Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Comforting Angels

"Why do you think she's so sad?" Our sweet youth choir singer wanted me to take a picture of her giving the sad angel a hug. She was the one I wanted to hug. She restored my faith in goodness on a day when division was in the air. Our public schools were closed on election day to serve as polls, so we took our church's youth choir on a field trip. Augusta, Ga's Sacred Heart Cultural Center was once a Catholic church but is now used for concerts, art exhibits, and receptions. After learning the history of the building, we studied the statuary and the stained glass windows.

Our own church is a modern building. For the kids, this church's architecture - Victorian Romanesque with a hint of Byzantine - was impressive and foreign. Ahead of our trip, I had privately wondered how interested they would be, and I had thought our director wise to call it a mystery trip. I'm not sure they would have signed up to come if they had known where we were going. They may have only been using good manners when they listened to our tour guide tell the history of the building, but I was heartened to see their imaginations captured by the beautiful windows with their rich colors and symbolism. And the angel.

We usually think of angels as deliverers of messages or comforters themselves. We don't think of offering them empathy or compassion. But we should. Hebrews 13:1-2 says "Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

Strangers are those folks who are not like us, the people we don't identify with. Maybe they are immigrants or refugees. In that hard-to-accept passage in Matthew 25 when Jesus talks about dividing the sheep from the goats who will be sent to eternal punishment, the criteria He uses has to do with hospitality and empathy. To the goats, He said, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison, and you did not visit me." To the sheep, Jesus says that if we have done these things for others, we have done it for Him. Forget the irony of comforting an angel - we are comforting Christ.

These verses are hard for me. It's easy to be fearful of strangers. Maybe I'll be taken advantage of or hurt. Maybe. But, I can't get away from that scripture. God commands hospitality, and He does it with one of the Bible's most explicit references to eternal punishment. I think He meant it.

Last Sunday morning, on my facebook page, I saw a post from my friend Anne that broke my heart. Her husband is the rector of the Episcopal Church of Our Savior in Silver Springs, MD. They woke up to find "Trump Nation Whites Only" spray painted on their church sign and on the wall of their memorial garden which also serves as a cemetery. Their congregation is made up of over 80% immigrants. Anne and I lived across the hall from each other in college. She was Presbyterian at the time, and I was Baptist. I remember long, respectful conversations late into the night about the differences in our churches. Now, she's episcopal and politically independent, and I am a methodist republican (metho-angli-cumenical and lately-leaning-independent are probably more accurate) even though I couldn't bring myself to vote for Trump. We've stayed in touch on facebook, and engaged in more respectful conversations about our differences over the years. I love her, and by extension, I love her husband and their congregation. This hurts.

Trump supporters have suggested that the vandalism might have been done by Clinton protesters trying to make the Trump crowd look bad. Nobody can rule that out, although I adhere to the idea that if it looks and quacks like a duck, it's more likely to be a duck than a rat in disguise. White supremacy is actually a thing in our culture; it was not something made up by democrats during this election cycle. Dylan Roof was not a Clinton plant or a media conspiracy. I'm not suggesting by sharing this story that all Trump supporters are racist. But for goodness sake, folks - what is wrong with our world when two political sides stand over a wounded victim and instead of empathizing with the victim, we point at each other saying, "Not me! He did it!" The strangers in our midst are bleeding while we argue about who to blame. Why is the angel so sad? This is why.

On the other side, we have seen anti-Trump protesters do abhorrent things as well. In one of many protests, a pregnant woman experiencing an emergency was attacked by protesters as she tried to get through the crowd to get medical care. One of my former piano students was threatened by a man asking if she had voted for Trump and brandishing a handgun. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. The only thing I know to do is to pray and continue to beg our citizens to be instruments of peace. 

The story of my friends' church ended up being inspirational. Dozens of  news agencies picked up the story, and the result was an outpouring of support from their own community and beyond, including members of a local synagogue who came to worship and comfort. It reminds me of a famous quote of Leonard Cohen. "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." The world may be broken, but the light shone through the cracks in Maryland this week.

There are angels. They worship. They bring messages. They sometimes show up disguised as those we should be helping. And if they rejoice, surely they must sometimes cry. 

This hymn is ringing in my ears today.

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