Superheroes and our Condition

So, I am not necessarily the most qualified person to speak on this topic.  I’m just a small-city parish priest in the wilds of Saskatchewan.  My older brother, Michael, used to write for Marvel Comics.  He’s qualified to talk about superheroes.  My younger brother, Matthew, is working on his Doctorate in Patristic Theology in Edinburgh.  He’s qualified to talk about the human condition theologically.  I just do the best I can with what I’ve got.  Today, this is what I’ve got – or, what I had.  There have probably been others who have said the same thing more eloquently, with more understanding, and so on.

So I was having coffee with my friend Keith, and we were talking about how our old friends don’t come ‘round no more, and it seems like we’re stumbling off into obscurity (that’s a reference to one of his songs – which you should become familiar with, if you’re not already).  Our conversation turned to superheroes.

Do you know what appeals to me about Wolverine?  He gets hurt.  And he heals.  I get that.  I’m someone who gets hurt.  For instance, I recently buried a close friend.  I’ve buried a lot of friends, over the years.  It’s hard to say goodbye.  It hurts.  But I heal.  I don’t have some kind of mutant healing factor, but God made me a certain way.  I can heal, and I do.  I think most people do, from most things.  But there are some wounds that… leave marks, scars.  Wolverine’s body is riddled with the evidence that he’s been wounded.  The evidence that he’s human.  That he’s lived.  I can relate to that.

I would write about Spiderman, too, but I don’t have the heart for it.  Of course, there are others I could visit, rather than just two of the famous ones.  I know many superheroes – my brother used to write for Marvel Comics.  But here’s just one.  And just a little about what I get about him.

Christ: the Gate; the Shepherd

So we had this great Gospel reading on Sunday, which ended just short of Jesus making one of His great “I am” sayings (in the Gospel according to John).  He alluded to it, almost saying He is the Good Shepherd, but the lectionary stopped us short of where He actually said it.  The “I am” that we did get was… less well-known?  Jesus said, “I am the gate.”

Now, if you read through John 10:1-10, you’re going to see Jesus putting forward two images of Himself.  One is just this: He is the gate.  The other is that of shepherd.  It strikes me, in wrestling with this passage, that as Christians we tend to go one way or the other, but that we need to take Him as both.

If we emphasize that Jesus is the gate, then He becomes the way “in.”  The point of Jesus (His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Holy Spirit) is to get us “in.”  Like some kind of fake ID that a high school kid takes with them when they head to the bar on the weekend.

On the other side of the equation, if we emphasize that Jesus is the shepherd, then He becomes a great moral teacher.  We don’t need to commit ourselves to Him, just to the way that He promotes.  The point of Jesus is to show us the right way to be.  So long as we ignore a bunch of what He says about His identity, He’s a great teacher – a shepherd who leads us in the everlasting way.

But if Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate; if Jesus is both the author and finisher of my faith, the One who saves me and the One whose way I walk in; if Jesus is my Saviour and my Lord: then I must commit to Him and His way; my ID cannot remain fake because my life will, more and more, look like His; I cannot ignore what He says about His identity, because it is in His very identity that my own is revealed.

Preliminary Thoughts on the Second

The following are some thoughts on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 and 16-23. It’s the RCL epistle lesson for this coming Sunday. I hesitate to say that these thoughts are fully formed in me just yet, but there’s some serious fuel, here. The basic idea is that Paul is writing about the doctrine of Christ, or Christology, of the Church. On Him alone can the Church be built. Paul is concerned that the content of his preaching remain intact, for it is the truth that the Church is about – indeed, without it the Church cannot claim to be the Church. The teaching of proper doctrine, or theological reflection, leads people to encounter the risen Christ, who is the foundation stone for the Church. By accepting the true teaching, people are put in position to meet Him. The foundational doctrine, preached accurately, illustrates the true Foundation (Christ) so that people can find Him (and then know that He has found them). You may read this and, if you’ve read the passage also, say that I’m reading extra things into it, for the sake of my own theological understandings. Nothing new.

I found my mind drawn to Hermas, Vision III. You can read my summary, below, or the text itself, here (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.ii.ii.iii.html). Or both. I’m not your boss.

The caricatures that we gain from Vision III, in Hermas, are interesting. If they can be summarized appropriately, or shortly, they may do much to open people’s eyes. The vision is of six men building a tower, shown to the Shepherd by an old woman. There are various others who bring stones to the six who are building the tower. The explanation is given as follows:

The tower is the Church;
the Church is built on water because we are saved through water;
the Church is founded upon God’s word;
the Church is built by angels;
the stones in the building are square and white and fit with each other exactly – they are in agreement with one another and are at peace together and listen to one another;
the stones dragged from the depths and fitted with the others are those who suffered for the Lord’s sake;
the stones carried in from the land are those whom God has approved because they walked in His straight ways and kept His commandments;
those stones in the act of being brought and placed in the building are those who are young in faith and are faithful, in whom no iniquity has been found;
those stones that were rejected and cast away are those who have sinned and wish to repent, who have not been cast far from the tower for they will be useful in the building if they repent;
those stones cut down and thrown far from the tower are the sons of iniquity who believed in hypocrisy and from whom wickedness did not depart – they are not saved and cannot be used in building, and are therefore cut off and cast far away;
rough stones, in great numbers, not used in the tower are those who know the truth but have not remained in it – they are unfit for use;
those stones that have rents, in great numbers, are at discord in their hearts one with another, and are not at peace amongst themselves – they keep the appearance of peace, but under the facade they hold their wicked thoughts;
those stones which are shortened are those who have believed and are mostly righteous, yet still have a considerable share of iniquity, and so are not whole;
those stones which are white and round and do not fit into the building of the tower are those who have faith, but also the riches of the world – who deny the Lord on account of their riches and business – when their seductive riches have been circumscribed they will be of use to the Lord, for round stones cannot become square until portions are cut off and cast away;
the stones which were cast from the tower and rolled into the field are those who believed but abandoned the true road through doubts, and sought out a new road, entering on pathless places (for there is no other road);
those which fell into the fire and were burned are those who have departed forever from the living God: they do not consider repentance, they are devoted to their lusts and crimes;
those stones which fell near the waters but could not be rolled into them are those who are drawn to the Lord but draw back to their own wicked desires when confronted with the chastity that will be demanded of them in baptism.

