Monday, August 27, 2012

The Whole Armor of God

Ephesians 6:10-20
August 26, 2012

            When I was a little girl in Sunday School we would often sing that old favorite hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers. 
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!
Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.
            We sang it with gusto.  I think our teachers would even have us march while we sang, so we really got into the spirit of the song.  I loved it as a child.  It was fun to sing, fast-paced and any song that a teacher would actually let us march around to was a hit in my book.  But as I grew older, I grew uncomfortable with the imagery that the hymn conveyed.  I’m uneasy, to say the least, with the war and battle pictures that the hymn paints.
            I’m not the only one.  This is one hymn that is not found in our blue hymnal.  It won’t be featured in the new hymnal that will be coming out next year either.  Our denomination isn’t the only one that’s let this hymn go.  The United Church of Christ has a hymn that uses the same tune as Onward Christian Soldiers, but not Onward Christian Soldiers itself.  I’m not sure about the hymnals in other denominations such as the Lutherans and the Episcopalians, but I do know that this is a hymn that has fallen out of favor.
            Yet the sentiments of Onward Christian Soldiers have been around for a long time.  My parents and their siblings tell stories of their childhoods, and how they were encouraged to consider themselves as soldiers for Jesus and warriors of the cross. 
            But those images of Christianity don’t fly so well anymore.  Too many bloody crusades in God’s name – including the actual crusades – have caused so much destruction throughout the world that it is understandable that a hymn like Onward Christian Soldiers would be rejected. 
            The word that my dad used when he spoke about being a Soldier for Jesus was conquered.  The world was to be conquered for Christ.  And I think it’s the idea of conquering that sticks in my throat.  To me it implies oppressor and oppressed, victor and defeated. 
            This is the essential problem for me when I read these words from Ephesians.  To my understanding this militant, warlike language has been used as a justification for a mindset that has done incredible harm in our missions, in our relations to other faith groups, and with other Christians. 
            I think of James Michener’s novel, Hawaii, and the attitudes the first missionaries brought with them to the indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands.  Those missionaries wanted to conquer the people of Hawaii for Christ.  They had to be conquered in their thinking, their beliefs, their practices, their cultural ways.  In every aspect of their lives, they were to be conquered so that Christ could reign.  It wasn’t pretty. 
            But I realize that to see these verses from Ephesians only through my particular cultural and contextual bias does not do justice or give the full picture of  what the author wanted them to convey.  This is not where the story of these verses in Ephesians ends. 
Most likely the letter that we read as being addressed to the church in Ephesus was actually an encyclical.  This meant that Paul wrote it to be read at a variety of churches in different places.  I assume from this that each church hearing these words was facing the similar struggle of being believers in a world that was hostile to them. 
            I can imagine that being a follower of Jesus in that time and context must have felt like living in a war zone.  Your beliefs would be considered anti-government, anti-empire, anti-social norms, anti-everything.  Just professing your faith would have set you up for persecution.  I suspect that being a follower was to be embattled.  So Paul uses this.  He uses imagery and ideas that would have meant something to a people being constantly battered for their faith. 
And as Paul often does in his rhetoric, he uses an idea, and then redefines it.  This is clearly evident in this passage.  He redefines the uniform of a Roman soldier.  It would have been a familiar sight to the common folk at that time.  As I learned from Glenn Sanders this week, the Roman soldier was as much a police officer, as he was a member of the armed forces.  So as we see police officers and police cars on a regular basis, doing their job at keeping order, the people of Ephesus and in other places would have seen Roman soldiers.  The uniform of a Roman soldier was well known.
But instead of a belt that would be used to secure a uniform of war, this belt that believers are encouraged to put on is the belt of truth.  The breastplate, that metal piece which would have covered a soldier’s toga protecting the chest, is the breastplate of righteousness.  Shoes would have been worn for protection as the soldiers marched.  Paul doesn’t describe what the shoes should look like, only that whatever shoes are worn they should make the follower “ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  The shield a soldier carried, as I understand it, would have covered not only the soldier carrying it, but about 2/3’s of the soldier next to him.  Think of pictures you’ve seen of riot police and the shields they carry when they’re facing a hostile situation.  The believer also must carry a shield, but this shield will be the shield of faith.  The helmet, the head covering, will be the helmet of salvation.  And the one weapon the soldier of God is to carry is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
And all of this is carried, all of this is used, not to defeat people, “enemies of blood and flesh,” but to stand firm “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” 
If the kingdom is in our midst, right now, right here, then there are also forces of evil working against it.  Those of us who believe, who have felt the power of Christ, have to fight against those forces that threaten the kingdom.  Paul puts it on a cosmic scale.  This isn’t about neighbors who don’t like us or governments who want to shut us down.  This is about the evil one who wants to infiltrate and destroy God’s goodness.  The evil one may be working through the neighbors and the governments, the hate groups, the factions and radical splinter groups, but it is a cosmic battle just the same. 
I think that there is a lot of evidence in the world to see this as true.  You can’t watch the news or read the paper or surf the net and not see indications of the prevalence of evil.  But you know, I think the real battle that is being fought is within.  Within me.  When the shooting happened in the theater in Aurora, Colorado, I was as devastated by this as anyone.  It was all over the news, all over social media.  People were praying and grieving and shocked and disheartened. 
Then the terrible shooting happened at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  It was horrible.  People were shocked and appalled.  I was too.  But it seemed like my response, my shock, my horror was a little dimmed.  It was one more act of violence and hatred. 
Then just a couple of days ago, a shooting happened outside the Empire State Building.  I was still shocked and saddened and horrified, but it seemed as if all of my responses were muted.  Another shooting.  Another round of unceasing violence.  I’m weary of shootings.  I’m weary of violence.  I’m weary of people thinking the only response is to pick up a gun and take your grievance out through a bullet.  But what can I do?  What can any of us do?
Seems to me that’s the real battle that needs to be fought.  That attitude of feeling powerless, of feeling useless.  What can I do?  Nothing?  Oh well.  That’s the evil one infiltrating my mind and my heart and my soul.  Yet that goes against what Paul is encouraging the church in Ephesus and so many other churches to think.  In all of the pieces of armor that Paul describes there’s no wristlet of apathy, no amulet of indifference.  They have no place in the whole armor of God.
If we’re really going to take this passage from Ephesians seriously, and put on the whole armor of God. If we’re going to see ourselves as fighting a spiritual battle and being the warriors for the peace of God, then we can’t just throw up our hands at one more shooting and say, “This is terrible but what can anyone do?  The world is going to hell in a handbasket.  But I don’t see how it’s going to change anytime soon.”  I’ve heard these words from others.  I’ve spoken them myself.  I’ve claimed defeat before I’ve even gone to war. 
It’s easy, too easy, to stop caring, to become numb to the evil in the world, to become immune to the powers and principalities that work to destroy God’s kingdom in our presence.  And when I take that easy way, I think that evil wins just a little more ground.  The real battle is not letting that happen. 
When I think of the whole armor of God I think of civil rights protestors facing guns and dogs and high powered hoses with nothing more than their faith and the hymns they refused to stop singing. 
I think of relief workers who drop everything in their own lives and show up at a disaster scene offering assistance and comfort.  Their lives are as much at risk as they ones they seek to help, but they wear no protection other than their faith.
I think of the people everywhere, everyday, who refuse to stop hoping.  It’s not just about optimism that everything is going to be nifty.  It’s about being hopeful even when the worst happens, because they believe that in the beginning and in the end, and in all the good and bad in between there is God.  That’s why they hope.  That’s what makes all the difference. 
All of these people, and so many more, wear the whole armor of God.  They step into the world, ready to do battle, not with guns or bullets, but with love, with peace, with truth, with righteousness, with faith.  They are armed with their hope.  They are armed with their trust.  And they do indeed conquer.  They conquer their own fear, and trust that God and the kingdom reign.  So let us do the kind of battle Paul wrote of.  Let us march into a broken world bringing the love of God, the peace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Believe me, I never thought I'd say this, onward Christian soldiers.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

