awe


{Wednesday of Holy Week, and another of the forty mugs of Lent 2017. If this is your first time here, and the mug thing seems odd, welcome to the cluSONY DSCb.}

This is the CinemaScope mug in the cupboard. Wide-mouthed. More for soup than for a hot drink. But it is a mug, so it fits the theme. It’s chipped and cracked, indicating some age. I’ve held onto it all these years because I like the earthy design. I see a landscape: sky above, blue-ridged mountains, green forests, and some brown woods, or soil. It’s the kind of view one might have after hiking up a neighboring peak, a gentle vista, a terrene panorama.

Unlike the phone-camera digital collections of “pics” that rarely if ever make it beyond the tiny device’s screen, my first photos were transparencies projected on a 50″ X 50″ movie screen in the family living room. My very first slides held no landscapes to speak of, at least not the view I imagine on the soup mug. Those pictures told the story of a large family, its everyday life, special occasions, the neighborhood. Even the summers we spent a week on Cape Cod didn’t produce photos of the Catskills or the Berkshires. We didn’t stop long enough to take in the views, and truth be told, as a kid I just wasn’t paying attention.

But once we traveled as far south as my grandmother’s home in western North Carolina, I started aiming my camera at the mountains, the lesser hills, and the landscapes that I had overlooked earlier. The cameras I had early on didn’t have many adjustments. They were inexpensive forerunners of today’s “point and shoot” cameras, and the cheaper color film I bought had little “latitude.” In other words, it wasn’t very forgiving, exposure-wise. Thus, my washed out scenery, a very pale representation of what my eyes had beheld. O beautiful for spacious skies, for kind of grayish waves of grain. So much for purple mountains’ majesty; my mountains were more mundane than majestic.

As I grew into adulthood, the cameras and film became more sophisticated and I traveled more. Living then in Virginia brought many landscapes into sight, and neighboring states had their own breathtaking vistas. When I started shooting video, I could pan and zoom (always slowly, always judiciously), and I could capture the breadth and width and depths of hills and valleys and rivers and lakes. Now in the digital age, if I have to, I can even improve upon the natural beauty of the earth’s scenic gifts.

One of my favorite movies is “Grand Canyon.” Danny Glover plays a lead character whose challenging urban existence in sprawling Los Angeles moves him to dream of going to the Grand Canyon. Not to merely escape the violent gangs in his neighborhood or to run away from personal and family issues, but to stand on the canyon’s rim and gaze into the wondrous spectacle of the river-carved panorama. Film critic Roger Ebert referenced L.A. as ominous and threatening, “an alienating landscape.” And the Canyon? For Glover’s character, and eventually for others in the story, the Canyon is that which is so immense in its grandeur that one’s own insecurities and worries seem petty and small. The dream is not a real escape, but the imagination’s way of seeing beyond, way beyond, present reality to a landscape of liberation. 528-1

I’ve stood there, on that rim, and while I wasn’t battling any demons at the time, I can attest that as you gaze out over the expanse, you are lost in wonder, almost breathless with awe. And you are the last thing on your mind. That was the power of the grand landscape for the characters in the film.

A recent journey west took us to three National Parks — Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone. Each breathtaking in its own way.  But I have to say that the vistas I’ve seen hiking the Appalachian Trail or having climbed Lookout Mountain in Montreat, NC were more literally breathtaking, because of the difficult paths we had to follow to reach the peaks. Rocky trails, switchbacks, steep climbs…expending energy, exuding determination. And once you have reached the mountaintop, there is no way you turn around right away and head back. You survey the broad geography of hills across and valleys below, of rivers that created canyons and of towns and farms and people below, people who may well be looking up at your mountain peak and thinking wow!

So, you linger. And catch your breath. And pray your gratitude for the beauty of the earth, for hill and vale and tree and flower, as the hymn goes.

