Spirit in Action

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 13, 1997


Psalm 143 "Let your good spirit lead me on a level path"
Matthew 12:15-28 "I will put my spirit upon him"
Apocalypse Revealed #875 The mind acts through the body

Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path. (Psalm 143:10)

In the classic 1966 science fiction film Fantastic Voyage, a three person medical team is miniaturized, along with a submarine and two other crew members, and sent inside the body of a famous scientist to remove a blood clot from his brain using a precision laser gun. The movie has its share of suspense and adventure--and the obligatory beautiful young woman brought along to be endangered and rescued. The drama unfolds against a backdrop of scenes from the inside of the human body writ large. Amid all the excitement, there are a few calm moments in which the characters can express their wonder at the amazing processes of the human body . . . and philosophize on the human condition.

During one of these calm moments, as the submarine makes its way through a capillary in the lungs, the crew is spellbound by the sight of carbon dioxide and oxygen being exchanged between the blood in the capillary and the air in the alveoli (tiny air sacs) of the lungs. Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy), one of the two medical doctors on board, explains how the exchange takes place. His explanation ends in an expression of awe and wonder: ". . . but to actually see one of the miracles of the universe: the engineering of the cycle of the breath!"

Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasence) replies, "Oh, I wouldn't call it a miracle. Just an interchange of gases. The end product of five hundred million years of evolution."

Dr. Duval can't believe his ears. Tearing his eyes away from the wonders outside the submarine's big front windows, he turns to Dr. Michaels. "You can't believe that all this is accidental--that there isn't a . . . creative intelligence at work. . . ." Dr. Michaels attempts to reply, but he is cut off by yet another emergency warning alarm, and the movie goes on.

The science in Fantastic Voyage may have been warped a bit to fit the requirements of a 1960s movie plot, but this little vignette reflects an issue that runs through our culture today just as much as it did thirty years ago. The movie's setting--within the human body--serves to focus the issue where it properly belongs: in the human realm. For we humans are the only beings on this earth who think about whether or not there is a creative intelligence at work behind both the vast workings of the universe and the microscopic workings within our own bodies.

The two doctors represent two different world views. Dr. Duval sees creative intelligence--what we would call God or spirit--behind the wonders of the physical universe. Dr. Michaels sees only physical processes: chemistry and evolution. In the course of the movie, we find out that Dr. Duval, who was initially suspected of being a bad guy, is actually a good guy who saves the famous scientist, while Dr. Michaels, who was considered so trustworthy that he was given command of the mission, was actually a bad guy bent on sabotaging the operation. Swedenborg himself could not have plotted it better!

These days we are usually a little more subtle about who the good guys and the bad guys are, and how that relates to their particular spiritual beliefs. Some "good guys" have gotten a bad taste in their mouth about religion, and have good hearts despite a lack of belief in God and spirit. Some "bad guys" do profess a belief in God and spirit--and we can't always tell whether that belief is strongly held or merely used as a tool to accomplish their own ends. Only in the spiritual world, where our outward words and actions come to exactly match our inner beliefs and motives, can we make a simple correlation between people's stated beliefs and their inner character. Here on earth, where everyone is a mixture, the picture is much more complicated.

However, if we broaden our consideration from individual personalities to universal principles, the different attitudes of the two doctors provide us with food for thought as we "digest" this universe of ours and decide what attitudes and beliefs about it we will make a part of our own minds and lives. Do we think that this physical universe is all there is? If so, how does that affect the way we live? Do we think that there is a world of spirit and a divine being above and beyond this physical world? If so, how does that affect the way we live?

The answer to the first set of questions (whether there is only matter, or whether there is also God and spirit) is a personal one that we must each arrive at for ourselves. There is no way it can be demonstrated one way or another--and I am certainly not going to attempt to demonstrate in this sermon that God and spirit exist. Presumably the presence of each of you in church this morning indicates that you are at least leaning toward the idea that God and spirit do, indeed, exist.

The answers to the second set of questions (how each belief affects the way we live) are also personal for each one of us. But we can take a more general look at these questions, and perhaps gain something helpful to us in the here-and-now. After all, if the question of belief in God and spirit versus belief in materialism has no practical effect on our lives, why would we ask it at all, besides mere curiosity?

