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.

The fig tree calls out

Hear today some wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh:

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet, if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. 

“Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. This is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

When 21-year-old Sharif Said was gunned down near the Trainyards in Ottawa four years ago, his uncle spoke to the media on behalf of the family.[1]What surprised me in his testimony was how he defended not only his nephew, around whom rumours swirled that he was involved in a gang.

But then he defended those arrested for his nephew’s murder. He said that they were also victims. Khalid Mohammad and Abdulaziz Abdullah, both in their twenties and arrested for Said’s murder, were victims themselves of a “senseless violence”, the uncle said. As a result they could not value life as “precious”.

A subtle twist in the tone of the message changes the direction of the conversation about these things. Making sense of any criminal act, to begin with, can leave us confused and hopeless. And we desperately seek to be on the right side of ‘right and wrong’. We do that most effectively by assigning blame.

Then, you throw into the mix a statement coming from ‘the victim’ that offers sympathy to the perpetrators, a word that levels the moral playing field, we don’t know what to do with that.

Are we all, each and every one of us, part of a culture that creates these problems? Do we all participate on both sides—all sides—of the moral equation? Isn’t that too confusing and wishy-washy? Forgiveness, and mercy, wreak havoc on any common-sense pursuit for laying blame. An act of kindness and forbearance in the midst of senseless tragedy takes the wind out of retribution.

Admittedly, we may feel more at home with the way the ancient prophets used the image of a barren fig tree.[2]One way we tend to lean is towards despair. The prophet Micah feels lonely and depressed in the face of scarcity and evil:

‘Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered,      after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.’

Or, we lean towards vengeance. You can hear it in Isaiah’s tone when he speaks of his ‘beloved’ vineyard. Despite all his hard work to create conditions for abundant growth it yielded only wild, undesirable, grapes:

‘And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down …’

Indeed aren’t these the usual go-to’s when bad things happen to good people—we either slip into despair or shake our fists in anger against someone or something we blame?

When an Ethiopian airliner filled with people crashes and all are killed including eighteen Canadians onboard. When Galileans are slaughtered in cold blood by the hand of Pilate and the Tower of Siloam falls and kills innocent pilgrims at the pool of healing.[3]When randomly, bad things happen, and we can’t really make sense of it. Well, we try.

Do you despair? Or do you get angry and try to find who or what to blame? The people in the Gospel text today tried to get Jesus in on their blame-game and despair-mongering ways.

And Jesus comes back to the ancient, scriptural image of the fig tree again. When he first mentions the fig tree, the crowd must have gotten really excited. Because they knew where this story was going, knowing their prophets Micah and Isaiah: Despair. Vengeance. The lead-up sounds good.

But Jesus pulls the rug out from underneath their expectations. The twist Jesus offers to the familiar image of the barren fig tree is his emphasis on forbearance and mercy. Staving off a swift impulse to cut the tree down after three years of neglect and barrenness, the vineyard’s stewards will give the fig tree yet another year’s chance to bear fruit. The fig tree is given yet another second chance. The hope is that the fig tree will be rehabilitated.

It is important to note, moreover, that in the parable it is the gardener who allows for the possibility of fruitfulness. Not the fig tree. It can’t do anything, by itself. It is stuck in a cycle of barrenness (aka poverty, violence). First, the gardener has to plead his case, be the tree’s advocate, to the owner of the field. Then, the gardener has to do the work. By constant care, digging around the roots and applying manure, the gardener employs all the gifts and resources at their disposal to allow for a positive outcome.[4]

The fig tree calls to us. Who or what does the fig tree represent in our lives? Now, parables are not meant to be taken literally, so we can rule out any divine gardening tips here. This parable won’t appear in a google search for ‘how to grow a fig tree’.

Who is the barren fig tree in your life?

When and where do you sense in your life or another’s, a feeling of being at wit’s end? When all resources have been explored and used up. When a group of people or individual cannot to do it on their own any longer. When someone is stuck in cycles of behaviour that they cannot see the way out, by themselves. When a call for help is evident by a lack of fruitfulness in their lives.

You will notice that this parable comes to a rather abrupt end. The narrative is not neatly tied up into a certain, ‘happy’ ending. We just don’t know whether the fig tree will produce after all this advocacy and gardening work is done. You could say, it’s up to us to write the ending to this story. Will it be judgement? Or, salvation?

Every time we worship together, though, we pray not ‘mykingdom come’, not ‘our kingdom come’, but ‘Thy kingdom come’. Jesus tells a parable about a gardener determined to tend a fruitless fig tree because he is open to a future possibility that he does not control.

Our task, as American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry says it best, “is to labor, without having all the answers, to acknowledge the deep mystery of it all. The task of the disciple is to witness and then wait, to take our best step and leave the rest to God. We labor now for a future we are not meant to control.”[5]

When forgiveness and mercy dictate public discourse in the media and in response to horrific, tragic and painful events around the world and in our lives, we may not be able to explain it easily. But maybe that’s not our job.

Maybe our job is to seek understanding in the other, and thereby show our love. Maybe our job in the church and as Christians is to speak and work for God’s values for the sake of others amidst pain and suffering.

And in hope and trust, let God write the end of the story.

 

[1]cbc.ca, posted May 7, 2015

[2]Micah 7:1; Isaiah 5:1-7

[3]Luke 13:1-9, Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]Daniel G. Deffenbaugh in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.96.

[5]Michael B. Curry in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.95-97.