We lived in northern Vermont for almost ten years, and never took the landscape for granted. I once asked Albert Urie, who had farmed there for sixty years or so, if he had gotten so accustomed to the scenic views that they were hardly worth a glance. “Never,” he replied. And then he pointed out and named each distant mountain range and peak seen from his front steps.

Whether snow-covered or bathed in summer greenery, the rolling hills and stony pasture land, the walks down the wooded Cemetery Road and the evening vigil we’d keep on Betty Patterson’s hill, looking toward distant Mount Mansfield —  that was our spiritual geography, akin to that found in the Dakotas so admired by Kathleen Norris.

I write these reflections in Lent, not always tying up theological loose ends as we head toward Resurrection Day. But today, I have to wonder about the landscape of Holy Week. Talk about hills and valleys! Palm Sunday was definitely a mountaintop experience for Jesus’ disciples. Everything was working out as they had hoped, and people, their people, their fans and followers, shouted acclamations of praise and prayer-songs for salvation. Hosanna!

But by mid-week, the tide had turned. Heading down the road, there was a deep, darkening valley looming. By Friday, they would see a garbage heap of a hill, a skull-like landscape for the execution of those who had violated or, better, crossed the ruling empire.

Saturday’s landscape will be empty. Just empty.

And on Sunday? It’s too early to tell. But there might be a garden. So full of life, it will be hard to believe. And a straight road to Emmaus we can walk together.

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{Mug-inspired reflections for Lent 2017…forty essays based on vessels found in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. I’m the first to admit the inspiration may come from mDSC05645.jpgore than the mugs.}

Look at this mug. It’s just a plain, ordinary mug. No imprint. No design. No marketing strategy at all. But it does the job for which it was intended with no ulterior purpose. It holds a healthy dose of morning coffee. As I think about it, I wonder where it came from and why we even have it. Maybe the printing has washed off through the years. Or, maybe it’s just one of those mugs we humans used to drink from before someone got the idea to embellish tumblers, beakers, and drinking glasses with art and slogans. The title of this reflection is apt, I think. This is just a plain old vanilla mug.

And you know what it reminds me of? The importance of getting back to basics. In fact, that’s something this Lenten period of forty days is good for, too. Getting back to basics. Removing clutter. Seeking quiet. Focusing on…well, almost anything. In this world of noisy distraction and destruction and obstruction, comes this instruction: focus. It’s simple. Just stop. Take a Sabbath breath or several in each hour, pause a few minutes each day, take a day a week, and stop. Stop the busyness. (Don’t worry; the world will continue to spin.) Just sit there. Or, lie there. Ever stood up in a corner before, leaning against those two walls. That can be very supportive. Really. Then, stopped, and breathing each breath as if it were the last, or the first, we can clear the mind and focus on one thing.

It probably doesn’t matter what that one thing is. An imaginary beach, a gentle breeze, looking out on an azure sea? The summit of a mountain overlooking a green vista of surrounding hills and river-carved valleys? How pleasant. But maybe the focus would be better directed toward a feeling of guilt, an unfortunate word, an expression of disappointment, a regret you had tried to escape, to cover over with daily clutter. That quiet moment can be used for escape or encounter. To evade an unpleasant truth, or to embrace a comforting thought. What is essential is to have stopped. To breathe. To focus. And to move toward healing. Simple, right?

Back to the flavor of the day: vanilla. Howard Johnson’s restaurants used to boast of 28 flavors of ice cream. Ben and Jerry’s may not have 28, but their flavors are exotic, clever, and very rich. The Kellam freezer usually contains five or six half-gallons of various flavors. Often, among those cartons, is plain vanilla. While we may enhance it with syrup of some sort (pure Vermont maple syrup is even better than chocolate), a scoop or three of vanilla by itself, unembellished, is more than just OK; it’s refreshing. And delicious.

But look at the variety of words we use to modify the vanillas of our lives: plain, old, dumb, stupid, flat, ordinary, dull, basic… But another word for basic is…pure.

