December 30, 2012
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:1-11, 28-31)
Reading from Swedenborg
Seen by itself, prayer is talking with God and at the same time some inner view of whatever is being prayed about. What happens is that something like a flow of ideas comes into the person’s mind or thought that opens his state towards God. It always varies according to each person’s state and what is being prayed about. If the prayer comes from faith and love and is about spiritual things, then there’s something like a revelation, which shows itself as feelings of hope, comfort, and some inner joy.
(Arcana Coelestia 2535)
Comfort, yes, comfort my people! says your God. Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and
cry out to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.
I sometimes think that the most important thing a sermon does (and perhaps also a worship service) is bring some comfort to those who are there. I was once told that directly, and it’s my experience that dealing with the Lord’s love and providence or talking about things like hope and forgiveness and trust, or why we don’t need to succumb to worries or how to deal with anxiety—these are the things that seem to help the most. To put that another way, these are the things that people generally come to church for: to be comforted, reassured, and encouraged. One of our ministers said that sermons are really longer ways of saying, “Be good, be good. Amen.” But perhaps it’s even truer to say they are variations on the theme of “It’s OK, it’s OK. Amen.”
And yet it’s really not enough just to comfort people and leave it at that. There’s the other part of life or human nature which also needs attending to, like being too self-centered or being stuck in certain attitudes or habits which don’t help and which we’d be better off without, for our sakes and for other peoples’ sakes. All that side needs dealing with, whether you get it through something like a sermon or—even better—if you yourself start doing a bit of spiritual work on yourself. That’s the more uncomfortable side of things—being challenged or stirred up—but even that side needs a bit of comfort injected into it to help us know that we can alter certain things about ourselves, that it is worth keeping going with once you start, and perhaps most of all that God is there helping us in this—let’s call it “new”—way of living.
New things, whether it’s a new job or a new house, are always a bit unsettling, so if you really do set out to be something of a new kind of person with new attitudes and new outlooks, you are just as likely to find it unsettling and to wonder what’s coming, and so this comfort again becomes very important. It’s OK, it’s OK, Amen.
There does seem to be quite a bit of disquiet around at the moment generally, which also increases the need for comfort and reassurance. I’ll reel off a few unsettling things as examples, but of course you know them already, and maybe they have been very much on your mind and making you uncomfortable. Over and above whatever is going on in your own personal life, there are things like climate change, water management, terrorism, the huge changes in technology, and a generally much more rapid way of life.
Not much comfort there. It looks rather scary, in fact, like a planet running out of control. I am fairly convinced that some of it is media bombardment, because we live in a time when the media hits us full on. But I’m also fairly convinced that all those issues I reeled off are pretty serious ones which we need to realize are there. And yes, I am also fairly convinced, pragmatically speaking (but also spiritually speaking!), that we are able to keep pace with these big issues and find ways, or be given ways, to handle them. We are very much aware of these issues now—nobody can claim we don’t know—and when it is like that, when it’s really up front, we find ways of coping. Some really creative, ingenious, brilliant people are out there, and they might not be praying about the state of the world, but they are staring at it very hard and looking for ways of dealing with its problems. I find that very comforting—not cozily so, because someone’s taking care of it all, but because human minds—God-given human minds, don’t forget—are capable of creating solutions.
I link that with the idea that prayer, which is “talking with God,” doesn’t just mean you let off steam as you talk your anxieties out with God: it also generates a flow that comes in from God, so that you start to see things you didn’t see before. Perhaps that is what prayer really is! We tend to limit it to the idea that we are addressing God in some way, when in fact prayer generates a powerful creative flow into us from God. So when we talk about human ingenuity in dealing with big issues, we shouldn’t leave God out of it at all. The world’s rocket scientists and experts may or may not be praying as we define it, but they are certainly turning their minds to the issues and beginning to get solutions…from God!
I also find comfort in another, parallel, area. I keep hearing about people who take part in a meditation or retreat of some kind—silence in the Blue Mountains (I could be silent in the Blue Mountains!), fasting in the Southern Highlands, chakra cleansing, and so on. We could say they are just taking a personal break or opting out of normal life, but that’s rather cynical. I find the idea that people are taking such retreats comforting. We’re talking about thousands of people, big numbers. I see it as a collective reclaiming of spiritual life by people who are caught up in the fast lane but know there’s another level to life. The faster life gets, the more they know this level is necessary. It becomes manifest—very black and white—when life is at fever pitch.
But it is the collective sense of this movement toward retreat-taking that I find most comforting. It’s like a groundswell, a huge upsurge among people to reclaim human life. You see it politically in places like the Ukraine and Estonia; you see it environmentally everywhere, and you see it personally as people make time to do it. And people say things like, “If everyone in the world prayed at exactly the same moment, everything would change.” I don’t think it would work mechanically like that. But when everyone in the world is praying in the new way our teachings describe, in the way I mentioned earlier—not us to God, but God to us—then yes, everything will change. And I find that very comforting.
If this new-prayer principle is right, then the current global level of things is very positive. On one level, it is critical and alarming; on another level, it is going to unify us. A thousand years ago, people lived in villages from which they rarely, if ever, strayed; nobody knew what was over the hill, never mind on the other side of the world. Then people began forming clusters. A hundred years ago, nations were set against nations and big institutions and power blocks against each other. A war here didn’t much impinge on people over there. And a lot of the blocks are breaking down or have gone. But today it’s gone global, which basically means that we are all in it together, individually affecting the whole and being affected by it. And if you follow me and can accept it, it’s the best possible situation for God to do things as God wants them to happen, but also and necessarily, through us all. If you go into any school playground at 9 a.m., the kids are milling around in groups until the whistle goes, and then they come together so that the teacher can speak to them all. Imagine a teacher trying to pass a message to the whole school, milling group by milling group!
In the New Church, we have a word for this overall kind of development. It’s actually a really bad word, because nobody but us ever uses it, and we shouldn’t use that sort of jargon. Anyway, the word is “vastation.” I guess it comes from the longer word “devastation,” which we all know. But vastation doesn’t mean collapse or disintegration in the Armageddon sense of devastation. It means something breaking down, weakening, losing its grip or power, so that from that situation something new and better can come about. And it can be personal to you, or it can be worldwide. So vastation is purposeful and positive—and if you understand it, yes, it can even be comforting. People talk about a “paradigm shift” or a “new emergence” or the “age of Aquarius,” but what they mean is what we call vastation, a clearing away and new things coming about. Jeremiah talks about things breaking down so that they can be rebuilt. That’s vastation. But the thing about vastation is that it usually hurts; it can feel frightening and bewildering. And right now we are right in a period of vastation, with a lot of our historical presumptions stripped away. That’s not very comforting, if by comfort you mean a safe haven and a shelter from the storm. The only comfort I can offer you on that score is to remind you about eternity. You and I are going to live forever. But right now, we are right here.
So, while I really do think that people need comfort and reassurance and that an activity such as church, with its awareness of the Lord, should be nurturing and protective, don’t let it be like a lollipop and sugary sweetener. If we really do trust God, we don’t run to Him and hide; we turn to Him and pray in that newer sense, so that God has one more operator here who joins in the groundswell of human life. And if I tell you that the word “comfort” from our Bible passage today doesn’t mean comfort in the sense of “refuge” but “give strength,” then you are armed to take the world further—and that comforts us all. Amen.
Rev. Julian Duckworth