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.

We the Saints

Death will be no more … for the first things have passed away… ‘See, I am making all things new.’ (Revelation 21:1-6a)

Who are the saints? And, who cares?

I recall an image of running the Boston marathon described by a church leader in the context of social justice. She said that congregations and persons of faith are like marathon runners. When tens of thousands of runners line up at the start of the race, only the best runners are at the front of the pack. And when the starter’s pistol signals to begin running, it takes hours by the time everyone crosses the starting line.

The implication, I believe, is that some persons or congregations are better at this job of being the church. They belong at the front. The implication, I believe, is that there is a small group of super-stars that must lead the pack and give witness to the rest of the runners ‘how it’s done’, spurring the rest of us to be better than we are. The implication, is that not everyone is as valuable as those at the front, leading the way. The implication is that there are, to be sure, the saints; and, then, there are the SAINTS. A hierarchy.

I wondered about this. And, on one level, she is correct: The kingdom of the world needs, or wants, superstars. To survive according to the world’s rules, we want to find motivation to be better. The NBA wants the Stephen Currys and Lebron James’. The NHL wants the Conner McDavids’, Austin Matthews’ and Sidney Crosbys’. Business wants the Elon Musks, Oprah Winfreys and Bill Gates’ of the world—for better or for worse. Politics wants the Doug Fords, the Kathleen Wynnes, the Andrew Scheers and the Justin Trudeaus—for better of for worse. They set the bar—high or low, depending on your perspective.

The kingdom of the world wants superstars. The world wants to compete, to compare and to conflict. Even kill. Because, some are better. And some are worse. Some are more valuable, and some … not so much. Some set the bar while others don’t quite measure up. Yes, we like to say on All Saints Sunday that we are all saints. But, there are the saints; and then, there are the SAINTS.

We identify and glorify the heroes of faith, while overlooking the value in the sainthood of the less noticed, the less attractive, the less ‘gifted.’ The kingdom of the world—its culture of comparison and competition—has indeed infected our idea and practice of the Reign of God on earth.

We are all the children of God. We are a community. Some will say, a family, whose purpose and meaning we discover in our lives on earth. “Thy kingdom come on earthas it is in heaven,” we pray. On earth. First, we do need to accept that the church on earth is where it’s at for us. The vision of heaven on earth, of the new Jerusalem descends upon the earth. We don’t find who we are as followers of Christ—as Saints—apart from our community. To be a follower of Christ is to be discovered in community.

Not by ourselves. Not alone on the mountaintops, nor alone in the valleys. Not enlightened in the ivory towers of private illumination. Not sequestered in solitude in the libraries of ancient wisdom. Not by winning individual races. Not in individualistic endeavours that don’t need anyone else, or to which everyone else needs to conform by our powers of persuasion, force or pressures.

We don’t find who we are and what we are to do as followers of Christ—as the Saints on earth—apart from community. Even in the traditional format, the saints and conferred their title by the community. The process is, no doubt, elaborate and needs the validation of the Pope and subjected to all manner of procedure.

In Protestant theology, generally, our sainthood is conferred upon all the baptized. In baptism, we are united and joined into Christ’s death and resurrection. We are enjoined with the church on earth and the saints of heaven on a journey towards full and complete union with God when we will one day see face to face. In baptism and at the communion table, we are all placed on a level playing field.

As such, relationships matter. How we behave with one another on that journey, matters. What we say to one another, matters. How we communicate with one another, matters. The words we say, and the words we don’t say, to each other, matters. How we do church, today—not yesterday, not fifty years ago, not in the last century but today—matters. ‘Thy kingdom come on earth.’ Today.

The vision of God is meant for us to grow, to transform, to change into the likeness of Christ Jesus. The community on earth strives to reflect the divine, eternal vision. The community on earth, the church, grows into what we are meant to be, on earth. The community on earth includes and embraces all of creation, excluding no one and doing violence in word and deed to no one.

It is vital that when violence is done against any group, we stand up for the downtrodden. We stand beside those who are victimized because of their religion. As Lutherans, especially today, a week after the gun-shooting and murder of Jewish people while they prayed in their house of worship in Pittsburgh, we stand up against such hatred. As Lutherans, especially today, we must repudiate again Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. Just because we are Lutheran doesn’t mean we regard Luther as infallible, without sin, as anything more than the term he used to describe us all: simul justus et peccator—we are simultaneously saints and sinners. So was he.

The Dean of the Ottawa Ministry Area of our Lutheran Church underscored the nature of this church on earth of which we are members. She said in her sermon on Reformation Sunday last week: “In Ottawa we are really one church but worship in different locations.” Ottawa Lutherans are one church. This is a change of thinking. We are becoming the new thing God is calling us to.

Together, as one, standing beside all the saints and sinners. Together, as one, standing alongside the downtrodden. Together, as one, standing with the victims of group-identity based violence. Standing against all forms and means of hatred towards ‘others’ who are different from us. The vision of John of Patmos is an inclusive one. The new earth and the new Jerusalem does not exclude anyone. The new community includes all.

Even you.

The one who just got some bad news. Even you.

The one whose marriage is on the rocks. Even you.

