A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on July 30, 2011.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 17:1-7, 15
Who likes to be awakened while deep in delicious sleep? I don’t like it. When I’m nice and comfortable in bed, and the phone rings or the alarm sounds off, many times, I would rather pull the covers over my head to stay asleep. Many of us do not like to be physically wakened up. Likewise, spiritual masters have been telling us for centuries that most of us do not like to be spiritually wakened up. Christian mystic Anthony de Mello once said that “Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up.” Most of this sermon is shamelessly borrowed from de Mello’s ideas about how to emerge from this spiritual slumber.
Now we all know what it is like to be physically asleep. But what does it mean to be spiritually asleep? It is like sleepwalking through life, unaware of who you truly are and unaware of reality. It reminds me of a story about a gentleman who knocks on his son’s door. “James,” he says, “wake up!” James answers, “I don’t want to get up, dad!” The father shouts, “Get up, you have to go to school.” James says, “I don’t want to go to school.” “Why not?” asks the father. “Three reasons,” says James. “First, because it’s so dull; second, the kids tease me; and third, I hate school.” And the father says, “Well, I’m going to give you three reasons why you must wake up and go to school. First, because it is your duty; second, because you are forty-five years old; and third, because you are the headmaster.” Now, there’s a person who is asleep!
Being spiritually asleep means that while we have eyes, we do not really see, while we have ears, we do not really hear, while we are physically here, we are not really present. Many times, we do not see reality as it is, we only see our presuppositions. For instance, let me ask you a question: what color is a yield sign? Is it orange? Is it yellow? Is it red? Since 1954, the yield sign was added to assign right of way at intersections where a stop was not normally required. Originally, it was yellow. But since 1971, the yield sign was changed to red, along with the white region in the center of the sign. When I was first asked this, I answered yellow. The sad thing is that I’ve been living in the United States only since 1973, and I didn’t learn to drive until 1982, and I still got it wrong! All these years, I’ve been driving while asleep!
Our presuppositions and assumptions affect what we see and hear and believe. For some, nothing in reality can change what they see and believe. A lady sees a young man and says, “Henry, how you’ve changed! You were so tall and you’ve grown so short. You were so well built and you’ve grown so thin. You were so fair and you’ve become so dark. What happened to you, Henry?” The young man replies, “I’m not Henry. I’m John.” “Oh!” replied the lady, “You changed your name too!” We go through our days thinking and assuming that life must be one way, when in reality, we are merely sleepwalking and are not awakened to what life truly is. If we’re honest with ourselves, many times we are so attached to our assumptions that we do not want to wake up even when our sleepwalking life is not what we want it to be. We do not want to wake up because it is often very painful to see ourselves as we really are. In fact, many times, we would rather continue to live in the pain of our sleepwalking existence, than to have our hearts probed, our assumptions examined and our presuppositions tested.
But in this morning’s Old Testament lesson from the Psalm 17, David prays to God to probe his heart, to examine and test him. In this psalm, David was going through a tough time, and he was praying to God for help from his enemies. David was confident that in the midst of the testing, he would be vindicated by God and judged to be walking in the path of God. David ends the Psalm by telling God: “When I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.” Waking up means being satisfied with seeing the likeness of God, satisfied with seeing reality as it really is. Now, that sounds all well and good, but how can we wake up?
Anthony de Mello suggests four steps to waking up, four steps to wisdom. I have found these four steps to be very helpful. I’m not saying that I’m fully spiritually awake, but these four steps have certainly begun to shake me from my spiritual slumber. One of the keys to waking up is learning how to deal with situations that are beyond our control, with people who get on our nerves and especially with feelings that get us down.
The first step to waking up is to identify the negative feelings in you like shame, guilt, self-hatred, anxiety, fear and tension. Get in touch with those feelings first, because you can’t deal with them if you have not identified them. What negative feeling do you have right now?
