I Hope I Never Forget:

“Anything that one imagines of God apart from Christ is only useless thinking and vain idolatry.”- Martin Luther

Friday, September 28, 2007


Without doubt my childhood is one of the greatest treasures ever given me. Even though the precious experience is in my past, I remember it regularly, and in remembering, celebrate the parents, siblings and God who would conspire to give me such a gift.

I’ve often told my mother that if my life ended today and God allowed me to simply live it over and over again, that would be heaven for me. I mean it, too. To go from childhood to the glories of Sandi and then on to my children….I have so much to be thankful for.

The memories of my childhood include innumerable small items. Some of them are tangible; some of them not. I can’t go outside and smell an early, dark winter morning without instantly being transported back to the Middle School bus stop. And I’ll occasionally happen upon an old toy that my brother and I might have played with for hours. The triggered longing is deliciously painful, and certain to disappear as quickly as it came.

Earlier this year I came across a picture, which used to hang above the bunk beds that my brother and I shared. I felt the same tantalizingly sad ache. The painting depicts two children reaching out from the safety of a bridge to pick flowers that are growing along the banks of a rapidly flowing stream. Behind them an angel stands protectively- their guardian.

That image captures much of what I think of when I consider the work of angels. While scripture speaks of these spiritual giants as regulating nature, guarding nations and peoples, fighting demonic battles and carrying the throne of God about on their shoulders, when I think of angels, I think of guardians- for me and those I love.

Church tradition seems consistently unanimous in teaching that every individual (if not every, then every individual who belongs to God) has their own guardian angel. This seems to be the popular belief of many of the Jews at the time of the Incarnation. Of course this doesn’t make it true, but it is interesting. We see evidence of this folk belief in the story of Peter’s angelic release from prison. When the other apostles were told that he was at the door, they suggested that it might be “his angel.”

Christ explicitly taught that children “have” angelic guardians when he said in Matthew 18:10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”

The early church saw great significance in the word “their.” The angels were their angels. The early interpreters reasoned that this must mean that the angels were attached or assigned in some way to the individual children.

Other’s who came later on, weren’t so sure. They pointed out that scripture teaches that in some cases a single angelic person was given charge of a whole nation- whether for protection or judgment; while at other times multiple angels seemed to be involved with one individual. John Calvin didn’t see that it much mattered. He wrote, "For if the fact that all the heavenly host are keeping watch for his safety will not satisfy a man, I do not see what benefit he could derive from knowing that one angel has been given to him as his especial guardian."

What all Christians unite in affirming is the truth proclaimed in Psalm 91 "For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone." Whether this involves an individual guardian or a host of guardians is inconsequential. My family and I should take great comfort and courage in knowing that our elder fellow servants are always at hand.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


I’ve been looking for a song or hymn that the family could sing together this Michaelmas. I’ve had trouble finding one; thought I’d just write one myself. If anyone else is planning on celebrating this holy day, I thought they might be interested.

It’s meant to be sung to the folk tune Fare Thee Well.

You can hear the melody played here for another hymn, The Gift of Love.

A Family Song for Michaelmas

We thank you Lord for guarding us,
With fiery wings and swords of flame;
Armies of light to shield this home,
Hearth's mantle warm and doorway’s frame.

The night’s cold terror and its storm,
The arrows of our family’s foes,
The dragon’s claw and hateful roar,
First break on shield’s protective rows.

Our brothers older than the stars,
Unnamed to us, yet knowing ours,
Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
Accept our thanks for selfless scars.

Lord, grant us strength to stand beside,
Archangel’s spear and awful blade,
Defending those who call your name,
Before whose arms, hell’s gate must cave.

Glory to you, and to the Son,
Who with the Spirit- One in Three-
Caused eyes oppressed to see our weak hands,
Like Michael’s shield, as a place to flee.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Alastair Roberts has written a very interesting post on Angelic Activity in Nature. Encounters with these celestial powers might be much more ordinary than our modern minds want to admit.

Monday, September 10, 2007


The reality of Angelic beings isn’t a matter of dispute among God’s people. I don’t mean that there aren’t baptized individuals who deny it; rather I mean that they are wrong to do so. Angels are a major part of the story that defines the church. It’s as simple as that. We don’t affirm their reality as a result of a proof. We affirm their existence based on the testimony of those who know.

While we don't begin with an argument, it might be helpful to think through one. Not to establish that angels exist, but to ask why they do. Perhaps their final cause will reveal something about their nature.

So, why angels?

One of the church’s greatest thinkers asked that question. His answer was simple and straightforward- “the universe would be incomplete without them.” Perhaps that sounds too simple…maybe simplistic, but I think Thomas Aquinas’ answer was profound for the simplicity.

