Who Runs Your Life?
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 14, 1999

Readings

Leviticus 26:1-8, 14-17, 36-38 A leaf blowing in the wind

Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it. I am the Lord your God.

Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord.

If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.

I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no-one will make you afraid. I will remove savage beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country. You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you....

But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you....

I will make your hearts so fearful in the lands of your enemies that the sound of a leaf blowing in the wind will make you flee in terror. You will run as though fleeing from the sword, and you will fall, even though no one is pursuing you. You will stumble over one another as though fleeing from the sword, even though no one is pursuing you. So you will not be able to stand before your enemies. You will perish among the nations; the land of your enemies will devour you.

John 8:31-36 True freedom

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

They answered him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?"

Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it for ever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."

Apocalypse Explained #935 Who (or what) is your god?

The first commandment, "You shall not worship other gods," includes not loving selfish and material things. When we love ourselves and material things more than anything else, we are worshiping other gods, since our god is whatever we love above all else.

Sermon

But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, . . . I will make your hearts so fearful in the lands of your enemies that the sound of a leaf blowing in the wind will make you flee in terror. (Leviticus 26:14, 36)

I remember when I first read this passage from Leviticus as a teenager. My reaction was, "Aw, come on! Running from a leaf blowing in the wind?!?" For me, the sound of leaves blowing in the wind has always been a cheerful sound. I'm not sure why, since it is a sign of the coming winter. But somehow, hearing those leaves rustling and skittering along in the fall brings up happy associations. Maybe it is the thought of raking leaves into a big pile and then tearing across the lawn to take a flying leap into that big, soft pillow!

So when I first read that passage, it simply didn't ring true. But it did stick in my mind, and over the years it has grown on me. I now appreciate that verse for its brief, pithy image of the reversal that takes place in our lives when we are going down the wrong path: when we turn our backs on what we know to be right--on what the Lord teaches us in the Bible--and get ourselves stuck in destructive habits, both physical and emotional.

An autumn leaf is one of the most benign and harmless objects I can think of. So far, I have never heard of any murder case in which the lethal weapon was a dried up leaf! Under any normal circumstance--in any normal state of mind--leaves are simply not something we perceive as a threat. Yet our Bible verse gives us a picture of a state of mind so disordered and paranoid that a harmless, even beautiful autumn leaf is cause for terror and dread.

How could this happen? Personally, I am not a fan of horror films. I am just as happy not to have those dark and scary images skulking around in my head. I do sometimes enjoy a good thriller, however. And these film genres give us an insight into the emotional impact of our verse from Leviticus. One of the most effective techniques in filmmaking is the slow buildup of suspense. Through the use of dark, foreboding images, lighting, scenery, and music, a skillful storyteller can bring the audience right to the edge of their seats in fearful anticipation of that terrible shock that they just know will strike any second.

A classic motif is the woman alone in her house at night, trembling behind the door, iron skillet raised, ready to strike down the feared intruder. Suddenly, the door swings open! Screams ring out in the movie theater . . . . as the woman's husband, returning late from work, strolls in and is knocked out cold by the woman of his dreams. It was all in her mind! And in the minds of the viewers, as the screenwriter skillfully plays on their inner fears.

At our World Religions Workshop on Buddhism the speaker, David Strom, offered us insights and ideas from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. The part I enjoyed most was when he spoke about where our emotions come from. As he pointed out, the common view is that our emotions come from outside. We express this belief in our everyday language: "He makes me so mad!" "That really makes me sad." "It would make me so happy if you married me!" These and many other things that we say come from our natural belief that our feelings come from outside of us. However, our church's teachings agree with Buddhism in saying our emotions come, not from the outside, but from within.

In the opening paragraphs of his booklet Soul-Body Interaction, Swedenborg discusses three theories about how the physical and spiritual worlds interact. "Physical inflow" is the idea that things flow into our spirits from the outside world. According to this theory, we would be right to say that we are made happy, sad, or mad by things that happen outside of us. "Spiritual inflow" is the idea that things flow from the spiritual world outward and downward into our minds and bodies. And "pre-established harmony" is the idea that there is no cause and effect relationship between spiritual and natural things; they are simply arranged so that they automatically operate in parallel with one another.

Swedenborg dismisses pre-established harmony very quickly. He spends a bit more time with physical inflow. He acknowledges that it certainly appears as if things flow into us from outside. When we see something with our eyes, for example, rays of light come from the object we see, go through the pupils of our eyes, and strike the nerve endings of the retina inside our eyeballs.

Doesn't this demonstrate that the process of sight happens through physical inflow? Ask a blind person that question. It is true that light rays flow into our eyes. But if there is nothing there to receive and process them, those rays of light produce no vision at all. As we have learned from studies of human physiology, vision is actually a complex process in which the nerve endings in the retina actively monitor the precise wavelengths and intensity of the light that strikes them, and subject them to sophisticated processing before sending the appropriate signals to our brain. Our brain, in turn, takes the signals that are generated in the retinal nerve cells and processed along the way, and does some even more sophisticated processing in order to interpret them as the images that we perceive.

Vision is not a simple process of light rays flowing into our minds and causing us to see. Rather, it is a process in which our minds reach out, sample the light rays that enter our eyes, and process them into something that we experience as visual images. Our initial idea of active light striking passive nerve endings turns out to be mistaken. It is the light rays which are acted upon by the nerve endings and the brain, making it possible for us to see.

