Thursday, September 21, 2006

“Training Days”[1]

Ephesians 6:10-20

Testing Day. In the 2001 film “Training Day,” Ethan Hawke plays Jake, a young, idealistic LA cop who is eager to work his way up the ladder to detective. He particularly wants to be a narcotics officer so he can clean up the streets and make them safer for kids. His dream turns into a nightmare, however, when he’s paired with Detective Alonso Harris, head of an elite undercover narcotics squad. Alonso is played by Denzel Washington—he’s handsome, All-American, and very charismatic. The problem is that he’s also so dirty that there’s no apparent difference between him and the drug dealers he’s supposedly trying to bust.

In order to make the narcotics squad, Jake has to spend the day with Alonso and prove he’s got what it takes. But Jake’s head starts spinning from the very beginning, because it’s hard to tell whether Alonso is for real. Alonso plays a constant mind game with Jake—bullying and then buddying up with his big smile. We finally learn that Alonso’s true objective is to score a million dollars to pay off the Russian mob for having “accidentally” killed one of them. His plan is to murder a former partner who has turned drug dealer and steal his stash. And it looks like he’s going to pin it on Jake! As it turns out, Alonso is more of a drug king-pin than he is an LA police detective.

But Jake doesn’t know that. From the very beginning, Jake has to fight to hold onto his sanity in this world-turned-upside-down. It becomes apparent that it’s almost impossible to know when Alonso is being straight with Jake, and when he’s setting him up. As it turns out, Jake’s “training day” is really a “testing day” that will require not only all his police training, but also every shred of integrity and every ounce of perseverance he can muster if he’s going to make it out alive, let alone with his career and his life intact.

Masquerade. There’s a lot about this film that is very distasteful. But I like the way it portrays evil as something that’s hard to recognize. That’s the nature of evil in our world. If it were clearly recognizable, it would be easy to avoid. But the reality is that the evil in this world masquerades itself under many guises that appear to be good. Nobody’s going to say, “We’re trying to take over this or that Christian denomination because they won’t let us have control.” They’re going to say, “We’re calling the church back to the word of God.” Evil parades through our world like wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing!

How do we prepare for life in a world like that? How do we maintain our integrity, our commitment to following Christ, and our love for others when it’s not even apparent whom you can trust? I submit to you that it takes training. Not the kind of training Jake endured—that was testing. We have to train ourselves for the battle. And it is a battle—make no mistake about it!

Training Days. Paul gives us some ideas about how to prepare ourselves. The first thing is that we have to recognize that our battle is not against other people! Too often we personalize these matters and attack the person. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the “spiritual” realm. And I don’t pretend to understand the existence of evil in this world. And I don’t believe much of the talk about angels and demons that gets batted around. But the reality is that there is a power at work in the world that seems to be beyond simple human selfishness or cruelty. There are forces at work in our world that are evil to a degree that surpasses our human ability to conjure. And they are almost always deceptive and manipulative and hard to recognize. I think our training for the fight against evil begins with this recognition.

Paul’s words suggest some disciplines we have to adopt in order to train ourselves for the testing day.

One is to make the settled determination that you are going to obey God’s will as you understand it. Along with that is the commitment to practicing integrity in every facet of your life, in every relationship, in every conceivable situation. Again—in so far as it is possible. I think this is what Paul means when he says, “Let the truth be like a belt around your waist, and let God’s justice protect you like armor (Eph. 6:14, CEV).

A second discipline is study. The gospel of salvation by grace and the coming kingdom of God is not easy to understand. And yet, as the Confession of 1967 says, “our strength is in the confidence that God’s purpose rather than human schemes will prevail.”[2] But it takes disciplined study to understand this good news.

One element in this is Bible study. Yes, this is a very traditional practice, but there is no substitute for reading the Bible through over and over again.[3] It is the only way you can really understand what is important and what is peripheral to the Gospel. That kind of study is what Jesus was talking about when he called people to eat the bread of life. He was talking about ingesting his words, meditating on them, internalizing them, and remaining attentive to God’s voice.[4] This also involves studying the works of authors who communicate the gospel in ways that make it more understandable[5]—some of my favorites include Henri Nouwen, Frederick Buechner, and Richard Foster. This also includes theologians like Emil Brunner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tillich.

A third discipline is prayer.[6] Prayer keeps us related to God. It is a source of strength and wisdom. Prayer opens us to the resources that God provides in the battle against evil. Prayer restores our faith and our determination to practice integrity. As Gene Peterson renders it in the Message, “pray hard and long” (Eph 6:18).

Living the Christian Life is not easy in the face of evil that masquerades itself in many disguises. It takes training. And for training to be successful, you have to make it a discipline. Come up with a plan. Schedule it into your day. Do it repeatedly. Then, when you find yourself in a situation where the world seems to have turned upside down and it’s hard to tell who’s a sheep and who’s a wolf, you can rely on the instincts and wisdom you’ve built up over time.

[1] A sermon preached 8/27/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] The Book of Confessions, 9.25.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 50-51, 53.

[4] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 72; Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 19; Bonhoeffer, 56, 81-82; Frederick Buechner, Now and Then, 3.

[5] Nouwen, 71; Foster, 54.

[6] Nouwen, 68; Foster, 34.

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