Monday, August 26, 2013

The Bread (& Falafel) of Angels

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”  (that’s from the King James translation of Hebrews 13:2). 

More recent translations say that we should show hospitality to strangers because some of those strangers might just be messengers from God: they could be angels! 

The illustration is  from Season of Angels, and the angel there in the back, that others don't yet recognize, is Raphael.

Since I was raised to understand that the basis of hospitality was food, I want to talk today about what foods you and your children could fix for Michaelmas, also known as the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, in late Septmeber. You can practice these foods ahead of time to see if you and the children like them.

An ancient tradition said that blackberries shouldn't be eaten after Michaelmas. Blackberries tend to ferment or mildew in early October, but tradition insists that the berries turn bad because the Devil spat (or urinated) on them when he landed in a bramble bush after Michael threw him out of heaven on this date. So blackberries are often included as part of a meal on this day, to be eaten up by day's end. 

Substituting blackberries in my grandmother Ruth Hanford's blueberry muffin recipe would be yummy. (see the July 15 post "Suffering, Joy, and Blueberry Muffins:" <>) Finishing up a batch of blackberry muffins by the end of a day sounds like a rather nice injunction.

Then there's the main course:

In Season of Angels, the Archangel Raphael saves Tobias's life when "a huge and fearsome fish leaped up from the water to swallow the boy." They ended up eating the fish for supper, so fixing a favorite fish dish would be appropriate for the occasion. If you don't have one, here's an incredibly easy tuna casserole that looks like it has worms in it, much to the delight of children. All you do is heat the oven to 350 degrees, empty the contents of the following five cans into a bowl, mix, pour into a small casserole dish, crumble potato chips on top, and bake for 30 minutes: one can of tunafish, one can of cream of mushroom soup, one can of cream of chicken soup, one can of evaporated milk, and one can of Chinese noodles (these are what end up looking like worms).

If you feel wildly ambitious, you could opt instead to roast a goose. A 15th Century tradition said that eating goose on Michaelmas brought financial luck for the year, because geese were so plentiful in late September.

Other foods you could have on the table for Michaelmas include sliced apples to dip in honey (a Jewish custom for this time of year), figs, dates, and raisins as reminders of the food Tobias would have carried on his journey, and olives and almonds which are native to Israel.

For dessert, angel food cake, of course! I have a particular fondness for angel food trifle because not only is it delicious, but an angel food trifle recipe is actually what my son and his wife read back and forth to each other at their wedding rehearsal, rather than giving away the vows they had each written for the wedding itself. A trifle is soaked in a fair amount of sherry, so you may prefer plain angel food cake topped with whipped cream; having the children help with the whipping is a good lesson in the power of that which is invisible as air turns the liquid cream to something more solid.

One of the people I've always named as an angel in my life was a young English seminarian named Paul who was living in the tower of St. George's Cathedral in Jerusalem when my husband and I arrived at the guesthouse there back in 1997. We arrived exhausted from a night and a day of travel, thinking we might just collapse into bed and wait till the next day to explore the Old City, but Paul saw us, came down from his tower, and said, "I'll take you there." So we went with him, down Nablus Road, through the Damascus Gate, and through the winding streets to a quiet outdoor restaurant where we had a supper of falafel and beer. "You can't get lost in the Old City," he told us. "Eventually a street will lead you to the city wall, and a gate, and once outside you can just walk  the perimeter until you find the Damascus Gate and Nablus Road." Paul's physically leading us into the Old City and then telling us, "You can't get lost" gave us  the city, along with a sense of security in a strange place. For me, falafel is the bread of angels. I might add that to my own list of foods for Michaelmas.

Season of Angels, of course, tells another story of angelic companionship: how the Archangel Raphael accompanies young Tobias on a journey that involves a lot more than a simple supper in Jerusalem;  their journey includes a fearsome fish, a beautiful girl, a bag of silver, and a wicked demon. To have the story on hand for Michaelmas, you can preorder the book  -- it's due in the warehouse any day -- at <>.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

September's angels

The angels keep their ancient places-
Turn but a stone and start a wing!

