Sunday, September 23, 2012

Dividing Desires

The primary passage examined is James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, with a brief look at Mark 9:30-37.

As the Rolling Stones remind us, you can't always get what you want. So what's the remedy? Cheat, apparently! In a survey of more than 40,000 high school students the Josephson Institute of Ethics found that almost 3/5 of them admitted to having cheated. But 4/5 of them said their ethics were above average! Studies of college students find that the majority will fib--usually just a little--when asked to take a test for money, grade it themselves, shred it and then tell a researcher how well they did so they may be paid accordingly. And if they got paid in tokens which could be traded for money, making their larceny one step removed, they cheated twice as much. (The experimenters knew who was cheating because the shredder was set to shred only the margins of the test papers.) When similar studies were done outside academia, they found adults cheated to the same extent. The percentage of cheating was even higher among--big surprise--Wall Street bankers!

The shredder tests were done by psychology professor Dan Ariely, who wrote "The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves." In a Wall Street Journal piece, he writes of a student who locked himself out of his house. He called a locksmith and was surprised that the man didn't rigorously try to confirm that he belonged in the house. The locksmith said 1% of people never steal. 1% always steal and a lock wouldn't stop them. A lock protected you against the 98% who might steal from you if they knew your door was unlocked. Locks keep honest people honest.

The locksmith was closer to the truth than he knew. Professor Ariely has found that most people will lie or cheat a little. Surprisingly, fear of being caught didn't stop them. In some studies, they paid themselves from a bowl outside in the hallway. In one, they simply told a researcher who was obviously blind. They still cheated by only 1 or 2 questions. Nor did the amount of money motivate them. In the studies, the amount offered for each right answer was varied from 50 cents to $10 and yet didn't significantly increase the amount of cheating. In fact, when they offered $10 per right answer, the cheating decreased. Ariely thinks that it was harder for the subjects to think of themselves as basically good guys if they took too much. The real conflict is between our desires for money or glory and our desire to see ourselves as honest and honorable people.

The ability to rationalize was, therefore, an important factor in influencing people to cheat. Other factors were conflicts of interest, creativity, being drained by a difficult mental task, a past history of dishonesty, having others (like your teammates) benefit from your dishonesty, watching other behave dishonestly, and a culture that gives examples of dishonesty. (Which makes my enjoyment of the show "Leverage" a really guilty pleasure.)

They found that what actually decreases dishonesty is supervision, moral reminders, honor pledges and having people sign tax or insurance forms at the top (before they fill it out) rather than the usual place at the bottom of the form (after they have already committed their lies to paper.) If they asked the subjects to recall the 10 Commandments or the school honor code before the test, no one cheated. At one school, they reminded students of the honor code and it worked even though the school didn't have an honor code! In an even more surprising experiment, they had self-identified atheists swear on the Bible, and no one cheated!

While it was rare for anyone to brazenly cheat by a large margin, the professor says his researchers lost thousands of dollars to the majority of people who cheated just a little. The problem, as Ariely sees it, is not the outrageous outliers but the "small but ubiquitous" cheating by the rest of us.

Bad behavior is contagious. Because we are social animals, we tend to take our cues from others. If people see bad behavior practiced in a school or a company or a society, they take it as acceptable conduct. "Everybody else is doing it" is an excuse we learn as kids. There is no other way to explain how whole towns participated in the lynchings of blacks in the American South or how Germans and non-German citizens of occupied countries cooperated with Nazi policies that made people turn in their Jewish neighbors.

But the desire to "fit in" or "go along" is not the only motive for bad behavior. Generally speaking, we are motivated by 3 things: our needs, our fears and our desires.

Sometimes, needs can drive bad behavior. My wife says when she worked at the public defender's office a lot of their cases were about homeless people shoplifting sandwiches from a local supermarket. One of the inmates I visit regularly at the jail was transferred for 10 days to the high security/corrective unit for taking 2 hard-boiled eggs from the kitchen and hiding them in his sock. When you are hungry, when your needs aren't being met, you are willing to break the rules.