I Am Angry

            Other women have already written and spoken about Congressman Akin’s words far more eloquently than I.  But here’s the information I have found.

            According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.  That means that 17.7 million American women have been victims of attempted or completed rape.  

            80% of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 30. 
            44 % of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 18.
            29% of sexual assault and rape victims are between the ages of 12 and 17.

            My daughter is 13 years old.  

Mr. Akin, Mr. King, and all those who support your stance on “legitimate rape”, could you honestly look me in the eye and tell me that if my 13 year old daughter were to be raped and conceive from that rape, that somehow it would be her fault or it wasn’t a real rape because her body is supposed to be able to “shut that whole thing down?”  

            I suspect – and I am horrified by this – that you could look me in the eye and make that claim.  

Mr. Akin, many people have called your remarks stupid and ignorant.  They are that indeed. But they are more than that.  They are malicious.  They are misogynistic.  They are evil.  They are not only offensive to women and the real men who love them, they devalue our humanity.  Your party claims that you value personhood when it comes to the debate over controversial hot topics such as abortion.  But you obviously don’t value the personhood of half of the population!  

            You devalue me, Mr. Akin.  You devalue my daughter.  You devalue the wonderful women I call family.  You devalue the amazing women I call friends.  You devalue powerful women around the world.  You devalue the women in your own life. 

So I will fight against you, and the others who support you.  I will fight your party.  I will fight you with my words. I will fight you with social media.  I will fight you by signing every petition I can get my hands on calling for your resignation.  I will fight you with my money.  I will fight you with my vote.  I will fight you by raising my daughter to use her voice against people like you.  I will fight you by raising my son to be the kind of man you seem incapable of being; one who really loves his neighbor as he does himself.

National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.  Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey. 1998.
U.S. Department of Justice.  2004 National Crime Victimization Survey.  2004.
RAINN Website

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Seeking Wisdom

I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14, Ephesians 5:5-20
August 19, 2012

