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.

Ordinary faithfulness

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:25-26, NRSV)

One reason the Stars Wars saga in the movies and on television has endured successfully over the years is because the themes in the story-telling resonate with ordinary life.

For example, the epic struggle between the dark side and the good side of the Force gets played out in entertaining fashion between the Sith lords and the Jedi masters. This war of fiction nevertheless resembles so much of how we perceive the struggles in our own lives, how we do battle with bad in our hearts and the evil in the world around us. It just goes on and on, already for some forty years, and never seems to end!

In the spin off TV series, “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”, a story is told of how Jedi younglings are trained in the Force in a ritual called “The Gathering”. In order to become full Jedi, they must build their own light sabres. Their light sabres are unique to the individual. Each one is built around a crystal which they have to retrieve on an inhospitable, cold planet.

A group of younglings is dispatched into an ice cave to harvest their crystal. In order to succeed, they must meet and overcome their deepest individual fear and greatest weakness. Fear of heights. Fear of monsters. Impatience. Being left behind. Their crystal becomes available to them once they endure this personal challenge, each to their own.

What is more, they must find their crystal and exit the cave in a few short hours before the entrance to it freezes over. Otherwise, they would have to wait a couple of weeks trapped inside without help until the next rotation of the sun would allow the ice entrance to melt open again. The clock is ticking.

Individual challenges. But a group effort. Before sending the younglings into the cave, Jedi master Yoda gives them their final instructions: “Trust yourself and trust each other you must.”

For some, this is the biggest problem. Most of the younglings run into the cave and work together in smaller groups, at least in pairs. One helps the other, and vice versa.

But for Petro, the young upstart, know-it-all youngling boy, he rushes in at breakneck speed and abandons the group immediately. He forges ahead giving the others the impression, again, that he doesn’t need anyone’s help.

Before you know it, he finds his crystal, or so he thinks. And, so he is the first one back outside the cave. But when Yoda inspects the crystal, it melts in his hand. It wasn’t a crystal he found on the tip of the cave’s stalactite, just some frozen water.

Petro needs to go back in and do it all over again. But now, time is against him. While he runs back through the main entrance of the cave, others are already returning from their search. He is worried and anxious now that he won’t have enough time.

Feverishly sprinting down tunnels and turning corners Petro doesn’t know what to do. Until he comes across one of his class mates, Ketuni, trapped behind a glass wall. Ketuni had been rushing herself to get to the entrance after finding her crystal. She had followed what she thought was a short cut from one of the larger caverns where her return passage was blocked. Just as she had recognized the main tunnel near the exit, she realized she was trapped. There was no way she had enough physical strength herself to break the glass wall. Neither did she have enough time to find another way around.

Ketuni is just about to give up, getting used to the idea of spending days alone in the cave when she notices Petro rush by. Ketuni calls, “Help! Get me out! Help!”. Petro faces her through the glass wall. “But I haven’t yet found my crystal. I can’t help you. I have to get going.” And so, preoccupied with his own agenda and needs, he darts off.

But seconds later, perhaps with a change of heart remembering Yoda’s initial instructions to work together, Petro comes back to the trapped Ketuni. Still without a crystal himself, Petro takes a sharp rock and breaks a hole through the glass wall big enough to let her out. “Thank you! I’ll help you find yours, now quick!” Ketuni says.

“No, No, you go. There isn’t enough time. Please, get yourself out!” Petro cries. Reluctantly, yet realizing the truth of what he says, Ketuni runs to the exit. At that moment Petro notices a crystal glimmering in the ice of the wall he just broke down to help his friend. In his willing sacrifice for her sake, he finds what he is looking for himself. By the end of the story, of course, Petro makes it out just in the nick of time.

One of the lessons learned from the story is the mutual blessing that comes from serving first the needs of the other as the way of finding your own true needs met. Our little friend needed to learn the value of trust in working together.

Star Wars, like many popular stories, are grandiose in order to get our attention and entertain us. Yet, the spiritual life, our pilgrimage of faith on earth, is anything but grandiose. Neither, by the way, is it entertainment. Because of the influence of our hyper-stimulated culture, we may be tempted to believe our faith, if it has any value, has to show itself in spectacular fashion.

We may be tempted to believe that if we have any faith at all, it has to be mass media worthy, go viral on the internet and make millions: a grand spectacle of sacrifice, of laying down one’s life, of doing what no one else could do. These extraordinary spectacles, unfortunately, can serve to keep us stuck in the rut of unbelief. “Well, we can’t do that,” we convince ourselves. And we give up. And don’t do anything for the sake of the common good.

But true faithfulness begins with the first, small, ordinary step. It begins with something we can do.

Twentieth-century Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt defined prayer, simply yet profoundly, as: “a long, loving look at the real.”[1] Long, because it is unhurried and quiet. Loving, because our connection with God, however we do it, is done in the context of love. Prayer is a look, because we do it being aware; we pay attention, simply. We don’t analyze, define or describe; we simply observe and acknowledge. Finally, prayer is real because it focuses on our daily life and what is ordinary.

So, what do we do to follow Jesus? How do we ‘lose’ our life? How can we find what we are looking for by looking to the needs of others? How can we move beyond being solely interested in our own individualistic well-being to those outside our families, friends, and immediate community?[2]

Reflecting on Burghardt’s definition of prayer, we can ‘look’ at what we already have. This requires us to slow down and pay attention, and quieting our compulsive, driven nature. Breathe. Because God is out there. God is present, even here. Even there.

One of our members asked recently a neighbor to describe what happens on and around our property on an average day. This, by the way, is prayer that is ‘real’ by focusing on what is ordinary. And the neighbor reported that between 2:30 and 3:30 every week day, about 30 kids on average, children of all ages, walk across our property from the bus stops along Meadowlands to their homes in the City View neighborhood. Thirty.

With presence of mind, our member asked the neighbor: What do they do when they walk across? Is there anything in particular that stands out in their behavior?

The neighbor said many of them like our benches outside the front doors. They like to sit and visit. They like to rest for a few minutes before continuing on their walk home.

When the member and I reflected on this, we realized there aren’t many, if any at all, public places in the neighborhood where people can sit awhile. Not only do we fill a need providing a place to sit, we encourage community-building, relationship-building right outside the doors to the church. How appropriate!

And for so many young people who are turned off the church, or at least afraid to enter into a church building these days, providing benches for young people to sit and visit sends a positive if subtle message about our identity and purpose as a church. It also sends a subtle yet real message of welcome.

This example is simple, ordinary, unspectacular. Yet, it is a first step in the right direction. As a community. Not as individuals doing our own thing. But, together, as a church.

And isn’t that what the walk of faith is all about? We can only do what we are able to do, together. And then, when we take the first step, we watch as the Spirit of God can surprise us and meet our own needs. All because we began by simply responding to the needs of others. Giving from ourselves, for the sake of others. That is, following Jesus.

We become “children of the light”[3], the Light who shines through us.

[1] Cited in James Martin, SJ, “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), p.114.

[2] James Martin, SJ, ibid., p.183-184

[3] John 12:36

Playing in Marriage

Philippians 4:4-9 / Isaiah 43:1-5a, 18-19

Whether it is soccer, or ballroom dancing, or dragon boating, or whitewater rafting –  is your marriage characterized with ‘play’?

I would say, this is a good thing. For each of you. And for the health of your marriage.

Given the way the institution of marriage has suffered some in recent decades, for me to stand here today to suggest we need to be more playful in our marriages may seem, at first, counterintuitive.

After all, this is serious business. Relationships are not something to be taken lightly. Marriage, in some religious traditions, is a sacrament. It is holy, godly, and to be held in the highest esteem.

We may be driven to feel guilty, then, when nothing short of perfection describes any partnership – especially one tagged by ‘marriage’.

Is it any doubt, then, why marriage is not looked upon anymore with the beauty and joy it deserves — for those who consider following its adventurous path?

So, it lands on us who are married, and getting married, to bear witness to its joy. And you have already done that for us.

But sometimes playing can be dangerous. Especially for those of us passing middle age. My sister-in-law warned me last year not to play soccer. Why? She claimed that she didn’t know anyone in their forties who played soccer who hadn’t seriously hurt themselves – a sprained knee, twisted ankle, even worse – broken bones. And, come to think of it, she’s right. Yup, she scared me out of it.

I suppose that’s one way of responding to any opportunity. We may dwell on the risks, fearing the rough and tumble realities associated with anything potentially good in life. And avoid it, pretending we can somehow go through life unscathed.

But is that even possible? And, will that way of responding to life bring joy and a deep, meaningful satisfaction to our lives?

I read recently about mountain goats who bound playfully along rock faces thousands of feet high. It is very clear that they, especially the younger ones, are playing. But the truth is, sometimes they fall. Mama mountain goat must be saying: “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”

You’d think that over time, these mountain goats would learn their lesson and stop dancing on cliff edges centimeters from their doom. Stop it, already! But they don’t. It is in their nature to play.

Scientists have speculated and studied this paradoxical characteristic of animals. And they have concluded that even though playing is potentially dangerous, it is still necessary. It is necessary because, for one thing, playing is practice for skills needed in the future (Stuart Brown, Play, 2009). An attitude of playfulness is necessary not only for our survival, but our health, our creativity, and building up a resiliency for later in life when challenges and difficulties escalate.

A healthy marriage is not supposed to be always sugar-sweet. There are times when difficulties, challenges and disappointments will arise in the relationship. Playing is dangerous, sometimes. But it also provides a way for learning how to deal with what may come down the road.

The most beneficial play, they say, is playing with another. It is with another person that we discover our true self. It is caring for another, seeing to their needs, forgiving another and being forgiven in which find our stride, personally and spiritually.

God knew this about us. That is why we are created the way we are: To be together; to cry together; to laugh together; to play together. It won’t always be easy; sometimes we get hurt. But that’s reality. And it’s worth the effort!

I suspect you two have already experienced how that feels, because you play together. And you give space for each other to enjoy each other’s company and explore further goals and aspirations.

May God bless you this day, and in the time to come. Play on!