The angel

I know an angel.

She’s the deli counter server who smiles when taking my order.

He’s the fourteen-year-old who dreams of winning $10 million to give to Parkinson’s research because his grandpa suffers from the disease.

They’re in the bus shelter laughing and giving hi-fives and kisses to friends who do not share the same skin colour, age, language and physical ability.

She’s the one who comes in the nursing home room to encourage with a soft and happy voice.

She challenges world leaders to pay attention to and do something about the climate crisis.

I know an angel.

Today, and every year on September 29, the church recognizes the annual festival, “Michael and all Angels”. In the bible, we acknowledge the popular ones: Gabriel, who brought news to Mary of God’s intention to give her Jesus. And, Michael the great protector whom we read about in Daniel and Revelation.

Herein lies one of those very grey areas for Lutherans who have, in our recent history, become increasingly nervous about the angels. Why is that?

In the Confirmation class which started this past week, we closed our time together by praying Martin Luther’s evening blessing: “I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today. I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously to protect me tonight. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.”[1][emphasis mine]

By the way he prayed, we can tell Martin Luther believed in angels. On the other hand, Luther didn’t care too much for those parts of the bible that suggested allegory—those so-called apocalyptic descriptions that described futuristic, other-worldly, colourful, image-rich portrayals of angels, arch-angels, cherubim and seraphim, of sword-wielding horseman, dragons and giant wheels in the sky. Luther consequently relegated these scriptures to a lower priority for the biblically literate.

“Angels cannot be our intermediaries between us and God,” we reformers insist. “There is only one mediator and that is Christ,” we claim. Christ alone, we’ve made things simple. Concrete. More about this in a minute …

And yet, at the same time, we cannot deny the reality and the truth, that just beyond the thin curtain of our awareness and perception there lies a dimension of reality in which we, too, participate—for good and for evil. Our highly trained, rational minds—thanks to the Reformation and Enlightenment eras of the last few centuries—have made us suspicious and skeptical of making such risky forays into those ambiguous, beyond-rational notions. We just don’t know what to do with that part. We just don’t know …

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells a beautiful story about an experience he had following his mother’s death: “The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, ‘A serious misfortune in my life has arrived.’ I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother.

‘But one night in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut of my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk with her as if she had never died.

‘When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.”[2]

Perhaps you, too, can point to these subtle yet profound moments—especially following a loss or some great suffering or deepest love—when the cloud breaks, the sun streams through, a bird calls, an image flashes across your vision, a dream’s effect captivates you, a momentary feeling of peace and well-being engulfs you, a stranger impresses you in some unexpected, surprising way.

This is real. People talk to me about these experiences all the time. We can’t put our finger on it. We can’t rationalize our way through it. Well, we try, by talking about neural impulses and undigested fats in our bellies. But here we go again, dealing with our discomfort by reaching for yet another rational explanation. But can we explain away these experiences? Should we?

It’s easy to place religion into the esoteric realms of doctrinal outer-space. That’s our head space whose thoughts, theories and machinations serve to disconnect us from what is, right in front of us. And, sadly this state has almost exclusively defined the Reformation since the days of Martin Luther.

What about our bodies? What about our feelings? What about the natural occurrences in our daily lives? Are these not the purview of God as well?

Martin Luther insisted on the real, the tangible, as a valid and powerful expression of the divine. A faith that is characterized by the incarnation—Word becoming flesh—is a faith that cannot deny what we see, hear, taste and feel. When God became human in Jesus. When the Holy Spirit indwells in our hearts, our bodies. When we eat the body of Christ in the sacrament. God makes our reality God’s domain. Angels among us. The spiritual becomes tangible. Matter is, and has always been, the hiding place for God.

One of the clever jingles of the TSN1200 radio station in Ottawa is their oft-repeated phrase introducing whatever sport they broadcast: “The Sens play here” (NHL hockey); “The NFL plays here (football)”; “The RedBlacks play here”(CFL football); “The Fury play here” (soccer); “The 67s play here” (junior hockey).

That needs to be the church’s motto: “God plays here.” In real, tangible, visible, ways. “God plays here” among mortals, among real people in real situations. “God plays here” along with the angels and archangels.

We may not be able to figure it out completely. We may not know the mind and ways of God fully. We may not know this spiritual realm that interplays with our own. We may not even be able to rationalize it in the usual ways. And yet, we trust.

In the last line of the Evening Blessing from the Small Catechism, Martin Luther, after praying for the holy angel to be with him, he gives the following instruction:

“Then you are to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.” And falling asleep quickly and cheerfully can only happen when, despite our inability to have all the solutions and figure out all our problems, we can feel that it will be well with my soul.

God will make God’s ways and purposes knowable to us, in the regular grind, routines and ordinary circumstances of our lives.

May you know some angels, too.

Trust.

 

[1]Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p.1162.

[2]Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life (Riverhead Books: 2002), p.5.

Grant us peace

This evening we find ourselves at the threshold of all that Christmas anticipates. Our sight is therefore narrowly focused on the immediate. After all the waiting and the long journey, Mary and Joseph have finally arrived at the place of nativity, in Bethlehem.

