Rev. Kit Billings
January 16, 2005
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Mtt. 5:4)
“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” (Helen Keller)
This morning we are picking up where we left off last November with the Beatitudes given to us to reflect upon and marvel over by the Lord as we bring our minds to the second one Christ preached. And my goodness what powerful spiritual treasure we have before us today. But like the rest of the Beatitudes Jesus gave, how easy it is to either throw this treasure away or deny even that it exists.
Mourning a close friend's death. Grieving the loss of a spouse. Grieving the loss of a leg, a business, a job. Suffering comes in many forms, and even though it's ridiculously simple to say it, none of it feels good while it's happening. One of America's booming economic markets thrives by helping human beings to avoid what could be called the “gift of tears.” Just think of all the different forms of addiction there are that are motivated to aid people in avoiding their own personal suffering and loss. Just think what would happen to the alcohol, cigarette, and candy makers' business if our country as a whole decided to more squarely face our real suffering and mourning rather than try to burry them through some form of mood altering mechanism?
But God, our Lord and Savior Jesus, came to remind humanity of a higher truth: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Imagine yourself being one of those poor pilgrim Jews thronging to feel some of that beautiful love that was healing people all over Judea of their spiritual and physical ills. Can you put yourself into the crowd that had heard of the fantastic healer and preacher, who came out of Nazareth in Galilee? You've come a ways to find Him, and it's been a tough challenge to do so, since times are really hard for you, a peasant Jew, who often goes hungry providing for your family, and oppression from the Romans is a daily pain for you to endure. Rome—which was yet another empire whose pat phrase is terrifyingly real: “might makes right.”
Imagine yourself being called to follow the Lord up that mountainside that day, when the sunlight seemed to shine a bit brighter than usual. So many poor and struggling people, whose lives often lack a spiritual feeling of inner peace and happiness. And since oppression and injustice typically rule the day, since cruelty and hard-heartedness are the basic way of the Roman garrison, perhaps those around you, perhaps even yourself, are expecting this inspiring Jewish teacher to talk about the greatness of power and armies which God will send down from heaven to crush their oppressors and liberate them from bondage.
But then, once this poor but charismatic leader stands up, after the throngs have let their poorly nutritioned legs rest upon the grass, He stands up and releases these startling words from His mouth: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven!”
Woah! Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted?! Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy? Did I hear this strange fellow from Galilee correctly? I think I did. What could He be saying?
Yes. Those poor, starving, desperate Jews back then heard Christ correctly. And yes, the words and wisdom coming out of the Lord's mouth would have stunned most of us had we been in the shoes…or sandals rather…of those peasant Jews listening to Him preach. And yet, it is also very likely that even though the truth coming out of Jesus' mouth would have struck the outer reaches of my mind like a hot sword slicing through raw meat, after the initial shock was over it is also likely that another feeling came as well—that unmistakable feeling when Divine truth, when God's truth, melts into the more interior places within my mind, creating a feeling of “YESSSSS. Yes, this is true. I have nothing truly to fear.”
There is both a natural and a spiritual depth to us, to the human mind. The big struggle for most of us is that we find it easy to let the natural, external aspect of our mind gain possession of the spiritual depths within and rule them, just the way the Roman Empire conquered and ruled the land of Israel. It was terribly, terribly true that the Jewish people back then were suffering under the evil hand of Rome. Yet it was equally true that the very reason why Israel lost touch with the power and protective might of God was because their leaders and everyday citizens gave up on the Lord and His commandments—truths that put love for the Lord and one's neighbor as the highest concern in life.
And so, God Himself had to come into our world and bring a fresh, beautifully clear expression of His love and truth for us. The Lord's truth shining into and through the Beatitudes drives quickly through all of the clutter and mud and rationalizations we often suffer in, and it beams into our minds here today. Some of God's wisdom points us toward right behavior, and a lot of it points us toward the kind of attitudes and affections and ways of thinking that are vital for anyone seriously interested in the Lord's kingdom of heaven. And this morning we are talking about the best, or most spiritual, attitude we need in dealing with crises and losses—things, in other words, that make us mourn and want to cry.
Clearly, the Lord has a special agenda regarding our ability to cry and mourn, for often by doing so we will be led by our gentle, loving Savior into vital depths of growth and comfort. Luke's Gospel words this Beatitude in this way: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” By engaging our sufferings fully and with God's presence, and also with the presence of other caring people, we will be led into certain aspects of God's kingdom that will truly amaze us. As Cardinal Mercier once said, “Suffering accepted and vanquished…will give you a serenity which may well prove the most exquisite fruit of your life.”
Let us, therefore, talk for a bit about feeling blessed since every one of Christ's Beatitudes begins with this precious word.
Blessed. In the original Greek, the words used to describe what the Lord was talking about by our English translation that reads “blessed” refers to that true spiritual fulfillment and joy that eventually arise out of suffering and pain. Ouch. Pretty tough words in a way, wouldn't you say? But this is just the kind of serious, “hard ball”, vital truth that comes with God's Divine wisdom. Said differently, there is a kind of deep, pervasive, eternal joy and strength that only comes via legitimate suffering and pain.
If we were capable of looking at life with the kind of LONG…AND I MEAN OH SO LONG…viewpoint that God has, we would begin to recognize that the fullest, deepest truth of life is that God is supremely concerned with our eternal, spiritual happiness and strength of mind—our eternal welfare you might say. In this sermon Christ gave, one gets the clear sense that the Lord knew fully the importance of distilling all of that great spiritual wisdom He possessed into short, pithy truths, which would outline His entire mission and message before His death. But even more importantly, they are able to etch pure Divine wisdom into our minds, which once put there are simply impossible to fully erase. And God would have us look deeply and intentionally at the whole business of suffering and mourning, but not simply with our natural ways of thinking, rather with a deeper, more spiritual way of perception.
