Gellman: How to Find an Angel

We read in the 37th chapter of Genesis:

When Joseph arrived at Shechem, a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, "What are you looking for?" He replied, "I'm looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?" "They have moved on from here," the man answered. "I heard them say, 'Let's go to Dothan'."

Who was the man that found Joseph in the field? Was he a man or was he an angel? The answer is simple. He was a man and … he was an angel. OK, maybe the answer is not that simple.

All the Abrahamic faiths believe in angels (the Qur'an was, by Muslim belief, dictated to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel). We first meet angels in Gen. 3:24, when one of them is stationed outside the Garden of Eden with a fiery sword preventing Adam and Eve from sneaking back in. Angels appear to Hagar in the desert, tell Abraham about the birth of Isaac, stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, appear to Jacob in a dream ascending and descending a ladder to Heaven, tell Jacob to return to Canaan, wrestle with Jacob when he tries to return, point Joseph in the right direction to find his brothers, speak to Moses out of the burning bush, lead the people out of Egypt—and all this angelology is just from the first two books of the Bible.

In most all of these biblical angel stories, the angels are people (except for the fiery-sword angel and the burning-bush angel and the pillar-of-fire angel). So apparently unless their mission is too hot for people to handle, God uses people to deliver messages to us. It was later Christian angelology that dressed up the angels in their Hallmark card costumes and made them cute cherubic figures with rosy cheeks. I think Jewish angels mostly look like Borat.

The important part of an angel is the message, not the costume. In fact, the Hebrew word for angel is malach, which just means messenger. It does not mean winged messenger or harp-playing messenger. And that messenger can be, and usually is, an ordinary person who has no clue that he or she is on a mission from God. And, like the people, the messages God sends to us through people/angels are often quite ordinary, like the message to Joseph that changed his life: "Your brothers went that-a-way."

It makes sense to me that angels are people, because if angels were sent to us in full feather we could not help but notice them. However, if angels are actually ordinary human beings, the real test is ours. Can we hear God's message for our life being spoken through the people we meet—people who may very well be angels in the service of God? The Buddha called this ability to really listen and really see everything around you ekagrata, "single mind focus." When his disciples asked the Buddha if he was a god or a king he said, "No, I am just awake." Seeing angels just requires that we be awake.

Some of you who are awake know precisely when an angel came to you and what the angel said to you. Maybe the angel said, "You would make a great teacher or healer or athlete or chef or designer or artist or mother or father." And that message from that angel that you truly heard changed your life and gave you your calling, your passion, your work. Maybe the angel said, "I have somebody I would like you to meet." And that somebody is now your husband or wife. My friend Rick Warren has taught millions through his book "The Purpose-Driven Life" that God has a purpose in mind for each and every one of us. I agree with Rick and I believe that the people who nudge us toward God's purpose are the angels of our life.

I think we all ought to periodically remind ourselves to give thanks to God for our angels who find us wandering like Joseph through the fields of our life looking for something that is not there or has moved on, and then point us in the right direction. And after you thank God, I hope you would find time to write a letter to your angels and thank them for changing your life in ways they could never have imagined.

I absolutely think that people who do not believe in God can also thank their angels. Even if they believe that the message and the messenger are all the result of blind luck, it does not matter. They have still been changed by someone who came out of the blue and made everything different for their life, and this calls for some form of thankfulness, because thanks are the only payment real angels ever need.

In the iconic 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life" by Frank Capra, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, who was fresh from bomber duty in the Air Force during World War II, is saved from suicide by Clarence the angel. Clarence, played by Henry Travers, finds George freezing and desperate on a bridge and saves him. Then, as a bell rings on George's Christmas tree in the happy-ending scene, we know Clarence has earned his wings at last. Except for the wings and the bells, I wonder, how did Frank Capra know that this is exactly how angels work?