Now, there’s a little more involved which I have conveniently not included in the above summary. It includes the possibility for all of the stones to repent, however unlikely that might be for them. It’s not that I have a problem with grace, that I haven’t included that part in my summary. Rather, it’s that I’m only interested in the content of the actual vision itself – not in what might happen to those elements of the vision that left sight. The vision is about the kind of stones that God’s Church is built with. Perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). You may not like the idea, but for people in the middle ages Hermas was like Pilgrim’s Progress. It inspired them to devotion to God by challenging them with false alternatives. Esteem it as you will.

Preliminary Thoughts on the First Lesson

The following are some opening thoughts on the first lesson for next Sunday, Sexagesima (by the old Church calendar), the seventh after Epiphany by the RCL.  The passage is Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18.

Being a parent of small children is an exciting stage of life. Adriana is becoming a very skilled reader and writer. It’s interesting to come across letter pages – you know the ones, where the example of the letter is given at the top of the page and the rest of the tablet is for the child to practise on. She’s not bad now, but her letters used to be okay near the example on the page, and then get progressively less like it as the page radiated out from that point. You know what that shows, right? Rather than copying the example on the page, she was copying her own copies of the example. It’s a problematic situation. It’s the same phenomenon that we see with that telephone game, which you may have played.

It can be a similar problem for Christians, if we’re watching each other too much, rather than Jesus Himself. We borrow each other’s habits; we try to make our obedience and devotion look like the obedience and devotion of someone else; we miss the mark. In part, this has to do with how we think about obedience.

Obedience to God requires that we act in accordance with God’s will, it’s true – but more than that, it invites us to seek, in our inmost self, to put on His mind. The whole passage is introduced to us in the terms of that divine call to be holy, as God is holy. Holiness is about being set apart: for the Israelites the motivation for obedience to God’s commands was found in a desire to be set apart the way He is set apart, which includes His righteousness, and which desire proceeded for them from personal gratitude for their deliverance from Egypt. This is part of the reason that the instruction is given to not profane God’s Name – profaning means to treat it as common – when you make God common in your imagination, you lose your vision, and set the bar low for what you aspire to. For us, as Christians, the motivation should be very similar: a desire that proceeds from personal gratitude for redemption in Christ, and that leads to Godliness.

And let’s be clear about what grade of set-apartness we’re talking about. It’s true that all of the concrete examples put forward in the passage are only illustrations of what this being-holy-as-God-is-holy means in those specific situations, and they are by no means intended to be comprehensive. But they are indicative of what being God’s people, the people who show what He is like, is about: justice; care for the poor, the widow, the orphan; not exploiting the weaknesses of others. These things weren’t unique to Israel in the ancient world – but that they would extend these benefits to aliens and foreigners among them, well, that’s something that nobody else did. You have to look forward to v. 34 for it, but there it is. And Jesus did it, when He said that your neighbour wasn’t just the other guy who’s just like you.

Loving your neighbour as yourself operates as the corrective to all of the self-centred tendencies of life. It is the fulfilment of morality, and God is certainly moral. It is a part of being set apart as He is, holy as He is, to be moral. It is not the totality of the enterprise, however. Again, the Christian’s motivation proceeds from gratitude: gratitude for redemption in Christ; gratitude that fuels desire and drive to be holy as God is holy. Love of God with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength – total transformation of our passions – this is our goal.

So hear concrete examples of the passage, which are not addressed to a few ascetics – those few nuts who are fanatical about their faith – as opposed to those of us who know better, and take all things with moderation except for that maxim itself. Moses was to give these instructions to all of the Israelites, so the things they contain were not just for a select group, but all of God’s people. There are people who are unable to provide for themselves: let them be provided for from your excess; deal honestly in all things private, personal, and professional; take care of those with otherwise exploitable qualities, rather than exploiting them; don’t play favourites, but be just. All of these things proceed from a heart of love. Maybe the idea of duty and obedience doesn’t capture your imagination; then love people, but know that love is what God says it is, not what you’ve learned it to be through the distortions of the world’s passions.

The holiness that God calls us to is not some kind of religious piety that never touches our lives the rest of the week – God is concerned with the whole of our lives, not just religious ritual. Consider the injunction not to speak against the deaf. If we take it as a rule against the unfairness of speaking against someone who cannot defend themselves, since they cannot hear what’s being said, then we are faced with the reality of gossip, and backbiting, and rumour spreading (even when it’s masked as sharing prayer requests, if we haven’t been licensed to pass on the request then it’s rumour), and slandering names. All of these things are usually done when the person referred to isn’t around. When they’re deaf. When they can’t defend themselves.

Consider the injunction not to put a stumbling block before the blind. If we take it as a rule against causing others to fall because of dangerous circumstance that they cannot see, then we are faced with the reality of witness, of example, of liberty in Christ, of responsibility to His Church; even of removing stumbling blocks from peoples’ ways, as so many have been blinded to the dangers of the ways they’ve chosen to walk through familiarity, through distorted morality, through societal and familial dysfunction. How can we, as God’s people, work to draw people out of the lives they’ve made for themselves simply because of blindness.