Some fears are legitimate: that of fire, falling from a height, of disease and of pain. Some fears are phobias which, if they really interfere with everyday life, need to be treated. The problem is that fear literally bypasses the areas of the brain that handle critical thinking. Which is why disproportionate reactions to fears can lead to bad behavior. Shooting a foreigner in a Halloween costume for merely ringing your doorbell, as happened in Louisiana 20 years ago, is a bad response to fear. Rounding up Asian Americans and putting them in camps during World War 2 because we were fighting, among other nationalities, the Japanese, is a bad response to fear. That was worse because it required a lot of time and thinking to execute and so cannot be attributed to a split-second panic reaction.

Desires, as James reminds us today, can lead to bad behavior as well. Some desires are good: to excel at a sport or an art, to learn, to have a family. Some desires are evil: to possess what belongs to another, to see someone suffer, to get out of an essential duty or obligation. But even good desires can lead to evil if they are frustrated by people or events or if they are pursued ruthlessly. It's not wrong to want to win a contest or competition but if you resort to cheating, sabotage or deceit, your otherwise good desire can lead to evil. We are slowly coming out of an era in which many sports records are going to be either erased or marked with an asterisk because of the widespread use of performance enhancing drugs.

Sometimes the desires of a group or a nation may be considered so important that they feel that they should be allowed some moral slack in realizing them. For the good of the many, the rights or health or lives of the few may be taken away. It happens in slavery, when one race or class has absolute control over another and uses them as a labor force. It happens when rich countries exploit poor ones, taking their materials or using their cheaper labor to make products that can be sold for high profits back home. It happens when nations go to war, figuring their national interests justify the violating those of another nation. And the bloodshed, of course. The ends always seem to justify the means.

James is thinking less of national conflicts than of personal ones in our passage but the same principles apply. He mentions bitter envy, selfish ambitions and cravings at war within us. Our desires drive us to bad behavior and ironically to unhappiness. Getting what you want doesn't always leave you feeling good, especially it puts you at odds with family, with friends or with yourself.

Another religious thinker felt that at the root of suffering lay our desires. For the Buddha the answer was to stop desiring, to free oneself of attachment to anything. For James, there is a different way.

The Book of James is the closest thing the New Testament has to wisdom literature. And sure enough, James' solution to the problem of being driven by desires, either bad ones, or good desires taken too far, is wisdom from above. This heavenly wisdom is first of all pure. It is not mixed with self-interest. If some way of thinking, speaking or behaving is bad for others, it is bad for us as well. Too often we excuse in ourselves things we condemn in others. We don't like it when others put themselves first but feel we are entitled to certain perks because of how hard we work. We don't like it when others get angry but we deserve to vent because of the stress we're under. James reminds us that godly wisdom is without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

God's wisdom is peaceable. That is, its goal is peace--peace with God and with others. If your primary objective is peace, as opposed to getting your own way, the odds of achieving it are higher. And God's wisdom leads us to use methods that encourage peace. In James' first chapter, he tells everyone to be "quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger." Keeping your ears open, you mouth shut and a lid on your temper is a good way to keep the peace.

God's wisdom is gentle. A lot of Christians forget this. They like to thunder on at people about their sins. Oddly enough, that rarely wins them over. When Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at the well, he doesn't start with her checkered sexual history. He is more focused on getting her to desire the living water that will quench her spiritual thirst. That comes first. If she doesn't want what Jesus offers, she won't change her life.

The wisdom from above is willing to yield! The Greek word here could also mean "open to reason." Righteous folks are often caricatured as rigid, stubborn people who can't be reasoned with.  But refusing to hear the other person out means they are unlikely to hear our witness. Notice the word doesn't mean "open for anything." It doesn't mean we back down when God's wisdom is clear. But, as James said, we should be quick to listen. Since all truth is God's truth we need not be afraid of anyone's input. We may receive a new insight. We may, on the basis of what they tell us, find a way to persuade them. We in turn must be genuinely open to persuasion ourselves. If we aren't willing to consider what they say, why should they reciprocate?