            What do you think of when you hear the words “seeking wisdom" or "wise person"?  I think of Obie Wan Kenobie from Star Wars.  I also think of Yoda and Indiana Jones and Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter and Mr. Miyagi from the original Karate Kid movie. 
            Besides the fact that this proves I have a shameless love of pop culture, I also think that these iconic figures – for indeed that’s what they are – have become archetypes of wisdom.  I’ll admit that when I was sitting in the cool, dark theater watching Star Wars unfold for the first time or seeing Indiana Jones with his fedora and whip that I didn’t grasp the concept that I was watching an archetype of wisdom.  Yet I’m convinced that’s what these figures have become.
            Let’s take Obie Wan Kenobie for example.  Young Luke Skywalker goes to him with a cryptic message he’s found in one of his uncle’s new droids.  This sets off a chain of events and Luke begins his training as a Jedi knight under Obie Wan’s tutelage.  Certainly this kind of training involves the use of the Jedi weapon, the light sabre, but even more than that Obie Wan tries to teach Luke that being a Jedi is not just about fighting.  It’s about recognizing the power of the Force within you and within the entire universe, then channeling that force to the cause of good.  Obie Wan also counsels Luke about the dark side of the force, because that too holds a power.  It led Luke’s own father astray.  The wise Jedi understands that the dark side of the force is equally as strong as the light side of the force, and makes choices that respects how quickly the dark side can take hold.
            Well, hopefully you know at least the outline of the Star Wars story so what I’m saying makes a modicum of sense to you.  But even if you don’t know the Star Wars story, there is a greater point being made here.  Obie Wan Kenobie didn’t just teach Luke Skywalker the various fighting stances a Jedi needs in battle, he passed on the deeper wisdom of the Jedi belief system.  Later on Yoda continues that lesson in wisdom, teaching Luke that the power of the force is not limited by physical size or strength, but only by the narrow scope of Luke’s imagination and trust. 
            Maybe it’s silly or nonsense, but when I think of seeking wisdom, I tend to get a picture in my head of a young hero or heroine who must be schooled in whatever knowledge he or she needs by someone who is the epitome of the wise elder teacher.  The teacher takes this young person under their wing, and not only helps the youth with the nuts and bolts required to deal with whatever trials lay before them, but they help them see the larger purpose, the greater meaning, the ultimate truth of their quest.  That is wisdom. 
            Wisdom is where we are today.  At the beginning of the service I quoted what is commonly known as the Serenity Prayer.  God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference.  This is a more contemporary version of the prayer that has been attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr.  12 step groups, particularly Alcoholics Anonymous as well as others, have made the saying of this prayer at the beginning of each meeting an integral part of those meetings.  That makes sense to me.  If you are struggling, day by day, to recover from addiction, you would want a prayer that speaks to what is and isn’t within your power.  And you would certainly want a prayer that speaks to wisdom.
            For many years I thought that the really tough part of this prayer was the serenity aspect.  I’m not a particularly serene person, nor do I calmly and coolly accept the challenges life throws at me.  I’m better than I used to be.  But historically that’s not been my initial reaction. 
            Yet as I get steadily older, I’ve come to realize that the really tricky part of the serenity prayer is that last line about wisdom.  Finding serenity to accept what I can’t change is becoming easier the older I get.  Finding courage to change what I can – well I’m working on that too.  But the wisdom?  That’s hard.  How do we know one from the other?  Where does our wisdom come from?  And furthermore what is wisdom to begin with?
            In the passage we read from I Kings, the Lord visits the newly ascended Solomon in a dream and asks Solomon what God should give him.  Solomon doesn’t ask for great wealth or a fleet of tricked out chariots.  Solomon asks instead for an “understanding mind to govern you people, able to discern between good and evil;”  Solomon recognizes that he is young and inexperienced and he is now the king of a numerous people, so he asks for wisdom.  I suspect it took a certain amount of wisdom to realize he needed wisdom.  The Lord grants him his request and more. 
            In our passage from Ephesians, the new rules for living continue.  It seems that all of them require a certain amount of wisdom to accomplish.  Let no deceive with you empty words.  Live as children of light.  Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.
            Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise. 
            Once again, how do we do this?  How do we live as wise people?  Which begs the question I asked before, what is wisdom? 
