17 September 2017
This afternoon, I head to Portland for the fall installment of my twice-yearly Bowen Family Systems Theory continuing education event. This event – called Leadership in Ministry – is all about building the life-posture of leadership. Which means … in the face of constant and chronic anxiety in the systems in which we live … family, school, work, church … in the face of that anxiety, Family Systems Theory helps us practice the Jesus-patterned skills of differentiation:
Self-regulation (otherwise known as non-anxious presence); this is that Rudyard Kipling “If” skill, that shows itself in “keeping one’s head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you;”
Self-definition – being clear about where you stand, with one’s thoughts, values and goals; not having a failure of nerve but remaining committed and defined;
Connectedness – remaining in relationship even and especially with those whose anxiety plays out in sabotage against your leadership, not cutting off or detaching.
You will recall that last week I shared that one of our founders of Family Systems Theory work, Rabbi Edwin Friedman (who died in 1996), saw the current state of the world around us as a “societal regression.” Recall also that he called out three times in particular as “societal regressions:”
· The middle ages of the late 15th century, the time of plague and pestilence, feudal states, and a tyrannical church … when life was brutish and short … a time which ended in the Reformation and the long European wars.
· The 1920s and 30s in Germany, Japan and Italy … accompanied by the rise of fascism, and the Second World War.
· And the United States after WW2 – with a distinct ramping up after 1980 and a spiking after 2008, which we are living in and through right here, right now.
So after last week’s message, someone came to me and asked, “Those examples you cited of societal regression … the first two ended in huge wars which changed humanity forever. What do you think about the third? Are we headed for war now?”
Honestly, I don’t know. I wonder if, the way we appear to be headed these days, in what anyone who pays any attention to what’s going on around them, would have to say, is a terribly divided nation … a way I see working its way out, could be some kind of a civil war. And certainly the war drums between our country and others … North Korea in particular … get louder and louder by the week.
The chronic anxiety in our country is getting intense. Listen to Rabbi Friedman’s expanded description of societal regression:
· Reactivity (intense unthinking emotional reactions of individuals and /or groups to events and to one another) – with rising tribalism;
· Herding (a process through which the forces of togetherness triumph over the forces of individuality and differentiation and move everyone to adapt to the least mature members) – again, showing itself in tribalism, where leaders – in families, organizations, nations – are chosen who are the least fit for the office;
· Blame displacement (in which members focus on blaming others (who are different from them)), and take on a victim mentality, rather than taking responsibility for their own being and destiny)
· A quick-fix mentality (developing a low threshold for pain, an inability for disciplined and purposeful actions, and thus seeking symptom relief rather than fundamental change)
· A lack of well differentiated persons in leadership positions, leading to a failure of nerve in leaders that both stems from and contributes to the first four characteristics.
What this looks like in organizations – families, churches, nations – is that humor disappears, along with playfulness and curiosity, replaced by a sense in which everything appears dire, and the repertoire of responses to problems shrinks, and shrinks, and shrinks, down to the base animal instinct of “fight or flight.”
Make no mistake … throughout history, it has been the differentiated who have led humanity through and out of these times of societal regression … through leadership … of which, Family Systems Theory states, is really, an incarnate, in the flesh, living out, of Paul’s words in Ephesians, words we’ve heard here every week during our exploration of this letter:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
Leadership – is reflecting God’s gift of grace, in and through differentiated, regulated, defined, connected lives – into the world.
And so as we move into these concluding verses of Ephesians today, we see, and hear, and receive, this word of grace, for our lives, for any time, but most especially, in the midst of these anxious, anxious times.
Although, as our text begins, I am sure that some, perhaps many of you, were, are, skeptical.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 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.
The first thing we run into – headlong- in this text – is two words, one word which in English includes the other … ones which, enlightened, post-Enlightenment, post-modern people, most likely dismiss as some kind of quaint, pre-modern throwback to people who needed to create an opposite, a demi-urge to explain away their own anxiety … but which, who, doesn’t really exist, does he?
The devil. Evil, in some kind of sentient, bodily form.
Oh, but pastor Bob, you don’t mean to tell us that you actually believe in Satan, do you?
Well, if you mean the red-suited, John Lovitz character from 1980s “Saturday Night Live,” or even earlier, from the 1960s, the one Flip Wilson always referred to when he said “The Devil made me do it” … no … I think that’s just silly.
But what about the devil of the Scriptures?