God's wisdom is full of mercy. Part of getting people to open up is to be non-judgmental while we listen. If we keep interjecting "Well, that was stupid!" or "Wrong, wrong, wrong!" as they open their hearts the conversation will be over very soon. When listening to inmates, I sometimes have to suppress expressing horror or shock. I don't say "I wouldn't have done that if I were you." I'm not them. And I am there to offer God's forgiveness and grace. If the person seems to be punishing himself for what he's done, I don't need to help him beat himself up. I need to remind him that Jesus has already taken the punishment for all our sins and if the inmate accepts that, he can stop torturing himself and start following Jesus out of gratitude for all he's done and all he plans to do with that inmate's life. We are to be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful.

God's wisdom produces good fruit. If the wisdom you are following isn't producing good things, you have to ask if it is really working. If being angry and judgmental and rigid and loud and rough isn't bringing more people to Jesus, then why not try God's wisdom instead?

A theme that underlies all of this is humility. We know we can't always get what we want. We know that's true of everyone. But we feel we should be the exception. And that's where James' advice meshes with that of his big brother Jesus. In reaction to his disciples squabbling about which of them was the greatest, Jesus said, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." The essence of what he is saying is put others first. I'm reminded of George Bailey of "It's a Wonderful Life" who puts his community and town ahead of all the plans he had to travel the world. And, of course, the ultimate example of this is Jesus himself, who, despite wanting the cup of suffering to pass him by, gave his life for the world.

If we really desire something, rather than fight others for it or cheat, we should simply ask God, says James. He is clearly recalling Jesus' promise that if we ask, we shall receive. And if we ask and don't receive, James observes, it's probably because we are asking wrongly, selfishly. No loving parent gives his kid everything he ask for, but uses his wisdom to decide if it is good for his child. Sometimes God says, "Yes," sometimes "No," sometimes "Not yet," and sometime his answer is "I have something else for you, something ultimately better."

In the end , the key is to submit to God, James writes. Accept his wisdom. Ask but be open to an answer you may not have expected. And if we receive our desires, we should be careful. You may rue the day your parents gave you a smartphone if you wreck your car while texting. In the same way, God's gifts are meant to be enjoyed but used properly and not abused. And a gift from him  is always to be seen as a way to bless others as well. 

As always our chief desire should be for God himself. He is the source of all goodness and love and wonder and joy and understanding and mercy and compassion and beauty and song and wisdom and hope. Only he can fill the bill of being our true heart's desire. How do we get him? "Draw near to God and he will draw near to you," our passage concludes. Cause you can't always get what you want. But if you try God, you get what you need.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Question and the Choice

The gospel referred to is Mark 8:27-38.

Remember reading the story, "The Lady or the Tiger?" In 1882 Frank Stockton wrote of a semi-barbarian king who comes up with a unique version of trial by ordeal to solve questions of criminal guilt. The accused is put in an arena in which there are two doors. Behind one is a hungry and ferocious tiger; behind the other is one of the most beautiful women in the land. If the accused chooses the door with the lady, fate has declared him innocent and he must instantly marry the woman, despite his current marital status. If he chooses the door with the tiger, fate has obviously judged him guilty and being torn apart is his sentence.

A problem arises when the king finds out that his daughter has a lover who is a commoner. The man is put into the arena. The king's daughter has used her wealth and power to find out which door conceals which fate. Her dilemma is that she knows and hates the lady behind the door and doesn't want to lose her lover to her. Is she jealous enough to want him dead instead? She loses him either way. So when he looks at her from the arena, she quickly and subtly indicates the door on the right. He strides right up and opens it. And the story leaves us with the question of which fate did she consign her lover to: the lady or the tiger?

The question has become proverbial. There are times when we must make momentous decisions with incomplete information. And we know the consequences of our choices may be good or bad. Should I keep my crappy job or take a chance on one that may be better--or worse? Should we try to keep mother living at her home or move her into a nursing home? Should I accept my boyfriend's offer to move in with him though we haven't known each other very long? Occasionally, but not often, the choice is a matter of life and death, as it is in the short story. Unlike the story, such a decision is seldom that stark nor does it present only a single clue. In fact, rarely do we have as little information as the young lover in the story does.

