Angel Armor

June 23rd, 2013

Acts 5:19-21: But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, and brought them forth out of their chains, and said, “ Go stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching.

Notes from a pastor: This true story was my introduction to the scripture familiar to many found in Ephesians 6:10-20. I am glad for the memory and the opportunity to share this story with you:

Angel Armor

The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus that we should put on whatever shoes will make it possible for us to proclaim the gospel of peace. In the summers of my childhood that would have been bare naked feet, as our shoes came off the day school ended for the summer and only flip-flops were worn if we had to walk on the hot sidewalks to keep our feet from burning. (Except on Sundays, when our shoes pinched more each week as we grew bigger but we knew we weren’t about to get new shoes til fall.)

My grandparents back yard was full of soft dust and pecan trees and across the back fence was the Central Baptist Church and on its steeple were two angels, guardian angels, which we took personally as our own true guardian angels. They were gleaming white in the hot summer sun and they were as barefoot beneath their robes as we were so we felt blessed and connected and safe with our barefoot angels and all was right with the world.

Except for one thing. I liked the barefoot angels because I was a barefoot child and it gave me a sense of angelic righteousness that the angels and I both went bare foot and both were committed to preaching the gospel of peace. But I was not exactly sure that those angels were otherwise dressed right for their jobs. They did not seem to me to be wearing the whole armor of God. The first time I knew that there was such a thing as the whole armor of God and that we all could wear it I was about 6 years old. My grandparents’ home backed up against the old Central Baptist Church, the two properties separated by a four foot wooden fence and a row of tall dusty pecan trees. I liked to sit on the fence listening to their choir practice on hot summer Wednesday evenings, leaning down with my sideways can nailed to a broom handle and scooping up pecans from their side of the fence and pouring them into a sack on mine, which I would laboriously drag to the pile on the back porch at the end of the evening. The trees had been planted by my grandfather and “What ye have sown, the Baptists shall not reap”, he had said to me, handing me the scooper and the sack. My grandmother caught the two of us out there reaping our own pecans from the Baptist yard one day and sent me to the parsonage with the whole bag as a gift. My grandfather didn’t have to go because he dragged his foot and stuttered, the result of two severe strokes.

“Is this a bad thing we did?” I asked my Grama Wanda, grunting a little as I hauled the heavy full bag across the dusty yard with no help from her.

“It was unnecessary mischief,” she replied sternly. “The tree gives plenty of fruit to share and the Baptists are good neighbors. Your grandfather just enjoys stirring up trouble, especially when there is a child for a partner. He used to have your mother out here doing the same thing!”

“Did God smite him with thunder and lightening for stealing back our pecans?” I asked her, thinking of some fearsome Arizona summer afternoon thunderstorms I had experienced while visiting them. The children playing in the Baptist yard were always smiting each other with one thing or another and they seemed unharmed.

‘Goodness no, child!’ she exclaimed. But I saw a look of pure glee pass between my grandparents. He was laughing, his drooping face contorted as he snorted with mirth, and she was too, standing with her arms around him, his stooped 6 foot 3 body bent from his strokes but still a foot taller than her five feet and 3/4 inch frame. I didn’t know why they were laughing, but I liked to watch them when they held each other like that and laughed and laughed.

“Do I have to wear shoes?” I asked as I prepared to go around to the back door of the parsonage, which sat on the church grounds. “Put on your feet whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace!” my grama said. “That is from Ephesians, and it means use your best manners. Tell Mrs. Parker that your grandfather and you were picking pecans and thought she might like some to put by for her Christmas baking.”

My grandfather chuckled again and winked at me. I already knew Mrs. Parker baked pecan pies at Christmas and always brought one to my grandparents. It was one of my grandmother’s favorite treats.

Mrs. Parker eyes twinkled at me when I delivered the pecans. I could see that her rocking chair faced where we had been sitting on the fence. I wondered if she had seen the whole thing. She sent back a plate of lemon bars with me and my grandfather smacked his lips. I knew the lemons came from our trees at the side of the house because I had taken her a sack of them just three days before.

