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Images of power and strength abound in our culture. From positional power to physical prowess to military might to the power to influence or capture attention or accrue wealth, all suggest some kind of invulnerability and individual success. Such power and strength are scarce commodities and are lusted after, envied and fought for. These things we learn early and often.
Those of us who seek Sacred Presence would do well to notice our desires for any of these, for these are not typical ways God works in the world. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. Even if we were to stand so fully in faith for a miracle to be worked through us, our weakness at some point in the process is a pre-requisite. In moments on the journey of faith that’s a relief! Of course, our weakness feels even punier than normal when the news seems consistently bad, when our lives take a screaming turn away from the course we would prefer, or when the powers-that-be seem to be especially cold, cruel and omnipresent.
When I first encountered Paul’s image of God’s armor in Ephesians 6:10ff, I clung to it like a float thrown to someone drowning. I would pray it daily and claim the power of its protection, whatever that might mean—and I wasn’t about to question something keeping my head above water! Especially when I was afraid or felt besieged or left to my own seemingly meager devices, I would image putting on each piece of armor, naming how I understood it on any given day. This prayer practice centered me and gave me courage to face whatever was coming my way much better than when I neglected to pray it.
I have returned to praying this imagery as my understanding and appreciation of it deepens. God’s might and armor sound invincible, right? It looks more like the Armor of Vulnerability! This armor offers no apparent protection against a bullet or a bully or words hurled like rocks. Vulnerability is something none of us want, but if you’ve listened to Brene Brown in recent years, you know she claims it holds the power of transformation for us as individuals and as communities. When I put on this so-called armor, I find I have greater peace and patience and am more capable of choosing how I respond in tense moments. It helps me show up as who I am with my gifts as well as my deficits and gives me compassion for others and for myself.
Paul promises this armor, worn as a whole, will give us what we need to “withstand in that evil day, and having done all, to stand.” This is what he offers us as we fight not one another, but the powers-that-be, the rulers of “this present darkness.” Some writers refer to these as systemic evil, but they always feel indomitable. Listen to what Paul offers us against these powers-that-be.
“Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist”* (also translated “gird your loins with truth”). Truth is guarding soft parts. If truth weren’t powerful, it wouldn’t be the first thing assaulted by the powers-that-be. Wrapping it round us, we have an opportunity to remind ourselves what we know and who we are. As I put on this first piece of armor, I list whatever truth I need to remember on any given day: I am a beloved child of God; whether I feel it or not, I am connected to God and to all of creation; whether I can see it or not, and whether I receive it or not, I have everything I need for this moment before me; I don’t trust much of anyone or anything today, let alone God; I have fear and doubt and despair anything ever changing. Whatever is true in this moment is what we need to name. When we stand in truth, we stand in the One who is Truth, in the One who is also Love and Life and Light.
“And put on the breastplate of righteousness.” Righteousness was a tough word for me at first because I associated it with a feigned piety seemingly only skin deep. I saw it as acting good, while pretending to the world, or worse, to ourselves, that we’re at least better than THOSE people. I have come to think of righteousness instead as our intention to choose toward Goodness. Not to be good—according to Jesus only God is good, so claiming to be good, can be a form of usurping God’s place in our lives or in the lives of another. We can’t make the fruit of the Spirit grow within us, but we can choose toward it, to intend to live this day in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faith, and self-control as much as we are able. Covering my heart with this intention daily seems to limit some of the unconscious damage I am capable of doing, as are we all.