Have you ever seen a canvas that’s partially painted? Maybe it’s a portrait whose detail has been fiercely worked over in some places; whole sections of the canvas remain blank and untouched, while others are roughed in with broad unfinished strokes. Would you go to the trouble of matting and framing the painting at this point? Why not? If we saw such a portrait prominently displayed, we’d wonder about the story behind it. Did the artist die before completing it? Did she loose interest? Was she unhappy with the progress?

Each of these potential tales spring from one obvious fact- the thing isn’t finished. It’s incomplete. This is Thomas’ point.

Creation is God’s artwork. It was inconceivable that he’d leave any part of the canvas blank. Past thinkers called this the doctrine of plenitude. By this they meant that within the sphere of created being-every possible gap would be filled.

This is more than theory at the material level. It seems to be the case. Men and women stand at the top of the corporeal realm. Below them are the higher apes; then various mammals leading all the way down to the lowest of insects. Strange creatures seem to bridge the gap between animal and plant, and we can continue our descent down from the giant Sequoia to the most simple of plankton. From there complex chemical brews can be broken down into various molecules; molecules give way to constituent elements; elements to particles, particles to quarks and…there is no where else to go. The continuity seems necessary and fitting. This half of creation’s canvas is complete.

Mortimer Adler has written that St Thomas believed that the order to be expected in any world created by God would look like “(1) inanimate and mindless physical things to (2) living beings without minds, and (3) minds that are somehow associated with animal bodies and from them to (4) spiritual beings- minds without bodies.”

That’s why God made angels. He had a very large canvas to fill.

Paintings of fat playful cherubs have blinded me to the reality that the spiritual realm presents. The fittingness of plenitude helps to reorient me. Scripture distinguishes between different choirs of angels. We know of cherubim, seraphim, Principalities and Powers, Archangels and Angels. Surely this is not an exhaustive list with the ten thousand times ten thousands of angels scripture speaks of. Not a single one of them is cute. All deserve the fear their presence would instantly inspire.

The vast continuum of creaturely potential that angels exhaust begins just above man. For we have it on good authority that mankind was made a little lower than the angels. From there the creaturely progression towers upward, lost in the dizzying heights of the utmost creaturely potential. The doctrine of plenitude teaches that the greatest manifestation of power and glory that is possible for a creature to attain is an actual reality in at least one set of glowing, terrible, thundering seraphim's wings high above in the glory cloud of God. Such a being exists, and there is another just below him, and another just below him... on and on without number.

To get a perspective on what these beings must be like, we can compare the other half of animate creation’s progression- being soars upward from plankton to the majestic dignity of man. Now think; in the higher half of the creaturely chain of being Seraphim stands to man as man stands to bacteria.

Is it any wonder that the first words from an angel’s mouth seem to invariably be “Fear not.”


Hamlet told his friend, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."


To this assertion the church says, Amen! From all eternity we witness the beatific vision of the Father, but before we can drink in an infinitely small portion of this glory, he points us on to the indescribable vision of the Son. Falling on our face, we look up to see him motion us on to the breathtaking beauty of the Spirit, who …and from this great ecstatic excess spilled the world that you and I are a part of. Each segment of this world speaks of mystery; each part points to the exuberant prodigality of creation’s God; each celebrates the splashing, wasteful, exhilarating gifting of the Creator.


But not everyone agrees. The more fortunate (though less consistent) Materialist would have told Horatio that what you see is what you get. No god; no soul; no life after death. While the sad and small cadre of initiated skeptics would declare there is much less in heaven and earth than the young Dane imagined. These poor people believe that everything is ultimately nothing but chemicals randomly reacting. No love; no persons; no life.
Men and women, the sane ones anyway, have always known that they and others exist, that things aren’t like they’re supposed to be, and that life, beauty, justice and truth matter. In other words we’ve known that there is more.

There is something out there- something right here- that can’t be registered with our five senses, but it gives meaning to those things we can directly experience. It has substance, but no materiality. It is powerful and personal, but “unbodied.”

It’s become the convention to speak of this reality as a Spiritual one. The account in Genesis refers to it as “the heavens” in distinction to “the earth” and the Creed specifies that unlike all that’s seen, this created realm is invisible. It's this spiritual, substantial, heavenly, powerfully personal and invisible "More" that angels are a part of.

Before I begin thinking about angels specifically, it might be good for me to recall why I should spend time thinking about this stuff at all. The short answer is that it's relevant. While this is true in many, many ways, I need to remember its significance at the most basic level: angels and the realm they occupy matter just as air, coworkers and sunshine matter. Each forms the environment in which we exist.

Modernity has stripped us of this awareness. It’s split the single reality of creation in two. While there’s nothing wrong with distinguishing between things seen and unseen, it is a warping of reality to conceive of the two as divided or separated. It’s just not the way things are, and that matters.

Sandi and I were lying in bed the other night. She was trying to sleep and I was thinking about Fr. Stephen’s recent posts.

“Sandi,” no response. “Sandi you asleep?”

“What?” she mumbled.

“Are you sleeping?”

A muffled groan was the only response.