As we heard Christ’s voice calling us to avoid even the branches in the path that lead to the dark way, not just to avoid murder, but to avoid name-calling and spite; not just to avoid adultery, but to avoid lustful thoughts; not just to avoid breaking oaths, but to avoid making oaths, and to simply be honest in all we say. As we heard Christ’s voice calling us to a deeper kind of holiness than we generally tend to (one common saying when I was in university was that what happens in the privacy of your mind is nobody’s business but your own – clearly not the way God sees things), now we see that God calls us to lives of love, love that plays itself out in all situations of our lives, not just when we’re feeling particularly ‘religious,’ or ‘spiritual,’ or ‘loving.’ May we heed His call, and respond with the gratitude that leads us to heartfelt desire for His holiness in our lives. Amen.

A Final, in the fourth ?

Well, this is the fourth and final part of the little delving into fiction that I was inspired to the other day.  I hope it makes for some interesting reading; or though-provoking in some way; or something.  At any rate, here it is.  Special thanks to my friend Kim Salo who read through and helped me with some detailing.  He’s a good guy.

Four

Someone has said that we must look out for ourselves first, because if we won’t do it, then nobody will.  I know that someone will.  Someone else has said that our enemy, in this war, will succeed if we stop resisting.  I know otherwise.  This enemy has already been defeated; this war has already been won; this foe has already been routed.  To stop resisting would make one a casualty of the enemy’s retreat; to press on resisting, in the prince’s armour, will make me a victor.  Some people, of noble heart, will lay their lives down for friend or family, though there seem to be few of these left.  I will offer mine in the service of the prince who has already offered his for me.  I will not look out for myself; he will.  I will look out for those he has given to serve under me, however.

The gibbering shouts of our enemies reached my ears, and I drew the sword that now hung by my side, from the belt that had formed around my waist in my vision.  I was equipped for this war as I never had been, in the gear of the prince himself, and I was ready for whatever the enemy threw at me.  As I ran toward the source of the sound, a pair of boots with deep, aggressive cleats formed on my feet, and when I broke into the clearing where my brave soldiers held their ground against a force thrice their size, I could see relief in their eyes – and desperation.

My initial onslaught was calculated to inspire fear in the enemy, to push them back and give ground to my soldiers.  It took them by surprise – both by the quarter it proceeded from and by it’s ferocity.  Some swung their weapons at me; swords, spears, maces; some actually made contact with me before they retreated beyond arm’s reach.  I felt no impact.  The various implements that touched me shattered.  I made my way across the front line of my soldiers from one end of the field of battle to the other.

There were two results from this: first, the prince’s forces got physical relief from battle, of the same kind that they’d received emotionally when I had arrived; second, the enemy (who had initiated the battle – an aggressive assault against a small contingent), the enemy trembled.  They trembled and ceased their advance.  When I turned and faced the field, back the way I had come, I saw many of them slain.  At the time I thought it was strange – I hadn’t swung my sword against them.  I made my way back to the centre of the line, and called the troops to take their places behind me.  They rallied themselves quickly, and fell in.

It is a peculiar capacity that we have, and which our enemy lacks, to gain such resources from another – such heart, such confidence, such nobility, such fortitude.  Perhaps our prince’s fighting on our behalf would be of no benefit to us if we had no such capacity.  The flip side of this is that we also have the capacity to drain one another, and to despair.  It is this side that our enemy would profit by, if possible.  But this was the time for us to shine.

What had been a scramble for our side to lose the least ground possible, and to take the most time they could in doing it, having been caught unawares, became an advance against the enemy line.  I could hear my lieutenants calling orders.  We had no strategy for such circumstances.  Our tactics, our marching orders, had always been to hold and call for help when outnumbered, never to advance.  Now, outnumbered by a ratio I had never before experienced, we advanced.  We gained ground.

I wondered if they mistook me for the prince himself.  I was sure I must have looked like him, to them, decked out in his armour.  They fled before me, and this fuelled my interpretation.  They fled before all of us.  At some point though, I was sure they’d realized that I wasn’t actually him.  They must have, for they regrouped and faced us – the hillside below them, where we continued our advance, was filled with their slain.  Had they thought I was him, at this point, I doubt they would have been foolish enough to stand against us in such circumstance.  None can stand against him.

A champion broke through their ranks, through their hordes, and the sound of war horns filling the air spoke of reinforcements arriving from their rear, to bolster their already-superior numbers.  Their champion, clearly someone of some import among them, roared at me, “When you fall, the rest will scatter.”

I opened my mouth to answer him, but didn’t feel the words coming from my throat… yet they were my words, weren’t they?  “These do not fight for me, and they stand against you if I am with them or not.  I lead them against you now, but I am not their leader.  The one I follow is.  This is not my army.  I will not fall this day.”

Was it disgust or terror in his face?  I could not tell.  He pointed at me and snarled, “That one.”  At those words, they launched a counter-assault to our counter-assault.  Our whole force would be surrounded by their incredible numbers if we weren’t careful.

“Remember who you fight for.  Know who fights for you.”  The words I opened my mouth to call, though they sounded on my ears without being uttered by my mouth.

As I watched the enemy before me, it became clear that their main force was directed at me.  I dug in my heels and called to their champion, “I stand here.”  Where did that voice come from?

With shouts and screams their hordes came on, running and leaping – eager to engage in combat with us.  His voice roared above them all, “You will be cut down there, then.”

At first we held together.  The first wave of attackers broke against us like water on the seashore.  We were unmoved.  But over time, as wave upon wave struck, fatigue set in.  We had pursued them, slaughtering, for some distance, and many of these enemies were fresh reinforcements.  In places our line began to buckle.  My feet hadn’t moved.  Their strategy was shown to me.  They cared little for defeating my allies.  They thought that they could break their spirits by defeating me.  I knew better.