Of course, the story would not be so memorable were the choice offered not so dramatic. The title would not be quoted today if the man was choosing between taking up a habit that would eventually kill him or a date with an average girl who may or may not make a half-way decent wife.

But it would be more realistic. Most of the big choices we make have consequences that play out over the years. Nobody would smoke if it killed you immediately. Nobody would have sex outside marriage if the result was you might have a kid the very next day. Any idiot would make the right choice in such a simplified world. The problem is most foolish or bad choices have an immediate reward, usually in the form of a good feeling, and adverse effects may not emerge until years later. Wisdom consists in seeing the value in certain actions and choices where it is not readily apparent and avoiding actions that will have unacceptable negative consequences down the road.

The Bible makes much of the desirability of wisdom. It usually leads to prosperity, good health and a long life. Fools usually will get their comeuppance and suffer a painful and shortened life. Notice that I say usually. We all know wise people who have been overtaken by circumstances beyond their control and who did not achieve or who lost wealth and health. The Book of Job is a big reminder that bad things can happen to good people. And we know of people who make bad and foolish choices and yet somehow continue to prosper for many years. I keep wondering when a certain real estate mogul will run out of people who are willing to be partners with him in ventures, from vodka to airlines to mortgages to casinos, that frequently underperform and repeatedly lead to bankruptcies and his either being bought out or losing control of properties that bear his name. Yet people think of him as a financial genius. Although, considering the quality of thinking displayed by Wall Street, this should not surprise us.

Still, in the majority of cases, living wisely has rewards and living foolishly will lead to bad outcomes. And the Bible points this out again and again. Small wonder the disciples are flummoxed by what Jesus says in today's gospel.

The Gospel of Mark begins by declaring Jesus the Son of God. It ends shortly after the centurion overseeing his crucifixion says the same thing. And the whole gospel builds to this passage, the exact middle of the book, in which Jesus asks "Who do you say I am?" To which Peter responds, "You are the Messiah." That word is loaded. On the surface, it simply means the anointed, which in Greek is Christos. But there were 3 vocations for which the Jews anointed people: prophet, priest or king. The Messiah could be anyone of the three (or all three) but in his day most people saw him as God's anointed king. And that's probably what Peter and the disciples thought.

As Mel Brooks famously pointed out, it's good to be the king. And a divinely appointed and anointed king should have no problem making short work of the oppressors of God's people. Jesus was a descendent of David, who was a holy warrior king. All Jesus needed to do was give the rallying cry and his fellow Jews would flock to him and follow him into battle against the godless pagans. That was the popular idea of what the Messiah would do: defeat the Romans and inaugurate a literal Kingdom of God on earth.

Which is why the disciples were totally unprepared for Jesus' next words. Right after Peter correctly identifies Jesus as God's anointed king, Jesus says that he would suffer, be rejected by their religious leaders and killed. He would rise again after 3 days, if that was any consolation.

This was definitely not what the twelve expected Jesus to say. This was crazy talk. The Messiah triumphs. He doesn't suffer and die. As for the resurrection, that's way off at the end of the present evil age. What Jesus is saying to them makes no sense. And Peter, never reluctant to speak up, tells Jesus so. Nor does he see any irony in telling the guy he just declared to be God's Anointed that he is flat out wrong.

Jesus' rebuke is pretty harsh, even taking into account that Satan in Hebrew means "adversary." Peter is going against what God intends to do, making him, if not The Adversary, an adversary. But Jesus needs to nip this kind of thinking in the bud. Even if they don't totally buy the idea that he has to suffer and die, he needs to emphasize it enough that come Easter, they will recall it and it will make sense looking back. If they continue to harbor ideas about a political uprising, they will misinterpret his cleansing of the Temple, overlook his response to the inquiry about paying taxes to Caesar, and just generally see everything in an adversarial, us-against-them, can't-wait-to-fight kind of way. As hard as it was to hear, Jesus needed to plant the idea of his death and resurrection in their minds so that they would at least recognize what happened at the right time.

