I just returned from what may be an annual pilgrimage of sorts, a 6-hour drive to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to attend the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship's annual conference.
It's definitely a retreat and a reprieve for me, three full days of worship and classes, with a particular emphasis on the global church.
Also, I get to experience a musician and vocalist's dream--entire auditoriums of people, many of whom are also musicians and vocalists at their churches--singing out in three and four-part harmony.
My brother and I had the wonderful blessing of attending together. We found ourselves sitting near the front of the large worship services, positioning ourselves right in front of the musicians on stage. During the last session, some Latino latecomers slid into the seats on my left just in time for the Spanish language portion of the song we were singing. The tenor behind me was singing out and my brother and I adapted our harmonies so that we were in a tight three-part complementing the lead vocalist in front of us. It was incredible, and everyone was all in.
Our other favorite times of worship involved attending student-led sessions where we were so encouraged to see college student so joyfully and exuberantly praising, sometimes in many languages.
So many negative things are said about the old, about the young, about many ages these days. But I saw the old and young gather together this week and to be joyful and sing their hearts out.
And we lamented. I am so thankful that lament continues to be a significant theme at this conference. My eyes have been opened to this essential prayer practice due to necessity, and it seems that many in Christendom are becoming newly aware of this practice that is as old as the psalter.
I wasn't at this conference more than 5 minutes this week and I was already bawling my eyes out. This was because we were lamenting the state of the world today, acknowledging this first and foremost before we did anything else. We needed to lay this enormous burden before the Lord before engaging in other practices. It was far too distracting for many of us. For me, the current battle is with the "worries of this life," as Jesus described in Matthew 13. I am fighting to see the light in the midst of darkness, the good in the midst of evil, the hope in the midst of chaos and confusion.
I'm praying to the Lord, "I know You have this, I know You can do this, but I also know that I cannot compel You and I don't know what Your intent is in all of this."
Are you there as well, asking these types of things? We need to hold onto hope, desperately. Hold onto hope like a rope that is tethered to God.
My father wisely tells me this all of the time, and I find it to be enormously comforting. It reminds me of when I was a child and I had no pressures from my family to overachieve. My dad would simply tell me to do my best, so I did. Similarly, spiritually, in Ephesians 6, we are told to put on the full armor of God, "so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand" (verse 13).
Sometimes holding on, and just standing are the best that we can do, and they are enough.
I've never noticed before, though, that Paul doesn't tell us about the specifics of the armor of God until he tells us to just stand, after we've done everything. The armor is actually in response to this charge to stand your ground. I've heard it taught that the armor is defensive rather than offensive, and so it makes sense that we're told first to stand and then we're told how to stand.
We stand with the belt of truth buckled on. That alone is daunting these days. Buckle up, friends! You may be one of the few around you with this buckled on. Keep the truth, and stand.
We're told to have the breastplate of righteousness in place. Christ's imputed righteousness is what protects our heart. I don't rest on my own goodness; I rest on His. May it seep into me. May I engage in daily practices that encourage this.
We're told to have our feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the Gospel of peace. We're part of a ministry of reconciliation, but that can look messy at first. It's not a mission of peace and reconciliation if we let ourselves and others go astray. That is not loving, and it is a false peace, it is an ignorant peace, and it is an untruthful peace. We need God's peace, not a detached, stoic avoidance of things that are difficult. This requires great courage. I think that peace always requires great courage, which is probably why God tells us in Revelation 21 that the cowardly will not enter the kingdom of God. The peacemakers, however, will be called the children of God (Matthew 5:9). Let's be clear--the primary peace we're talking about is peace with God.
Then, we take up the shield of faith. This is the one part of the armor that some commentaries say can be offensive as well as defensive, because we can lift it up to extinguish "the flaming arrows of the evil one" (verse 16). I'm holding onto this shield with death grip right now, and also asking that God be my shield around me. I'm not super confident in my own lonely shield right now, but Paul seems so secure in just saying to extinguish those arrows. But they're flaming. That is not good, and is pretty scary.
I was on a retreat this week, but apparently the armor of God is not for retreating, in the sense of turning around in battle. As this site describes (The Shield of Faith. Taking It Up and Extinguishing Flaming Darts of the Evil One - Relentless Love - (relentless-love.org)) and I've heard elsewhere, Roman armor covers your front, not your back. So, your only choice is to press forward, and that shield is essential for doing so.
I think we need to let Scripture interpret Scripture and realize that while Ephesians 6 seems to be describing the solitary Christian, we're not solitary. The entirety of Scripture informs us that we stand side by side with a phalanx of other believers, the universal church--past, present, and future Christians from every tongue, tribe, and nation. I sang and studied with many of them this week. We are told to "spur one another on to love and good deeds" and to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25). When one is struggling, others can lift them up.
I am also not alone because Christ has promised that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5, referencing Dt 31:6). As the site I referenced above concludes, when the fiery arrows come, we should look to Christ crucified and risen from the dead. Some Bible translations say, "above all" take up the shield of faith. Faith is a big deal. I've learned that Roman shields were often soaked in water to be able to douse flaming arrows. Ephesians 6 tells us how to do this soaking--put on the helmet of salvation and take up the sword of the Spirit--the word of God.
I've written about the helmet of salvation before, saying how my sci-fi-soaked mind envisions it like X-Men mutant Magneto's helmet. It can block out the lies of the evil one (no offense, Professor Xavier!). And the word of God is essential for being prepared. Dip our shields, dunk these shields in the depths of God's word.
For such a time as this, we have this armor. We shouldn't go out there, amidst the worries of the world, without it.
This section of Scripture ends with prayer, which is so fitting. I spent a lot of time in corporate prayer this week, as well as studying and learning more about prayer. I am so thankful for wise teachers to help point us in good directions here. The refreshment from a retreat is so motivating for hunkering down to "pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests." I learned about many types of prayers, and prayer for me is starting to feel like breathing while swimming.
Depending on the strokes I'm doing or the intensity at which I'm swimming, I may be taking in quick little side breaths of air. Or, I may take a big gulp before diving under water. I'm not very knowledgeable about swimming breathing techniques, but it appears that exhaling correctly is also essential (What are the Proper Breathing Techniques for Swimming? - AquaViews). This week was a long exhale, and it's time to dive back in.
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