At times I was able to glance around the field and see how my friends fared.  Their trust in our leader was displayed in this: many of them now wore small shields on their arms.  They would be alright.  As I continued to hold against those enemies who came against me, I wondered how many of my friends would be visited by our prince that evening, and offered a suit of armour.  I wondered how many would take it from him.  I wondered how many of them would let him remove their personal armour.

A voice thundered above the clashing of weaponry, “You’re undone – you stand alone, and we are legion!”  Their champion appeared out of the throng, a head taller than any other, and ploughed his body against my shield.

As the blow came to me with full force, I made my reply – or I meant to.  It was my voice, and my words, but somehow… “The one with me is greater than all you can muster.  You err in this – I am never alone!”  Though, I did note that they had managed to separate the entire entourage from me, driving them away in different directions across the hillside.

It is not unreasonable to expect that when one body hits another, as his hit mine, then the second will stagger back.  I think that, for the would-be champion’s size, that was the least he expected.  More likely, he thought he would knock me to the ground.  But these boots weren’t made to go backwards.  It wasn’t in their design.  There was the noise of a loud impact, and the wind was visibly knocked out of him because of it, and my posture and position remained unchanged.  Under the sound of that impact, had I heard another war horn – this time, of our reinforcements arriving on the field of battle?

“I will not falter.  I will not back down.  I will not be shaken.”  I thought those words, but I heard them audibly spoken.  It was my voice, though there was no breath in my mouth.  We two pushed against one another, a gridlock of might; of prowess; of will.  “I will stand.  I will not fall.”  Others attacked me, thinking that I was distracted and that their chance had come.  Blades shattered; handles splintered; nothing phased me – all they threw against me came to naught.  “I am not a destroyer, but a conqueror – nay, more than a conqueror, because of the prince’s gift to me.”  Many enemies piled behind their “champion,” and aided him in the struggle against me.  “I do not fear you.  I have let go of that way of thinking.”  I heard the sound of marching in the tops of the few trees where we were.  “I can do this, not in my might and effort; but his.”  More of the enemies circled around me – I thought they meant to attack me from behind, but those attacks never came.  What became of them was not obvious until later.

The pushing match came to an end.  They fell back.  The standstill finished, I advanced.  Pushing many before me, I heard screams from behind and from further ahead – the cavalry had joined the battle on multiple fronts.  Finally, I heard my first lieutenant call to me, “Sir, we stand with you, the…”

I stopped him short when I finished his sentence for him, “…the prince himself is here.”  I turned around, and found the prince standing behind me.  It was he who had spoken my words, in battle.  It was he who had slain the foes that I could only irritate.  It was he who had guarded my back in the thick of it.

He smiled, and said to me, “There is no backplate.  But when you wear my armour, I am, to you, all the rear-defense you need.”

The remaining enemies turned and fled as best they could.  It occurred to me that this was how we were always to have faced the enemy.  Why hadn’t we done so before?  Would we remember, and do so again?

A day late for the third…

Here’s the third part of the little story I’ve been posting in sections… I should have posted it yesterday, but with the turmoil of coming home from retreat I just didn’t get to it.

Three

I dreamed as I slept.  I’m sure it was a dream.  The colours were too vivid, and the scenery too bright and full of life for it to be the waking world.  On the battlefield everything is grey.  Grey, and brown.  And sometimes red.

“Walk with me.”  The familiar voice from behind was the prince, standing in a field of wheat.  I joined him, and we walked by one another in silence, for a time.  Finally he broke the silence, “So you know?”

My unconscious mind had pieced together what my waking mind had not been able to. “It’s not about what’s being taken off; it’s not about what’s being put on, is it?  It’s all about who is doing it.”  As I said this, probably the truest statement I’d ever made, I noticed a strange sensation around my waist, a constriction; a belt.

“Yes.  I can remove your armour.  Not because it can be removed, but because I am able.  Before I do so, do you understand the pain it will bring you, to have it done?”

We strolled on together, as I pondered this, and I plucked some heads of wheat as we did so, and ate them, “I suppose it’s because of what the armour is to me.  It’s the product of all of my deeds, of all of my hopes and dreams.  I shouldn’t like to lose all of it…”

“You cannot don my armour unless you let it all go.”

“I see.”  We walked on in silence.  “I think that the benefit would outweigh the cost.”

“My friend, what you think is already known to me, and it’s truth is known to me also.  It does.  But losing your armour will be more painful than you expect.”

“How so?”  I remember asking, in the vision, and receiving no verbal response.  Instead I saw all of my hopes and dreams and habits and memories and defensive and aggressive behaviours – and their opposites – all of my behaviours, flash before my eyes in an instant.

“You must let it go.”  I staggered from the flash in my mind, I think, rather than from the prospect of the realization of the prince’s words, but he caught my hand and loaned me strength to keep me from falling.

I pondered my hopes.  I wanted a family.  I really did; I dreamed of training my own children the way that my father had prepared me.  I wanted to advance my career, perhaps even rising to colonel one day; I dreamed of famous and exciting exploits in this war.  I wanted to know that there was a purpose behind all of the things I did, and that it was large enough to actually support them all.  I wanted to really be valued by others, and to be able to open up to someone enough that I could truly value them, also.  I wanted my name to be remembered.

“You mean that I won’t have any of that, if I put on your armour?  But these things I aspire for, and aspire to, those are the things that make me who I am.  What would I be, then?”  Suddenly taking up his offer had soured in my mind.

“I will give you more than you’d ever hoped.  But trust me.  Wear my armour, rather than your own.”

“But I desire a family.”

“I will give you one.”

“Advancement…”

“Beyond your wildest dreams.”

“Meaning, value, longevity…”

“All this and more.”