“Good,” I continued “You know why I’m talking to you and not Bekah?”

“What?” She sounded a little angry.

“Do you know why I’m talking to you and not Bekah?”


“Because she’s downstairs and you're right here.”


“If I wanted to talk with Bekah, I’d have to go to where she is or fly her a message folded into a paper airplane or something. I don’t have to do that with you. You’re right here. Isn’t that cool?”

“Right here” or not, the conversation didn’t go much further, but I still think it was an important epiphany.

Modernity has managed to envision creation as being a two storeyed house. You, me and stuff…you know everything that’s real…is down on the first floor. That’s where we spend our lives. God’s upstairs.

He’s up there. We’re down here and that’s just the way things are. In this version of reality, life with God means something peculiar. We may imagine that we hear him walking around up above us, but we don’t expect him speak. It would certainly be disconcerting to hear him whistling down the hall. We don’t receive anything from his hand. We don’t talk spontaneously and naturally with him. Rather we use mechanisms to send him messages. We’ve never been in the attic, so we imagine what it must look like. One day, he’ll put down a stair, but until then those who are most committed to God msut be content with spending a great deal of time in that sort of theorizing. What else is there to do? What other form could a commitment to “the man upstairs” take? Christianity equals abstract thinkin’. Faith equals assent to doctrine. Given that ceiling/floor thing, what else is there?

The truth is, as Fr. Stephen says in his post, the world runs on pretty well without any need of that god's involvement. You end up sorta embarrassed for him. He’s not really needed. In fact, if he was to go away or to be replaced by someone else, how would you notice?

Now consider how that type of "personal relationship" with the god in the attic differs from the ones we have with the people we live and work with…the ones who are right here? What does a commitment to them look like? What if God, angels and all things invisible aren’t up there. What if they’re right here. Imagine that the house has only one storey.

Well, we’d have real conversations. The God who is never alone (he is the Lord of Hosts, after all) is sure to be surrounded by those who have gone before. Myriads and myriads of seraphic wings are beating constantly about our kitchen table, and we might be startled, but not surprised to see a candle flame flicker in a still room, a tumor suddenly disappear or a bush glow with fiery presence. We could say “good night,” even when we were alone, because…well, we never are.

I believe that’s the sort of world our God created. There’s only one storey. It’s the one we spend our days in.

Angels, departed saints and God surround us. These are the things unseen, but present. Occasionally God allows men and women a glimpse into what is already there. When God’s people were threatened by a besieging army, the prophet strode about as if nothing was wrong. His servant couldn’t understand this and was terrified at the seemingly inevitable outcome. “Then Elisha prayed and said, "O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see." So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” II Kings 6:17 The angelic army didn’t arrive with the prophets prayer. The servant was allowed to see what was already going on…unseen.

Modern physics and mathematics give us clues (if only analogous or metaphorical ones) of how this could be. Dimensional limitation provides a helpful illustration. The author of Flatland asks that we imagine a world of only two dimensions. Think of a sheet of notebook paper. Embedded in this sheet are shapes of various constructions- triangles, squares and circles. They move around in this world of width and length with no concept of up or down. For in Flatland Up is the direction marked North on the page. Up is the top of the sheet. Down is at the bottom of the sheet of paper. Imagine their surprise if we began to speak to them from above the paper. Living in a world made up of only two dimensions, they hear a voice coming from nowhere.

“Where are you.” they ask.
“I’m up here.” We answer obviously.
The little polygon immediately turns toward the top of the sheet.
“I don’t see you.”
“Not North silly,” we chide them “Up”
“But North is Up” they argue.

No amount of explaining could make height an intelligible concept. It's a dimension beyond their experience.
I believe something similar is going on in the heavenly realms. They are higher, but not up.


The calendar that shapes the Christian’s year guarantees that none of the radical truths about God, his creation and the incarnate bridge between the two is overlooked. The Feast of St. Michael and all the Angels is the day on which the church asks that we think about the nature, place and doings of our elder fellow servants, the angels.

We’re planning to mark Michaelmas (pronounced Mickelmus) with special food and activities. Traditional fare features roast goose, but our culinary salute to the Archangel’s victory will center on Roasted Dragon’s Tongue (not the most choice cut, but the least expensive by far) and Dragon Slime Bread. We’ll be going with a more traditional desert, though.

According to one legend, when Michael and his warriors threw Satan from heaven, the old serpent landed in a patch of blackberry briars. Furious at his defeat and sore from the stickers, he stomped and spat and…um, “messed up” the poor plant. Understandably no one wanted anything to do with blackberries picked after Sept 29th. So Blackberry Cobbler and Vanilla Ice Cream will finish off the meal.

Being a good modern, I'm rusty on my angelology. I believe it would help to have someplace to lay out what I want our family to learn or recall during this season. I think I’ll put some tentative thoughts up here, so that they can begin to congeal before the family starts talking next Sunday.