Back in college, some friends of mine who played on the baseball team had their own little code. When sitting around the cafeteria table, one of them would toss out a word or phrase, and the rest would laugh and nod in agreement. One of the words they used that always got a particularly powerful response was “helmet.” My curiosity got the better of me, so I asked what it meant. “When someone gets defensive,” an insider explained to me, “you tell him ‘helmet’—as if he were putting on a verbal helmet to defend himself.” The effect of that one little word was astounding.
Over the coming days and weeks, I listened more carefully to the team’s banter, and I noticed that when someone called “helmet” one of two things happened: either the individual being accused of defensiveness shrugged his shoulders and let it go or, far more often, he bristled at the accusation and began to defend himself more vigorously. Almost Abbott-and-Costello-like, one player would say, “Helmet!” to which the other player would reply, “I’m not being defensive,” which only solicited a further cry of “Helmet!” Try defending yourself for not being defensive. It won’t work.
Defensiveness is a trap that I know well. Sometimes the littlest things set me off, touching a nerve that produces within me an ardent desire to clear my name. Each of us has tender spots where a vulnerability lies close to the surface. Even the slightest hint of doubt or questioning of that one issue immediately puts us on the defensive: “No, I’m not an absent father!” “No, I’m not careless with money!” “No, I’m not an alcoholic!”
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul famously encourages his readers to “put on the whole armor of God,” including the “helmet of salvation” (6:11, 17). He has in mind a different sort of defensiveness—one that starts not from within us but as a gift of God. The vulnerability is still present, but, instead of attempting to cover it by ourselves, we are encouraged to let God’s salvation protect us from whatever might be attacking us. We are not asked to toughen our skin but to let down our guard and allow God’s promise of salvation to be our only defense.
This time of year is stressful for many of us, and clergy-types are not immune from that stress. When I am stretched thinnest, I find myself particularly prone to defensiveness. A gentle reminder intended as a message of support is heard instead as a criticism of my forgetfulness. A friendly, “How are you doing?” is taken as a questioning, “What’s wrong with you?” A supportive offer to help out is received as an indication that I can’t do it on my own. But my attempts to cover up and compensate for my weaknesses only draw further attention to my vulnerabilities. Instead, I need to learn to trust in God’s defense, which promises to save me from all my failings.
What is it that has the potential to set you off unnecessarily? What are the “helmet” moments in your own life? Name them to yourself and to God. Bring those weaknesses to the feet of our savior and trust that he will take them and make them whole. Only in him is it possible for us to be saved. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a fully sufficient self-defense. Our true hope is found not within the illusion of our own strength but in the strength of him who takes our weakness upon himself.