Powers and Principalities (Ephesians 6:12)

swordIt’s quiet tonight; the kids are in bed, my wife’s out with friends. The lights are dim, the TV is silent, so in the quiet, let me whisper this confession: I believe we’re in a spiritual battle.

This isn’t something I talk about often. The idea is there, but it’s not something I readily admit in public. It sounds strange to contemporary ears, the whole notion of a spiritual conflict feels at odds with a modern world of electricity and atoms and seismic geopolitics. And yet these are strange times in which we live, and the Church faces threats from all corners, and people are suffering and dying, making all this literally a matter of life and death.

I don’t altogether know what to do with this. But we’re heading into dark waters where the very nature of truth is is being eroded, where the humanity of others is constantly being challenged, where Swastikas are enjoying a comeback. And that means combating the spiritual darkness behind all that. Used to be that spiritual warfare remained the territory of Pentecostals and Prayer Warriors; now we all need to get into the fight.

That’s where I get nervous. Because all of this is rooted in prayer and my prayer life can be lacking to say the least. But this has to change, because the first person who needs to be delivered from the Powers and Principalities is me.

Because I don’t love my enemies. I give in to despair and anger more than I should. I demonise people even though I know that people are not demons. I want others to changer,  desperatEly,  but I’m less willing to change myself.

That’s why this whole thing is so insidious, the classic distraction trick of looking over there so you don’t realise what’should going on  right here. That’s where the praying needs to start – with my own heart. Get inoculated before even pretending to help someone else.

But our battles still have to be bigger than that. There are forces out there, forces of greed, forces of hatred, forces of idolatry, a lust for power. They must be fought, but on the right battlefield, prayer alongside protest and always starting with the war in my own heart. 

I confess this now, in the dark and the quiet; may I remember it in the daytime and the noise. And may I stand and fight, and in the process be transformed. 

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The Power of a Portrait

My evening commute is an interminable trek through traffic lights and down congested motorways, and one of the few things that keeps me sane is a sprawling collection of podcasts. One of those is Kind World, a series of stories about acts of kindness, the most recent edition of which tells the story of Michael Reagan.

Reagan is a Vietnam veteran who, upon his return to the US, started painting portraits of service members killed in action. Through this he discovered the power of his art to allow family members to grieve, to process, to say goodbye and, in the face of all this, to discover something about his own history.

And it’s only a six minute episode, but it stirs up questions, questions about the power and possibilities of art, about how we mourn, about how we treat those who return home once our wars end.

And yet beyond that I thought of the moment in Ephesians when Paul declares us to be God’s handiwork which, when you get behind the language means we’re God’s work of art. And that thought collided with Michael Reagan’s portraits and the thought of how we, God’s masterpieces painted in His image, are cut down in war and spit on each other when we return from the fight. And all I could hear beyond the podcast and the passing traffic was that this should not be how things are, and that when we can see the Imago Dei and another’s humanity in a work of art, we can start to be healed.

Singing When You Don’t Feel Safe (Ephesians 5:19)

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Dr. Vincent Harding was a leader in the Civil Rights movement, a man who had boots on the ground during a time of great injustice, when faith involved things like not responding to physical abuse from racist police, when singing became an act of defiance against a violent world. Back in May this year, NPR broadcast an interview with Harding that stopped me in my tracks.

It was summer, 1964, and James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were in Mississippi as part of a voter registration drive among African Americans. One night they never returned home; this was KKK country and the bodies of the three students were found a day or so later.

The news reached Harding and a gathering of hundreds of other activists, whereupon a choice presented itself: risk falling foul of further lynch mobs or head home to safety. And as those gathered were making hundreds of life-or-death decisions, they started to sing.

Someone’s missing Lord, kum ba yah…

We all need you Lord, kum ba yah…

The way Dr. Harding tells it, the moment sounds sacred, a simple song becoming a profound intercession, an act of worship that takes place not as a corporate singalong but as a prayer, a cry to God to make himself known…. And this came through a song as simple and as often derided as ‘Kumbayah’.

Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, exhorted his friends to “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” That’s easy to do when church is bursting at the seams and the music is cranked up to 11 and when struggle is far away or even imaginary. It’s a different story to sing in the eye of the storm.

But we can still sing in the darkness; sing as communities with shared experiences and fears and griefs and threats, and maybe those moments are when our faith and our worship are at their most honest. In the midst of grief and fear and with the enemy at the gate our easy words and ivory-towered theologies fall silent and all we can do is sing to each other and to the Immanuel God who stands alongside us. There’s something powerful about singing when we don’t feel safe.

I’ve said it before: our churches don’t always make enough space for lament, and we often feel pushed to pretend that ecstatic elation is our default setting, no matter what’s going on the other side of the stained glass window. Maybe the memories of Dr. Harding and the words of St. Paul remind us that worship can be found when there’s no other choice than to sing to each other; when hope and horror can be expressed through the words of a Kumbayah.