I saw it two weeks ago when I received a text from my sister that my mom was in the hospital with chest pains. A stent, and an angioplasty later, she was home after a heart attack. As we got together a few days later in Cleveland, Ohio, she reflected on how close she came to dying. She spoke about how both her parents had heart attacks in their 70’s and that her dad had died from one. She talked about how she wanted to spend the future, seeing it really as a gift.
She also gave thanks for the amazing outpouring of prayerful support sent to her way from across the country. She attributes her healing to the prayers of friends and strangers. She called them/us her angels of healing. Many of us have felt that healing grace, coming from unknown people when we lift up our joys and concerns in prayer. I think some of the comfort we get is from this cloud of witnesses those on this side of the veil and those on the other. We are angels to each other. And that is good news.
Psalm 34 was written as a reminder of God’s presence in our lives. It’s a good one to visit when dealing with grief. Like many other Psalms it is meant to be sung. The Hebrew uses a mnemonic device to help readers and singers remember it. Each line begins with another Hebrew letter, in order from ‘aleph to tav of the 22 consonant Hebrew alphabet. It’s like an A to Z psalm. Each verse also speaks of different kind of affliction. Verse 4 is for those who are afraid, verse 5 for those ashamed, verse 6 for those distressed, verse 7 for those persecuted. Verse 8 for those unhappy and vulnerable. Verse 18 is for the brokenhearted.
I’m especially drawn to the 7th verse today. Psalm 34:7 says, “The angel of God encamps around those who fear God, and delivers them.”(2x) I like this image of an angel encamping near us, protecting, watching over us. It seems to say that angels or members of the heavenly court surround us like a military escort, like a posse, like a cloud of witnesses. The word martyr is another name for a witness. In the book of Revelation, the faithful witnesses refer to the martyrs who have been faithful to the death.
But I’m convinced that angels aren’t only those who have died. Many of us have angels who wear elaborate disguises. And God do we need them. We need people who will hear our pain and offer a listening ear or a helping hand. This is how God delivers us. Who have your angels been? Who has been your savior when all seemed lost? Angels inspire us and encourage us to be better than we think we can be. For some of us, it is the one who has gone on before—who inspires us and pulls the very best out of us.
My grandmother was on death’s door when I was a freshman in college. I visited her over Christmas as the dementia was settling in. The last thing she said to me as I left her room at the Baptist nursing home was “My name is Edith.” “I know, Grandma,” I said. It was her way of saying “I am still here. I may not know who you are but I know who I am.” I took it as her way of telling her grandson to remember who he was. She was my inspiration as I prepared for my first conference championship meet on the college swim team. I did my best time in the 100yd. breaststroke that year. It felt like she was my angel or at least my inspiration, reminding me of the gift that is life and health.
Have you had angels visit you? I know that people visit us in our dreams, especially those who have crossed over the veil. Those are the dreams we somehow remember.
When our Nicaraguan sister church members were here in September, we had a visit from an angel. Many of you have heard this story. We were at the St. Paul Cathedral trying to explain the iconography to people who spoke no English. As we tried to communicate, we noticed a group across the sanctuary speaking in Spanish. We walked over to see if we could eavesdrop on the translation. It turns out that the translator was someone I knew. She was one of the people who lead our Baptist Peace Fellowship friendship tour to Nicaragua in 2008. She happened to be in the Twin Cities with a sister church from Nicaragua. They had the same itinerary for the day as us. Some of the Nicaraguans from the two sister churches knew each other from their home country. It was a wonderful reunion and an incredible coincidence, if you believe in such things. I think coincidences are God’s way of staying in disguise.
And then there are the angels that appear in our lives. They knit prayer shawls for you. They make clandestine donations for something you need. We have a number of angels here at UBC. People who anonymously want to help out a special project or mission. Angels have given scholarships to retreats and mission trips. An angel gave the money to build this communion table. Another angel doubled the church donation to the Student Minister several years ago so we could do a better outreach to university students. Another donated the funds to install these ceiling fans. When there is a special need for a section leader or a building project, anonymous angels have stepped forward and have filled in the gap.
I like to call them angels in disguise. They don’t don wings and make a big show of anything. And yet they are here as close as the person sitting next to you in the pew. Psalm 34:7 says, “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear God, and delivers them.” The question is both how do we recognize the angels out there, and how can we be angels for someone else? How can we wear our very best Halloween disguise and deliver someone who really needs some deliverance.
Psalm 34:18 says YHWH is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Have you been there, broken in spirit, your heart ripped open beating a bleeding? If you have received comfort, and I’m sure you have, I believe that it is God who has been that presence. God embodies each of us. God works through us. We can be God’s angels in disguise.
This past week, I was with my daughter’s seventh grade class trip up to the Laurentian Environmental Center. It’s a great program of team building and group process. Of course the maturity level of 12 and 13 year olds leaves something to be desired. But the experience is designed to break old patterns of behavior. Leadership skills that work in the school hallways don’t translate that well when you are trying to find your way in the woods with a map and compass.
On Wednesday, we had to trek and find a lean-to about a mile away using only a map and a compass. My role was to be a shadow, letting the group succeed or fail on their own. They did great for the first hour and a half. They were following the compass. They were staying together as a group, relatively. Then they hit a trail. You know what happened then. They followed the trail and forgot about the map and the compass. After wandering around, they found the lake where the lean-to was located. They made a beeline for the lake and started making their way around it, through a bog, brush and puddles. The laughing and screaming echoed throughout the woods. One person, who was slower and afraid of bogs, however, got real far behind. The group was having so much fun in the bog that they didn’t stop to notice that one was missing. Or if they did, they didn’t want to disrupt the group to go back and get a straggler. I stayed back with her and we made our way around to our destination. The group arrived at the destination and rested. It took a while, but one youth told the group that he would go out and try to find the lost one. He was the one that we finally heard yelling for us. He was out connection with the rest of the group. He was our angel, yelling “Marco” to our “Polo” as we bushwhacked to the lean-to. He defied the group mentality in favor of looking for someone lost. He became a leader that afternoon—an angel in disguise.
Here’s the challenge I believe we are given in today’s scripture. How can we be angels to each other? What ways can we offer our support when another is hurting? How can we make the best use of our precious time on earth? As you consider that, consider also those angels that have encamped around you and delivered you, as the Psalmist suggests. They are as near as the bells on these banners and they ring to remind us that we are not alone. Not alone, and surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Angels in disguise who want the very best for us.
Remember the Good News: The angels of YHWH encamp around those who fear God and they deliver us. Thank God for the angels in disguise who deliver us.