Sunday, August 23, 2015
This week, I am focusing solely on Ephesians 6:10-20. We need to face the challenges of our time with spiritual integrity and trust in the unwavering grace of God. We need to surround ourselves and the threats that face us and our planet with deep and abiding prayer.
Put on the whole armor of God! Put on God’s armor of light! For a long time, I found this passage too militaristic in tone. Yet, in recent days, I have recognized the need for what William James described as the “moral equivalent of war.” We need to be strong to face the demons within and the demons let loose in our world. Whether or not you believe in the reality of demonic powers – the powers and principalities of which Walter Wink wrote – there is a “war” out there. You can see the forces of evil forces moving into battle – some with confederate flags, some waging war on women’s equality and marriage equality, some denying or dismissing Pope Francis’ encyclical on global climate change. In the gospels, the demons are both internal and external, and they know their enemy much better than those Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the children of light.” Their enemy is the pathway of Jesus Christ – the way of healing, hospitality, and Shalom.
We need to recognize the need to protect ourselves from both internal and external forces. Many of us are imprisoned by anxiety, depression, trauma, family of origin issues, and the impact of ritual religious abuse. These powers are often greater than we can bear, and threaten to undermine our spiritual and emotional integrity. Our only hope in responding to them is found in trusting God for our healing and sustaining and aspiring to live by the highest and best despite the challenges of life. We also need a community to uphold us in prayerful support. No one is ever saved alone. We need a cloud of witnesses, a community of love, to sustain us in life’s challenges.
The author of Ephesians focuses on the spiritual/moral virtues as our greatest protection. Often in difficult times, we are tempted to vengeance, self-interest, fear, hatred, greed, and protection. Our souls can easily shrivel in times of personal, relational, and physical challenge. But, in such times, our character and faith are called forth. We need, as Dostoyevsky proclaims, to be worthy of our sufferings. We need to become large souled, world-loyal people, compassionate, yet firm, in times of trial. Frankl notes that everything can be taken away from a person except one freedom – one’s unique response to life’s challenges. Difficulties do not excuse us from moral greatness. We are largest in stature when we face life’s challenges with love and equanimity. On the cross, Jesus forgives his enemies. Their hate cannot determine his response: his love is stronger than their fear, and his grace is stronger than their sin.
In times of trial, we would do well to lean on the words of Martin Luther, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” In his lively metaphysic, Luther imagined devils tempting him. He also proclaimed that just one name, “Jesus Christ,” can defeat them. Christ will win the battle, even if our prosperity, good name, and life itself are threatened.
Regardless of our theology, we can recognize the powers of evil. We don’t need to identify their ultimate source to recognize their power to destroy; they are irrational, hateful, yet alluring to some. We need moral strength but more than that we need to throw ourselves upon God, opening to a grace, wisdom, and mercy, greater than our own to get us through. God’s energy of love provides the protection we need to face, even in all our fear and trembling, panic and trauma, the destructive forces – and dare we say, persons and spirits – of life.
In the Celtic tradition, travelers often began their journey by drawing a circle around themselves and saying a prayer of protection. This prayer of protection reminded them that wherever they went they were surrounded by God’s circle of love. They prayed, in the spirit of Patrick, with the affirmation that Christ is above, beneath, to the right and left, behind and before, and in all that we meet. We can show our congregants the Celtic circle prayer, “caim,” by simply rotating slowly in a circle, and pointing our index finger outward as if to inscribe the circle. This “praying in the Spirit” won’t entirely banish our fears and anxiety; but it will enable us to live with them, trusting God in them. We can be afraid, as a psychiatrist told a child experiencing “night terrors,” but we don’t need to be afraid of being afraid because God – and people who love us – are with us.