But it was not just the idea that he would die that he had to get across; it was the idea that they might have to as well. His way of triumphing through not fighting back was to be adopted by his followers. He meant all that "turn the other cheek" talk. General Patton was not revolutionary in his idea that wars are not won by dying for your country but by having your enemy die for his country. He may have only been unique in stating it that nakedly. Ironically, Old Blood and Guts has paved the way for modern warfare in which one side sits at a video screen in safety and sends a drone to take out the enemy by remote control. Some military leaders are afraid this ability to make others die with little risk to one's own side is going to make wars more likely rather than less. Because there will be less casualties for those who use drones and robots. Until, of course, the other side catches up and it escalates into a world where nobody under the sky is safe anywhere.

Jesus is the true revolutionary. He says that in following him you should write off keeping your life first. That's a better understanding of what Jesus was saying than the traditional translation of "deny oneself." It's not like giving up chocolate for Lent. It's more like "disown yourself," "give up all rights to yourself," "relinquish your life and self." As usual Eugene Petersen's loose but astute translation, The Message, really captures the essence of what Jesus said. "Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the driver's seat; I am. Don't run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how."    
The only thing Petersen misses is the element of not just suffering but death. Jesus said, "take up your cross." That's like saying "get prepared to walk the last mile to the electric chair." Or "bring along the poisons for your own lethal injection." Or "carry the bucket of water with which you will be water-boarded to death." It was that harsh. Harsher, really, because everyone then had seen real crucifixions, slaves and traitors hanging naked by their nailed wrists and ankles on stripped trees along the road side. The Romans did it that way to say, "This is what happens if you defy the Emperor." The Roman Emperor was called King of kings and Lord of lords; he was worshiped as a god. Jesus was saying, "If you follow me, you're going to run afoul of that; be prepared for the worst."

Not much of a recruiting speech, is it? "Follow me to a likely death." And what's more it goes against the usual outcome of being wise. Follow wisdom and you are probably going to have a long life with appropriate earthly rewards. Jesus is saying, "You can forget about that." But does that mean that following Jesus is the opposite of wise? Does it mean being a Christian is foolish?

Certainly there were those who thought that way. Paul said that "we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." Jesus on the cross was so far from the triumphant Messiah expected by Jews that many just couldn't get past that. And Gentiles, for whom humility was not a virtue, thought any person so foolish as to be executed in such a humiliating way by the Emperor was no example to emulate. So, yes, following Jesus was not considered something a wise person would do.

So on what possible grounds could following Christ be considered reasonable? Jesus says, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it." For this to sound like a smart thing even to consider, you have to accept that Jesus was who Peter said he was: God's Anointed Prophet, Priest and King. If he is the person our creator has designated as the ruler of creation, then it makes sense to do what he says, no matter the cost. Then it makes sense to spend your life serving him and not yourself. Then it makes sense to choose Jesus over every other earthly allegiance.

And if Jesus is the one to restore all things corrupted and distorted and deformed and infected by our sins, our self-inflicted wounds, then what Jesus says next makes sense, too. "For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give to in return for their life." The Greek word translated "life" here in the NRSV can also be translated "soul" and I think that better states what is at stake. Listen to how Petersen translates these 3 verses: "Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?"

One big reason to follow Jesus is that he is the image of God unmarred, not ruined by sin and self-will. God made us all in that image but we now resemble God the way a fun house mirror reflects us or the way a vicious political cartoon resembles a political leader. And we realize that, deep down, we are not the person we could be, that we should be. We feel the loss of the person we used to be, before fears and desires and ambitions and lusts and disappointments and cynicism changed us. By connecting our lives to Jesus, the very embodiment of the Spirit and image of God, we can get that back. We can begin growing again, in the right direction, becoming more and more Christlike and, paradoxically, more and more ourselves, the selves God intended us to be.

Let's make it clear. If you don't buy into Jesus being God's son and the one God anointed as our king, then this is all nonsense. Following Jesus would be a very foolish thing. Giving up all rights to yourself would be stupid. You might as well look out for yourself. Oh, yeah, you can be reasonably good, good when it serves your purpose, good to a certain extent and only until it costs you more than you're willing to pay. But if trouble comes, if people stand in the way of your dreams and desires, if all the other individuals looking out for themselves thwart you,  then to hell with them. And to hell with you. Because that's how you will feel eventually, when you've chipped away enough of that image that it doesn't even look like God anymore, when you no longer can feel his Spirit, when you are just a lump of flesh, a mass of wants and demands and grievances and regrets, hardly human and definitely not divine. That's damnation: the decay of the soul, the deterioration of the self, into something less. 