In a previous blog, I quoted Irenaeus, a second-century bishop, who advised that “The glory of God is human beings fully alive.” I fear that for many of us, that “fully-aliveness” means busy, busy, busy doing lots of good and valuable and productive and fulfilling things. But, at least in the context of this plain, old mug (the one pictured here, not my face), I suggest tthTH7T65IPhat fully alive could also be the simple purity of life focused on this moment. A basic beauty, simple and true, like the climbing orchid of the Vanilla genus. It’s not exactly a rose. Not intricate, nor flashy.  A simple vine with not a particularly impressive bloom.

But it yields a flavor and aroma that can be rich, inviting, and ambrosial. When we first lived in Richmond, Virginia, we were just a mile or so from the Southern Biscuit Company where millions of cookies were baked, and the aroma of vanilla filled the whole neighborhood. Chocolate, peanut butter, almonds…they couldn’t make one’s mouth water like the wafting aroma of vanilla wafers baking there on the city’s north side. Plain vanilla gets back to basics.

I’ll admit there is a place for extravagance, embellishment, decoration, and the downright clever. A few blocks down the road from that cookie factory is the Byrd Theatre, a 1920s movie palace, gaudy and grand, and still open. It’s never been “restored,” just kept clean and polished, and updated only in technology. Last I knew, the Wurlitzer pipe organ still rose from the pit on weekends to play before the feature. I love that place. But more vanilla is a family showing home movies on a bed sheet in the living room. More vanilla is a grandfather telling his grandchildren about his paper route and his adventures in 6th grade. More vanilla is a 2nd grader reading her scrawled-in-crayon story to her Mom.

Joan and I spend a lot of our vacation time in grand cathedrals. New York. Berlin. Amsterdam. Awesome, sacred spaces filled with light from stained glass, magnificent pipe organs, tapestries and statuary, rich warm wood and soaring ceilings. We love those places. More vanilla is the white clapboard rural church with rustic benches and clear glass windows looking out on a pasture. More vanilla is the quiet worship of Friends, “Quakers” who have never debated music choices: traditional or contemporary? More vanilla is the backyard where a teenaged girl lies in the summer grass humming a private psalm to God.

The plain, the ordinary has a richness all its own. Here’s another quick reference to my Richmond singer-songwriter friend Steve Bassett. One of the first records he released was called “A Poor Man’s Life (Is a Rich Man’s Dream).” It was based on a familiar theme: simple is better. Getting back to basics means loosening bonds, becoming unburdened, letting go. Many who have too much (success, stuff, clutter) may find simpler living appealing. Not to glamorize the poor in spirit, or the hungry, or those living just on or over the edge, but their blessedness is evident to Jesus. His beatitudes may well be troubling, or at least puzzling, to both the rich and poor ones, those burdened by poverty and those burdened by riches. If we stop and take one of those Sabbath moments of peace and quiet, and focus on it, the meaning of being blessed may become more clear.

It’s Lent. A good time to consider a vanilla blessedness that transcends the trappings of what we thought was an abundantly rich life. I think that’s the truth, plain and simple.

 

 

{I’m writing each day in Lent 2017 about mugs. Really. When one is stuck for an idea, and the assignment (a selfie as it were) is to write forty meditations, and one reaches into the kitchen cupboard for a mug for the coffee that might spur an idea…hey…who needs coffee? I got these mugs! Quirky, I know.}

The mug pictured here is a souvenir from our second trip to Alaska. As you can see, I picked it up from the dsc07321Carl E. Wynn Nature Center in Homer. I also paid for it, I hasten to add.

Alaska is a favorite destination. Though it is not all wilderness, there is a lot of wild-ness there! A lot.

It is awesome. It is breathtaking, unspoiled, and refreshing, the latter especially noted when one is feeling stifled by traffic, crowded malls, and a Google calendar that won’t remain static for more than an hour. To hike through the Alaskan rainforest, to gaze over distant valleys at caribou herding along a river, to glimpse Denali as the clouds part briefly…even the panoramic function on my camera can’t take it in. And neither can my spirit.

