It’s a somewhat complicated process unpacking the baggage and untold mental clutter that one accrues (and ignores or at least stuffs somewhere neatly out of sight) after arriving home from a lengthy journey. The suitcase simply explodes on the floor, couch or bed, to the wonderment of one’s spouse and children (and the delight of house pets).
Upon returning from just such a trip to the US almost two months ago, I sat myself down to set out some of the culture shift that I’d experienced (i.e. stuffed) while “abroad” in America. It was for my own benefit, mind you, and you can read those reflections here. By and large, the blog post was about comfort idolatry… so, well, maybe you won’t want to read it. I say that tongue-in-cheek, knowing it was equally painful to write as to read.
Subtle, syncretistic subterfuge
Since then, reengaging the rythms of life and ministry here in Sicily, there’s been this sneaking suspicion creeping up behind me (somewhere in the periphery of my mind’s eye) that even here there’s a barrage of subtle, syncretistic subterfuge levied against us – here, where the spiritual battle seems so much more pronounced, self-evident, and at times blatant. I’m alluding to a recent Instagram post I shared about a local “magician”.
At the same time, I’ve been teaching our fourth year bible school class in Belpasso on the topic of spiritual warfare. We’re really dealing more with worldview, evangelism and the Kingdom of God than anything else, but just touching on the topic has nonetheless tripped a wire, that lay latent somewhere in my brain, and that has me scrambling on all fours now trying to find a suitable defensive posture… or at least a change of fatigues.
What if what it means to engage our enemy changes according to the battleground?
Reading after some historians, I’d venture that while the Thirteen Colonies won the Revolutionary War against Great Britain in the 18th century, we had no small difficulty fighting the Vietnam War for precisely the same reason. That of tactical flexibility.
Understanding that every engagement is unique to it’s own context is a huge advantage to the wise warrior. While we “outwitted” British column formations by not playing according to the contemporary rules of engagement, yet we largely failed to adapt (at least quickly enough) to the jungle warfare in which we found ourselves entrenched while in Vietnam. Not that we didn’t try adaptive measures.
In fact, as one The New Yorker journalist put it, we tried and failed.
“We got nothing for pretty much everything we tried in Vietnam.”
It’s not that we didn’t try different tactics, but perhaps we were trying the wrong ones; those not necessarily suited to our context nor adaptive to our enemy’s strategem. Lay the blame where we might, beginning with faulty premises, not understanding the nature of our enemy (e.g. Sun Tzu 101), or even the lack of appropriate populace support, dissilussioned with war and violence et al, one things is for sure – things went wrong, and we didn’t really “win”. The point is, it’s not always clear what to do or how to do it.
In fact, I’d go a step further and say that it’s not always clear that we’re even in a battle.
“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Thank you, Screwtape, for the clever insight here. Perhaps we most often falter for not seeing the forest for all those rather ubiquitous trees. Why even engage a more powerful opponent head-on, our enemy might wonder, when you can distract, delay, or discourage him. Get her eyes off of the goal. Send them on a wild goose chase. After all, chasing one’s own tail certainly does feel like “taking action” (just ask my cat), and it’s terribly easy to get caught up in the moment. I’m sure I’m not the only one to chase my own tail and thereby utterly exhaust myself.
“We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the alter of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”
Screwtape’s pontifications are illuminating. Sounds reminiscent of a Jedi Master’s critique of a fledgling Padawan, Luke Skywalker. “All his life has he looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing.” Thanks, Yoda.
Tired, bored and split
Prisoners of desire and want, burdened by worries and cares. The future calls to the forlorn, never quite at home (nor present) in the present. But, Jesus would chide us here a bit, I think. It stings even, just copying + pasting the following, from Peterson’s Message:
“What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
Imagine the present-day tactics of our spiritual enemy, as summed up in Churchill’s address during a joint-session of Congress in 1943, “War is full of mysteries and surprises, a false step, a wrong direction, an error in strategy, discord or lassitude among the Allies might soon give the common enemy power to confront us. It’s in the dragging out of the war at enourmous expense, until the democracies are TIRED or BORED or SPLIT that the main hopes of [our enemy] must now reside.” Tired, bored and split… there’s a tag line for Ed Stetzer’s next Christianity Today post (you heard it here first).
Let’s face it, the days are evil
While we flirt with our “necessary luxuries” and the varied indiscriminate uses of our “discretionary” time, energy and resources, the enemy is busy cleaning our clocks and eating our cake. Make no mistake, in every war there are areas that don’t necessarily resemble a field of battle. I served in SE Asia during Desert Storm and saw only 5 star hotels and Michelin restaurants (thanks, Uncle Sam). And while it can be difficult to discern the actual engagement, the war nevertheless persists, and it’s all around us. Now.
But a word of caution here, let us first confront the frontier of our hearts, and then go after the ground that lay around us. Onwards. Another insight from Churchill’s speech:
Singleness, steadfastness, tenacity, endurance
“By singleness of of purpose, by steadfastness of conduct, by tenacity and endurance – by this and only by this – can we discharge our duty to the future of the world and to the destiny of man.”
We must take the Apostle Paul’s admonition personally and seriously to endure (lit. share in sufferings) as a good soldier. The light has to come on for the church here. “Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Then, after re-engaging the battle that we often loose sight of, in our hearts and minds, we can get on the spiritual offensive… taking back lost ground.
- Awake! to the reality that there is a war and that you and I are in it together.
- Awake! to the reality that we must engage this war, the alternative is surrender.
- Awake! to the reality that the first frontier is in our hearts and minds, 1 Peter 2.
- Awake! to the reality that the next frontier is all around us (Ephesians 6), the war that’s being waged for our families, our neighbours, for nations and generations.
- Awake! to the reality that are God has already won this war, and this is a good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6).
Here’s the bottom line, at least for our part here in Sicily planting churches: try to take ground from Satan, and expect all hell to break loose — and expect that your God will prove stronger than hell. Let us guard ourselves from distractions that would detract from true, strategic, effective actions. Let us fix our gaze on the captain of our hosts who is Jesus. Let us hear him, see what His instructions are, not just what we imagine he’ll approve. Perhaps he’ll say to us the same as he did to Joshua before the sack of Jericho,
“I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.”