Those lines come from Francis Thompson's poem "The Kingdom of God," in which he describes how ordinary things are suffused with grace, how the Holy permeates everything. Jesus might just as well be walking on the local river as on the Sea of Galilee, he suggests -- and angels are everywhere!

At the end of next month, on September 29, is Michaelmas, also known as the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. It's a day that can be a lot of fun to celebrate with children. Over the next weeks, I'll be posting some ideas for crafts, games, music, and food connected with angels that you can do at home to celebrate the season.

Today I'll give some background -- and encourage you to consider reading the picture book that my niece, Sage Stossel, and I did together and that is (as of Aug. 16) available for preorder from the publisher Forward Movement. (The publisher writes: "Season of Angels explores the wonder of God's angels as protectors and messengers. Tobias makes a perilous journey to a faraway city on an important errand for his father. The angel Raphael joins Tobias and keeps him safe on his way.") 

The story begins, "September is the season of angels....." 

Here's some background about angels (this is more for the grown-ups):

Angelic protection: In the late 19th Century, the Rev. Charles Grafton recommended that a child's introduction to God begin with talk about angels, especially their own Guardian Angel. Angels, he writes, are appointed to watch over and guard and protect children. St. Basil writes, "It is a teaching of Moses that every believer has an Angel to guide him [or her] as a teacher and a shepherd." There is a legend stemming from Matthew 18:10 that the Guardian Angels of children always stand close to God because what they do is so important. By introducing children to the angelic protection which surrounds them, parents can give them a deep sense of God's personal, individual love and concern.

Angels as messengers: Our word "angel" comes from the Greek aggelos, translated from the Hebrew mal'akh, meaning "messenger."' Brother John Mathis, S.S.J.E., pointed out, "Now, messengers don't just boot around on their own; they come from a source and are aimed at a target." They come from God, sometimes with specific messages for specific people, sometimes simply with the message of love. Scholars note that as messengers, angels may appear as strangers; we often don't recognize them, just as the boy Tobias simply accepts Raphael as a traveling companion without recognizing that he is an angel. Angelic messages can come through other people and through the natural world; children, in their openness to both worlds, can even serve as angelic messengers to the adult world.

Named angels:  Angels appear in about half the books of the Bible and are mentioned over 300 times. Of the named archangels, Michael is the leader; he is referred to as the angel of righteousness and is noted for his mercy. The Midrash Rabba credits Michael with writing Psalm 85, and tradition says that Michael is recognized by Sarah as one of the "men" who predict Isaac's birth--as well as being the angel who later stays Abraham's hand as he prepares to slay Isaac. Mystical writers equate Michael with the Holy Spirit in Christian understanding and the Shekinah, or Presence if God, in Jewish teachings. Besides being a warrior angel, Michael is named the benevolent angel of death, for it is Michael who weighs the souls of the dead.

Gabriel is the heavenly messenger, a special angel of the Christ, appearing, for example, to Zachariah and to Mary to announce the births of John and Jesus. Islamic tradition sees Gabriel as the 10th and final archangel, the one who rules over the human sphere and all that lies below it; as such he is called the Angel of Humanity. Gabriel is also noted for his courage.

Raphael appears only in the Book of Tobit, and it is his story that’s told in Season of Angels (which takes a few liberties with the text in order to emphasize the loving companionship and protection provided to the anxious young Tobias by the Archangel Raphael). Raphael is especially noted for the quality of love.

The Eastern Church says that since the Christ always existed, any appearance of angels in Hebrew Scripture should be seen as partial manifestations of Christ. This recognition of Christ as both preexistent and contained within angelic visitors is echoed by two Native Americans from the land of the Anishnabe who name Christ as "with us through our entire history"--even before they knew his Name--as "an angel or a guardian spirit."

What all this means is that each child's Guardian Angel contains an element of Christ.

Looking ahead to the next weeks: games, music, food, and fun to help children prepare to celebrate this Feast of Angels in late September! (with a break, of course, for a new green goblin story on Sept. 9)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Goblin-to-Go Story: a noisy-bully seagull, a bologna sandwich, an old tennis ball, a blind ice cream man, a rainbow bridge

The green goblin dangled his feet over the edge of a branch on his knobby old tree.  A full moon hung low in the western sky.