“But my armour is my security, my own promise to myself that these things will not be lost…”

He smiled, then, at my naiveté.  “Your armour is but a tribute to all of your fears and insecurities.  To all of the methods you’ve devised to move yourself toward promises you have no power to fulfill.  None of these things you aspire to is within your reach – not because of your efforts, at any rate.  But wear my armour: I will be your security; I will be your guarantee that none of those dreams will be lost.”

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow, sire.  I goes against my way of thinking.  You expect me to change a lifetime of worldview based only on your word?  You are my prince, and I owe you my loyalty and respect, but how can I?”  I couldn’t even look him in the face, at this point – so ashamed of my pride and resistance to him.

“All of that will change.  Your body forms your armour naturally, based on your way of living and thinking.  Mine will form your way of living and thinking, when it is on you.  You know that your armour used to be one with your skin…”

“Yes, when I was young.  When I was old enough and enlisted under you it detached.  That made a big difference.”  I could feel him smiling on me.

“But your age had nothing to do with it.  Your enlistment was the cause of its detachment, solely.  It detached from you so that my armour could be put in its place.”

I believed him.  I trusted him.

I had been standing with my eyes down.  As I focused on his feet, I saw scars atop his sandaled appendages.  When I was about to inquire about these wounds, a strange sensation on my arm drew my attention there.  A small buckler was fastened to me.

“Captain, you’ve fought for me in your own strength for long enough.  Rest yourself.  Fight in my strength, now; wear my armour, rather than your own.”

“But how can I take it off?  I don’t want it on, and if it remains then I may change my mind –but in this one moment, against all of my previous way of thinking, I would gladly be rid of it, for the sake of your promises to me, spoken just now.  But, and this is a question of method, how do I get it off?”

“You cannot, as we said earlier.  Not because of the armour, but because of the hands that would do it.  Know that this will not be pleasant in the moment, but will be in the remembrance.  While it is the testament to all you have been, and had planned for your future, my armour on you will be the guarantee of my promises for your future.”  He reached out his hands to me; I saw the buckler on my arm grow to the size of a swordsman’s shield, and I noticed scars in his hands that matched those I’d seen in his feet; I thought of all of my character forming habits, and I checked the prince once and withdrew from his outstretched arms; I considered my dreams and the prospect of never having them fulfilled, as I feared they wouldn’t be, and I submitted to him again; my armour turned to dust in his hands, and the tighter he held it the more it began to flake off of me; it was disintegrating before my eyes, all that I’d spent a lifetime fashioning, and he pushed against it harder and harder, and it crumbled to the ground at my feet;  I was terrified, and he was concentrating so hard that beads of blood formed on his brow, and I felt cold; all of the images that had flashed through my mind earlier returned to me again – all of those images of the life I’d made and lived and planned, so familiar, so comfortable, and I panicked; I wanted to put my armour back on, and the prince’s breath sounded in my ears, “Sshhh…,” and I let go; I was exposed, and I was tender, and I was vulnerable, and I fell to the ground in shock, and he stood above me.

In my dream I saw him standing over me, smiling.  And I realized I was already wearing his armour, and a flash in my mind told me that this was why my own armour had detached from my skin when I enlisted – it had been there all along, but my own armour had masked it and its influence.  I saw a wound in his side that I had never noticed before.  I could have wept, that my prince had suffered such wounds – what a witness to how we, his army, had failed to protect him!  I wondered where they had come from.  He did not hesitate in his mission, but stood me up and looked me in the face.  His words rang long and loud in my ears, “You are only able to fight for me now because I have already fought for you.”  He pulled tight the belt that had appeared on me earlier.

There was a new flash in my mind.  Not the honour of being ranked colonel, but the privilege of being a prince; not the glory of battle, but the benefit of victory.  There was a burning sensation in my temple – a helmet formed around my head.

Suddenly I awoke in my tent.  I looked to the corner where I had left the prince’s armour, but it was not there.  It was on me, as in the dream.  the prince’s words echoed in my mind as I stepped from my tent with new resolve.

A Second Time Round

Now, I’ve finished this work.  There were four parts, tonight I’ll just share the second.  I’ve got a little bit of reworking to do, and it will involve a slight but significant change to the first section.  But I’ll leave it as it is, here.

Two

As I walked back to my camp, I turned things over in my head.  My armour wasn’t designed to be removed.  This I knew well – my parents had taught me, long before, that what was in our nature, what we were when we acted with personal integrity, was what formed our armour, as it hardened around us, released from inside by our pores.  Not designed to be removed.  How, then, was the prince’s taken off so easily?  It must have been designed that way.

This only raised further questions in my mind.  If our nature formed our armour, how could his be designed to be taken off?  The wildly foreign and inconceivable notion that perhaps his nature, what came to him naturally, was to give himself away – it passed through my mind sharply, but quickly.  I dismissed it, because I could not imagine what that would look like.  And yet I held his armour in my hand.  It was so light, not heavy… not cumbersome like my own.  And yet it was strong!  The armour of royals was reputed to be indestructible; it certainly was not flimsy, but how could something of such light weight be impervious to piercing?

I arrived at my own tent and set the prince’s armour in the corner, continuing to mull over the question in my mind as I went to join the others around the fire.  How could I get my armour off so that I could get his on, and do justice to this extravagant gift, through using it?

The soldiers grew quiet as I approached the fire.  When I sat down they could see that my mind was busy – they would have had to be daft to miss it.  They knew I’d been to the field marshal’s, and I could see it in their eyes that they were curious about that meeting.  My thoughts were occupied elsewhere, though.