This is simply one example of a deeper reality that leads Swedenborg to make a startling statement: "There is no such thing as physical inflow--meaning things from the material world flowing into the spiritual level. There is only inflow from the spiritual world into the material world" (Arcana Coelestia #10199.2).

By now you are probably thinking, "Startling! Fascinating! But what in the world does all of this have to do with me?" Swedenborg makes the connection in his very next sentence: "The inner parts of human beings, which relate to our understanding and motivation, are in the spiritual world, and our outer parts, which relate to our physical senses, are in the material world." So let's put Swedenborg's earlier statement into human terms and see if it sounds more startling now: "The things in the material world, which we perceive with our physical senses, do not flow in and affect our minds and spirits. Rather, our minds and spirits flow out and affect the things that we perceive with our physical senses."

This is what David Strom was saying in the Buddhism workshop: that it is an illusion to believe that the things outside of us affect us and cause our emotions and thoughts. Instead, it is our emotions and thoughts that determine what we perceive around us.

Do you believe that? Do you believe that when a person hits you or says something nasty to you, and you become angry, that it is not that person's words or actions that make you angry? Do you believe that when someone you love dies, or walks out on you, that it is not the fact that they have died or walked out on you that causes you to grieve? Do you believe that when someone says they love you and want to marry you, that it is not that person's expression of love that gives you the joy and happiness you feel? Common sense shouts out to us that these external events do make us angry or sad or happy.

But our church's teachings tell us that this is simply the way it appears to us. If we were to look at the situation more deeply, we would discover that just as light does not really give us vision, but only makes it possible for our minds to reach out and perceive what is there, neither do external events really give us our emotions. Our emotions involve a much more complex process. When we feel an emotion that seems to be caused by something happening around us, it is actually the anger or sadness or joy that we carry in our own spirits reaching out and finding expression in the outer event that has happened.

Let's take the extreme case to see how this can be true. When someone we love dies, we naturally feel grief and depression, and sometimes other emotions that seem less appropriate, such as anger or guilt. We think that these are caused by the person's death. But the death in itself causes none of them. If you don't believe this, consider the feelings of someone who never knew your loved one, but simply read the obituary in the paper. That person may feel nothing at all, even though the external event--the death--is exactly the same. It is the feelings that we personally carry within ourselves that reach out from our spirits and give us grief, sadness, and other, more complex and confusing emotions when someone we love dies. When the emotions in our spirit reach out and touch that outward event, then we feel and perceive what is already within our soul.

Does this mean that nothing that happens outside of us, and nothing that anyone else does, affects us in any way? No. If the world and the people around us present our soul with little or no opportunity to reach out from its centers of love and joy, we will tend to shrivel and die emotionally just as a plant will shrivel and die where there is no warmth, sunlight, and moisture in its environment. We do need a material and human atmosphere in which our spirits can grow and flourish. And our actions--kind and loving or mean-spirited and hurtful--do help to create the environment in which other souls flourish or languish.

But the flourishing itself comes from within. A human community of love and kindness may provide a rich atmosphere for the growth of our soul, but growth will come only when love flows out from our souls. If we do not have the love that comes from God within us; if we do not open ourselves up to that deeper love so that it can flow out, no amount of love and kindness in the people around us will cause us to grow and flourish spiritually.

We know that this is true. We have all seen people who are surrounded by others who love them and care about them, and yet pass their days with a chip on their shoulder, certain that every kindness done for them has an ulterior motive behind it, and that nobody really cares about them or truly loves them. As Jesus once explained to his disciples (Matthew 15:1-20), it is not what goes into us that makes us unclean; it is what comes out of us from our heart that makes us unclean. And it is also what comes out of our heart that makes us clean, whole, and joyful.

Now, what about that leaf blown in the wind? Is the leaf what makes us run in terror when we have turned our backs on everything we know to be good and right, and have gone off on our own path? No. It is our own inner awareness that we are badly mistaken. It is our own stubborn insistence on doing things the hard way. It is the atmosphere that we build up within ourselves of anger, mistrust, and fear, when we turn away from the Lord's way and follow our own way instead.

Who, then, runs our lives? Is our life determined by the rise and fall of our financial fortunes? Is it determined by the way people treat us? Is it determined by whether we find Mr. or Mrs. Right? Is it determined by whether or not we have been able to get ourselves into a position of authority and respect in our business or our community, so that others look up to us and say good things about us?

As nice as these things are, we are deceiving ourselves if we think anything from the world around us will make us truly happy. And we are deceiving ourselves if we think that these external things somehow run our lives. Because our lives are not run from outside, but from within. They are run by whatever we choose to place at the center of our lives. If money seems to be running our lives, it is really we ourselves who have put the love of money at the center and given it that power. And then have made ourselves a slave of money.

But if we put the Lord at the center of our lives, then, as our Gospel reading tells us, we will be truly free--and truly happy. Why? Because then the greatest power in the universe will be running our lives: the power of God's infinite love. Amen.

 



 


Floating Leaf Script by
Dynamic Drive

Music: Dreams Do Come True
1999 by Bruce DeBoer