“Shoe your feet with whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” This one used to baffle me because those I saw proclaiming peace loudest around me most closely resembled what I once heard Tom Hamm refer to as “professionally pacifist and personally bellicose.” Peace only seemed to have to do with the military, another bafflement removing it further from my experience. As the words of the gospel worked on me themselves, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, I have since come to understand Jesus as an advocate of non-violence. So if I am to walk in peace, I have to be willing to see the ways I walk in its opposite. I have to see—and choose the best I can to turn away from (asking Divine help goes a long way!)—the ways I hurt others out of my own hurt, the ways I legitimate violent acts, the ways I speak or even think with contempt or disdain or wishing ill to or about others. None of these spread peace or make way for the peace of God that passes all understanding. The words I use and the tone of voice can belie or shatter this peace. How many times a day do we say “I hate” this or that? How many times a day do we use belittling words when speaking or referring to others or ourselves? Pay attention to the images we use all the time. (“Knock ‘em dead!”)
“Above all, take the shield of faith, with which to quench the flaming darts of the Accuser.” The conventional image of a shield is something of steel or Kevlar or an invisible force impervious to anything an enemy might project or thrust forcefully in our direction. I sometimes wonder how my faith can possibly be strong enough to repel anything at moments. Then I remember the faith the size of a mustard seed, the miniscule amount we need to work miracles. Faith isn’t a commodity we hold whose size matters like a bank account. Faith is simply a muscle we use to turn our faces back toward Sacred Presence, especially when our attention is drawn by distractions or difficulties or terror. We only have to have enough to cry for help on those really hard days when we feel so small and powerless. When we feel bigger and more confident, our faith can help us turn away from the deceits of our egos. On other days our faith is sometimes big enough to shield others, to spread comfort and assurance and a sense of Sacred Presence covering all.
A word about the Accuser. Avoid stereotypical images of devils. The powers-that-be win when all we look for is the red suit and pitchfork. The so-called Father of Lies is known to clothe itself in the appearance of light, so we have to use all the discernment we can muster to learn to hear God’s voice clearly and know it from any imitations. Just as God speaks to us in our own minds, or through the words of friends or through words or images we encounter in the world, so the Accuser can also speak in those ways. Think of it not as evil personified, but the consequences of pain we have refused to feel and let heal, the consequences of self-hatred, of learned ego inflation and self-importance. The Accuser is the energetic movement of our defenses and our ego distortion without any grace. God can and does interrupt these consequences when we invite or allow or receive God, however that Sacred Life Energy comes at us in any given moment.
“And take the helmet of salvation.” Jesus says the kingdom of God is here now among us. We can step into God/Christ/Love, where our perception of the world is vastly differently, right here, right now. The root word from Greek is healing, while the Hebrew word translated salvation is more a sense of rescue. I often think of salvation as the capacity to step out of the trappings of unconscious ego ruts, out of the pain of old wounds, out of the ways I have been hurt or bound and to step into God’s Light and Love. It’s the capacity to receive and respond with grace in situations where I used to transmit my hurt instead. As I put on the helmet, I think of being covered by God’s healing and grace.
“And the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” When I mentioned this sword in a workshop recently, a friend said, “It cuts both ways.” The word of God isn’t the way some of us were taught to use scripture as a weapon to hurl at enemies. The word of God cuts first in our lives. It severs our bondage. It cuts through the lies we tell ourselves and one another. It belies all the double-speak of the powers-that-be. The word of God may well come to us through scripture—“God’s power is made perfect in weakness;” “Love your enemies.” It may also come to us through poetry, through the written words of the mystics, or through contemporary secular song lyrics. Just as the words of a hymn can suddenly hit home, the words of a friend can drop suddenly in such a way we know we just came round right.
God’s armor is so different from all the images of might and power and protection swirling around us. In these difficult times, we may want armor we feel makes us invincible. We are asked to stand in something completely counter-intuitive to the way the powers-that-be work through fear, scarcity and dominance. Putting on the paradoxical armor of God will ground us in unity with God in Christ, will plant our feet in the New Creation where Life and Love abound. We may not see or feel it, especially in hard moments, but it will transform us and the world around us. Which one is hardest to imagine putting on? Which one brings the most comfort? “Therefore, put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in these terrible times.”
* This and following quoted phrases from Eph 6:14-17