"Owl," he said to the barn owl sitting beside him, "I need your help."

Owl turned his head and blinked.

"You know the beach that circles Haven's Cove?" the goblin went on.

Owl nodded.

"Well, there's a bully that's hanging around that beach, a big old bully seagull that's been stealing from the children."

"But seagulls are scavengers by nature," Owl said. "They'll eat anything they can steal."

"Oh, I know," said the goblin, "but this seagull has started stealing toys as well as food, taking them out over the water and dropping them too far out for the children or even the grown-ups to get. It's just plain mean."

"Hmmm...." said Owl. "What do you have in mind?"

"Well," said the goblin, "I want to catch him and bring him here for a day." He pointed at the knothole that served as the front door into his house.

"And how can I help?"

"If I can catch him, can you carry him here?"

"I think so."

Just as the sun was rising, the green goblin put a half-eaten bologna sandwich, a bright red plastic pail, some green netting, and a roll of heavy string into a paper bag, then climbed onto the owl's back. They flew the short distance to Haven's Cove.

It was too early for any families to be there, but the seagulls were awake and noisy, soaring so high that the early sun lit up the underside of their wings, then diving down to catch a fish or to root around in the sand looking for left-overs from the day before. The goblin slid off Owl's back onto the beach. He set out the sandwich and the pail. Pretty soon, gulls began to swoop down for a closer look at his treasures, but he waved his arms and shouted, "No, they're mine! Go away!"

Then an enormous seagull with a pure white belly and black feathers on his back flew in low and fast and grabbed up the red pail before the goblin could stop him. The gull flew a long way out over the water, then dropped the pail. It looked like a tiny red dot floating out there on the ocean. The gull screeched with delight.

"That's our guy," said the goblin to the owl. He took out the netting, holding it tightly in his right hand, and stood up. When the big seagull swooped down for the bologna sandwich, the goblin flung the netting over him and pulled it tight. The gull was trapped! The goblin used string to wrap around and around the seagull so its wings couldn't open.

Then the goblin climbed back on Owl's back, Owl snagged the wrapped-up seagull in his giant talons, and they flew back to the goblin's tree.

"Good luck!" Owl called as he headed home to his barn for a good day's sleep. "I'll be back after dark to hear how it goes."

"Screech, squawk, help!" screamed the angry gull.

"Oh, dear, I probably should have tied your beak shut, too," said the goblin. "Except then you couldn't eat."

"Eat?" squawked the seagull. "Food! Give me food! Screech! Screech! Squawk!"

"Oh, stop your noise!" demanded the goblin. "I'll feed you when you're ready."

"Ready now! Hungry! Feed me! Now!"

The goblin looked at the wrapped-up seagull standing in his living room. "Come here," he said.

The seagull hopped over to the goblin, who went out the door onto the branch. The seagull hopped after him. The goblin showed the seagull a piece of oatmeal bread, then he leaned over and dropped it onto the ground below. The seagull struggled to free his wings so he could fly down to get the bread, but his wings were trapped. He danced up and down on the branch on his long pink legs, but he couldn't figure out how to get to the bread.

The goblin went back inside the tree and put a pot of water on the stove. When the water was hot, he made two bowls of instant maple and brown sugar oatmeal. Then he leaned his head out the door and asked, "Are you still hungry? There's food inside."

The seagull  hopped back through the door and into the goblin's kitchen. "What's that?" he squawked, smelling the warm oatmeal.

"It's the best food in the whole world," said the goblin.

The goblin lifted the seagull onto the table. The seagull stuck his beak into the oatmeal and lifted his head to swallow. He stuck his beak back into the oatmeal over and over till it was all gone. "More!" he demanded.

"Fix it yourself," said the goblin, who was just finishing his own bowl of oatmeal. "There's water in the pot and another packet of oatmeal right there next to you."

The seagull looked from the stove to the table. He reached out and tried to use his beak to turn the stove on, but he couldn't do it.  He picked up the packet of oatmeal in his beak and shook it, but it didn't open. He tried dropping it on the floor, the way he dropped clams to break open their shells, but not only did the packet not open, he couldn't fly down to the floor to get it. "I can't," he said to the goblin. "You get me more."