But if you want to be more than just a brief occupier of space and time, if you want to be the real you, freed from the depredations of sin on the self, if you want to be connected to the true life that nourishes the soul, that renews the mind, that refreshes the heart, that grows the person, then you need to dispossess yourself, take up the rough unyielding cross on which the old you will die and follow Jesus. Unlike "The Lady or the Tiger?" you are fully informed of the choices before you. Both sooner or later lead to death. But one leads beyond that, to a new you with a new life in a new world, where crying and sorrow and pain and death are no more. Because Jesus the Anointed, God's son, has taken those upon himself and given us in their place his joy.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Full Armor

When you're a preacher, you never know what in your environment will spark your next idea. With me it is often pop culture, like TV and movies, but sometimes it comes from my various careers, and rarely from my family. For which my family is grateful. Nobody likes embarrassing moments from their childhood used as fodder for a sermon. A few weeks ago, prompted by a slip from our sermon suggestion box, the homily revolved around my work as chaplain at the local jail. It's become the second most popular post on my blog. But today we get a sermon from a prisoner. Paul was writing his letter to the Ephesian church while a prisoner of the Emperor. And for our current passage he probably got his inspiration from something he saw everyday: the armor of the Roman soldier to whom he was chained.

The most anxious time for an inmate, I've found, is the period leading up to one's trial. The next most anxious time is that leading up to one's sentencing. The reason for this is obvious: you don't know how things are going to turn out come those dates. In the first case, you may be acquitted or you may be convicted. In the second, you have been convicted but you don't know the sentence. It could be probation, it could be months in jail or years in prison. One inmate I visit is facing either life in prison or the death penalty.

That was Paul's predicament. Would the Emperor dismiss the charges Paul's enemies made against him? Would he have Paul imprisoned further? Or would he have him executed? We know from Philippians that Paul was prepared to die for the gospel. As he put it, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." But he also realized he would be leaving behind these churches he had planted. He wanted to leave them some last advice and encouragement. And as he dictated the last part of his letter to the church at Ephesus, his eyes lighted on his Roman guard. The man was in state-of-the-art body armor for that time. Paul thought, "I don't want to leave these Christians feeling defenseless." And taking some imagery from Isaiah chapters 11, 52 and 59, plus his guard, he wrote of how God equips his followers to face what threatens their spiritual lives.

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power." Unlike the world, we are not stuck with whatever personal physical power we happen to have. Our strength comes from our union with God. We derive our power from his boundless might. Whenever we are defeated by the troubles of this world, it is probably because we were trusting in our own strength instead of his. We are not superheroes. But that doesn't mean we are undefended. 
"Put on the full armor of God so that your may be able to stand up against the stratagems of the devil." As a geek, I can't think of armor these days without thinking of Batman. The recent movies have transformed his fanciful costume into very cunning body armor, including his cape which allows him to hang-glide. But Batman doesn't rely on any one piece of his arsenal exclusively. Different  situations call for different defenses and each of his "wonderful toys," as the Joker calls them, comes into play as needed. Paul, looking at his guard, realized that each piece of his equipment had its function. As Christians, we can't afford to be one-trick ponies. So Paul urges us to arm ourselves with the whole panoply. (That English word comes from the Greek one used here.) Because our adversary will use a range of methods (which derives from the Greek word usually translated "wiles" here) we need to be prepared for all of them.

"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." We cannot emphasize enough that Christians do not physically fight other people. When an ordinary warrior is finished, he hopes to be surrounded by the enemy's dead. At the end of our wrestling with darkness, we hope to be surrounded by former enemies made alive in Christ. As the U.S. has discovered in our two most recent wars, you need to win the hearts and minds of others if you really want to end a conflict. Jesus knew that. That's why he rebuked Peter when he drew his sword to fend off those arresting Jesus. That's why he reattached the severed ear of the man Peter struck. Jesus didn't harm people; he healed them. He knew the battle was spiritual, as Paul tells us here.

