Friday, December 28, 2018

Unexpected Gifts: Visions of Angels

Our very talented priest at St. Richards, Winter Park, provided an unexpected gift this Christmas Eve. Her sermon took an unusual turn for Christmas Eve sermons. She talked about angels.

The lectionary text from Luke is the only account of shepherds who saw angels in the skies over Bethlehem the night Jesus was born. Luke paints such vivid portraits of the events he narrates. Little wonder he is the favorite epistoler for many of us.

Marc Chagall, Israelites Eating the Passover Lamb, 1931
The first angel to appear to the shepherds had to first quiet their fears. Contrary to the cutesy, Hallmark visions of angels, these messengers of G-d (Hebrew, mal'akh) were often experienced as a fierce, imposing presence of the holy. There is a reason they almost always begin their encounters with human beings with the greeting “Peace!” followed by assurances that the humans encountering them are not in danger.

In Luke’s story, the angel relates the news of a Messiah who had come to save all of Israel, a child born in Bethlehem, the City of David. They are told that they would recognize this child by the very meager state of his birth: a baby wrapped in bands of cloth, laid in a manger, the feed trough of domestic animals – hardly the stuff of the “king of kings” as the Christ child will eventually be constructed by later Christian theologians. 

Abraham Hondius, The Annunciation, 1663
As the shepherds arose to go find this newborn child, the skies suddenly erupted with angels: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,* praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven…” This angel encounter is a part of the story that is usually glossed over quickly in Christmas Eve sermons.

But not this night.

Alison told the parish that, like the baby Jesus, there are angels around each of us when we are born. When we see babies staring out into the distance, smiling and cooing, reaching out to something no one else sees, they are acknowledging the angels they can still see that are always around all of us all the time.

Sadly, as we mature into fully grown human beings, we lose sight of those angels and many of us come to believe they simply don’t exist. Never underestimate the proclivities of the modern rational mind to dismiss as nonsense that which it cannot explain through empiricism and left brain reason. Modern control issues play out in many ways.

A Taste of Heaven    

But not all of us lose sight of those angels.

I awoke Christmas morning dreaming of angels. With a smile on my face, I began to think of the times that I had been aware of the angels present in my life. 

In a class in seminary, we were invited to try to remember our very earliest memories we were capable of recalling. We were told it would provide some insight into how we saw G-d. One scene arose immediately.

At the end of my second year, my family moved to Sebring in the heart of cattle and citrus country. We lived in one half of an asphalt shingled duplex in a complex of the same situated across the highway from a former air force base and bombing range. These duplexes had at one time housed enlisted men and their families during the second world war. The complex was originally called Splinter City, hardly a glamorous appellation. After a recent visit to that place, I think the name was probably well deserved. But to a three-year-old with a vivid imagination, it was a magical place.

One afternoon right around Christmas time in 1956, I was sitting on the wood floor in the passageway between the kitchen and the living room. My Mother was cooking and singing, as she often did. The wonderful smells of chicken and dumplings and collard greens and my Mother's beautiful voice filled the room.

This space served as an exit to the fenced back yard. There my sand box with all the toys my little brother and I used to build castles awaited us under the sheltering arms of a big oak tree. A French door with glass panes down its length led to the outside. Though it was chilly outside that day, the warm light of the afternoon sun poured through those windows at an angle. I sat in that pool of sunlight, playing with my toys.

Suddenly something caught my attention. In the sunlight dozens of dust devils were dancing in the golden sunlight. When I would reach out toward them, they eluded me and all of them would dance even more energetically.

“Momma,” I exclaimed, “The angels are here!”

“Of course they are, honey. They’re all around us all the time.”

For that moment, I think I had a brief taste of heaven: a warm, sunlit room in my home, my saintly Mother just steps away, cooking up food producing heavenly smells and singing. 

"Out of the ivory palaces, into a world of woe..." 

All was well in the world. I felt safe, deeply loved by both G-d and the family I had been given, and completely content. Heaven.

A Very Close Call

But this would not be my last visitation by angels.

I believe my Mother was right. Angels do surround us in our daily lives even as we are often oblivious to them. But she was also convinced that there are guardian angels assigned to each of us that watch over and sometimes step in to protect us from ourselves. In my lifetime, I have had that experience more than once.

In 1972, I was in community college and just beginning to come to grips with my sexuality. It would probably have been easier had I ended up a Kinsey 1 (on a scale of six) rather than a position close to the middle of the scale, three on most days, three and a half after a couple of beers. The result was no small amount of confusion particularly in a heterosexist culture which pressured its members to be heterosexual or at least pretend they were.

After a girlfriend had dumped me, I fell into a deep depression. Truth be told, I was terrified of the truth lurking within my unconscious that I might actually be gay. Being rejected only intensified that doubt. After a sleepless night, I drove to her workplace and parked in the lot at the time I knew she’d be going into work. I just sat in my car and watched her walk in and wept. Only later did I realize how creepy that was.

After she entered the hospital to begin her shift, I began the drive back to my trailer near the college where I lived during my first two years of college. As I neared the town of Tavares, where US 441 splits the middle of Lake Woodward, I decided that the pain I was feeling would never go away and that it was not worth living given that reality.

At 65 mph, I headed my car off the highway toward the lake.

Archangel Jophiel 
My car was completely off the highway and beginning to descend down the banks of the lake when in my head I heard a voice loudly shout “No!” The next thing I knew, I was back on 441 nearing the far end of the bridge across the lake.