I acknowledge that every state in the union has its wonders and some wilderness, even New Jersey. But nothing compares with the forty-ninth state and its majestic expanses.

Wilderness. The word is defined as “uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable.” Well…personally, I don’t find it all that inhospitable. I’m no camper, not much into roughing it. Maybe I wouldn’t be found hiking unmarked trails, too-heavy backpack and tent weighing me down as I dodge brambles and bears. (That’s one fear: not being found.) But there is something about a taste of wilderness, its natural beauty and innate risks, that is appealing, and rewarding.  Over and over on our trips to Alaska, as we looked out over the wilderness, we uttered that ancient word of Scottish derivation: wow!

Wilderness is a good word to think about during Lent. It is the very setting of those forty days Jesus spent away from family, hometown, synagogue, and all the other comforts of home. Lamar Williamson notes that wilderness is “the dwelling place of forces hostile to God, the residue of the primeval chaos that menaces human life.”  Almost by definition, and certainly by experience, wilderness is a place of struggle and testing. In other words, it might be a nice place to visit, if there’s a tour, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

The controversial film “The Last Temptation of Christ” portrayed the vision quest (if that’s what it was) of Jesus in a profoundly graphic way. click here to view it on YouTube  In contrast, “The Cotton Patch Gospel” musical has Jesus announcing with glee, “I passed!” He’d been driven by the Spirit into that wilderness, never absent from the presence of God within that wasteland, and attended to by angels at the end of those forty days. Lent is our sometimes desperate, sometimes pathetic, now and then sacred way to note his trials. So, we mark the days. We may fast, somewhat; we may meditate on holy scripture. Some of us will go it alone, but more will gather with friends-in-the-faith to worship together at special times; and some will take on various spiritual practices that follow Jesus into the lives of the broken and hungry and fearful.

And I write of mugs.

But seriously, I’m hoping, very sincerely, that I can see in the days ahead, something in the everyday-ness of life that leads me to ponder the rare-ness of spiritual wonders, whether in the wilderness or here in my comfortable computer-equipped nook. Thanks for joining me in the journey. Let it not be a wasteland.

 

 

 

 

 

[One of my favorite programs in the “Spirit of Jazz” half-hour radio series centered on “Mystery.” The series originally aired in the early 1990s, syndicated to a handful of stations in larger markets by the Presbyterian Media Mission of Pittsburgh. I added a few new programs when the older shows played on an internet station in 2011-12. This script was one of the last among the newer programs.]

This week on “The Spirit of Jazz” we consider a sense of mystery.

Not the kind of mystery that we’d call a “who-done-it?” or a crime that Jethro Gibbs and his NCIS team would be involved in solving. No, let’s go deeper… like the mystery of life itself…not in order to come to any solution or ultimate understanding, nor to draw even a preliminary conclusion…but just to admit that there IS mystery, and that it’s perfectly OK to confess that we possess no key to unlock its secrets. That which we do not, will not, cannot understand – let us merely name it, embrace it, be grateful for it, and draw power from it.

As we begin, here is the jazz classic from Thelonius Monk: “Mysterioso.”

[music plays] and then…

I’ve been thinking about the mystery of it all recently. And I suppose the older I get, and I am getting pretty old, the more comfortable I am with the whole idea of “not knowing.” Maybe all of us who are well along in years are becoming more like children in that way. To the very young, isn’t almost everything a bit of a mystery?  Why is the sky blue? Where did I come from? Most of us who have raised children remember that constant question: why? At some point we ourselves may have stopped asking, but never, I hope, stopped wondering  — questioning, searching, puzzling —  why are things the way they are? Isn’t the brain a mysterious thing? What will death be like? How does reiki work?  Or, does it?Why did my friend Mark get cancer? Why…well, why a lot of things!