I heard another bit of the same scripture the next Sunday. I was sitting on the same fence and two boys were fighting on the Baptist side. Both boys had silver trash can lids held as shields and one boy had a large stick. He was striking the other boy’s shield with the stick in a loud clanging attack. “This is the sword of truth. I smoted you with the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word,” he shouted. “You’re supposed to fall down”.

“You fall down!” the other boy shouted back, as the blows continued. “I am wearing the breastplate of righteousness.” He leaned down and grabbed a handful of hard dry pecans from the ground and started pelting the other boy, who quickly raised his silver metal lid to avoid getting hit in the face with the nuts. “You can’t hurt me. I have the shield of faith.” Just then a man came round the building and saw the boys. He hurried over, yelling at them to stop. The boy throwing pecans didn’t stop in time and two of them hit the man in the face. He bellowed “Stop!” at them and they did. “How many times have I told you not to fight?” he demanded. The boys hung their heads. I shamelessly watched from the fence, making no move to go home.

The younger boy said, “We weren’t fighting, Dad, we were playing Ephesians.” The father took off his belt right there. “Well, then”, he said, “Maybe a few licks from the belt of truth will help you remember that the armor of God is invisible, and refers to prayer and faith and righteousness and peace.” And he made them lean over and he whipped their behinds three times each with his belt while they howled loudly. He didn’t swing the belt very hard but it must have stung. His face was hard and his lips pressed together in anger. My daddy only spanked with his hand and never when he was really mad. He went for a walk first so he wouldn’t accidentally hit too hard. I was shocked and a little bit scared. I got off the fence and ran to the house to find my grama.

My grandad laughed as I blurted out the whole story. “Damn B-b-b-ible!” he stuttered. “Clarence, you hush!” my grama said sternly. She and I walked into the living room, the coolest room in the house because it was the only room with a swamp cooler. It was at least 115 degrees outside. She got out her worn Bible and flipped to the page she wanted and sat down on the sofa. I perched on the arm next to her, the cool damp air from the cooler pouring out on my hot sweaty face. She read me the entire passage about putting on the whole armor of God. Then came the inevitable quiz. “Can you see the armor of God, Wanda Lyn?”

“No, ma’am.”

“What is your job when you are wearing the armor of God, Wanda Lyn?”

“To proclaim the gospel of peace, Grama.”

“Who are you struggling against when you preach peace in this world, child?” She handed me her Bible, her finger pointing to the right answer and I read it slowly, sounding it out carefully. “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,” I read.

“How do we prevail against evil in this world?” she asked me, again pointing with her finger to the right answer.

“Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and suffocation,” I read earnestly.

She smiled at me. “Supplication,” she said, “not ‘suffocation.’ It means to ask God for help when you need it. Help with your temper or your sadness or when you don’t know what to do— and it also means ask for help for others, too. So is this about fighting with sticks and garbage can lids and throwing stones or pecans at each other in the name of God?”

“No, ma’am,” I said.

“God’s word is the sword of the spirit and it is about how to live in peace. You have to learn how to read the Bible or you end up thinking it is about how to make war. Do you understand me, Wanda Lyn?” I nodded. “Good girl. Now come help me set the table for lunch.”

I shared the memory of the “War of the Ephesians” as I had come to think of it in my childhood, with my son David as we traveled to the city to send him off to Budapest for a year, lo these many years ago now. He laughed at me. “I studied Paul this last semester,” he said. ‘That particular letter was probably not written by Paul, but by one of his disciples after he died. Scholars think it dates to the last part of the first century. Only seven of the letters of Paul were really written by him.” He said it with the easy authority of the Jesuit-taught college student. “But it is great imagery, isn’t it? The Hellenistic moral philosophers used similar language and Paul modeled his behavior on the Greek hero-athletes. This letter shifts from Paul’s message that the end of the world is coming any day and we need to be ready, to a more cosmic and long-lasting struggle with evil in the world, because Paul thought Jesus was returning in his lifetime–they all did–but he didn’t. So they had to figure out why not and how to go on, even though they were hugely disappointed. Did you know, Mom, that this imagery was also found in the Dead Sea Scrolls?”