But before we do, allow me to share a small bit of humor about a young preacher who suffered greatly at preaching his first sermon after seminary. There was a young Methodist circuit rider who was sent by his bishop in the early 1800's to try to start a church in a town infamous for its lawlessness, murders and beatings. The young minister entered the town's only pulpit with fear and trembling. He looked out upon the two-dozen hostile, mean-looking faces. He was shaking so much that he could barely hold his Bible, but he went ahead and managed to preach his sermon. When his sermon ended, there was utter silence. Then one of the meanest of the mean-looking characters swaggered up to him and said, “Son, you don't have to worry; we ain't gonna hurt you. But we aim to shoot that no good rascal what sent you here to us.”
Essentially, there are three forms of suffering—physical, emotional and spiritual. Swedenborg wrote most extensively about spiritual and emotional forms of suffering since his focus was on spiritual growth and what it takes for people to grow in God's Spirit (which makes us one day fit and strong enough to actually want the immensely moving and stirring depths of love and wisdom that makes up the atmosphere of Heaven…an atmosphere of love, which abhors selfishness). Our theology discusses at length the extremely important role of spiritual mourning and suffering. It states that every time we get on board with God and resist the unhealthy desires and promptings of the unregenerate natural degree of our minds (the stuff in us that makes it seem ever so desirable to sin!), and choose to fight against those unhealthy thoughts and interests whatever they may be, we will likely encounter a period of internal suffering. The suffering of the natural mind, which is a spiritual form of suffering, causes either basic discomfort and uneasiness, or downright anxiety and despair.
Our Lord Jesus Christ spoke poetically, using the mechanism of a parable, about how a kernel of wheat, in order for it to truly live must fall into the ground and die. And if it does so will have the joy of bearing much fruit (John 12:23-27). The bottom line here is, that whenever some aspect of our disorderly natural mind must die in order that it be reborn, we must suffer. Swedenborg wrote that during such temptation the natural man “grieves.” In his work, Heavenly Secrets n. 8352 we read:
the affection for good flows in unceasingly from the Lord by way of the internal man … and when these things are under attack from the evils of self-love and love of the world, in which too the person has previously taken delight, a conflict of delights or affections results, which gives rise to anguish, and this in turn to grief and complaint.
And so it makes sense that the Lord would say, speaking to the spiritual level of our lives, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
The plain fact is that a great deal of growth often happens to us after we've been through some form of suffering. The eminent professor of pastoral counseling Howard Clinebell shares this poignant image from his childhood about the impact of pain and anguish in our lives. He was raised on a farm, and so he was struck as a boy at the sight of a good, sharp plow blade slicing deep into the soil, cutting through the shallow roots of things which made the soil ready for receiving seeds of crops that needed to be able to reach deeply into the dirt. Pain and grief does the same for us—it prepares the soil of our souls for the deeper seeds of truth of God that desperately need to take root in us. Clinebell writes: “[Sharp plow blades] sever any shallow spiritual roots. But disturbing the soil also prepares it for receptivity to new seeds of meaning…. In due season, some will flower. The deeper the plow goes, the deeper the new roots of faith can penetrate. Right after plowing, the furrows become tiny rivers when the spring rains send needed water. From a spiritual perspective, the furrows cut by crises and losses can become channels for either the toxins of bitterness toward God (as often is true, at least initially) or the living water that nourishes life in all its fullness. Gradually, we can let the living water of healing love—ours and God's—flow through this channel in our souls.”
As Ravi Zacharias once wrote, “What God whispers to us in our pleasure, He shouts to us in our pain.”
Somehow we need to be able to make peace with the reality that bad things happen to good people, whether their pain be physical, emotional or spiritual. This was the basic challenge that Job faced. It is a tough challenge for most of us. It sure has been for me for many years, but I can say that the Lord's seeds of wisdom regarding that bad things happen to essentially good people sometimes have taken root and are growing.
There is another important element of meaning about how blessing happens for those who let themselves mourn or weep. Paul discussed it in his letters, which teaches that when we allow ourselves to surrender to our own pain and suffering while inviting others to simply care for us when we do this, gives us the Christian blessing through love of bearing one another's burdens. He wrote: “bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:2) Since humanity chose so long ago to make evil a regular part of our daily diet, God had to let us reap the many forms of suffering which that choice created. Ultimately, the Lord will have the upper hand, and will make good use out of our mourning and weeping—in part since He helps us to learn how to bear one another burdens as we practice the art of love.
Paul elaborates later on, however, how important it is also that we grow in inner strength to be able to carry our own loads. (Gal. 6:5) Christ taught how when we labor and are heavy laden that we learn how to go to Him in prayer and supplication. Ultimately, I have found that God makes use of our suffering and pain (which I believe makes a part of Him grieve as well) in that it greatly helps us to experience times when we must cry out in prayer for His Divine help in life, as the psalms depict so profoundly well. Or we have the choice of responding by traveling down the road of bitterness and hatred. But for those who choose to surrender to those rivers of tears as the prophet Jeremiah did, and allow ourselves to grieve with God (and perhaps some trusted pastor or friend), then we may forever take heart—for indeed the Lord has guaranteed, “they shall be comforted.”