Now, admittedly, some folks are not amused by this “mystery” stuff. They don’t like encountering things they don’t understand, can’t explain, or fully quantify.  We live in a world of black and white, with not much room for gray, and rarely a tint of color. But mystery is so cloudy, and so colorful, and so full of gifts that keep us wondering and in awe of possibilities, and thankful, if we have the imagination to consider it, for all we do not know and may yet grow into. You want all the answers? No way is God going to let that happen!

What is the question you are dealing with right now? What’s the mystery you are confronting as this minute passes into the next? Here’s some mystery music to use as your soundtrack to wonder with: Pianist Marcus Roberts, and “Mysterious Interlude.”

[Music plays] and then…

That does sound mysterious, doesn’t it? From his CD called Deep in the Shed, Marcus Roberts and “Mysterious Interlude.”  On the Spirit of Jazz, we’re considering the meaning of mystery.

The rabbi and author Lawrence Kushner once wrote: The first mystery is simply that there is a mystery. A mystery that can never be explained or understood. Only encountered from time to time. Nothing is obvious. Everything conceals something else….Spiritual awareness is born of encounters with the mystery.

Fred Brussat liked how a French writer put it: There is nothing beautiful or sweet or great in life that is not mysterious. And Brussat adds, “The erotic touch that stirs our desire, the majesty of a rainbow from horizon to horizon, the feelings of power in a sacred place, the voice of a deceased ancestor in our ears, the unconditional love of a pet… all mystery.

That mention of the rainbow is interesting. It’s not really the mystery it used to be, because science has explained it all to us, and if we didn’t learn the science of it in school, there’s always Wikipedia. And yet, who doesn’t stop to look at the wonder of the rainbow. Its beauty can’t be explained.

While the Higgs boson may not be the mystery it used to be, won’t it continue to mystify and defy our human understanding for a very long time to come? Will wonders never cease? No. And that’s why mystery is such a gift.

Some more thoughts after this jazz from  our Spirit of Jazz “house band,” Bill Carter and the Presbybop Quartet, from the 2-CD set “Psalms without Words”  — “Deep Calls unto Deep,” from the 42nd psalm that expresses deep thirst for the face of God.

[music plays] and then…

“Deep Calls Unto Deep”… with composer Bill Carter on Piano, and Al Hamme on sax.

One of my favorite authors and theologians is the Presbyterian Frederick Buechner. In one of his older books called Wishful Thinking he writes,

“There are mysteries which you can solve by taking thought. For instance a murder-mystery whose mysteriousness must be dispelled in order for the truth to be known.

There are other mysteries which do not conceal a truth to think your way to, but whose truth is itself the mystery. The mystery of yourself, for example. The more you try to fathom it, the more fathomless it is revealed to be. No matter how much of your self you are able to objectify, and examine, the quintessential, living part of yourself will always elude you, i.e., the part that is conducting the examination. Thus, you do not solve the mystery, you live the mystery. And you do that by not fully knowing yourself but by fully being yourself.

To say that God is a mystery is to say that your can never nail [God] down. Even on Christ the nails proved ultimately ineffective.” So wrote Fred Buechner.

Now, here’s music from the Yellow Jackets: this is entitled “Enigma.”

[music plays] and then… to be continued tomorrow.

I hope this image doesn’t say “Monday” to you. It wasn’t meant to. When I chose it for today’s reflection, I just liked the layers of trees, hills, and clouds seen on a Vermont walk. As I enter the final week of this Lenten discipline of mine — taking a picture from decades of film and digital images I’ve taken and writing whatever those images suggest– I realize I have spent far more words on celebration than on lament. But today…a look at the “dark side.”

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The hills of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont

This cloud formation is a far cry from the wispy cirrus clouds that add a harmless white spray on an otherwise clear blue sky day. This looks dangerous, or at least ominous. It casts everything into shadow, even one’s disposition if we let it. Since I am aware of the area geography in that part of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, I know we are facing west, and the sunset is hiding behind that thick, stormy formation. We had hoped for beauty, but instead found wonder as we walked.

