Who Runs Your Life?
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
March 14, 1999
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.
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
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
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
him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.
How can you say that we shall be set free?"
"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."
Explained #935 Who (or what) is your god?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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.