How do we protect ourselves against the hateful ideas and the twisted thinking that prevails in this darkened age, against the worship of power and the philosophies that hold sway in this world? Paul once again emphasizes taking up the whole armor of God "so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm." Notice that Paul is not emphasizing advancing into enemy territory or any aggressive action. He is concerned that the church not lose ground. We are to resist and withstand the assault of evil. We are to make sure that we are still standing after evil has done its worst. We are to hold our ground, the solid rock of Jesus' words on which wise men build.

"Stand, therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist." We use belts to hold up pants but people didn't wear pants then; they wore tunics. The reason for a belt was to make sure such a loose garment didn't get in the way or get snagged. You don't want to give the enemy anything to grab. It made you more mobile, which, for a soldier, is important. And being girded with truth makes a Christian more nimble. Lies trip people up. They give your enemy something to latch onto. Don't give up the advantage of basing your defense of the faith on truth. Don't use pseudo-science or dubious history or sophistry to defend Jesus. Belts also give you something to hang other things onto, like your sword. Everything should hang on the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done for us.

"…and put on the breastplate of righteousness." Righteousness has gotten a bad name because people confuse it with self-righteousness, an attitude based on justifying yourself. But Christians are justified by God's grace through faith in Jesus, who expects us to be righteous, unimpeachable in our behavior. A lot of high profile Christians have been taken down when it turned out their behavior was anything but righteous. The soldier's breastplate kept his torso and vital organs safe. You could survive superficial wounds, but not a stab to the heart or a gut wound. Righteousness protects your core. So don't give the enemy any ammunition. Don't be a hypocrite. Keep your life clean. Be honest, faithful, trustworthy. Confess your sins to God and ask for his aid in overcoming them, even if it means getting professional help or joining a support group. Protect the vitality of your ministry with righteousness.   

"As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace." Once I tried to take my morning walk while still wearing the slip-on sandals I wear at home. They were not designed for a 2-mile hike and my feet made their displeasure known even after I put on my shoes. Bad footwear will hobble you, with blisters or insufficient support. Smart soldiers make sure they have firm yet comfortable boots on, which will not hinder them in doing their duty. Paul probably saw his jailor checking out and repairing his sandals scrupulously. So he translated this into the preparation and readiness a Christians needs if he or she is going to proclaim the gospel. Can she define what she means when she says Jesus is the Christ, God's Messiah? Can he answer the most common objections critics use to discredit Christianity or made it look ridiculous? Can she relate the good news of Jesus to a friend or acquaintance who comes to her seeking a spiritual solution to a personal problem? We need to be ready to present the gospel to those who need the peace it gives. And notice that it is the "gospel of peace." It is about peace with God and peace with other people, not strife.

"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." The Greek word Paul uses for shield is not that of a small round shield, but the 4-foot long rectangular leather-covered wooden shield that Roman soldiers carried. They soaked the leather in water to quench the burning arrows of the enemy. And it worked especially well when in formation. The front-line soldiers would overlap their shields to present the enemy with a solid wall, while the soldiers behind would hold theirs over the head. This turtle-shell of shields made it hard to get Roman soldiers to flee under a barrage of arrows. Just so, a strong faith will protect the Christian from inflammatory attacks by the enemy. It's better to face such fiery rhetoric with a cool calm that comes from a substantial trust in God's love and goodness. And a united front of faith works best.

"Take the helmet of salvation…" Along with your torso, your head is a crucial area to protect. I have probably told you how my father, as part of the Marines' 3rd Division, helped take the island of Bougainville from the Japanese in the 2nd World War. A sniper in a tree fired 2 shots at him. One was stopped by a can of beans in his pack. The other was stopped by his helmet. The other Marines were amazed and told him he should see the impact. My dad, however, wouldn't take his helmet off till nightfall and only when he felt safe did he remove his headgear and pull out the bullet. He kept his head because he kept his head and kept his helmet on it.