God and spirit are not simply a matter of curiosity. They are forces . . . no, beings that affect every instant in our experience of life. No one can make the decision for us to believe in God and spirit. But once we make the decision--even while we are making the decision--we can begin to understand and feel the effects of the presence of God in our lives. If our minds are closed to spirit, we will not feel spirit. That is why it is impossible to get across to a confirmed materialist what it is like to experience the spiritual level of existence. But when we open our minds to spirit, then we can know and feel the tremendous difference it makes. Then we know that it is actually the spirit within our bodies that moves us to do everything that we do.

Psalm 143 illustrates the way our body and actions depend on spirit and God within. It begins with a cry to God to answer our prayers, and then continues:

For the enemy has pursued me,
crushing my life to the ground,
making me sit in darkness like those long dead.
Therefore my spirit faints within me;
my heart within me is appalled.

"My spirit faints within me; my heart within me is appalled." These are not medical conditions. The "heart" mentioned here is not made of muscle; it is made of love. Yet we know that when our spirit faints and our heart is appalled, it has a profound effect on our body. Even when we are in perfect health, if our spirit is fainting, our body is listless and ineffective. Our muscles may be in fine tone; our central nervous system may be firing perfectly. But when our heart and spirit--our love and motivation--are down, we accomplish nothing. To turn around the old saying, "Where there's no will, there's no way!"

When David wrote this Psalm, he may well have been thinking of literal enemies that sought his physical life. Fortunately, most of us here today do not have to face this sort of enemy. But we do face enemies within. They are the enemies that cause our spirit to faint, bringing about inner exhaustion. They are the enemies that cause our hearts to be appalled, giving us heartaches that hurt more profoundly than any physical illness. They are the enemies of hopelessness and despair, and of our own inner resistance to spiritual change and growth. One of those enemies is the very idea that there is no spirit and there is no God--that there is no deeper meaning to life. Yet our Psalm does not leave us without hope. It continues:

I remember the days of old,
I think about all your deeds,
I meditate on the works of your hands.
I stretch out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.

Yes, there is hope. There is the hope of new spirit and new life from God. There is the hope of new insight into our spiritual and emotional predicament. The hope for new love to fill our empty heart. Stars and planets, even earth with its plants and animals, cannot by themselves quench this kind of inner thirst. No, it is the spirit that is behind both the earth and our own selves that we must reach toward. Ultimately, we must reach toward the Lord for the living water that satisfies our spiritual thirst. That thirst can be satisfied when we pray from our heart the prayer of David from Psalm 143:

Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning,
for in you I put my trust.
Teach me the way I should go,
for to you I lift up my soul.
Save me, O Lord, from my enemies;
I have fled to you for refuge.
Teach me to do your will, for you are my God.
Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.

It is not hard to see that everything we think and do comes from something in our mind and heart--from something we think and feel. We can say, with Swedenborg, that all human action is our mind acting. Or to use another phrase, everything we say and do is spirit in action. Simply having this perspective helps to weaken the hold on us of many of the physical forces and urges that we often think of as being so strong. If we know that it is our minds and hearts, not our bodies, that drive our lives, then we can consider and make decisions about just what we want to be in the driver's seat of our inner self.

If you can forgive the pun, this is what Jesus was "driving at" in our reading from Matthew. The spirit of God was in Jesus more directly than it is in any of us. Yet the Pharisees attributed his healings to the ruler of demons instead of to God. They questioned the motivating factor in Jesus' work. Was it from God, or from evil?

Once we have recognized that it is really our minds and spirits that drive our lives, this becomes the question for us as well. There are powerful forces at work in our spirits, pulling us in opposite directions. God is powerful for good on one side, and we feel hell as powerful for evil on the other. Through our decisions and our actions, we decide during the course of our lives which of these will rule in us and motivate our lives. And so we come full circle to the prayer with which we started:

Teach me to do your will, for you are my God.
Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.






ęDanny Hahlbohm, used with permission
Painting entitled Trinity

Music: Prism: Color of Love
ęBruce DeBoer and used with permission