"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak."
This passage is a progressive children's director's nightmare. Or maybe it's my own neurosis. But as a previously "trained" evangelical, this passage brings up images of demons, the end of the world, "spiritual warfare" and rows and rows of New York Times bestselling novels that crowd out the quality literature on the bookshelves. And then, to make things worse, the way to overcome these horrible images, is through the materials of warfare: swords, breastplates, helmets, and shields. This passage reminds me of the "scripture bombs" that we so often throw at each other to prove who is going to hell, who isn't, how you can express your sexuality, how you should spend your money, Democrat versus Republican, spanking versus time-out, cheese burgers versus challah bread; the list goes on and on. Initially to the quick, undiscerning eye, through its images, we are at war, but who we are fighting is still undefined and open to interpretation.
I picture a child hearing this passage and thinking of monsters under her bed, ghosts that haunt the night, and little devils bouncing around her shoulders. And I picture a child believing that the way to fight these monsters, ghosts and devils is through the violence of warfare.
And maybe, for some children, they need to hear that they have the tools to fight off these creatures that may seem so real to them.
But, it seems to me, that, as usual, God's definitions of things are much different from ours.
As I get older, my images of evil have changed, but they are no less frightening than when I was a child and worried about what waited for me beneath my bed. The realities of terrorism, poverty, governments that can ignore the sufferings of their citizens, the instability of the economy, and the daily news of murders, drug deals, and authority failures are enough to make any of us want to run and hide, or step out of our homes with guns drawn.
So what are we to do? How do we equip our children with the confidence to know that they can face this world with strength and a sense of protection? We cannot put our heads in the sand, nor encourage them to do so. Children realize the horrors of this world much sooner and more intensely than most of us realize.
So this week, I armed myself for my children's sermon with a colander, a spatula, and a cookie sheet.
After asking the kids what they thought "armor" is, and what it does, I put the colander on my head, the spatula in one hand, and the cookie sheet in the other for my shield. I asked them, how much good would these do to protect me?
Obviously, the kids stated that these kitchen items wouldn't go far in protecting me from danger.
But maybe that's the point.
It's not the things that we think will protect us that will ultimately keep us safe. This passage shows us that what often makes us vulnerable is what will, ultimately, protect us. We are told "to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power." But think about it, how did Jesus protect himself, or his followers from the powers of domination, destruction, and evil? He made friends with fishermen, he ate with outcasts, and he was thrown on a cross, humiliated. We are told to "put on the whole armour of God," which consists of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and a pair of comfortable shoes. We are told to "Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God." These are the building blocks of community, of relationship, of vulnerability, and of story-telling. These are the elements of faith that have gotten not a few religious leaders into a whole heap of trouble, and for some, it cost them their lives.
But what the kids need to know is that it isn't through "sticks and stones" that we are protected, but through being in relationship with others that we are protected. This doesn't guarantee that we will never feel pain, but it does promise that we will never be alone through it. When we tell our stories, open our hearts to one another, and listen for God's voice among us, we will experience glimpses of Grace that can lead us to places beyond hurt and fear and pain.
When we experience the monsters under our beds, the devils on our backs, and the ghosts haunting our hallways, we can know that we are armed with what we need to protect ourselves: our loved ones, our church community, the communion of saints, and the extraordinary and strangely graceful vulnerability of our God.