The green goblin came and stood in front of the seagull. "Not yet. I want you to think about something first. You think it's fun to steal food and toys from children. Now the food I understand; it's not nice, but it's nature. But the toys! You take toys and drop them so far out to sea that no one can get them back. And you don't even play with them. That's just plain mean. So for now, I'm going to leave you here so you can look at the oatmeal packet for awhile and imagine what it's like for those of us that can't fly to see something that we want -- something that you stole -- and not be able to reach it."

The goblin went out the door and climbed down the tree, leaving the seagull stranded on the table. He found an old tennis ball in the grass and kicked it ahead of him as he meandered along. He heard the music of the ice cream cart and veered off to find it. The ice cream man was blind, so if no grown-ups were around, the goblin liked to spend time visiting with him because the blind man never suspected he was talking to a goblin. Today, though, there was a long line of children with their parents waiting to get ice cream, so the goblin just quietly rolled the tennis ball to the blind man's guide dog, then turned back toward home just as clouds began to gather.

The seagull was still standing on the table where the goblin had left him. "Screech! Let me go! How do you stand not being able to fly?" he squawked. " I remember the bread on the ground. I can see the oatmeal packet on the floor. But I can't get to any of it. I hate this!"

"You can still walk," said the goblin.

"But that's not enough. I'm a bird! You're mean, goblin, to wrap me up like this! I'm starving to death, and my legs are tired from standing, and the whole sky is calling to me."

The goblin sighed. "Do you have any idea yet why I had Owl bring you here?"

"Because you're mean."

"No, because you are. I'm going to free your wings now so you can fly again, but what I really wish is that you might think twice before you steal things you don't even need. I wish you would remember what it's like not to be able to fly."

He got a pair of scissors and carefully cut the heavy string that bound the seagull's wings. The seagull spread his wings, knocking pots and pans off near-by shelves, then he bolted for the door and took off into a soft rain, wheeling and screeching with joy. The goblin watched as the seagull flew toward a rainbow that arched up into the clouds.

The green goblin hunched his shoulders and sighed again. "I don't think that did much good," he thought as he turned back into his kitchen and began to pick up the scattered pots and pans.

The sun was down and the moon just peering over the horizon when Owl tapped at the door with his beak. When the goblin opened his door, Owl set down a red pail. "I found this hanging on a branch of your tree," he said. "Is it yours?"

Monday, August 5, 2013

A world alive with color

Reminder: Next week is the second Monday of the month, which means a Goblin-to-Go story. Send suggested “ingredients” for the story! If this is new to you, check out “Jesus Told Stories” from May 6, 2013:

Once again I’m writing from 38,000 feet airborne, returning home from a conference on the intersection of art and faith put on by Image magazine. Poets, painters, playwrights, mystics and musicians, photographers, novelists and essayists all gathered in Santa Fe for a week of workshops, worship, and performance, interwoven with ongoing conversations about creativity and Christianity. 

Living for a week in a community of Christian artists was extraordinary on many levels, but what lodged in my heart were the stories of those who had grown up in what they sometimes called the “black and white world” of fundamentalism but who, through encounters with music or a book or a poem or a film or a friend, suddenly saw the wideness of God’s mercy and the interconnectedness of all life.  As Fr. Richard Rohr says, they realized that “Everything belongs.” Suddenly their lives pulsated with color, with possibility, with ambiguity, with doubt that fueled a deeper faith. And from this awakening came creative outpourings, as though the only response to the glory of God was to seek ways to express it.

Their stories reinforced my own sense that engaging children in creative pastimes is a deeply Christian endeavor, one that makes them co-creators of the world they inhabit. Creativity is incarnational. My own instructor, Jeffrey Overstreet, spoke of how we all “carry eternity in our hearts” and so are able to recognize the holy in the most unlikely places – such as the film clip he showed us of Spiderman…. 

So spend time this week making up stories, building sand castles or block cities, dancing to music, putting on a puppet show, playing with play dough – baking bread. And next week, we’ll create a story together.