One of my sergeants asked what Michael had summoned me for.  I heard his voice; could make out the words; could not comprehend their meaning.  Did he say that it would be painful to remove?  Painful… in what way?  I knew that it was fashioned by my body, like a shell, but it was not attached to my skin – hadn’t been since I was a teenager; it was not part of me.  I didn’t have a psychic connection with it, and didn’t feel pain when it took a blow.  What would be the point of armour, otherwise?

I could see my officers conversing, with worried expressions on their faces as they glanced at me, but I didn’t hear what they said – it just didn’t register.  I opened my mouth to speak, and they all fell silent.  They likely expected me to answer their inquiries about the meeting.  It was in my mind that perhaps the armour had to be cut off, or maybe torn off, but who could perform such feats?  What I did say was clearly not what they’d expected.  “How do you take your armour off?”

For a moment they all looked at one another, and then the questions and comments started:

“Why would anyone want to?”

“You don’t!”

“Are you planning to leave the army?”

“Say again…?”

“I’m not going anywhere.  I just… need to get it off…”

“What happened?  What did the field marshal say?  New orders from the top?  Some new mission for us?”  She was one of my most trusted lieutenants, and I felt that she deserved an answer from me.

“I didn’t really speak with him.  The prince was there, and…”  Suddenly all of their faces grew very intent, “…well, I’d met him before.  He recruited me into this army…”  Surprised but understanding looks showed that we had all shared that personal contact with him at enlistment.  I went on, “…and, I just need to get my armour off.”

“Well,” another of my lieutenants, this one a recent transfer from another division, “I’ve known of people that have tried.  It never turns out well for them.  One chap I knew, a great fighter until then, became obsessed with getting his off.  Drove him mad.  His armour turned tacky, instead of hard… what use is tacky armour?  He dropped out.  Let me respectfully submit, sir, don’t pursue this line of inquiry.  Nothing good can come of it.”

“Take this, too, then, if you’re looking for advice:” one of my older sergeants, with whom I had served since the beginning, raised his voice, “I wouldn’t be surprised if that one, whose story we’ve just heard, wasn’t kicked out of the army (rather than dropping out).  We can’t just have people running around unprotected – this is a was zone!  His treasonous behaviour probably had him removed, before he corrupted other people’s minds.  Take it from someone who’s been around, and knows how this operation works.”

I nodded, and felt inwardly that both had offered some good advice.  Maybe I should just forget it.

Another Lieutenant offered her advice.  Her voice sounded clearly in the crisp night air, “We’re made for battle, or we wouldn’t grow this armour naturally.  Your armour is suited to you in a way that nothing else ever could be.  Taking it off, even if it were possible, would be denying the natural order.  What would put an idea like that in your head?”

It seemed that if the conversation was to progress, I would have to tell them what had happened.  So I did.

“You mean he just stood there and watched you make a fool of yourself, dancing and stumbling around like a nut, trying to reach something that wasn’t even there?”  Good-natured ribbing had always been allowed among us.

“You mean he offered to help, and you refused?”  A serious and sobering question that put an end to the joviality… briefly.

“So you took it from him and left?  What were you thinking?”  They all laughed at my expense.

When things calmed down again, I was asked, “What were the clues, again?”  Good question…

“Well, it’s not designed to be taken off, but somehow it can be removed, but somehow that process will hurt.  I don’t know – his came off of him so easily, and he just offered it to me.  I was thinking, what it we could cut it?”

“You know as well as we do that whenever armour gets pierced the blade cuts the skin beneath, too!  We’ve lost friends that way.”

“But is there somewhere we could slash it clean across – from top to bottom, and clean through, without fatally injuring me?”  I was doubtful about the prospects, and not at all excited about the idea of any of them striking something so close to my skin hard enough to sever it through, with a sword.

“You’d have to do it on the front and the back, both – armour doesn’t have any give in it to open a single slash enough to get you out through it.  We’d have to cut both sides, and pull it off either way.  I don’t think you should try.”

I didn’t either.

Another spoke up, “Why not just be honest – the prince gave you his armour to drive you mad.  There’s no solution to the question.  Just give up!”

With all of these things cluttering my mind, I returned to my tent and lay on my cot.  Sleep never comes easily when the mind is occupied.  It certainly would not come easily this night.  I tossed and turned over all of the facts.  It was hard to argue with experience, even when it was had by another and comes to you third-hand, and I knew that lunacy was a possibility for me, if I didn’t solve the riddle.  A flash of insight that made everything seem clear and obvious broke upon me – yet as quickly as it had come, it was gone, and what it was had escaped with it.  I had no memory of it, just that it had been.  Hope!  There was a solution!  Where had I been when the epiphany had broken upon me?  “This will drive me crazy if I don’t solve it!”  I was already starting to.  I knew so.

What was the final clue?  Perhaps the answer was in it somewhere… no, it couldn’t be.  The final clue was that after I’d figured out the solution, I’d return to him.  Why would I go back to him, he’d already given me his armour… maybe it would fit on overtop of my own?  No, that couldn’t be it.  None of us could get our armour off, but the prince could take his off, as designed.  Plus, he’d offered to take mine off of me.  Why had I refused?  How could I be so blatantly overt in my prideful will while in his presence?  Maybe it wasn’t about what armour we were wearing, but… I drifted off to sleep, on the edge of the precipice.

A First

Chapter?  I don’t know.  Yesterday I said that I had something more to write, but that it wasn’t ready yet.  Well, it seems to split into sections somewhat well, and I’m not done yet – but I’m currently writing the third section of it.  This is the first.  I don’t want to call it a chapter, because I’m not a writer.  But I did write this… down.  It sort of builds on two passages in Scripture.  The first is Ephesians 4:22-24; the second is Ephesians 6:10-20.  You’re welcome to read them both first, or just to read what I’ve got written, below.

