>Wounded Angels

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(“The wounded angel,” Hugo Simberg)

Hebrews 13:2:

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

People’s Facebook status reports can be interesting, at times–not so much for what they say, but for the stories they remind us of in our own lives.

I had that experience this morning. A friend of mine recently celebrated her third year of remaining alive after a massive stroke in 2007 almost ended her life. Her story is a tale in itself. She had essentially no known risk factors. She was relatively young for this to have happened. She had been given virtually zero chance of surviving it. Her doctors had told her husband that if she did survive it, she would very likely be severely cognitively impaired. Given the fact that she is a writer by trade, death seemed like a better option. Yet she not only survived, she is pretty much the same person she was prior to the stroke, if you had known her before vs. after. She will tell you she notices some cognitive deficits, but it ultimately did not affect her ability to make a living with words.

She credits me with something I know that I truthfully don’t deserve–having saved her life. For some reason, I had called her early the morning of her stroke and not reached her. It was the result of one of my habits that actually annoys my friends. The urban legend among my friends is that I don’t sleep. (Well, actually I do, just not as much as most people.) As a result of my odd hours up, my friends often become annoyed with me, as I have a habit of “calling people when I think of something.” That might be at 6 a.m., or it might be at 11:30 p.m., with an occasional blind eye to the time zones.

That phone call, although not answered, awakened her husband, who noticed she was not able to be aroused. She had suffered the stroke in her sleep, and his prompt action resulted in her being promptly treated.

More than once she has credited my phone call as the key event that started the ball rolling that ultimately saved her life. I am always reluctant to feel good about that credit, because I did nothing except behave like the annoying pest that I can be when I suddenly am inspired by my thoughts. Yet in her life, I am viewed upon as if I were an angel.

These are always hard things to swallow, and I don’t think it’s just me. I listened to another person’s story recently of discovering being referred to as “beloved” in what was otherwise a very circumspect account of a situation. Most of us don’t handle well the mantle of being the angel in the room. Why is that? Don’t we believe in an incarnate God? Don’t we believe in the spark of the divine in each of us? Sure we do…as long as we are talking about someone ELSE.

It’s so much harder to see our own divine stuff, because we think we know every single thing we have done wrong, every error, every single person we’ve hurt. If we extrapolate beyond that, we lean in the negative direction–we think of all those sins we probably committed we don’t know about, rather than the good we did that we don’t know about. It’s so much easier to believe in The God Who is Disappointed in Us, rather than The God Who Loves Us Unconditionally–because we know we are incapable of that kind of “unconditionally.”

When I see all the angel-related merchandise out there, I am struck by how we default to making these images of angels “someone who I’ll never be.” It’s like the first time I remember seeing a Barbie doll as a child. I was immediately struck with a huge pang of “I’m not her.” Not only, “I’m not her,” but “…and there is no way I will ever be her, so why bother?”

Yet I point to people who have truly been the angels in my life, and others point to me and do the same thing, and I can’t believe we aren’t all seeing the same thing. We see the Incarnation in each other when we are incapable of seeing it in ourselves…and maybe that’s okay. It’s probably dangerous to be too full of one’s own Incarnation–pathological, in fact, because to do that diminishes our capability to see it in others.

So there we are, a squad of wounded angels, carrying each other around on stretchers and pushing each other in wheelchairs, and crutching along with a steady human hand on our shoulder. The God Who is Disappointed in Us would never stand for such a thing…but The God Who Loves Us Unconditionally simply laughs and says, “I intended that, you know.”

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>It’s that time of year again

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This past Sunday, we did something at church which the Episcopal Church does every year on the first Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday designated to commemorate the Baptism of Our Lord–we renewed our Baptismal Covenant. Of course, since it contains several sentences of the Apostle’s Creed, it doesn’t seem very “different” except for a few sentences, compared to our usual weekly habit of reciting the Nicene Creed. But I like doing it just the same because it reminds me to treat our baptisms as beginnings instead of “be alls and end alls.”

It’s kind of interesting when you hear Christians of different ilks discuss baptism. First, there are the “baby baptizers” and the “non-baby baptizers.” Then there are the sprinklers vs. the dunkers. There are the “you do it to be saved” crowd and the “Naw, it’s different than that,” crowd. But the bottom line is that one should probably never think of their baptism as anything “final.” It’s way more a “beginning.”

