Spirits Among Us
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 27, 1996


Zechariah 6:1-7 The four winds patrolling the earth
John 3:1-10 The wind blows where it chooses
Heaven and Hell #292, 293


The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit. (John 3:8)

Halloween is almost upon us, with its witches and goblins, princesses and Indian chiefs. If we asked our children to vote on their favorite holiday, Christmas would certainly take the prize. But if we were to ask for their second favorite holiday, I suspect that Halloween would come out on top. Most kids love to dress up; Halloween provides a better audience than they can get any other time of year!

We get our Halloween festival from the Celtic people of Europe. For them, it was a festival for the dead, celebrated on the last day of their year: October 31. When this festival was adopted by Christians, it became All Hallow's Eve. In Medieval times, people in Christian Europe believed that on this night, witches and evil spirits were out and about, and had to be warded off with bonfires and crucifixes. After the night of mischief and mayhem came the All Saint's Day, a festival honoring all the saints.

These days, Halloween has been transformed into a children's holiday. It is a night of costumes and pranks, when kids in costumes, instead of witches and evil spirits, roam our streets. In this country, All Saints Day never took hold as a popular celebration the way Halloween did.

However, if we consider both festivals together, we find a nice contrast. The spirits of darkness rule during the night of Halloween, while the spirits of light take over with the dawning of the new day. It is the same progression from darkness to light that we find in the creation story. "And there was evening, and there was morning, one day."

Most people would agree that we have our dark and light times metaphorically as well as physically. Sometimes things are going well. We are getting along with our family, friends, and co-workers; things seem to flow. Other times, nothing seems right. There is tension in our relationships; we struggle with depression or fear; our life is fractured and broken. Though this is common experience, not so many people believe that good or evil spirits have anything to do with our good and bad times. Just as Halloween has become a children's holiday, so the idea of invisible angels and devils hovering around us and influencing our thoughts and moods seems a bit childish to many people.

Yet just because angels and spirits are invisible to our physical eyes, this does not mean they don't exist. As Jesus said, "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes." In the Biblical languages, the word for "spirit" is the same as the word for "wind." Jesus was comparing the way spiritual things work in our lives with the way we perceive the wind. We cannot see wind with our eyes, but we can see and hear its effects. In the same way, if we pay attention we can recognize the effects that angels and spirits have on our lives even if we cannot see them with our eyes or touch the with our hands.

Like most people, I have spent most of my life without any conscious awareness of angels or spirits influencing my life at all. I can think of only one time when I had an experience in which I felt very strongly that angels were present with me. This happened when I was a teenager. I had just suffered a major disappointment, and I was really hurting. I was feeling so terrible that all I wanted to do was crawl under my covers and go to sleep. So I did. I did not dream at all--at least, not that I remembered. But when I woke up an hour or two later, my mood had completely changed. When I went to sleep, I felt depressed and hopeless. When I woke up, I felt a calm, peaceful, even joyful. I could account for this amazing change in only one way--by accepting the strong sense I felt that angels had visited and comforted me while I was sleeping. They had transformed the dark evening of my despair into a bright morning of serenity and hope.

Ever since that experience, I have had a sense beyond simply reading it in the Bible and Swedenborg that angels are with us, guiding us and caring for us in a way that is usually hidden from our consciousness. Only occasionally do we have flashes of awareness that we are being attended by spiritual beings.

Of course, the other side of this is that we also have evil spirits with us, trying to tear down our spiritual life--trying to replace love with apathy and hate, and clarity of thought with confusion and falsehood. Our consciousness of this evil presence is usually even less than our awareness of the presence of good spirits. While experiences of angels do from time to time come to us when we are not expecting them, summoning up evil spirits usually takes effort on our part.

There is a good reason for this. Angels want only what is good for us. If we become aware of their presence, it is likely to strengthen our faith and give us a deeper sense of happiness and purpose than we had before. But evil spirits wish only to damage and destroy us. As long as we are unaware of their presence, their power to hurt us is limited. But once they can communicate with us directly, they have a lot more ways to hurt us.

One of the major ways they can hurt us is by lying to us. Evil spirits are perfectly able and quite willing to give us all kinds of misinformation about God and spiritual life. Their intent is to lead us astray into useless and even dangerous practices. Since our experience with the spiritual world is much more limited than our experience in the material world, we are likely to believe the spirits because of our conviction that this information has come from the spiritual world, and therefore must be superior to the knowledge we get from this world.

This is just one of the reasons our church's teachings warn us against seeking contact with spirits. If someone does come to us claiming that this or that thing is true because it came from the spiritual world, it is wise to subject these ideas to the same kind of scrutiny we would use when evaluating any other claims that come our way. If we accept the idea that there are evil as well as good spirits, we will be armed against uncritically accepting anything that claims to originate in the spiritual world.