I went looking through the Bible for some references to darkness (because that’s what we preachers tend to do). The Prophets saw darkness as consequence for the waywardness and sin of God’s people. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah…all used darkness as metaphor for that which covered over the light of God. Isaiah 59:9 sums it up:

Therefore justice is far from us,

and righteousness does not reach us;

we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;

for brightness, but we walk in gloom.

Darkness also stood for silence in the Hebrew scriptures, the silence of prophesy and the silence of God, pretty much the same thing. (Micah: “The sun shall go down over the prophets, and the day shall be dark over them.” 3:6)

In the New Testament Jesus comes as the Light of the World, as John’s prologue says, and the darkness would not overcome it. Except that one day, when nails pierced flesh, breath gave out, and Luke says, “There was darkness over all the earth.” Other New Testament writings affirm the triumph of the light in the age that followed the resurrection of Jesus, from the gospels to Revelation, and his followers “walk as children of light.”

But there’s another caveat here, and I believe this is the lesson for our day. “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.”(1 John 2:9) Hate is a strong emotion; the Greek word here can also mean “detest.” I confess that I may be guilty of that from time to time, keeping in mind that we aren’t talking about biological siblings here, so much as our Christian family. And that covers a wide variety of sometimes, um, detestable characters: that TV evangelist; that candidate; that guy with the offensive (to me) bumper sticker on his pickup truck.  As I said, I am guilty of those dark feelings. I confess. Help me, O Lord, to repent. I want to walk as a child of the light, as the song says.

Another look at that hidden sunset from Vermont reveals more than a little hope, it turns out. There is light that still shines, and will overcome, as the clouds disperse. And the clouds always, always, disperse. Even in Portland. Even in Binghamton. So, if we look beyond the trees and the hills, and behind the clouds, there is light! And it will win. Even if it takes until sunrise.

Praise God because the dark is never the end, the end is light, and the light has already broken through into the world out of the very heart of the world’s darkness, which is the cross of the world’s suffering. And it will break through again, as sure as, far off down the road, the rider comes again his weary, lonesome way.           –Frederick Buechner

Lent 2016 takes me into my collection of photos, letting my lifelong hobby provide prompts for some reflective writing. Today, another view from a railroad trip through the Canadian Rockies. A flower. DSC03556.JPG

Once again, I see more now than when I first focused the camera. This plant is called fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium). Look carefully. Take your time. See the progression in its bloom. The flowering is slowly moving up the stem. Toward the lower stem, the bloom is extinguished. In the middle, a bee has found nectar in the fullness there. And at the top: the future will bloom. The evolution of a wildflower.

Educator Ron Cram, a colleague at the former Presbyterian School of Christian Education, had a deep appreciation for weeds. Ron even built his own magnificent large format camera so he could photograph (both capture and free) the  beauty of the colorful blooms that sprung from weeds, or as we more kindly call them, wild flowers.

Ron Cram and I produced a video titled “Consider the Lilies” in which Ron convincingly used the comeliness and grace of those weedy wildflowers as metaphor for the members of the human family whose value is overlooked, discounted, ignored, or ridiculed. God sees the poor, the needy, the oppressed differently than we who place such value (or misplace such value) on celebrity, fashion, success, and surface attractiveness.

If I’d had the budget for it, I’d have gotten permission to use the 1973 Skylark hit “Wildflower” in that video, for it builds on the same metaphor, seeing one hurting person as “a free and gentle flower growing wild.”

So there’s that fireweed. Weed. But lovely. And from what ground does it spring? An ice field. The blurry background of this photo is a massive glacier. It’s the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park, Alberta. When I took this picture, I focused on that one lovely, pink, fragile weed, blossoming — and standing against the icy gray-blue background of the mighty glacier. Seemed to work well at the time.