“Does you brain ache from knowing so much?” I asked, teasing him. He grinned. “It is good and true advice in any time or culture,” I said, sternly. “You need to wrap yourself in light and truth and goodness and peace and you need to pray for health and strength and understanding and wisdom. You are going to be a stranger in a strange land and you flunked high school Spanish. I have no hope at all for you in Hungarian!”

Goodness and mercy followed him all the way to Hungary. And he wore flip flops there, even in the snowy winter, and they must have been the right shoes for him to live the gospel of peace because he has since followed worn them over much of Europe and Asia and through a year and a half working in Japan. I guess his flip flops must have been the right shoes because he is a peaceful and compassionate young man, with friends all over the world.

It is a difficult concept, the whole armor of God. It doesn’t protect us from getting mugged or getting cancer or getting lost or getting hurt. It doesn’t save us from heartache or worry or betrayal or keep us from losing our jobs or our money. It doesn’t keep us physically well or safe. It isn’t even fun, like those two boys were having, bashing at each other as they Played Ephesians. So what does it mean? What is it for? Is it just pretty poetry? An ancient Greek model for excellence borrowed by the Christians to help them get along when being a community was a strain? Yes–all of that. But putting on the whole armor of God is something much more. It is believing that we transcend the physical. That what is most important about us and our lives is invisible to the eye and can only be seen with the heart. It accepts that we are sacred Spirits and that how we behave spiritually affects this physical world we dwell in. It challenges us to see ourselves as Light Warriors for Goodness in a world shadowed by evil and darkness. It calls us to stand up for peace and truth and faith and righteousness in all that we do and say. And more than that, it calls us to pray for the salvation of the world–the world community of God’s beloved creation, which is in mortal danger from our greed and misuse of power, our pride and our prejudice.

Being around someone who wears the whole armor of God changes us, brings joy and hope and peace. We can all see when people are wearing the whole armor of God because of how we feel when we are around them.

This passage ends poignantly, with a call to prayer for those who seek to share the mystery of the gospel. “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.”

An ambassador in chains for the gospel is what we all are. Maybe the chains are not literal, as they were for Paul, who was often in prison for his belief in the gospel. But we are all in chains, one way or another–you know we are. We are disappointed by life, our dreams get distorted or too faded to see, our children disappoint or frighten us, our financial security waivers. Scary health issues worry us half to death. We get tired and angry and our hearts grow cold.

So we put on the shield of faith, with which we will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of evil. Faith in the good news that this is not all there is to us, for we are children of God and our hearts belong to Faith and Hope and Love. Our souls are safe, for what happens here is transient and temporary but God is with us always, even to the end of time.

My mother, when she discovered she had inoperable cancer all through her, told me she would like to put on the whole armor of God so that she can be Light and Laughter to those around her in the time she has left she finds the imagery off-putting because it is so military. If you, too, are tired of the imagery of shields and swords and helmets and breastplates, the signs of war, keep the message but imagine it differently. Think of it as a burst of light that both shines from you and shields you from harm. Change the image and we can change the world.

P.S. Those boys climbed up to the steeple of their church and painted bright red tennis shoes on the barefoot angels. I think it was weeks before their father found out and then it wasn’t because he noticed but because a reporter took a picture and it appeared in the paper. But that is another story for another day…except to say that if you are lucky enough to have guardian angels on your rooftop, you might look up once in a while…) May you have a joyful and blessed week!

The Reverend Wanda Windsor is a United Methodist Pastor serving two churches over the past nearly 15 years. She has also a Masters in Counseling, has taught at several California colleges, and has been a social worker, a licensed midwife, a disabilities specialist and program manager for a federal model head injury program, and is a mother, grandmother and parent to dozens of foster children, most with special needs. She welcomes your conversation on this site, which is one way to share the spirit of the angel wings stirring all of us in all kinds of ways.

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