Can you see angels?

But God’s world includes angels

Matthew 18:1-10 About that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Jesus called a little child to him and said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven … Beware that you don’t look down on any of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels are always in the presence of my heavenly Father.”

“An artist is one still able to see angels,” Madeleine L’Engle tells me in Walking on Water. “To be visited by an angel is to be visited by God. To be touched by an angel is to be touched by God.”

Shutterstock: melitas

Immediately, of course, I think of Karis. Dave joked as she was growing up that she needed two guardian angels, not just one, to keep her safe through all her adventuring and exploits. But in reading her journals, I discovered she had three, and often saw them and took comfort and guidance from them.

Those of us around her, intent on keeping Karis safe and alive, tried to limit her, because she seemed to have missed out on common sense. Where is the line between fearlessness and stupidity?

We thought, silly us, looking at all we had invested in her life, that she “owed” us this: to walk within boundaries of safety, to not risk her costly life on (to us) frivolous pleasures. I placed value on what it took for me and others to support her in her extravagant ideas.

But for Karis, every day of life was Gift. So many times, doctors had said her broken body could no longer support life, yet she lived on. This made her careless, or overconfident, or too trusting, from the point of view of us who did not see her guardian angels or accept her absolute conviction that she would live “not one minute more or less than God has planned for me.”

“Where is the line between responsible faith and reckless presumption?” I would ask her.

“Ah, Mama, you worry too much. No one has ever solved the dilemma of free will vs. predestination. You need to embrace the both-and, not try to reduce it to either-or.” A deflection. I was not comforted. I did not worry less.

So if an artist is one still able to see angels, in what ways was Karis an artist? I remember her economics professor at Notre Dame telling me that after he graded Karis badly on an essay filled with her customary multi-hued imagery and made her rewrite it in proper academic diction, she thereafter submitted two essays for every assignment: one she wrote for herself, and one she wrote for him. “Economics is about Life,” she told him. “I can only understand it in that context. Then I translate it for you into the language that makes sense to you.” His view of his subject was transformed.

And that’s what she did for all of us who paid attention. She taught us to listen, to see, to go deeper. To embrace mystery, rather than try to tame it. To touch Joy. And Freedom.

Ah, Karis. I’m so glad James sees you dancing. With the angels. With Jesus.

Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name: Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.

But God released him

Acts 2:23-24, 33 You nailed him to a cross and killed him. But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip … Now he is exalted to the place of highest honor in heaven, at God’s right hand. And the Father, as he had promised, gave him the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us.

Imagine the joy, the song, the excitement! Hope renewed.

I tasted this joy so many times over the course of Karis’s life. The joy of life over death, even in the simplicity of IV fluids restoring warmth and color and consciousness to my daughter passed out from dehydration—how many times? Countless. Or seeing her rally against all odds when the doctors told us to call our family together to say goodbye.

But all that pales beside this joy, Jesus alive again! No wonder Peter was so excited he kept a crowd of thousands enthralled for a very long time, with about three thousand responding to his appeal. If you saw someone who was dead come back to life, wouldn’t you want to tell everyone about it?

Neighborhood deer ate my pansies down to the dirt. But they’re coming back! I was so excited to see this bloom today.

At the same time, we know Peter couldn’t and wouldn’t have preached this sermon had it not been for the filling of the Holy Spirit, the gift Jesus had promised his followers before he died. Right away we see some of the fruit of the Spirit in Peter. I love his quoting from Psalm 16:

I see that the Lord is always with me.

I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.

No wonder my heart is glad, and my tongue shouts his praises!

My body rests in hope…

You have shown me the way of life,

And you will fill me with the joy of your presence.

How different these words are from the Peter of a few weeks before, defeated by his own betrayal of Jesus, ready to quit, to give up on Jesus’ call and return to fishing fish instead of men.

The Holy Spirit lets us know God is with us; we are not abandoned. And where the Spirit is present, there is joy, worship, hope, life—even in distressing circumstances. A joy and hope we couldn’t possibly manufacture ourselves.

Why didn’t Karis give up? Only because of the life and joy of the Spirit within her. The same Spirit in you and me, whatever circumstances we each face. Turn on praise music and dance! God is with you!

