Chaplain Mel Baars
August 26, 2012
“It is Well”
Most nights, when I was a little girl, my mother would come into my room and help me say my prayers. If we were in the middle of college football season, prayer time was extended so that we could include extra prayers for the starting lineup of her alma mater. No first-string Alabama football player went unmentioned. To this day, some of their names still linger in my head. The other part of my childhood prayer life consisted of putting on my armor. I also did this daily. When I put my armor on, I was protected from all the bad guys, which, back then, were the shape shifting aliens I saw on a particularly frightening episode of Star Trek. Every night I would pray these same words, “Jesus you are my righteousness. Jesus you are my salvation. Jesus you are my peace. Jesus you are my truth. Jesus you are my faith. Jesus you are my living word.” We put on our armor a lot, whenever we were going on a road trip or if something important was about to happen. Once I remember praying these words while my mother had surgery. Saying them quieted my fears. Every once-in-a-while, my mother still mentions praying this prayer on my behalf.
In all the years I have used these words for my prayers, I never knew where exactly in the Bible they came from, at least until this week. Reading this passage again and again, I have been reminded of how much the prayer has meant to me throughout my life. I realize now, these “pieces of armor”-- truth and righteousness, the gospel of peace along with faith and the Holy Spirit-- are God’s gifts to us, empowering us to walk in love as Christ has called us. With these as our guide, we discover that we are never left alone, only with our own devices. I will admit that it has been years since I put my own “armor” on, at least using the words I prayed as a child. In my budding intellectualism, I figured that I had grown far beyond this militaristic metaphor which has been used, too often in our own church history, to justify our violence. But this week, as I remembered the power of this prayer and its gifts, I realized just what I have been missing by neglecting this part of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Though we are almost two thousand years into the future, the relevance of Paul’s message is undeniable. Just like those first Christians did, we also struggle. In the face of our world and its wily ways, it is not easy to live as Jesus taught us. We are buffeted from every side-- with temptations of consumerism, with misguided notions that we can control the rest of the world, with the lie that God is dead, and even if he wasn’t, we really have no need for him anyway.
The wiles of the devil are surely real. I would like to suggest, however, that they may not be what we first imagine, some kind of dark, lurking demonic presence which resembles the antagonist in a horror movie. These wiles are much stealthier than that. Sometimes they are our greed, that little voice that rationalizes that being generous is unwise, that we have earned all of this on our own accord and owe nothing to no one in return. Sometimes these wiles are our fears, our quick judgment and subsequent condemnation of someone because he doesn’t share our opinion or our understanding of faith, or even when we fail to embrace another because not getting hurt is more important to us than following Jesus’ command to love our neighbors, even when it’s hard.
We don’t have to look far to be reminded that darkness looms ever close. This darkness manifests itself in many ways, and not only in our hurtful treatment of one another, but also in our self-contempt, in our anxiety, in our guilt, in our inability to see ourselves as God sees us, as beloved children. God wants more for us than a half-life mired by the shadows of our failures. When we have confessed what we have done and what we have left undone, God responds to our sin and shortcomings with forgiveness and pardon, freeing us to live in peace.
And, this is what matters most. For as much as this passage warns us of the dangers of darkness, Paul’s message is that much more about the gifts that God gives us to weather these dark realities. The darkness may be strong, but God is still stronger. This is what we can’t lose sight of because this is the good news. Trials will come, that is sure. Look anyone in the eye, after the death of a child or when receiving news that it’s terminal, and see just how darkness may threaten. At one time or the other we will all know too well the searing pain of disappointment or cruelty. We will be knocked to knees by our grief. We won’t be able to see our hand in front of our face, but that is never the end of our story. That’s not where we have to stay. When it feels that we have no strength left, we may remember Paul’s words, not only of encouragement, but of incredible hope. Be strong in the Lord, putting on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the darkness. Because our strength comes from God, even when we are knocked down, we are able to stand back up again.
Last week Lieutenant Dixson, or Katie as we know her in our lunch bunch, told us that her favorite hymn is, “It is Well With my Soul.” And, since this is her last Sunday in Afghanistan, she wondered if we could sing it. Of course, I agreed, and not just because it is one of my favorite hymns, too. Part of what makes this hymn so powerful is the background upon which it was composed. It was written by a man, Horatio Spafford, who had lost almost everything, first his four year old son, then his business, and finally, all four of his daughters when their ship sank during passage over the Atlantic. Only his wife survived, and so he set sail to go and find her in the aftermath of this tragic event. As he passed over the place in the ocean where his daughters perished, he wrote these words. “When peace like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.” And then the second verse, which is perhaps most pertinent to our passage today, “Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blest assurance control, that Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and hath shed his own blood for my soul.”
Now, there is no doubt in my mind that Horatio was a devastated man. That he grieved, that he felt anger and sadness and everything between, is a certainty. But, I have to pause in wonder about a man who can be surrounded with such darkness, from sorrows like sea billows to Satan’s buffeting, and even still, as he passes by the watery grave of his children, articulate, so poignantly, this peace which passes all human understanding. I don’t know of anything on earth which could have given him this kind of peace. This is the kind of peace which only comes from God.
I found it fitting, on this last worship service for a few of our church family, that our text would remind us this truth, that God has given us all that we need to go out into the world in peace, prepared to witness good news wherever we may find ourselves. In many ways, we all had to have courage to get here in the first place. Then, through the blessings of friendship and love, a few of God’s means of strengthening us, we have weathered this deployment season. And now, as we face the transition back home, back to our “other” lives, we look to God’s strength again, and not just to make it safely home, that is the easy part if the Air Force is cooperative. But, as we face new challenges, new beginnings, new frontiers, places we have never been before, we are strengthened by God’s promises of goodness. Because we know this much is true, we can walk in love as Christ has taught us, even through the darkness.
A belt of truth, and a breastplate of righteousness. Shoes, which when you put them on your feet, make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. A shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, and a sword of the Spirit. These are what we take with us-- truth and righteousness, faith, peace and salvation, and always, the spirit-- wherever we go, so that we may be ready for whatever life unfolds around us. It may get dark. In fact, on some days it will. But when it does, may we remember these gifts. May we rest in God’s holy presence and in the knowledge of God’s steadfast grace. Amidst whatever comes, may we find ourselves still singing these words, “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.” Amen.