When I worked for the Community Hospice of Schenectady in upstate New York, from 2002-2013, there was intense pressure for us, like all healthcare providers, to be financially solvent. Medicare – with its own financial concerns – was frequently auditing Hospices across the country to make sure that they were not being charged for patients who did not meet the criteria: including a life expectancy of 6 months or less. The great fear was that our Hospice was going to have to pay back thousands and thousands of dollars to Medicare. To counter this, to keep revenues up, staff were encouraged to see as many patients and families as possible every day.
Adding to the stress, our caseload was like a revolving door – so many people being admitted at the last minute with perhaps only days to live who had intense needs for symptom management; with families who had intense needs for emotional and spiritual support. Supervisors were often harried and made what felt like unreasonable demands on staff.
Because of all this, sometimes the stress in the office was so toxic that by the time I was ready to go out the door to begin seeing our patients and families, I felt completely out of sorts.
As a Hospice chaplain, my mission was to be a calm port in the storm so that patients, families, and my colleagues had a safe place to unburden their concerns and find peace.
After one particularly distressing morning in the office, as I was driving to see my first patient, I realized that I was not in good shape emotionally or spiritually; I was feeling deeply uncentered. I began to pray that God would shift my energy so that I could be the healing presence I was called to be.
Suddenly, I heard a surprising message: I should visualize myself as an angel. So, I began to imagine that I was wearing a beautiful, flowy white garment with touches of gold, tulle wings, and a halo. I pulled into my patient’s driveway, took a moment to see and feel myself as fully as possible as an actual angel, radiating light. Then, I prayed, as I always did, to be an instrument of peace and grace for the person I was visiting.
I got out of my car, approached the door, and knocked. Kay beckoned for me to come in.
She took one look at me and said, “There’s my angel.”
Our imaginations are a powerful spiritual gift. When Paul urges, “put on the armor of light” and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” he is inviting us to use our imaginations to counter the darkness around us and within us; to, instead, enter into a transformed, spiritual state of being.
Neuroscientists tell us that our motor neurons respond in surprisingly similar ways when we visualize an activity and when we actually do it. This is why, for example, a golfer might imagine taking a few perfect golf swings before actually teeing up.
Or consider what happens when an actor puts on a costume, as many in this community enjoy doing. Something happens inside the mind and spirit when you put on the wig, the makeup, or the clothes from another place or era and then look in the mirror. It helps you become the person you are trying to convey.
Uniforms can have power, too. The medical professional, police officer, judge, or cleric who puts on special clothing is reminded of the ideals of their profession. Every time I put on this robe, I am conscious of what it represents – it is a way of putting on Christ.
Likewise, there is the phenomena that Amy Cuddy promoted in her popular 2012 TED Talk – seen by nearly 70 million people – “Fake it till you make it.” The idea is that if you are someone who is lacking in confidence, become aware of your posture and consciously choose to walk in ways that project confidence. Perhaps put on clothes that do the same. As you keep doing this, the idea goes, you actually become more confident.
It is strange to our ears to be encouraged to put on the armor of light. Ours is not a culture where people wear a lot of armor that can be seen. Police officers and soldiers may wear armor, but it tends to be concealed. Some of us who have experienced trauma, may have armor around our hearts.
In Paul’s day, the Roman army was a ubiquitous presence wearing obvious armor that conveyed a clear message – the power of a repressive regime. The people of Rome were burdened by a way of life with a vast structure of indebtedness:
*citizens would have owed crushing taxes to the emperor
*most owed money, possessions, and honor to a benefactor
*slaves (who were numerous in the society) would have owed service and their very lives to their owners
*women owed submission to husbands
Paul makes a radical assertion – that none of this vast system of indebtedness is of ultimate importance. For him, the presence of Christ’s spirit changes everything; Paul realizes that the power of love is greater than any other power in the world, even the power of the Roman army. Paul longs for the Romans to wake up; to be free of a way of life that traps body, mind, and spirit; and, instead, to embrace a way of life where the only armor is love.
What about us? Do our lives reflect that we believe that love is the greatest power in the world? Or have we given our allegiance to lesser powers – to work? financial success? Travel and leisure? or the pursuit of political power? What really drives the way you and I spend our attention and time? Is it love or something else?
I suspect that if we are honest with ourselves, most of us would say that we could be more loving; that we get side-tracked by the demands of ordinary life- of busy schedules, family needs, and trying to take care of our responsibilities. Especially at busy times of the year, like this, we may be so distracted by all that we have to do that we are not as warm, kind, or loving to others or ourselves as we hope to be.
For many of us, there are times in our day or in our week when we can be feeling so stressed that it would be especially helpful to remember to consciously put on the armor of light, to put on the love of Jesus, the love of God.
We can do this through imaginative prayer which allows the spirit of God to penetrate into places within the psyche, within the heart, that the intellect does not touch. This kind of prayer engages our feelings and brings the spirit of God into our hearts, enabling us to be free of what weighs us down mentally and more fully live as Christ’s love in the world.
Let’s try some imaginative prayer. Please close your eyes, if you wish. Breathe slowly and easily, drawing your attention into your heart, that place of peace and safety where you can connect with God.
Begin to imagine that you are opening the door of your clothes closet. Inside the closet you will find a beautiful new garment that conveys to you the light and love of Christ. Take a moment to find this garment. What does it look like? What colors and textures does it have? What does it feel like to touch? What does it represent for you?
Holding this garment in your hands, you feel the power it contains to transform you once you put it on. How does it feel to know you are about to wear it? The time has come for you to put on this sacred garment. It fits perfectly. Allow the radiance of what you are wearing to be received within your heart. Let its energy soak into your whole being. Feel yourself more awake and alive. Feel yourself transformed, able to love more freely and generously than ever before.
Know that you can put this garment on any time you need to reconnect to the love of God that is within your own heart; anytime you need to show up as the presence of love for someone else, especially when it feels challenging. This garment of love belongs to you.
Please open your eyes when you are ready.
The use of imaginative prayer allows the metaphorical language often found in the Bible to transform our consciousness and from there, to transform our very lives.
Remember, you can put on God’s armor, God’s light, anytime you feel stressed and need to feel confident about the truth of who you are – made in the image and likeness of God. You are a being of light and love. Amen.