            That’s a question I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to figure out the answer.  I know that it’s more than just having a wealth of knowledge or information.  Wisdom is more than our technology.  A quote that I read many years ago, I no longer remember who actually said it, is that as a people our wisdom has not yet caught up with our technology.  We can have a ton of info, but be lacking in wisdom.  Wisdom is having knowledge, sure, but wisdom also seems to come from experience.  It seems to be rooted in compassion, in empathy, in realizing that self-interest is not the only interest.  And wisdom seems to encompass a broad perspective on people, on life, on the universal hopes and fears that we share in common. 
            I wouldn’t claim to be wise, but I do know that whatever wisdom I have as a minister has come not only from what I learned in seminary, but in how I’ve learned to put into practice what I learned in seminary. 
            The coursework for a Masters of Divinity was only three years, but I earned mine in four.  In my third year I took on a year-long internship in a church.  In my first two years, I met a number of students who came back for their final year seeming very wise indeed.  In my eyes they were already ministers, they just didn’t have the official stamp of ordination yet.  So I was eager to embark on an internship year myself.  Perhaps I would also come back an unofficial minister. 
            I had a wonderful internship.  My supervisor, the head of staff, was not only a skilled minister, he also had an incredible gift for supervision.  He became a real mentor to me in my time there.  I’m convinced that the reason I came back and passed all my ordination exams in one shot, was because Greg was so good at helping me integrate theology and daily pastoral ministry. 
            But saying that my internship year was great does not mean that I didn’t make some colossal mistakes.  I had just enough knowledge in me to be completely dangerous.  One of my responsibilities as an intern was to work with the various youth groups.  A problem erupted in the Senior High youth group between one of the girls and a boy who was socially awkward.  I heard various complaints about some comments he’d made to her.  This young man had upset a lot of people by things he’d said and done, and I was told by several that I needed to do something.  So I decided this was the perfect opportunity to use all that I’d learned in my group processing classes.  I set up a special youth group meeting in which we were going to have open communication, and get to the source of all the tension and anger in the youth group.  From this we were going to form deeper bonds with one another and become even more Christ like in our community.  I laid out a whole plan of action, pulled out my communications Awareness Wheel, created some teaching handouts so we would all be on the same page as to how to share our feelings, and went into that meeting armed with knowledge.
            Should have gone off without a hitch, right?  Wrong!
            Never has a plan of mine backfired so spectacularly.  The meeting completely fell apart.  Girls left crying.  Boys were angry.  The girl in particular who’d been so upset by the socially awkward boy thought that she was being blamed for the problems in the group.  The socially awkward boy thought that everybody hated him.  And every single member of the group blamed me.  To use contemporary lingo, it was an epic fail.  To this day I still cringe at how badly I botched the whole thing.  I had tons of knowledge, great heaping portions of information, but absolutely no wisdom. 
            The good news is that I gained a little wisdom from failing that badly, not just in the failing but in the making it right.  I ate a lot of crow.  I not only saw how completely I’d messed up, I also had to admit it.  And apologize.  That’s probably the most valuable wisdom I’ve gained as a minister.  When you’re wrong, admit it and apologize.  By the end of my year, the group was back together.  We had an end of the year celebration and the kids who were once furious and threatened never to come back to church again were together, laughing and joking and enjoying themselves.  Grace prevailed.
            I think the true lesson in all of this is that the youth group was ultimately a community grounded in the love of Christ.  In spite of our failings, we left the door open to grace.  Those youth, young as they were, understood the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation.  So too, when Paul told the church in Ephesus to live as wise people, he said this to a community of people who also sought to follow Christ.  They were a community built on the foundation of Christ’s love.  And it is in Christ that we have our role model for wisdom.  I would never liken Jesus to Obie Wan Kenobie or Yoda – Jesus is more than just an archetype for wisdom – but in him we learn what it means to be fully human.  We learn that love and humility trumps the world’s perception of power and success.  We learn that the greatest wisdom comes not just from the information that we possess but in the compassion we show in using that information. 
            I’ll probably spend the rest of my life seeking wisdom, seeking to be wise, but I know that in those fleeting moments when I am able to emulate Jesus, and love as he loves, then I am one step closer to the wisdom I seek.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tattoo You (Or Me)

