Coming out of Christmas I’ve been thinking about angels. Not too long ago during a children’s message we talked about angels. I did the typical post-enlightenment pastor thing where I talked about angels as messengers of the good news and how we all are called to be angels. I stand by that demythologizing message, but it’s a bit dull.
No wings. No halos. No robes of white.
My systematic theology doesn’t have guardian angels in it. I place my faith and hope in Jesus as a glimpse of eternal love as witnessed in his death and resurrection. That’s my core belief and guardian angels lead me into all kinds of weird places, much like kushtakas and ghosts.
But here’s my problem. Those things don’t fit into my theology, but I’ve bumped into them enough that they mess with my reality.
I don’t believe in guardian angels because I don’t know what to do with creatures from another plane of existence that intervene to save my booty while Joe Blow’s guardian angel lets him get run over by a train. I can’t get that to make sense, but I’ve had a guardian angel save my booty.
In 1994, I lived in a small intentional community in Barnesville, Georgia, just south of Atlanta on Possum Trot Road. We got a small stipend and worked providing hospitality for friends and family of people on death row. I saved up my stipend to go see Cirque de Soleil in Atlanta. I stayed with some friends who worked with Habitat for Humanity, but they couldn’t go see the show with me so I was on my own.
This was before cellphones, before the Olympics boosted Atlanta’s public transportation, and before I developed my entire brain to process good ideas. I’d traveled extensively so I told my friends I would be fine, except I really don’t have a good sense of direction. I got off the train to walk back to their house, but there was a gang of young men gathered around the map so I decided now was not a good time to stand in front of it, in the dark, in the pouring rain, and get oriented.
I chose a direction and walked confidently.
This normally works out for me, except when it’s dark, I have no money left, and it’s raining. After a while, I realized I had no idea where my friends lived, I found myself in an area where there was no sign of life, no stores, nor even traffic in this burned out, boarded up part of Atlanta.
I still remember stopping in the middle of the sidewalk with tears starting to roll down as I realized I was in some serious trouble. I uttered the prayer that has probably crossed more lips than any other, “Oh God, help.” I’ve never felt so lost and helpless as I did at that moment.
Then, the door of what looked like an abandoned warehouse flew open and a large, intoxicated woman stared out at me and said, “What the hell are you doing out here?”
She dragged me into her place and it was a large room with decorated toilet seats adorning an entire wall. With a slight slur, she explained to me that she was having a gallery opening of her designer toilet seats, but nobody showed up so she drank all the wine. She couldn’t give me a ride home, but I could call my friend.
My friend had a fit when I told her where I was, but she came and got me. She made me tell the story several times, shaking her head each time.
There’s no doubt in my mind that my guardian angel would be an intoxicated woman who designs toilet seats. I’ve tried to come up with all kinds of rational explanations, but this is where I end up: If I can’t get things to make sense, then simple gratitude is the appropriate response.
The day will come when we will see clearly and understand. For now it’s enough to put our trust in the good news of God’s eternal love, but always leave room for surprises.
• Tari Stage-Harvey is the pastor of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church. “Living & Growing” is a regular column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders.