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.

Gospel, Italian style

On the Sunday before I left for a family vacation to Italy, you encouraged me to — “know your history”. I think that message came to me mostly during the children’s chat when we talked about the Canadian flag on my backpack, and why Canadians had been so well appreciated and admired in western Europe, especially, over the past several decades.

The conversations then, as well as following the service over coffee, reinforced to me the value you place upon ‘history’ in general. 

Well, Italy is not exactly the hotbed of Reformation, Protestant Christian history as such. At the same time, the buildings there stand clearly as testimony to the dedication of Christians in certain times and places in history.

It was the first day we walked in the older section of Naples — a sprawling metropolis at the base of Mount Vesuvius on the Mediterranean coast — when I began to feel this history pressing in the air all around me.

I say sprawling because Naples is today the most densely populated urban centre in all of Europe; some 8,500 people inhabiting one square kilometre in a metropolis of nearly four million people — making it the third largest city in Italy, and the ninth most populous urban area in the entire European Union.


The noise was overwhelming: the hustle and bustle of pedestrians, car horns beeping, motorcycles and mopeds buzzing, shouting street vendors, impassioned conversations, two-toned emergency sirens, barking street dogs, screeching tires.

In conrast, the neo-Gothic styled ‘duomo’ in Naples offered a welcome break to this outside clamour. 

The expansive interior spaces of this main cathedral embraced silence and only hushed speech. You could occasionally hear the squeak of rubber-soled shoes and someone dropping a book on the stone and marbled flooring as people sat and wandered solemnly throughout the holy spaces.

Perhaps the most significant feature of this cathedral is the baptistery, which is the oldest baptistery in the world, built in the fifth century, C.E. It is remarkable to connect with such an ancient symbol in a material form. 

When the baptized emerged from the water, looking upward at the ceiling, they would be encouraged in their faith; the first images they saw after being baptized were scenes from the Gospel expressed in Byzantine, mosaic art: Jesus saving Peter from drowning, the women at the empty tomb, the miracles of the multiplied fish, an image of Saint Paul, the Apostle, etc.

Seeing with my own eyes and touching with my own hands this font that was built by human hands only a few hundred years after Jesus, affirmed my conviction in the longevity and validity of the sacrament which has endured as profoundly meaningful for Christians throughout the millennia. 

I felt that faith is not just about the good old days when I was young, but the good old days when the Christian faith was younger. We are part of something much larger than our immediate reality. And, when we connect with that broader history, we realize it wasn’t always peaches ‘n cream and rose-coloured a history.

If you are movie watcher, you might recognize another cathedral we visited — the Duomo in the Umbrian, medieval town of Orvieto. 


This cathedral was featured in the opening scenes of Under the Tuscan Sun. This cathedral’s highlight is the Chapel of San Brizio, featuring Luca Signorelli’s brilliantly lit frescoes of the Day of Judgment and Life after Death. 

Although the frescoes refer to themes of resurrection and salvation, they do so through images not from the bible (that is, stories from the Gospels or Old Testament) but from the turbulent political and religious atmosphere of Italy in the late 1400s. Signorelli told the story of faith through his contemporary human events, rather than the traditional symbols (such as Jesus, God, the Trinity, the Apostles, disciples and other biblical characters) that we see in most other places.

Those frescos in the Orvieto cathedral chapel were snapshots of an historical era particular to a specific time and geo-political reality (i.e. 15th century Italy). And the impression of faith put ‘on it.’ Historical to us. Yet current to those who built that Cathedral in the Midlle Ages.

Faith is more than merely appealing to our past. Coming to worship today is not just about being reminded of something or someone from a long time ago. What we do here today is not just an exercise in recalling historical facts. As if decisions we make today are really not about faith. When we talk about our building renovations, worship practice and art, musical choices, communion, budgets, outreach initiatives  — these issues are very mcuh about the Christian faith ‘in the real world’, so to speak. All of these real things do reveal what we believe in, our values, what is important to us, who we are. How do these ‘mundane’ decisions reflect the Christian Gospel, faith, kindgom values in this time and place?

Lutherans make a similar mistake, I believe, when we define ‘Lutheranism’ as a belief/doctrinal system that is limited to the words and conceptual formulations of sixteenth century Germans. When we say that to be Lutheran is merely to ‘turn the clock back’ to 1537 when the Book of Concord was finally assembled including Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, the Augsburg Confession, and the Apology to the Augsburg Confession.

I prefer a view that is reflected in the Evangelische Kirche Deutschland’s (EKD) logo for 2017, “Celebrating 500 years of Reformation”. Five hundred years of Reformation. In other words, Reformation started happening — in our tradition — with Martin Luther, yes. 

But, Reformation continued through the 500 years following, and continues to this day and beyond. We are always reforming the forms and means by which we express our evangelical, Gospel-centred faith. Always finding new and creative ways to tell the story of God.

What can we say, then, about Christian history? If we can apply a macro view over the ages, we can say that the history of the Christian faith is about a God who loves us. Christian history is about a God whose compassion never fails, who “will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9) — even though the people of God continue to keep “sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols” (v.2).

The history of the Christian faith is about our lives being “hidden with Christ in God”, being “revealed with Christ in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4), dying daily to ways of sin and being renewed daily in Christ who “is all and in all!” — even though we are imperfect and sin as long as we hold breath. Christ is all and in all — despite us!

The history of the Christian faith is about how each moment of history — including this one right now — reflected Jesus’ love in the fifth century, the fourteenth century, the 21st century in Palestine, Egypt, Italy, Canada, etc. God for all times and places!

We validate the Christian faith by our lives today, now. This is where the rubber hits the road. This in-the-moment approach fuelled the generosity of medieval Catholicism represented in the magnificent building projects for worship as much as it did the passion and commitment of European Christians during the Reformation era.

We do not leave the practice of faith for some distant, utopic and dreamy future. Neither do we rest on the laurels of the tremendous sacrifices made by our forebears in Canada. 

Now is the time. Now is the time to live out of the conviction of God’s grace and love, despite the many and various ways Christians have messed up in history, and continue to do so today. Now is the time to live out of the faith that is full of hope, that despite our waywardness and unfaithfulness, God is faithful. Now is the time to claim God loves us, not because we are good, but because God is good. God is so good!

You know Jesus’ familiar exhortation, most often translated as “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Christians have often interpreted this word ‘perfection’ as being made whole. 

A much better translation might be: “be merciful.” Because this verse comes right at the end of a passage calling Christians to “love your enemies” (v. 43-48). Only God is perfect. But we can participate in God’s perfect mercy, God’s all-inclusive and impartial love.

Echoing Saint Paul’s words from the Epistle today (Colossians 3:11 — “Christ is all and in all”) St. Bonaventure later said, “Christ is the one whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” [1] 

Christ’s mercy is everywhere evident in history. This is the Wholeness, the forgiveness, the grace, that holds you forever and everywhere. You can’t figure this Wholeness out rationally, nor can you control it. All you can do is fall into this Wholeness that holds you when you stop excluding, even the dark parts of yourself. [2] And that, my friends, is the Gospel — good news — for all times and places.

Thanks be to God!

1- Alan of Lille, ‘Regulae Theologicae’, Reg. 7 as quoted by Bonaventure, translated by Ewert Cousins, “The Soul’s Journey into God”, Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press: 1978), p.100

2- Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation on the Spirituality of Imperfection” Week 2 – Perfection of Wholeness, Thursday, July 28, 2016

The roominess of God

Perhaps even more so that the images of the gate, sheep pens and pastures green, the metaphor of a room speaks more relevantly to us, today. Jesus says that he goes ahead to his “Father’s house” to prepare a room for each one of us (John 14:1-3).

Given the average rental costs of a one-bedroom apartment in Ottawa today is close to $1000/month; given that real estate values in Canada today are scrutinized by some economists as being over-priced, where the average single-dwelling house is almost $400,000 — the physical space we call home and the rooms we inhabit are, to say the least, costly.

We place a high value on our housing. And therefore our ears are piqued to hear a comforting word of promise from the lips of Jesus: at the end of the journey, each of us has a place in God’s house.