I had been spared.

Weeks later my Mother would ask me, “Son, what were you doing at about 6:30 last Thursday.” At first I resisted telling her knowing it would upset her. But Mother persisted. “I need to know,” she said.

“I was completely asleep when something woke me up and I just knew there was something terribly wrong with you. I was absolutely terrified. All I knew to do was to get out of bed, onto my knees and pray for your safety. And so I did. And after about a half hour, I knew you were OK and was able to go back to bed.”

“So, tell me what happened, Son.”

Her face fell as I recounted those awful moments. They had occurred precisely when my Mother had had her experience. With tears in her eyes, she simply said, “Son, the guardian angels are watching over you.”

Putting the Angels to the Test

That would not be the last time I would put the guardian angels to the test.

The day I was accepted into my doctoral program at FSU in 1991 I was awakened in my home in Fremont, California at 5 AM PST with a call from Tallahassee, Florida, where it was 8 AM EST. “I just thought you’d want to know the good news,” the office manager said.

I was overjoyed. I was going to be able to live into my dream to get a Ph.D. But that proved to be a very long day that began in triumph and ended in disaster.  

It was midterms time at the Graduate Theological Union where I was in my first term as a Masters of Arts student. I had been up most of the previous night working on a final paper. I’d had little sleep.

I also had no one to celebrate with me. Andy had gone to work crying that morning, grieving that I would be leaving him once again to return home to Florida. He had hoped we would stay in California.

When I arrived home that night, he was still not home, attending class at a University of California extension to hone his programming skills. I was lonely, desperate for someone to share my good news. So I decided to go to the closest gay bar, some 15 miles up Mission Boulevard, to find someone to celebrate with me. There on an empty stomach and about three hours of sleep, I was soon congratulated by patrons at the bar with rounds of peppermint schnapps shots and beer. And very soon I realized I was in deep trouble.

I knew I was in no condition to drive home when I left the bar about 11 PM and I never did make it home. Only five miles from my home, a wave of unconsciousness passed over me. I drifted off the road into the back of a parked semi-truck and totaled my car.

The next few days are largely outside my memory, perhaps mercifully. I was bruised but had no major injuries. The glass moon roof over my head had remained intact even as the passenger side of the car was smashed. I had been very lucky, indeed.

The deeper injuries were to my person. I was just about to be ordained deacon, finishing four years of seminary and ordination process. I’d come to California to attend seminary on my own nickel without any diocesan sponsorship. I’d found a parish to sponsor me and a bishop who’d agree to ordain an openly gay man, no small feat in 1991. As I assessed my situation, it felt like everything I had worked so hard to accomplish was about to go down the tube.

Enter the angels.

Russian icon, 19th CE, Guardian Angel
In the hospital that night, I found that when I would awaken from the sound sleep that results from trauma and medication, I could hear the sounds of wings fervently beating all around me. I felt protected, lifted out of my misery.

That would continue over the next few days as I recovered at home. Each time the realization of my serious error in judgment and my resulting predicament enveloped me and I began to despair, I would hear those angel wings and found myself flooded with a sense of well-being and words of comfort: All will be well. Do not worry. I am with you.

When I told my Mother about that experience she simply said, “Son, you have some very strong guardian angels protecting you. There must be a reason for that.”

I have taken that last statement very seriously ever since. Whatever that reason might be, I was clear I needed to take this “one precious life” that poet Mary Oliver speaks of with no small amount of seriousness. I learned a lot of lessons from my experience 23 years ago. That has included the wisdom not to let the worst thing I ever did define me.

Angels in Human Form

There have been other close calls in my life in which I believe angels played a role. You see, while I have come to question a number of the theological constructions that form the basis of western Christian dogma over the years, I’ve never doubted the existence of a G-d whose presence I experience everywhere I look. And my nearly constant sense of the presence of those who have gone before me convince me that an afterlife of ongoing growth into the image of that G-d awaits me and all of G-d’s creatures. In light of that, the presence of angels all around us all the time is not much of a leap.

Beloved Nanny, Henrietta Hadley (1984)

I am also clear that there are angels who appear unbeknownst to us in human form all the time. There are those strangers who suddenly appear out of nowhere without whose interventions our lives would have gone very differently, perhaps even ended at that moment. 

There are also those who appear at pivotal moments in your life to guide you. Many of my angels have been women – wise, strong, loving – whose roles in my life have proven indispensable. For the presence in my life of all these angels and the gifts they have brought to it, I will always be deeply grateful.

But I do not take them for granted. There are times that I envision arriving in the afterlife to encounter a double line of guardian angels standing in front of the Pearly Gates, arms crossed, serious looks on their face. No doubt I will need to pass through that gauntlet to get to the gates to the afterlife. Sometimes I can even hear them saying, “Mr. Coverston, please step over here for a moment. There are a few matters we’d like to talk with you about….”


Glory, Indeed….

In all honesty, I was not expecting to hear about angels Christmas Eve. That was a gift. And I did not expect to awaken Christmas morning thinking about the angels that have graced my life. That, too, was a gift.

For all these unexpected but wonderful gifts I have received this Christmas, beginning with the sermon which stirred up these visions and the vibrant parish in which unexpected gifts are often the norm, I am grateful. And for all the angels who inhabit my life and those who watch over it, I am ever in your debt.

Glory to G-d in the highest, indeed!

Stained glass over altar, St. Richards


Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston 2018