficult twists and turns of life—when we find ourselves being dealt a hand of pain and despair, such as when passionate dreams and hopes comes crashing down, or when facing some weak or destructive aspect of our inner being surfacing as God says: “Now is the time for you to look at and deal with this highly uncomfortable aspect of your own will and reasoning, which helps create and fuel the intense inner storms of life to hit hard.” Or, when external catastrophe raises its ugly head, causing us to go through those intense and difficult trials referred to in the Bible as temptations and spiritual tribulations. Swedenborg learned that normal human spiritual growth patterns will bring us into contact with inner states called desolation and despair. In his work titled Heavenly Secrets we read in paragraph 6144:

'Because the famine overwhelmed them' means because the desolation reached the point of despair. When it is said to 'overwhelm' them, it is despair … for the final stage of desolation is despair. Despair is the final stage of desolation and temptation … for a number of reasons, of which let only the following be advanced here: Through despair people are led in an effective and perceptible way to acknowledge that nothing true or good comes from themselves, and to acknowledge that what is their own has caused them to be damned but that with the Lord's aid they are delivered from damnation, with salvation entering in through what is true and good.

Despair also exists to the end that life's bliss which the Lord imparts may be felt; for when people come out of that state of despair they are like those who have been condemned to death but then freed from prison. Periods of desolation and temptation also serve as the means by which people gain an insight into states contrary to heavenly life and from them are given a perception and insight into the bliss and happiness of heavenly life. For a perception and insight into bliss and happiness come in no other way than from a contrast with their opposites. Therefore so that they can have the one fully demonstrated as against the other, periods of desolation and temptation are protracted to the utmost, that is, to the point of despair.

It is important to remember how God has worked in your life and to be reminded of how God makes great use of contrasting inner states of being.

Martin Luther King, Jr., at the beginning of his career was arrested for no reason except his civil rights demonstrations were causing friction. He was released from jail but then received a bomb threat. He tried to think of a way out of his situation. He wrote the following: I got to the point that I couldn't take it anymore. I was weak.... And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. I bowed down over a cup of coffee. I will never forget it. I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, "Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage."

Martin Luther King, Jr. was in a pit of despair. And it seemed at that moment that he could hear an inner voice saying to him, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world." Martin Luther heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He felt the Lord's promise never to leave him, never to leave him alone. Three days later a bomb shattered his front porch, but King took it calmly: "My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it,” he wrote. And the great social reformer marched onward.

I want to close my message with you, therefore, by reiterating an important spiritual truth that I hope will help you to find greater meaning within your own contrasting states of being and encounters with times of joy and times of pain…in times of health and in times of illness, which is a special message I believe the Lord helped me to encounter once again while being driven along the rural highways of northern Michigan (as I watched a beautiful display of sunlight dance upon the leaves of the trees and on those of many ferns growing beneath them in the canopy of the forest-wild a couple of days ago as God led me toward home): there just is going to be an awesome mixture of light and dark filled days, of feelings of spiritual death and despair being followed by resurrection and new life, of contrasting good and bad times for us all, which uniquely enables the Divine to deepen our appreciation for God's presence and work in our lives, and how we each play great parts in the journeys we are on as we grow toward heaven.

May we each grow in our faith that the Lord is with us and guiding us in our tough and painful spiritual nighttimes within His spiritual fire and pillar of Love; and may we gain greater trust that He is still deeply leading us in our peaceful, sunny times of life even though He is obscured in a pillar of cloud and smoke. Let us thank God for His many gifts that come to us through His use of contrast and variation. Amen.