But look again. Not just with eyes, but with mindful appreciation of what is happening here. There is no little irony in this situation. The glacier is fading. Shrinking. Dying. Global warming is sending those glaciers into extinction, scientists warn us. But the little wildflower? Appearing so fragile? It will still flourish after the glacier has receded even further than it has over the past generations. As the ice melts, the weed persists. It will blossom. And the bee will have its nectar. The little weed wins.

Until it’s all under water. And the bees disappear.

This may be a lovely photograph. I think so anyway. But it is also a sign. Let those with eyes to see…see. And understand that our wild excesses are changing our planet. Today we can wonder at and celebrate the beauty of the wilderness, but as earth becomes more barren, future generations may wonder only at our stupidity and greed.

There are signs we cannot ignore.

 

 

If God had time to watch the evening news, or rather, the inclination (figuring that “time” isn’t even in the equation for the Almighty), I would think that at the end of every single newscast an angel would appear, saying: Do not be afraid!

That might help counter the constant assault of scary news that viewers endure night after night, or whenever they watch the news. Today’s news carries threats of a nuclear attack from North Korea as well as a warning from Great Britain that a massive terrorist assault could happen there soon.

The news itself is scary, yes; but so are the commercials to which viewers are delivered. Most of the drug sponsors have to list all the frightening things that can happen if you actually use the medicine.

So we come away scared. Well, except for the heartwarming story at the end, usually something about kids, pets, or veterans.

Anyway, for most of it, we need an angel-announcer from God to repeat the message angels sing/say/exhort almost every time they show up in the Biblical story: Don’t be afraid!

What got me thinking about angelic messengers? This photo. When I took this picture of frost on the bathroom window of the house where we lived in Ithaca, I saw those neat icy patterns of course. But when I looked more closely at the print and used some imagination, I saw angels!IMG

Now granted, they are the wispy, fragile-looking white-winged angels you might see in “Angel’s Magazine” (there must be one) or someplace else that features pictures of clouds or sun rays that cast an angelic host over pious believers. (Funny. If I’m not one of those looking for such seraphic visions, why did this bit of frost suggest “angels?”)

We once-in-the-mainline church folk don’t think about angels very often. It’s mostly around the Christmas story that those heavenly messengers show up in our preaching. Mary gets the “Don’t be afraid” greeting, as does Joseph. Jesus is born and angels bring the news to shepherds, beginning with “Don’t be afraid…” and ending with the hovering (I assume) host singing “Glory…and peace…”

There are many other Biblical references to angels and very often their introductory words are to dispel fear. I would imagine that the sudden appearance of an uninvited, unexpected intruder might strike fear in anyone, no matter what the visitor looked like. Wispy? Winged? Or, ugly as sin (so to speak). Yes, what if angels were gruff-looking guys with about a six day growth of beard, fiery eyes, and a couple of front teeth only an orthodontist could love.  We really don’t have complete physical descriptions of these beings, not even clues to their gender…if angels even have such a thing. Maybe they are ugly. No wonder they’d have to tell their clientele to not be scared.

The gospels of Matthew and Mark have angels caring for Jesus at the end of his forty day desert retreat. No word on what they said or did, or what they looked like; just the mention that they showed up and “waited on him.” I’ll bet he was glad to see them.

Even if you don’t believe in angels, I’ll bet you’d be glad to see one, right? At just the right time? With just the right message.

I’ll close this reflection with one of my favorite takes on angels, from Frederick Buechner. He wrote, “Angels are powerful spirits whom God sends into the world to wish us well. Since we don’t expect to see them, we don’t. An angel spreads his glittering wings over us, and we say things like, ‘It was one of those days that made you feel good just to be alive’ or ‘I had a hunch everything was going to turn out all right’ or ‘I don’t know where I ever  found the courage.’

Wispy shapes or “glittering wings” … or just a friend who shows up at the right moment to say, “Hey, I’m here; don’t be afraid.” A God-sent spirit, to be sure.

 

 

 

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