The second step is to understand that those feelings are in you, not in the world, not in external reality. So stop trying to change external reality. Stop trying to change other people. We spend all our time and energy trying to change external circumstances, trying to change our spouses, our bosses, our friends, our enemies, and everybody else in order to get rid of our negative feelings. But we don’t have to change any of those things since the negative feelings are in you. No person on earth has the power to make you unhappy. Nobody has the power to make you unhappy. Most of us don’t see or believe this because the world is always telling us the opposite. We tend to think, if my situation was different, I’d be happy. If so-and-so would change, I’d be less anxious. Our cherished assumption is that external situations or other people are the problem. But that assumption is what keeps us asleep and prevents us from seeing reality as it is.
Let me give you an example. Suppose rain washes out a picnic. What is feeling negative? The rain? Or you? What’s causing the negative feeling? The rain or your reaction? Probe your heart honestly and test your assumptions. Why are some people perfectly at peace and happy even after the picnic is rained out, while you are frustrated, tense and mad? Here’s another example. Suppose you’re standing in line for a ticket to a popular concert, and some guy blatantly cuts in line right in front of you. How would you respond? Some might get mad and confront the guy: “Hey Mister! Get your bleepity bleep to the end of the line!” Others might not directly confront the person but would stew in anger. Either way, here’s a situation where a stranger behaves badly and we react by punishing ourselves by raising our heart rate and our blood pressure over this situation. A moment before, we were happy and excited about getting a ticket for this amazing concert. The next moment, we punish ourselves by allowing another person the power to put us in a foul and rotten mood.
The third step to waking up is not to see these negative feelings as an essential part of you. Don’t define your essential self in terms of that feeling. Don’t say, “I am mad!” Or “I am depressed.” It is a mistake to identify yourself with a feeling. Think instead, “There is depression here right now, there are hurt feelings there right now but it is not me.” Suppose someone you don’t know is standing in line to get tickets for a concert and someone else breaks in line in front of her. Imagine seeing this person get mad, but you are observing all this with calm detachment. There is anger there right now, but it is not me. If you can identify your feelings in the same way you might describe “the sky is blue,” that’s what it’s like not to be defined by your feelings. This is a hard step to take, but it is essential to separate ourselves from our feelings if we are to become spiritually awake.
The final step to waking up is to understand that when you change, everything changes. Imagine a patient who goes to a doctor and tells him what he is suffering from. The doctor says, “Very well, I’ve understood your symptoms. I will prescribe a medicine for your neighbor!” The patient replies, “Thanks doc, that makes me feel much better.” Isn’t that absurd? But that’s what we all do. The person who is asleep always thinks he’ll feel better if someone else changes. The best psychologists will tell you that most people don’t really want to be cured. What clients want is relief by having other people change, because a cure for themselves is too painful.
We always want someone else to change so that we will feel good. But even if your wife changes or your husband changes, what does that do to you? You’re just as vulnerable as before, you’re just as asleep as before. You are the one who needs to change, who needs to take the medicine. Think now of some people whom you want to change, because they’re moody, inconsiderate, unreliable, treacherous, or whatever. But when you are different, they’ll have a chance to be different. And you will see them differently, too. Someone who once seemed terrifying, you will now see as frightened. Someone who seemed rude, you will now see as stressed and anxious. All of a sudden, no one has the power to hurt you anymore. When you are awake, you will be satisfied with seeing the likeness of God in everyone you meet.
Isn’t that great? Isn’t that the kind of life you really want? If you can identify your feelings, if you can understand that those feelings are in you and not in the world, if you refuse to define those feelings as an essential part of you, and if you change accordingly, then you will be awake and fully present. The hurts and disappointments of the past will no longer dictate your life now. The anxieties and worries about the future will no longer rob you of the blessings of today. They say, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called the Present.” This good news this morning is this, you can receive the gift of the present. You just need to wake up. God is always with you, and when you wake up, you will be satisfied with seeing God’s likeness in all things and in all people in each waking moment. Amen.
 Anthony de Mello, Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 5.
 Anthony de Mello, Awareness, p. 28.
 The 4 steps of wisdom are taken from Anthony de Mello’s Awareness, pps. 78-89.