Strangely enough, evil spirits do also have some good effects on us. Both our spiritual freedom and our ability to reform ourselves spiritually depend on the presence of evil spirits. Let's take these one at a time.

Our church teaches that the spiritual world is distinguished into three major regions: heaven, hell, and third region that Swedenborg calls the "world of spirits"--a place that fills the gap between heaven and hell. For the most part, our connection and communication with spirits is not directly with either heaven or hell, but goes through the world of spirits. This is because the world of spirits is in a situation similar to the one we are in here on earth. Our lives are not completely good, nor are they completely bad. They are a mixture of both.

It is not a random mixture. In fact, the good and evil spiritual forces working on us are continuously tuned by the Lord to keep an exact balance between the two in our lives. In the spiritual world, the world of spirits is where the forces of heaven and hell come together. In the physical world, this meeting of positive and negative takes place in our minds. Think of it as a giant tug of war. There is a big long rope, and many people pulling on either side. The two teams are perfectly matched--neither one is making any progress against the other. But you have a choice as to which team you want to join. Whichever team you do join, you will tip the balance of power in that team's favor.

In just this way, we can have tremendous forces for good and for evil pulling in opposite directions in our own hearts and minds. If either one of those forces were working on us by itself, we would be overwhelmed. We are simply no match for the combined forces of either heaven or hell. But since the Lord keeps them balanced--like the tug of war--we do have the freedom to choose which way we will go.

That sounds clear enough. We are free because of a balance between the forces of good and evil. But why would evil spirits help us to reform ourselves spiritually?

Consider what it is that we need to "fix" about ourselves: it is all our wrong thoughts and feelings. All the ways we would lie to each other and hurt each other. These things have become a part of ourselves through negative influences in our upbringing and environment, and also through poor choices we have made on our own. Over time, we become so used to our faults and bad behaviors that we don't even notice them any more.

Enter evil spirits. These beings like those bad parts of ourselves. In fact, they want to make them even better . . . er . . . worse. And that is just what they do when they come to us. If we are having a problem with our temper, they try to turn it into a major tantrum. If we have a problem with overeating or drinking to drunkenness, they try to push us farther down that road. If we have a problem with ego and pride, they keep assuring us that we are better than everyone else in every way.

However, by the very act of making our bad habits worse, they give themselves away. As long as things are going along the same as usual, we don't notice anything. But when things get worse, we realize that something has changed. The better parts of ourselves--the parts that the angels are working to strengthen--become alarmed. We cannot fight against something we cannot see. But once our enemy's position has been given away, we have somewhere to direct our efforts to improve our character. Evil spirits do us a service by showing us the broken parts of ourselves so that we can fix ourselves up.

Of course, we may decide that we don't want to put out the effort to fix ourselves up. If this is our choice, then we are allowing the evil spirits to gain the upper hand. The tug of war of our life will continue to go badly for us as long as we do not turn around and start pulling the other way.

If we do decide to turn ourselves around, then we will have the Lord and the angels strengthening us in that task, even if we are not aware of their presence. We know from the Bible that everything good and true comes from God. From Swedenborg, we know that much of that goodness and truth flows through the angels and good spirits who are with us. The strength of that goodness and truth is available to us from within whenever we are ready to accept it. Simply knowing that we have loving beings who care about us through good times and bad can be a help to us.

Why should we accept the idea that our thoughts and feelings, both good and bad, come from angels and spirits? Why shouldn't we accept the "common sense" idea that our thoughts and feelings are our own, and do not come from any outside source?

I suppose there are many reasons for this. I would like to leave you with just one. It comes from Heaven and Hell #302. I would like to read a part of that number for you.

If people only believed the way things really are--that everything good is from the Lord and everything evil from hell--then they would not make anything good in themselves a matter of merit, no would anything evil be charged to them. For in that case, they would focus on the Lord in everything that they thought and did, and everything evil that flowed in they would throw back to into the hell it came from.

But since people do not believe in any inflow from heaven or from hell, and since then in their judgment everything they think and wish is within them and therefore from them, they make the evil their own, and defile with a sense of merit the good that flows in.

Without a belief in heaven and hell--without a belief in angels and spirits--we can hardly help taking credit for both the good and the bad things we do. When we do something wrong, we either abuse ourselves for being a bad person or we cling strongly to that harmful way of acting and justify it with excuses.

Even when we do something good, we nullify its good effect on our spiritual lives by taking credit for it. "I'm such a great person because I did that good thing," we say to ourselves. Then pride takes over, and we are worse off than if we hadn't done the good thing at all.

When we realize and believe that the bad parts of ourselves are really being foisted upon us from hell, then we can separate them from ourselves and banish them from our lives. But when we recognize that the good parts of ourselves are coming through angels from the Lord, then we truly begin a spiritual life by opening ourselves to the infinite source of love and wisdom: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.




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