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead!

1 Corinthians 15:17-20 If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead! He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.

On this last day of Easter season (Pentecost is tomorrow), we come to “the” chapter about the resurrection of Jesus, 58 verses of some of Paul’s most enthusiastic defense of our faith.

Valerie quoted from verses 42-57 in her blog post Feb. 5, 2014, the day Karis died. So of course that’s the first thing that comes to my mind as I re-read this chapter. The foundation of our confidence in the transformation of Karis’s weak, broken body into a body that will never die is Jesus’ own triumph over death, and his promises that we too will be raised to unending Life—our experience here just a shadow of the real thing. It’s why we can smile as we think of Karis now, in the joy of her victory over death, made possible by Jesus’ resurrection. It’s the joy at the center of the universe, the “deeper magic,” as C.S. Lewis described it.

Paul illustrates the transformation of our bodies with the analogy of what grows from a seed that is buried

But today what is on my mind is the hope we have for the many friends dying from Covid in Latin America and Brazil, more every day. Since our work is with pastors, those are the ones we primarily hear about from the safety of Pittsburgh. Hundreds of pastors across South America, caring for their people without PPE, without vaccines, and without adequate medical care, literally laying down their lives for their sheep (John 10:11).

I want to honor them today, even as we pray for their families and congregations and friends, left behind for now. They did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die (Revelation 12:11).

Because of our confidence in the resurrection, Paul says to us, Be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless (verse 58). And borrowing from chapter 16, verse 13: Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love.

But God compels

1 Corinthians 9:16-17, 26 Yet preaching the Good News is not something I can boast about. I am compelled to do it. How terrible for me if I didn’t preach the Good News! I have no choice, for God has given me this sacred trust…I run with purpose in every step.

Paul was compelled to preach. I feel compelled to write. What sacred trust has God given you?

“This one’s a fighter.” The veteran nurse smiled back as Karis gurgled and grinned, enjoying her bath. “That’s why she’s still alive, not all this paraphernalia. I’ve not known another baby so passionate to live. Don’t lose sight of HER in the middle of all this medical stuff.”

The nurse showed me how to navigate with soap and water between and around the ileostomy on her Karis’s tiny tummy, the Broviac catheter coiled on her chest, the naso-gastric tube emerging from her nose and taped to her cheek.

Hiding most of this under a frilly dress, and taping a matching bow to her bald head, the nurse said, “Go home to your little son. He needs you too.” She settled Karis into a stroller, grasping her IV pole with one practiced hand. “I’ll take Karis around with me to cheer up the other patients.”

At PACA, her school in Brazil, her shirt covering the central line through which she was fed every night.

LIFE in capital letters compelled Karis. On her birthday yesterday, I reflected on how apparent this was even at a few weeks old. And how her bright smile continued cheering others for the next thirty years, years the doctors told us she would never live. “Unplug everything and let her die now,” they told us. “That’s the merciful thing to do for her.”

No. God knew we needed her smile, even through the tough times and the pain. Her zest for life invigorated us. Again and again after that first time, God’s restoring touch reached down to meet her heart’s thirst for more, more of this life, more time with her Beloved, as she called those she loved (virtually everyone who crossed her path). Until finally, she said, “Father, take me Home.”

And now she is truly living LIFE. I imagine her joy and enthusiasm infecting everyone in Heaven as she welcomes more of the Beloved into her Father’s home through these Covid months. Crooning cradle songs in Portuguese over more than two thousand babies dead from Covid in Brazil, but growing up now well and strong. I see her delighting in Jane Pool’s stories and finding just the right shade to paint our dear Alicia Helmick’s nails, wearing one of a collection of brightly-colored shirts saying “Been there. Got the T-shirt.”

Comforting the hundreds of pastors from across Latin America taken as they steadfastly cared for their people: the Good Shepherd will raise up others to love their congregations and their families. Listening intently as those who found life too hard on Earth pour out their stories and find healing in the presence of the Lord . . .

She’s busy. She’s well and strong. Happy. Thrilled with LIFE.

And I miss her.