                I am inked.  I got a tat.  I have a tattoo.

                You read me correctly, I have a tattoo.  This was not some youthful indiscretion.  I didn’t get my tattoo on a night of inebriation or because of a reckless dare from a college classmate.  I chose to get my tattoo a little over a year ago in the spring of 2011.  One Monday, as I was walking around downtown doing errands, I walked into Decorah, Iowa’s local tattoo parlor, and made an appointment for a little over a week later. 

                But impulsive as it sounds, this was not a rashly made decision.  I had fantasized, secretly and not so secretly, about getting a tattoo for years.  The first time I saw a tat up close was when my friend Melissa had one done in college.  There, just underneath her collar bone, was a flower in full bloom.  My first thought when she showed me what she’d had done, was, “That’s amazing!"  My second was, "I could never do that.” 

                And I didn’t.  For a long time.  But I wanted to.

 After discerning a call to seminary and ordained ministry, I thought that a tattoo just wouldn’t work with the image of MINISTER I believed I was supposed to present.  Yet when I was serving my first church in Rockville, Maryland, my Executive Presbyter and Associate Presbyter, both cool women and both around my age, went together and got tattoos.  My desire was once again piqued.  I just couldn’t bring myself to go through with it. 
                  I had lots of reasons. They were expensive and I was always broke.  Did I really want to do something so permanent to my body?  And even if I did, what the heck would I want to have indelibly inscribed on my person?  But I think the true reason, the deep abiding reason, was that I was afraid.  Not so much of the pain of having it done, but of what people would think.  Maybe people wouldn’t like me or accept me or listen to me if I had a tattoo?  Maybe I’d be rejected or abandoned or loved less? 
                Sure those real reasons sound silly, but how many of you spend more time than you’d like to admit worrying about the opinion of others?  How many of you are afraid that your lovability rests on external appearance?  I certainly did.  I still do.  I work very hard at not believing that.  But it’s a fear that still haunts me.  I’m changing that though.  Little by little. 

                Honestly, that was a big reason for getting my tattoo.  I decided to get it when I hit a certain number in my weight loss effort.  But I really got it to mark not just the physical changes I was making, but also the changes I was making from the inside out.  To me getting a tattoo was a tangible sign and seal of all I’d accomplished to that point, and all I hoped to accomplish in the future.  It also didn’t hurt that I let my rebellious streak come back out to play after many years of suppression. 

                My tattoo is a circle of two flowers and green vines, and in the middle is the astrological symbol for Libra’s scales.  It symbolizes my constant quest for finding both beauty and balance in the world and in my life.  And yes it is, as so many call it, in the “tramp stamp” position.  But as I am not a tramp, then it is not that particular kind of stamp.

                A few months ago I was on an airplane flying back to Oklahoma.  A group of women, obviously old friends returning from a girls’ weekend away, sat in the seats behind me and reviewed their latest adventure together.  One of them commented that with all the fun they’d had, at least they weren’t coming back with a tattoo.  Another said, loudly, “I guess tattoos are okay for some people, but why would I want anything that everybody else has?” 

                For just a second I cringed.  Was that what I had done?  Just followed a trend?  A fad?  Then I brushed it off.  To each their own, I thought.  But I know that, pop culture trend or not, getting a tattoo was one of many steps in me becoming more uniquely me. 

                I am inked.