Ephesians 6:10-18 says:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish 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. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”
I have always liked this passage. It has made me feel safe and full of resolve against evil. But, you know, it doesn’t say: the full armor of God is on you. And it doesn’t say that one day I’ll be standing somewhere and the armor of God will fall upon me. No. This passage requires me to actually do some things: “put on the full armor of God;” “take up the shield of faith;” “take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit;” “pray in the Spirit on all occasions;” and “be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” Once I saw the passage as it reads instead of how I’d like it to read, I decided that I needed to figure out how to do these things. Some steps are easier than others.
In the last several weeks I’ve been conducting an accidental experiment, the import of which I didn’t understand until recently. Admittedly, this experiment is a bit silly. In some ways, though, it has been profound.
First, I need to give you some background: When I walk from the train station in the morning to my office, I have to cross two streets, across Wacker and across Jackson. These corners in Chicago are extremely busy both with cars and pedestrians. Indeed, at times, I feel like I am caught in a fast-moving river and if I stop, I will get washed away or trampled. The masses of people move across the street against the light. When this happens, some stragglers, who are just following along, frequently risk their lives because they do not see the cars coming through the light. These cars, I believe TRY to hit the unaware pedestrian. I am always amazed going anywhere in which cars actually slow down and stop when a pedestrian is crossing the street. Not so in Chicago. Here, we speed up and it’s target practice. I digress.
One morning, I was one of those unaware pedestrians – caught up in whatever I was pondering and just going along with the crowd. Then I heard a horn and saw the speeding car. Through God’s grace, I noticed in time, and stopped. It was in that moment that I asked myself why I was not paying attention, why I was always in a hurry, and why I would trust the judgment of some random people in a mass on the street corner with my physical safety? Would I do this under any other circumstances?
Now, the experiment: In an attempt to slow myself down, to be more careful, and really to just pay attention more to what is going on around me, I decided that I would no longer cross any street against the light. I would stand firm and wait for the light to change. Can you believe I’m saying this like it’s some kind of revelation? What must the officer friendly that used to come to my 5th grade class think of such things? Haven’t we learned from the time we could walk to look both ways and not to cross against the light? What has happened that I have to actually decide at age 35 (well, I was 34 at the time) to observe basic street-crossing safety rules? I imagine myself explaining this new way of being to my ten-year old daughter and the confused look that would undoubtedly grace her face as I reveal this life lesson – kind of like saying: “Honey, I decided today that we should not touch a hot stove. Okay? Now, I really want you to listen to this one. Got it?” She would think I’d totally lost it. Not crossing against the light, and standing firm until it is safe sounds like it’d be a piece of cake. I’ve got news for you: it’s harder than you think, especially if you’re one of these type-A personalities.
The first day I decided to try my new strategy, I almost forgot. The mass of people getting off the train moved me right along. I took one step off the curb and then suddenly caught myself. This, of course, started a cascade of collisions behind me, people started swearing, and cutting around me as if I was blocking manna in the desert. My toes teetered on the curb as I waited. I would wait. A couple times, I thought the light would change and it didn’t, so I nearly fell into the street. But, I made it! People moved around me as they needed, annoyed, and flashing me strange looks. I actually felt extreme pressure to cross. It was high school revisited. Everyone was doing it. Did I really need to prove this point, right now? And, what was the point, anyway?
Day after day, I’ve stood on the curb, waiting for the light to change. (Admittedly, I’ve violated my stand firm policy a number of times, usually without deciding to – which is worse in my view than deciding to). I’ve noticed some things. First, the sky is really beautiful. You see, the time standing there gives me a second to breathe in the air and look at the sky. Now, when it’s raining, this standing firm strategy is even harder to pull off, but I notice things then too. Like, I don’t melt when it rains. And, there are all kinds of umbrella colors and textures. And, there are tons of people who forget their umbrellas or choose not to use them. Second, there are people who will also wait if they see someone else brave enough to try. A kind of bond starts to form among those of us who are willing to wait and lift our eyes, to stand even when it seems safe to walk and even as the pressure rises.
There is a point to all of this and it is more than my telling you that you should really not cross streets against the light. The point is this: if it is this hard for me (us) to stand firm on a street corner until the light has changed and tells us to walk, what hope do we have of standing firm in the face of evil? We need to practice, to train, and to pray for God’s help. The momentum all around us teaches us to just keep walking and follow the crowd. Just get in the midst of the crowd and put one foot in front of the other. Don’t look up. Don’t look around. Don’t ask questions. Get where you’re going. I have a group of friends with whom I don’t hang around too often, but when I do, something I don’t like happens to me. I begin to abide by this follow principle. The group criticizes people we know who aren’t there. We gossip. We laugh at the expense of others. When I get home, I have to confess this to God and ask for his forgiveness. And, every single time I’m with this group, the same thing happens. The thing is, it will continue to happen until I decide to stand firm and then stand. When I do stand, perhaps others in this group will stand with me. We will feel solidarity in standing firm and we will be able to pull it off even as the pressure rises.
Putting on the full armor of God and then standing firm is not something that will just happen. So, I am training. Care to join me? There is some area of your life in which you follow along and get carried away by the masses around you. Try standing firm on the curb and lift your eyes. See what happens.