Over the course of this summer, our younger daughter, Emily, has basically had two outfits.
Her long blue “Ariel” nightgown, and her shorter blue “Elsa” dress, with its diaphanous snowflake print cape.
Aside from the occasional bathing suit, for the last three and a half months, this has pretty much been Emily’s look.
Now, as any parent of a toddler can tell you, it could be worse. Because when you up their sartorial repertoire to two outfits as opposed to just one, then you are no longer hostage to the washing machine in quite the same way…and that can feel like liberation itself.
Nevertheless, it has been a summer of learning for all of us as we have found ways to accommodate the Ariel nightgown while, say, going for a ride on one’s Big Wheel. Or perhaps it’s Elsa to the beach, but only on the condition that the bathing suit gets worn under it and that the Elsa dress has to stay in the car once we get there.
The negotiating can get exhausting.
There are moments when I cannot help but reflect that I was raised in a simpler time—a time when “politics stopped at the water’s edge” and children…well, as far as our parents were concerned, we had no rights of any kind.
As for dinner, well, spinach was served.
And as for clothes, well, you wore what you were handed, and that was that.
If you dawdled, they’d leave without you, and you had plenty of time to think about it…all alone…in the house…with the sound of the wind, and the odd pine cone falling on the roof, the creaks of the house settling, hot water heater kicking on…[MG: sound like the water heater]…and maybe the screen door, not quite latched, tapping back and forth…probably nothing…but maybe…you know…not nothing.
It was a simpler time. After all, fear can be so very clarifying.
That’s not how Liz and I seem to be running things with our kids.
Mostly of course, I am actually glad about that. Fear can be clarifying, but it’s rarely so for long, and it’s all downhill from there.
Sometimes we worry about the messages we’re sending.
Part of Emily’s argument about the two outfits she is willing to wear is that they are the only two things that seem to fit.
For example, she’ll put on a shirt and then squirm as if it’s actively burning her skin, wailing “too tiiight, tooo tiiiight!” and pulling it off.
Or she’ll try on a pair of shorts that used to belong to Grace and say they’re “too floppy” or that they’re “shaky on her body”…which is her way of saying that they’re too big.
It has a kind of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” quality to it: every item of clothing on her body has to be juuuuust riiiight.
And we worry about that sometimes.
We worry about it because we know that the world is not just right, and that so much of the time, nobody is feeling as if they are personally just right.
So much of life is learning to do the best you can with whatever it is you’ve got.
You may not be feeling great, but you still have to go to work.
You may be worried about something, but you still have to remember that you’re responsible for bringing snack to pre-school, even if it’s not going to be home-made.
Your socks may not match on the Sunday when you signed up to be a greeter, but you still have to smile and say hello and hope that nobody’s going to get too worked up over it.
In life, the conditions are so rarely optimal. And living well is about coming to terms with this fact, and resolving to live, anyway.
Sweaters itch. Shoes pinch. Buttons have minds of their own. Bosses demand. Spouses frustrate. Mirrors reflect back to us what we’d rather not see.
That’s life. It is so rarely juuust right.
That’s why I find myself arguing back a bit at the Apostle Paul this morning.
Paul’s words come again from Ephesians this week, and they are probably familiar to many of you.
He writes: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, having done everything, to stand firm.
Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.
As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:13-17).
It is a wonderful, and strong image of what it is to be faithful.
Last week, we mentioned how Paul was writing to faith communities that were actively struggling. Struggling against the reality of resistance from the wider world. Struggling against oppression, injustice, and internal disagreement about how to handle it. Struggling with doubt that a God who seemed unwilling or unable to protect them could truly be the ruler of the Universe.
Armor was one of those things that they just didn’t have. And they all knew situations when, frankly, armor would have come in handy.
Paul gets that. He’s not trying to pretend otherwise.
He’s saying that the physical part of the battle, the flesh and blood part of it, is really the least of it. That the real battle is a cosmic battle, a spiritual battle, being fought on a very different kind of battlefield, and being fought with very different weapons.
Because the sword that hurts you is nothing compared to the heart and mind of the one who wields the sword.
The weapon that resists is not a bigger sword but is the power of the soul that stops the fight.
Paul is saying all this, and to all this I say, amen.
If you think about it, the church in its finest hours has lived in just this way.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” says Jesus. “for they shall be called the sons of God.”
But Jesus goes on in words that the hearers of the Letter to the Ephesians would have understood all too well.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he says.
“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:9-11).
That sounds like us in our finest hours, for sure.
I push back against Paul, too.
I push back because I know how easy it is for the Church to confuse peace-making with keeping the peace.
I push back because, instead of trying to build peace in the world, all too often, the Church seeks to maintain its own peace of mind, its own peaceful conscience.
We have that suit of armor, polished up and ready to go at a moment’s notice…but tell ourselves that this isn’t the moment.
We won’t go until the moment is juuuuust right.
Have you ever missed your moment?
You know…seen something, or heard something that did not seem right to you…or encountered someone unexpectedly showing great pain in a way that it seemed important to acknowledge…important to help in some way if you could…but somehow the conditions did not permit it…and before you know it, you have missed your moment.
You’ve missed your chance to bring someone in need a bit of God’s light, God’s love, God’s comfort, God’s deep commitment to justice.
My concern with Paul’s imagery of light and darkness, spiritual warfare, the armor of man and the armor of God is that it misses the grey area in which we so often live.
It misses the moral muddle of being human.
It has so much to say about the nature of the armor, and so little guidance about when it is we’re supposed to put that armor on.
If we do put on that armor, Paul doesn’t tell us nearly enough about how heavy it will feel, how scratchy…how hot.
“You know I tried the belt of truth on once, but it was way too tight for me.”
“I put on the breastplate of righteousness, and I practically fell over from the weight of it.”
Paul doesn’t warn us about that this morning.
But the armor will not be sent into battle unless we learn to put it on.
Unless you and I learn to live with the discomfort of it, the heaviness of it, the heat of it, then what Paul describes as “this present darkness” will simply sweep the field, virtually unchallenged.
And that’s not the peacemaking Jesus calls us to, or the strength in God that Paul urges us to seek. Or the Kingdom of God that we’ve been taught to seek.
This morning we remember that so much of life is learning to do the best you can with whatever it is you’ve got.
So much of life is about seizing the moment to be kind, to be fair, to be a witness, to be a friend. Even if the moment is imperfect. Even if we are imperfect.
One of the great claims of our faith is that, with God’s help, what we’ve got will make a difference.
In a world of Ariel nightgowns and Elsa dresses, the weighty, uncomfortable armor of God is waiting for us to reach for it.
It may be uncomfortable—it may even stay uncomfortable. But in time, it may prove to be the only thing we’re willing to wear.