And, like any expectant father and mother, they find themselves embroiled in the hustle and bustle that immediately precedes birth. Christmas Eve is therefore all about a sense of ‘place’.

Everything happens here, on this holy night. We are drawn to this place in this time to remember and re-enact what happened on that very first, special holy night. At one moment in history, God entered the world on that first Christmas. In a specific time, at a specific place — the town of Bethlehem.

The children re-created the version of the Christmas story according to Luke. And they made sure we got into the roles and felt that sense of place — the innkeeper’s door, the manger scene in that town surrounded by shepherd’s fields under a starry night.

It was that small, dusty, ordinary, rather plain and dull place that was to receive the greatest gift of all time — the gift of God incarnate. Bethlehem was the scene of the glorious host of heaven entering into the world. But, “How could anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the condescending yet prevalent attitude expressed by an early disciple of Jesus (John 1:46). How could it be that Bethlehem and its ragtag cast of characters would receive this gift?

Indeed, receiving gifts is just as important as giving gifts at Christmas. I think, in our achievement, accomplishment and success -oriented culture, it is more difficult to truly open our hearts and unconditionally receive a gift of great joy. When we don’t feel like we have to somehow return the favour, or earn it by our hard work. I think for many of us busy-bodies, to stop and just be — before any active response — is tough to do.
We are so used to ‘providing for’, doing it, giving it, expending our energy, performing, succeeding; or, God-forbid failing at succeeding, accomplishing by our acts of heroism — to care for another, to make it happen for others. We are compulsive in our drive to be a champion of something or another.

You’d think we were the Messiah coming to save the world by observing some of our actions.

I heard from several of you this Advent how you haven’t this time around either decorated or baked or ‘checked off the list’ all the things you’ve normally done in years past. And this was cause for moments of anxiety: “Would Christmas be the same?” And what a gift it was to hear from you confess that, indeed, Christmas has come to you at a more meaningful level as ever before.

Could it be, because we are slowly learning, simply, to receive the gift that comes, despite us?

One of the oldest prayers and carols in the Christian tradition, originally expressed in Latin: Dona Nobis Pacem — give us peace. “Peace on earth” is the purpose of Christ-coming. The peace we seek in our lives. And for that to happen, we need first to relinquish our Messianic compulsions. We need to recognize and accept our human limitations. And that is good. Because when we can release our grip — or at least loosen it for a moment — could we, then, have peace.

O Little Town of Bethlehem signifies this gift of peace. Why? Precisely because it is un-spectacular. It is not an exceptional town in the region of Nazareth. You would not find Bethlehem listed prominently in the Frommer’s tour guide books from the 1st century. Maybe that’s why it took the Magi some time to get there. It’s like one of the ‘if you blink you’ll miss it’ crossroad hamlets that dot the rural landscape of our land.

If you drive down highway 41 south from Pembroke through Eganville towards Denbigh, you pass by one of those blue-coloured town signs with the word “Khartoum” written on it. Khartoum, Ontario — do you know it? It is actually a town — but you might count three houses driving by amidst the pine, spruce and rock-lined, winding roadway. Khartoum is like the Bethlehem of Ontario.
Perhaps because expectations are low. Why so many don’t have peace at Christmas is because expectations are so crazy and unreasonable at this time of year. Again, assuming ‘we make Christmas happen’. But this is not the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not make Christmas happen.

The Gospel — the good news — of Christmas is that the baby Jesus had to rely on this ragtag cast of characters to survive. The holy child, the divine made flesh, the almighty God — became vulnerable. God had to wait. God had to receive the gift of these imperfect characters, these unimpressive, un-extraordinary people. Jesus the baby had to receive their gifts of protection, love, care, and support. In order to be the greatest gift for us, God had to receive our imperfect gifts. God waits to receive our imperfect gifts, our offerings, our giving.

I’m learning something as I begin the second half of my life: The art of letting God come to me. It’s not dissimilar from the the concept espoused by those who coach sports, who advise: “Let the game come to you.” They make reference, of course, to players and teams on a winning streak who play loosely, who are not trying too hard, who don’t hold their sticks or bats too tightly; And, who nevertheless concentrate, who are in the flow, in the zone. Yes.

But they are not making it happen. They are not driving it too hard. Doing too much. Nor are they over-stating their presence, pushing it. Let it come to you, rather than trying to make it happen — this is the practical yet difficult challenge at Christmas.

Christian writer and teacher, Henri Nouwen, wrote: “Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid, and let God …be our companion”. Allow God — whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend — come to us. (Henri Nouwen, “Gracias!” in “Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M Nouwen”)

A birthing experience will force all closely involved into a receptive state of being — as uncomfortable as that might be for some of us control freaks. We do need to just let it happen when it will. Let the gift come to us.

The unconditional love, unconditional positive regard, the faithfulness of God in us, the trust of the baby Jesus — these truths bring us all to a level playing field. There is no them-and-us. There is no outsider in God’s realm. There is no hierarchy of social standing. There is no moral-achievement program here. There is no ladder to climb.

Rather, God climbs down the ladder to us, just as we are. Because God’s love for us is so great. That is the message of Christmas. That is the peace that we seek.

Let there be peace on earth and goodwill among all people! Merry Christmas!