One

As is well-known in this land, we all form and forge our own armour.  We raise our defences as barriers; we eliminate, as much as is possible, any opportunity for an unguarded moment to arise.  We show ourselves to be invulnherable, to others, and sometimes we believe the lie ourselves.

I was one of those.  I was on the frontlines in the war, and my confidence had earned me prominence and dominance in some of the earliest skirmishes I’d seen.  Even before I’d been given rank there were a number of my peers who looked to me as a leader.  I had caught the eye of a general – not the field marshal, mind you, but a general – and had risen through the non-commissioned ranks quickly.  Lieutenant even faster.

My career as a captain had been full of hits and misses.  Experimenting with leading my soldiers from both the front and the back, I had found that they were far less effective, far less brave, and far less confident unless I was out front.  But being out front is more dangerous, one runs the risk of getting hurt.  And we like to appear invulnerable.

To be in front I had found that I required a deep trust in the soldiers following me.  A traitor would find an attack from behind me far more effective than an attack from the front.  I learned about traitors through experience.  I bear the scars to prove it.  Then there were the battles against the overt enemy!  I had to face these head on and hold ground in the thick of it, and they were fierce and unrelenting.  At times I gave up ground to them simply because of their numbers and strength; to my shame, at times I had yielded them territory because I was afraid.

There had certainly been successful campaigns against them, also, but somehow every loss seemed to loom far larger than any victory.  Recently it had seemed like the losses weren’t just larger, but also far more numerous.  I pondered this as I approached the tent to which I’d been summoned.  I had never even met the field marshal before – now I feared it was this recent trend of losses that had spurred the summons.  I stumbled in my mind for reasons, explanations to give, pretending that they weren’t excuses.

When I entered the tent, Michael stood before me, radiant in power and authority.  He spoke clearly and quickly, enunciating each syllable as is common when individuals speak in a second language rather than their native tongue, “Things are not what they seem, young captain, and you base far too many of your thoughts on your own perceptions…I have not summoned you for myself, but for the prince.”

This last phrase he added as I opened my mouth to ask why he had summoned me (but before I could get any words out), which question I now didn’t bother to utter.  He walked out through the opening I’d just entered by, revealing the prince’s form at the back of the tent.  He and I had met before on a few occasions.  My father had prepared me for service in this war, and the prince had enlisted me himself.  Whatever glory I had perceived in the marshal was now undone in my mind, swept away by the splendour of the prince’s presence.

“You’re going about this all wrong.”  His words bit me with conviction—though the tone told me it was not conviction for what I had dreaded.  He smiles and approached me, unstrapping his own breast- and back-plates from around his body.  He held it out to me, “Not in the results you’re seeing, but in the way you’re going about getting them.  Put this on.”

I reached for the straps that held my armour to my body, thinking that I would have to remove my own before I could put his armour on.  At first I couldn’t reach the strap, and assumed that this was due to the limitations of the armour itself.  It protected me well, but it also restricted my movement.  Nervously I glanced up at him, only to my surprise, the prince looked amused rather than annoyed.  He almost opened his mouth to speak, as I quickly reach around with my other hand, straining for an armour strap to loosen.  My fingers sill found nothing.  I reached around back; I tried reaching down my back from over my head; to no avail.

I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye, again.  He stood there still, his arm fully extended, offering his armour to me.  While I was becoming increasingly agitated with my situation – seemingly trapped in my own armour – there was no frustration in his face.  Did that anger me further?  It certainly caught me off guard, which shocked my system, as my armour was designed to prevent such happenings.  Again, he looked as though he were about to speak.

I returned to my initial efforts, reaching across my chest to fumble at my side for a strap – for anything!  I was in a bit of a panic by this point.  In entertained tones, he asked, “What are you doing?”  Thinking it was self-evident, I took his question as rhetorical, or even sarcastic, and as though it were intended to speed me on with what I was doing.  I redoubled my efforts.

By this point I had decided within myself that it was not a flexibility issue.  It could not have been simply a matter of the armour restricting my motions.  Rather, I reasoned that either I was reaching to the wrong locale, or I was searching for the wrong feature.  Perhaps I needed a metal tab, rather than a leather thong.  Again, the prince’s voice rang out in the tent, “What are you doing?”

I glanced up at him, his posture unchanged.  I answered, this time, “My lord, I’m trying to remove this armour.  Surely it must come off if I’m to put yours on.”  He nodded in agreement, which I took as an affirmation of my continued fumbling.

Now, understand that as I shifted my weight, as I reached around my body, I involuntarily moved within the tent’s entryway.  All I could think of was the prince waiting for me to be ready to receive his armour, his royal gift.  Thoroughly embarrassed at the length of time I had been doing my dance, and the lack of results that I was getting; frantic to have the business done with; I stumbled to my knees on the cold earth before my liege’s feet.

Panting from exertion, I looked up at him, “My lord, I cannot.  I’m sorry.  Yours came off of you so easily, I thought mine would do the same.”

“Oh, it will come off of you easily enough – though it will be painful to remove.”  There was compassion in his voice for my embattled position.

“But how?  I cannot find any means of removing it!  There is no strap or thong; there is no tab or slot.  How may I take it off?”

He face fell slightly at this question.  Still, he spoke with a strong voice, “It is not designed to be taken off.  This is why you cannot do so.”

“So there’s a trick to it, is there?” mischievously, the thought came to me that it was some kind of riddle.  I determined, in my own mind, to solve it.  As I rose to my feet I found that his armour still hung at the end of his outstretched arm, offered to me.  “Give me time to uncover the secret, sire.”

The prince chuckled, “Finding will only bring you back to me – why not just let me show you?  Let me help you.”

In my pride I refused.  I felt that I had enough clues, and was intelligent enough to run with them for a time.  He took my hand in his as I turned to leave, “Take this, it is for you.”  He placed his armour on my shoulder, and let me go.

