Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Whole Armor of God

Thursday, January 5, 2012 -- The 12th day of Christmas , Year Two

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p 941)
Psalms 2, 110:1-5(6-7) (morning)        ----- (evening)
Jonah 2:2-9
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 11:17-27, 38-44

Eve of Epiphany
Psalm 29, 98 (evening)
Isaiah 66:18-23
Romans 15:7-13

When I was in my teens, someone taught me a morning spiritual exercise based on today's reading from Ephesians 6.  Each morning, before I lifted my head from my pillow, they said, put on the whole armor of God.  The underlying text was essentially one of fear.  If you don't, they implied, the evil spirits could attack and harm you, even before you got up from the bed.  They emphasized that "our struggle is ...against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."  (Ephesians 6:12)  So I was taught, do this first thing when you wake.

I was to use my imagination as I physically pantomimed fastening the belt of truth around my waist and covering my chest with the breastplate of righteousness.  I was to reach to my feet to put on the shoes of peace.  I was to make the sign of the cross starting at the top of my head to the bottom of my feet and reaching from fingertip to fingertip across my body as the shield of faith.  This would "quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one."  Then I was to place the helmet of salvation upon my head and take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  Now I was prepared to rise from bed, fully defended against the attacks that would surely be directed toward me.  I was prepared for spiritual warfare which, I was told, is our condition and calling.

I found it was a practice that did not work for me.  First, it seemed silly to me to imagine that there were legions of demons out there in some other sphere just hoping I wouldn't put on this imaginary armor so they could fire away their flaming arrows at me because I was unprotected.  It was hard to imagine that there were "rulers" and "authorities" and "cosmic powers" and "spiritual forces of evil" who just couldn't wait to jump on me, but who would be completely neutralized if I only did my little imaginary dressing before getting out of bed.  I didn't have any trouble seeing that certainly there is spiritual struggle in life, but most of that struggle I found was with my own self, not legions of demons.  There was something that felt superstitious about the whole exercise. 

Instead, a simple, gentle entrusting toward God seemed completely sufficient for me.

I think I was put off also by the implied militarism of the imagery.  It seemed that those who taught this practice were into spiritual warfare in a way that seemed unhealthy to me.  Some imagined that they were fighting and defeating all kinds of spiritual warriors over all sorts of things.  They got pretty excited about it.  I can still see the bright-eyed-look, a bit demented in my view, as some of these fought to bind demons and cast out spirits with the fervor of a comic book hero.  There was something self-aggrandizing about it that bothered me.  And I didn't trust that they knew what they were fighting or whether what they fought for was really what God in God's divine mystery might actually want.  It's easy to see the misguided interpretation of a similar tradition in Islam, the spiritual struggle of jihad, so tragically distorted by militant Islam.  I worried about the militant certainty that these whole-armor-of-God Christian practitioners seemed to assert.

The healthy part of the exercise is the pure defensiveness of it.  There is something appealing about the simple trust of the command to "stand firm."  There is nothing that must be accomplished, because God in Christ has already accomplished it.  There is no battle to be won because Christ has already won it.  All is accomplished.  We don't have to go anywhere or do anything to be within the life and love and grace of God, for that has already been given to us.  We simply stand firm, bulletproof with the divine protection of truth, peace, faith, and salvation.

The only offensive weapon given to us in this passage is "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."  We are not to strike with weapons but only with words.  Our only offense is the Good News of God in Christ.  There is similar non-violent imagery in Revelation where the battle is waged with a sword that comes from the mouth, and the blood shed is obviously the blood of the Lamb who gave himself for the life of the world. 

As non-violent as the imagery may be, I still am bothered when aggressive Christians use scripture like bullets, loading up a verse and firing it at you to prove some point they may be attached to.

This section in Ephesians concludes with an admonition:  "Pray in the Spirit at all times..."  For me, the most powerful prayer in the Spirit is usually one without much content.  It is a prayer that gently consents to God's presence and activity within, and then allows the Spirit to intercede for us with sighs too deep for words. 

Something from T. S. Eliot's East Coker seems to work better for me than does the imagery from Ephesians 6: 

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.



At 10:01 AM, Anonymous Amy Wilcox said...

Beautiful Lowell! Thank you for sharing your early experience, for many of us have had well-meaning but strange teachings at times. I am so glad yours made you seek out a kinder, gentler way and that it is the foundation of St. Paul's - the place where I have felt closest to God and Love, where I have had healing and rejuvination. I miss it and everyone there!

At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"but against principalities," You forgot that part. They battle that you have clearly lost because you failed to do what Paul suggested. You know Paul, that fella you named your church after.

At 11:55 AM, Anonymous janet said...

Interesting thoughts. One of my early C.N.A. jobs (nurse asst.) was in Barling, AR with the retired and bed-bound Sisters of Mercy. The halls were filled with Catholic art work, Jesus and Mary depicted in many different perspectives, and the sisters prayed many times during the day and evening.

There was a sister that lived at the end of the hall on one of the wings that we would check on frequently. A small statue stood at the end of the hallway, and I would always be awed by the presence surrounding this statue. It was Mother Mary, standing in her blue and white robes, arms open in loving comfort, a tender smile on her face. She was standing with one foot on the neck of the black serpent, not smashing her foot down on it, but just containing it? in some overall gesture of love and holiness. I suppose this is the image I most need to ponder, as it has stayed with me through many years of life.

Thanks Lowell, I'm off to Washington today.

Peace and Light,

At 8:41 AM, Blogger Lowell said...

Thanks for that image, Janet. I have a friend who practices a form of martial arts that never makes an offensive or violent move, but only blocks, protects, and allows the violence of the attacker to be deflected in a way harmless to all but disabling to the attacker.

And thanks for the note about "principalities" Anon. The late William Stringfellow wrote compellingly about the powers and principalities as Paul discusses them. They are the institutions and structures of society, which always become blasphemous -- claiming absolute allegiance and power. Yet, we need such structures for human interaction. You can't live with them; you can't live without them.

I wrote a bit about that in a previous post --



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