The one who lost their job. Even you.

The one whose health continues to fail. Even you.

The one whose anxiety and worry crushes any hope for the future. Even you.

The one whose sexual identity invites judgement from others. Even you.

The one who is new to Canada. Even you.

The one who failed the math test. Even you.

The one who was bullied at school. Even you.

The one who broke the law. Even you.

 

Together we will find our way. Better together.

Thanks be to God! Welcome home, saint and sinner. Welcome home. Amen!

Waiting, still

Waiting for a response is not easy. After texting someone I’m usually impatient to get a response from them. Anything. And when they don’t, my blood starts to boil!

This whole notion of texting etiquette is a new one, of course. Back in the days when you had to actually pick up a telephone — one usually attached by a cord to a wall — to reach someone, it was pretty normal to wait an hour or two, or even more, to get a call back. And heaven forbid, you should actually send a letter — through the mail! You could wait weeks, even months, to hear back.

So, why do certain people wait hours to text back? One expert says the answer is pretty obvious: The person at the other end isn’t interested in communicating with you. A slow, or ignored altogether, text response is at root an expression of social rejection, usually excused by the socially acceptable reason: people are too busy. (http://www.inquisitr.com/1412393/text-me-back/)

I’m confronted by the need to learn how to wait. When you don’t have control over the timing of another’s response, your waiting is about letting go and being ok in the present unknowing.

Waiting and not-knowing are valuable, and legitimate, characteristics of leading a faithful, Christian life. Which, at first, might sound counter-intuitive. Like: How can you have faith and also doubt?

Jesus validated Thomas’ doubting the resurrection (John 20:19-31). Jesus did not chastise Thomas for his need for evidence. In fact, he acknowledged Thomas’ demands by inviting him to touch the holes in his hands and side.

The curious thing is that the Scripture does not indicate Thomas actually touching the scars of Jesus’ wounds. He simply confesses his now belief: “My Lord and my God”. Thomas does not need to follow through on his condition for believing, which was putting his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side (v.25).

Jesus then underscores the point about having faith: Blessed are those who have not seen (i.e. have scientific proof) and yet have come to believe (v.29). Having faith is about not needing to have all the information, all the facts, all the evidence at one’s disposal. There’s a quality of faith that defies the rational, cognitive-centred, explanation-driven character of Christianity especially since the Reformation. It’s almost as if we have forgotten that faith is as the author of Hebrews puts it: “… the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).

The quality of knowing (i.e.) faith that does not need to ‘know’ is reflected in a life of peace. Because as long as we feel we need to fix everything, as long as we believe we have to explain everything, as long as we feel we need have all the information before we can have faith — I am convinced we are not a people at peace with ourselves, with one another, with the world and even at peace with God. Peace is, as the Apostle Paul put it, that “which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

After Jesus was raised from the dead, you’d think he would want to shoot straight to heaven to be at the right side of his Father. Why would he even want to bother with humanity – this frail, broken, weak, sin-infested form he shared with us for thirty-three years? His temporary break from blissful eternity was hard enough. Why would he want to relate any more with human beings who, in their own delusion and compulsion, murdered him? Why would he want to re-connect with his ‘friends’ who betrayed, denied and deserted him in his hour of need? He is, after all, the divine Son of God whose rightful place should be at God’s right hand in heaven, no?

The disciples didn’t need to wait long for Jesus to return to them. You could say, he didn’t ignore or put off their message of fear, doubt, longing and sadness. He responded right away, even though he wasn’t in his usual ‘human’ form — after his resurrection he walked through locked doors, appeared and disappeared into thin air and the such. Re-connecting was more important, though. He wanted to re-assure them.

The book of Revelation reveals the expectations of the early church: That Jesus was coming back soon, and very soon. “Look! He is coming with the clouds! … who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:7-8).

Indeed, the early Christians lived with the expectation of the immanent return of Jesus at his second coming. Of course, after two thousand years of waiting, Christians have learned how to live in anticipation when we don’t know exactly when that time is. We may still need to wait for a long time to come.

Nevertheless we have the promise of scripture that Jesus does care for us, and will not hesitate to come to us. So, perhaps God is trying to tell us something here. 

Perhaps the value of our faith is not just about when that time comes, down the road. Perhaps the value of our faith is not just about eternal life in the far-off distant future. 

Perhaps there is value in the waiting, itself. And when we get impatient or perplexed, perhaps there’s something we are not seeing in the here and now.

Perhaps Christ is coming back to us all the time, and we just don’t see it. In the sacrament, in the Body of Christ — the collective unity of the Church, in the relationships we share, in the ordinary events of our lives. What are the glimmers of grace, the rays of hope, the good that you see in others and in the world? Where is Christ present for you, in life, today?

I saw a framed quote on the living room wall of someone I was visiting this past week; and it said: Not every day is a good day, but every day has some good in it.

We are a waiting people, yes. But people who wait have a choice to make: we can either ignore, deny, get down on ourselves and the world; or, we can learn to appreciate, be thankful for, exercise gratitude — all those moments and experiences where, in truth, Jesus comes through the doors of our hearts locked in fear: And tells us, “Peace be with you.”