Plato’s Cave?

This week I’m on retreat.  I’m not running away from a battle, but I’m taking some “me” time.  The church recommends these periodically, and provides outlets.  This week the clergy of my diocese (Qu’Appelle) and of the Diocese of Saskatoon are at St. Michael’s Retreat Centre in Lumsden, SK.  Our guest speaker is Bishop Mark MacDonald, and it will prove to be a great retreat.

The Lord has inspired me in a couple of ways since leaving Swift Current today.  I’m not sure if it’s the music I was listening to (my friend Keith Kitchen is my travel companion), or the events of the last few days, or just God’s initiative (which it ultimately relies on, whatever other factors may have paved the way for Him to inspire…), but I’m sharing one thing now.  The other isn’t ready just yet.  Only He knows what else might come, in time.

I was always struck by Plato’s Cave.  If you’re unfamiliar, it’s in The Republic.  Basically, humanity is tied in a cave, and all that people can see is shadows on a wall, being generated by people carrying things past a fire that’s burning at some location behind them.  The philosopher is the human who has broken free from the cave and found a tunnel to the surface.  Upon seeing what things really are, in daylight, he returns to the cave and tries to share with the people there what he has come to learn.  They are resistant to his “new” knowledge, and generally prefer the darkness and the names and items they have imagined from the shadows.  That’s a pretty rough paraphrase, but it will have to function for us just now.  There was always something about that story that seemed to resonate with me, but there was always something missing, something “off” about it, from the reality that I’ve come to know through the Christian faith.

Humanity is trapped in an Imax theatre.  The giant screen in front of them makes them think that they’re travelling, makes them think that they’re interacting with the truth, makes them think that they’re living life.  But they’re deceived.  The truth is that they’re prisoners, and their life is a mirage.  There is a way out of the theatre, and one man, Jesus, who has come in via that way can lead them out.  If they’ll follow Him.  He’ll take them out, if they’ll give up their theatre seats.  Real life, all of the things flashed in front of them on the screen, exists outside of the theatre.  Jesus came into the theatre so that they might have real life, not the mockery of it that the theatre seduces them into.  Many don’t listen to Him: the things He’s describing seem so much like the things they already see before their eyes – isn’t He just imagining something more?  Many don’t listen to Him: the theatre seat they’re in is so comfortable, what if they get up and someone else takes it – or, worse yet, it gets cold (nobody likes sitting in a cold chair!)?

The question before each of us is this: will we go with Him, or will we stay in the theatre?  There is no other way.

The Sermon I Didn’t Preach Today

It’s a risky business, to post what wasn’t said.  Why wasn’t it said?  Why were the things said, that were?  If those were the things that God wanted said this morning, where do these things come from – and where should they go?

I watched Braveheart the other night – a fact I did mention in my sermon this morning.  But where I stopped at William Wallace’s transformation from focusing on dying well to focusing on living well (my paraphrases), the part of the movie that hits me harder involves Robert the Bruce.  The Judas (as they turn-of-phrase might put it).  William Wallace had something, and Robert took it from him.  Was it innocence?  Was it an implicit trust in his countrymen?  More specifically, was it an eye to Robert as the next monarch of the Scots?

I’m not looking for people to actually reflect too deeply upon Braveheart.  People just start weighing in on what they think the movie is trying to express.  The authoritative voice on that can only come across when the screenwriter speaks, and that’s beside the point.  Then there are those who would approach the question from a historical perspective, and discuss how accurate Braveheart’s depiction of that episode in history was.  Again, beside the point.

My point is, and the reason this part of the movie hits me hard, is because too often I feel like that.  Too often I feel like I’m the guy who pledged his loyalty to the One bringing freedom, who then stands with the enemy on the battlefield – and gets found out.  Too often I feel like I’m the guy who rages at his father for sending him to fight for the wrong side – though it’s me raging against myself, not my father (who, incidentally, never pointed me in the wrong direction).

I hate this; I hate it when it occurs; I hate that it occurs.  On the one hand, I hate that the circumstance arises.  On the other hand, I hate that I feel this guilt for it – because it seems as though this is wrong-minded in itself, too!  On the third hand (or paw, if that image strikes you less out-of-the-ordinary) I hate that I’m still in need of such refinement that the potential for either of these still exists.

But maybe that’s just it.  Maybe the picture of the process of salvation that we hold in our minds is just inadequate.  It’s convenient.  We like to have Jesus save us from the consequences of sin.  But we don’t like to admit that we’re sinners; we don’t want the discomfort of His work in us to actually remove sin from us; we certainly don’t want to put in any of the devotional human work that enables and complements His work in us.  So we ask Him to save us from sin, and we only mean “save us from the consequences of sin.”  Because the full picture of salvation is too involved.  The only thing we fully devote ourselves to is the idea that we should take everything in moderation (particularly faith – who wants to be called a fanatic?).

But I want to be a part of an alternative.  An alternative to half-hearted devotion to the One who pours our His whole heart for us; to the minimalist commitment that tries to mask itself behind “faith” that He can use even the smallest faith (no need to have more, or devote more – He may ask it, but He’s willing to work with much less); to the “good-enough” mentality of our society which is never good enough, and dulls us to the call for holiness.  Let me say, emphanatically (you read right), “No!” to these things.

If this precious metal is going to be refined, then the dross must be burned off.  If this precious metal is going to survive the refining process, then there’s got to be more to it than “all” dross.  Cultivate holiness; find that He initiates before our efforts reciprocate.  His path is the narrow one that few find, and it leads to a narrow gateway.  And there is only one way onto His path – Jesus.  Thank God that He meets us in many places as that Way.  Do not settle for less than the fullness of His call.