I remember my first trans-Atlantic plane-ride as a 10-year old when my family travelled to visit family in Germany. It was a long day and short night complete with sounds and sights and senses I had never yet experienced. Sensory overload!

When we arrived at my aunt’s house in Germany, exhausted yet exhilarated, she immediately showed us to our rooms. And even though it was the start of a new day, I appreciated the chance to be all by myself, in my own room prepared just for me, on the ground, still and silent. The peace and comfort of my room was a welcomed contrast to the hyper-stimulation of the long journey there.

One of the things I learned from the experience of long-distance travelling is that time gets all mixed up. My sense of the passage of time gets either accelerated or elongated when crossing multiple time zones in a day. And that can be disconcerting to the body. We call it jet lag. And there’s nothing like a place we can put down our suitcase and put up our feet to cope with the dis-orienting trouble of travel.

Jesus promises his disciples who face the trouble of loss — the loss of his physical, bodily presence with them — he promises them that God the Father has room for them. Indeed, God is ‘roomy’.

But, as some thinkers emphasize, God’s roominess has more to do with the time God has for us (Robert Jensen in Colin Gunton, “The Doctrine of Creation”, 1997, p.24). Time can be defined as: room in God’s own life. God is roomy, in that God’s eternity is not separated from our time on earth and its boundary of death; rather, God’s roominess is God having all the time he needs. The Psalmist expressed this concept of time, poetically: “For a thousand years in your sight, O God, are like yesterday when it is past” (90:4).

What troubles Jesus’ disciples is the very real sense that their time with Jesus has come to an end. Indeed we have the same trouble vis-a-vis our loved ones. Time, we perceive, is brief. Its brevity robs us of those we love.

The plots of most of the stories we enjoy reading and watching on the big screen today excite us because they are charged with the scarcity of time. The main characters are up against a deadline. If time runs out before they complete their quest, then all is lost forever. The dramatic thriller normally has a climax where the proverbial ticking time-bomb must be deactivated before total devastation.

The scarcity of time stokes our fear, and guides our decisions. We hear this a lot in our daily conversations. Marketing gurus capitalize on our fear of running out of time: “This special offer ends today!” “Get yours before time runs out!” We also hear this line of argument expressed in popular religion — “Before time runs out on your life, accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour — or else!” The result of living this kind of approach is fear-based.

It also assumes, in the end, when time runs out, it’s all up to us. We forget in all the fear and anxiety, that Jesus had all the time in the world for his disciples. Remember, Philip was one of the first of all of his disciples to follow Jesus (John 1:43). And yet here we see Philip, who had spent three years with Jesus, not getting it. Philip still does not really know Jesus, who tells him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (John 14:9)

And it’s to those very disciples, like Philip, Thomas and Peter who doubt, who deny, who sometimes express their belief boldly, and sometimes don’t — it’s to those very disciples Jesus promises nonetheless: God has a room for you in his house. Jesus, despite their unbelief, comforts them in their grief at his leaving them, and promises them God’s eternal presence.

Who among us knows Jesus? Does knowing Jesus coincide with an inward assent to church doctrine or written creed? Or, is it more than that? Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, writes, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” What John is getting at in his Gospel is that believing is expressed more as an outward and active commitment to a person, the person being Jesus (Cynthia Jarvis in Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 2, p.467).

We know God by God’s initiative in Jesus Christ. We are not the actors; God is not known to us because Jesus is dependent on the exercise of our cognitive abilities. No one has ever seen God; we know God only by Jesus’ self-revelation to us in love and grace.

In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther, in response to the First Commandment — “I am The Lord your God, you shall have no other God’s before me” — Luther poses the question: What does it mean to have a God? He answers that God is what you hang your heart upon.

Hang your heart upon Jesus. When the journey of life goes haywire and you are disoriented by grief, loss or great personal challenge.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, when time appears to be running out.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, trusting that his presence is in you when you reach out into the homeless world to house those who do not have a room.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, being the hands and feet of Christ, sharing his love for those in want.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, who leads the way, and is in us through life and death.

Because God has a room for you. And God has all the time in the world, for you.