Here’s a quote from a recent article that points out the “credibility gap” problem, when it comes to Scripture passages such as this one we have before us today:
Polls suggest a large number of Americans don't believe the devil exists. A Barna survey reported that nearly 60 percent of Christians in America view the devil as only a symbol of evil. Only one quarter of participants strongly affirmed the devil's personal existence, though this figure more than doubles among "born again" Christians.
People before the time of the Enlightenment knew the Devil as not just a symbol but an incarnation of evil. Luther spoke of knowing the Devil well:
I am of a different mind ten times in the course of a day. But I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away. When he tempts me with silly sins I say, “Devil, yesterday I broke wind too. Have you written it down on your list?”
But with the Enlightenment, post-enlightenment, modern, post-modern, technological solutions and explanations for seemingly everything … well, as we just heard, the Devil’s personal credibility has hit hard times.
So, here, we could get into a long and winding road of an excursus, in and out of the text, about the development of the theology of the Devil … from the one simply called “the accuser” in the book of Job … ha satan … to a more personalized character in the Gospels … to today, when people use the term Devil to name and identify those who are different from them, physically, intellectually, politically, theologically – DEMONIZING them.
But we will not go there today … for many reasons, time being one of them, but also, because the text doesn’t go there, to either increase or suspend belief in One Single Solitary Prince of Darkness.
In the text, “the struggle” is said to be against not “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.
Now, that, we most certainly know. Evil in the world, its effects and wake. The biggies: Murders. Molestations. Terrorism. Racial conflicts. Mass shootings. Sabre rattling threats of war. But also, these: Poverty. Pollution. Cancer.
In other words, whatever blocks, whatever prevents the good and gracious will of God. That’s a good definition of evil. And what we should be standing against. What we should be fighting, right?
Ah, but look at how we are called to fight “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
With defensive weapons. With defensive weapons.
The whole armor of God
The belt of truth
The breastplate of righteousness
Feet coverings to aid proclamation of the Gospel of Peace
The shield of faith
The helmet of salvation
Everything’s defensive. It’s as if we are to turn that old saying on its head, and instead say, “the best offense is a good defense.”
The Christian faith, quite plainly, is not to be used to be on the attack.
Let’s say that one more time, because so many need to hear it: This (cross) (Bible) is not a weapon.
Now, there is one offensive tool, here, yes, but note clearly what it is, and is not:
Take … the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.
OK. But how are we to use this Word?
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.
Prayer is the only offensive that Jesus-followers are given. Everything else … all of those other things … armor, belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet … those are all for our defense and the defense of the Word that we are called to bear into the world.
Prayer is our only offensive weapon. The Bible is not a weapon to use against those we would demonize. The Cross is not a weapon to “force” a faith, a piety, upon others. Prayer is our only offensive weapon.
We are called to pray, and pray, and pray … to pray at all times for “the saints,” our brothers and sisters, those who have heard and seen and received the Word, through others, through us. To pray for those who, like Paul, are called to give their whole lives to the proclamation of the Gospel … so bishops, pastors, deacons, missionaries.
As for myself, I thank you for your prayers. Thank you. I can feel them. I can. There’s no way I can live out this calling without them. It is, simply, too difficult for me to be on my own.
But more. We are called to pray for “the saints.” Literally, these are our brothers and sisters in the faith. And our prayers are supplications … simply, thanking God for them, and asking and reminding God … of God’s promises for God’s people ... to be with them, to be with us, and provide them, and us, with these defensive gifts which Paul cites here. Gifts to help them, and us, live in faith and hope and trust in this world of societal regressions and chronic anxiety … and not just survive, but give us HOPE … hope to awaken each day in trust and joy that we are, together, of the family of this God who gives us the great good news that God so loves the world that God gives the only Son into, for, the sake of the whole world, the creation and the created, us … so that we would not perish of the evils that surround us, but that we would strive and survive through them, and not just survive, but LIVE … and not just for the world to come, but the world that is, right here, right now …
… and in that HOPE we will go out and go forth into God’s world … as REACHOUTCHURCH … not worried about our future, will we be enough, will we have enough, can we do enough … no … we will go out and risk and try, wearing the full armor of God … put on here at this font and here at this table and here in this assembly as we gather and are filled with God’s Word … to go out and live and serve where we will find God is living and active in the world, and just waiting for us to follow the call and come alongside.
This is our Word – God’s Word, for us. This is our calling, and this is our hope.
Friends, We. Have. Work. To. Do. Much. Work. No matter your age, your physical condition, you have a calling from God.
Is there, could there be anything more exciting? More rewarding? More joyful?
We. Have. Work. To. Do.
Let’s get to it!