I often think about how the same thing takes us to somewhat different places, whether it is an infant or child who is baptized vs. an adult.

Baptism of infants and small children, in addition to welcoming the child into our church family, reminds us that, yes, we ARE our brother’s keeper. When we help recite the Baptismal Covenant, we are saying that “yes, it does take a village to raise a child.” We are taking on the responsibility that we will care for and teach this little person what he or she needs to know to grow in Christ. That is an awesome responsibility, and how many times do we really HEAR those words or take them seriously beyond a few mumbled repetitions of “I will, with God’s help?”

When we participate in the baptism of an adult, we are affirming a person’s conscious decision to turn towards Christ and learn the skills of obedience to God.

I marvel how baptism is “same yet different” for those two groups of people who “come to the waters” in the setting of our church.

When you really get to hearing what we say every year, during the annual renewal of our Baptismal Covenant, we are talking “no small feat.” Some really tough questions are posed. Let’s look at three of them in particular.

1. “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”

We give a lot of lip service to things, but that “proclaiming by example” is a very tricky proposition. It means we might actually have to change our ways in some fashion. That can be a bit scary.
2. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”

Oooo. That can be a double edged sword, there. That vow is so easy when all one thinks about is “seeking and serving Christ among folks who are “our kind.” But what about those who are not, in a socioeconomic sense? It also implies we have to do this with people we really don’t like, or people who have harmed us, or people who have nothing more to do with us any more, or people who make us uncomfortable. Sigh. It sounds so easy. But human nature being what it is, it’s really quite challenging.

3. “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

This is another one of those places where the rubber meets the road in terms of, “How willing are we to act upon the two parts of this vow?” What do a lot of us do, really, in terms of this “striving” other than throw money at it? How well do we truly respect the dignity of people we don’t understand, or the poor, the homeless, or the truly oppressed in this world?

You know, it’s odd. When someone is actually being baptized at the time we repeat these vows, I never think of the depressing aspects of all this. I’m so happy for the person being baptized, I respond joyfully to these questions. I am so incredibly gung-ho about it.

But when we recite them in the annual renewal of these vows, I realize just how woefully, incredibly short I come up on these…and I am reminded these are VOWS, not just helpful suggestions. I realize in an overwhelming way that I have not lived up to my promise to God in so many of these things.

It is at that moment, though, that moment where I am on the brink of despair at just how badly I’ve made a mess of those three questions that I remind myself, “this is why baptism is just the beginning.” If I really saw it as a “heal-all,” a cure, a panacea to the sins of the world and my own sins, baptism would be a pointless sacrament. There would be no reason for me to do one thing better or differently. But if I see it as a beginning, there is a reason for me to do better. I can find just one thing within each of those three questions that I can improve upon, and become just an inch or two closer to comprehending the nature of the divine, and my need to be obedient to it.

Reciting these vows during a real baptism reminds us of our own incarnation. Reciting them annually with no one being baptized reminds us of the cross. These vows become the core of the constant interplay between these two entities. What a blessing that a single sacrament can become the link between fear and desire, shame and joy, or a call to action vs. a need to be still and listen.

I have thought often that we don’t have the image right when we are told in Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism that the Holy Spirit descended on him “like a dove.” Most artistic renderings of the event show a very timid, passive looking dove. I tend to think more of how doves in the wild almost dive bomb when they see food, or how the doves at my bird feeder tended to gang up and chase away offending blue jays en masse. There’s nothing timid about doves in the wild when they see what they want. In my mind, that is how I see the Holy Spirit in that story–more or less “all over their target in a flash.” Just as the waters of baptism are all over us in a flash, no matter whether you’re sprinkled or immersed. The water is going to get on you one way or another, and you can’t put it back, once it’s run upon you. There’s nothing timid or passive about the way the Holy Spirit grabs our hearts and minds, either!

In that sense, we should almost fear this time of year, simply because if we have been “targeted” by the Holy Spirit to be moved by something that pops up in the repetition of reciting those vows, it will be on us in a flash, like the target of a kamakaze dove! Nothing “passive” about it!