A headshot is bad news outside physical warfare as well. So are psy-ops, psychological warfare meant to mess with the minds of enemy soldiers. And it looks like some diabolic mind games have been used to disorient and distract Christians from their primary mission. As medicine is about restoring people to physical health, Christianity is about our salvation by Jesus Christ. If you want to neutralize the church, taking its mind off this, its top priority, is the best way to do it. Like getting Christians to go on crusades over things that are not part of the gospel. The actual Crusades were about taking control of the land where Jesus was born from the Muslims. Not a lot of evangelization took place at that time, except at the point of a sword. Hardly the gospel of peace and not what Jesus meant when he gave us the Great Commission. Jesus wanted us to go out into the world and bring people into the Kingdom of God, not conquer bits of real estate.

In the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, witch trials were the obsession of the church. Today it's evolution, abortion and homosexuality. None of these are things Jesus talked about, nor are they at the center of the gospel. When they dominate our thinking, they crowd out what's essential and distort the way we express the gospel. The message of Christ is about salvation by grace through faith; when we keep that in mind, we approach people differently. They are not seen as enemies of ourselves or of God but as people like us, in need of Christ's love. That helps us stand firm, at our post, rather than deserting on quixotic quests.

Paul next tells us to take up "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." Notice that this is the only offensive weapon Paul mentions. The word he uses is that of the short, 2-foot sword that Roman soldiers carried on their belt. Why does Paul, in this grand metaphor, make Scripture a sword? Not because it is for wounding but, as it says in Hebrews, "the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow." This makes it sound more like a surgeon's scalpel. If our enemies are not flesh and blood but spiritual, then the sword is not to bisect people but to dissect ideas that twist and distort the truth, splitting what is true from the half-truths, errors and outright falsehoods. I recently watched a sensationalistic documentary that, by picking and choosing various verses and presenting them out of context, made Jesus and John the Baptist say things contrary to what they meant. It made them out to be political revolutionaries. On the other hand, a letter to NPR was read on air by hosts of Planet Money correcting their common misquote that "money is the root of all evil." I was glad to hear the correct translation that "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils." The sharp distinctions of Scripture's truth were restored.

A study done a few years ago, revealed that most Christians don't know their Bible very well. Much was made about the fact that atheists did better at the quiz. But it turned out that Christians who regularly attended church and read the Bible regularly knew more than either atheists or the average self-identified Christians. Duh! Sadly, most people who call themselves Christians don't make knowing the very book from which they derive their faith a high priority. It's not like this is the Middle Ages, where the general populace can't read, and the only local copy of the Bible is chained to the pulpit of the church! Most churches will give you a free Bible; there are dozens online and there are at least 25 free Bible apps available for smartphones. There are hundreds of translations in English alone. Therefore we must conclude that the only reason more people haven't read the Bible is that they don't want to. Whereas I know several inmates who have read it cover to cover. They realize how vital it is. They are living on the front lines of the battle between good and evil.

So once we are equipped like this, what are our rules of engagement, as one commentator puts it? "Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication." Keep your lines of communications open. Keep connected with command, which in this case is God. And we are to pray in the Spirit. Paul says in Romans 8 that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings." People often tell me, "I want to pray but I don't know how." I give them a simple structure but remind them that they needn't worry about how they say it. God knows what is on their hearts. He is so close to us that he can, like a close friend, complete our sentences for us. The Spirit, who dwells in all who accept Christ, can communicate with our Heavenly Father when words fail us. He knows what we need and will supply us. To that end Paul reminds us to remember the needs and supplications of others when we pray. If you notice that a fellow Christian is missing a piece of his armor, ask God to supply it.

Finally, Paul reminds us to be alert. The word is the same that Jesus used when he told his disciples to keep watch. We need to be awake and aware so that subtle attacks don't get past us or harm a fellow Christian. And we need to be alert for the opportunity to use that readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace. Jesus interrupted a synagogue service to heal a man. He was ever alert for the opportunity to heal, forgive and help anyone who needed it and thus glorify God. Remember our struggle is not against flesh and blood. We are called to eliminate our enemies by loving them and turning them into allies of the Prince of Peace, who shed his blood so we need not shed each other's.