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Next to Gabriel, the Archangel Michael is probably the best known of the heavenly host. He is most often described as being young, handsome, strong, and sporting a prodigious set of wings. As the scripture accounts note, Michael is a battler so traditional portraits have him in full armor, carrying a lance, and with his foot on the neck of a dragon. That has carried over into legend, so it is Michael who purportedly gave Joan of Arc the power to fight against all odds. It is Michael who supposedly appeared to a doomed division of French soldiers on the World War II battlefield and inspired them to victory. It is Michael who Pope Pius XII declared to be the patron saint of all embattled policemen.(3) Michael is a mighty warrior fighting for truth, justice, and, if not the American way, then certainly God's way.
Of course, this is not the only picture we have of Michael. Several years ago Hollywood offered us an alternative, a movie that bears our hero's name.(4) Good business, no doubt. Recent polls say that 68 percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels. Thus, the calendars, mugs, shirts, dolls, books, TV shows. The line from Psalm 91:11, "For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways," is read as a promise of celestial protection. Of all the sermons on First Presbyterian's Internet site, the one about angels has received the most comment from readers around the world. LOTS of interest out there.
Have you seen the movie, "Michael?" It was on cable again last month, and will be again and again, no doubt. It opens with a little lady from Stubbs, Iowa sending a note to a supermarket tabloid, the National Mirror, reporting that her prayers for deliverance from the vicious clutches of the local bank were answered when the Archangel Michael came down and pancaked the place. She even included a Polaroid of her winged warrior and urged that someone from the paper come to visit and do a story.
OK. "This is too good to pass up," thinks reporter Frank Quinlan - a page-one scoop. True or not, it becomes his job to track down this alleged angel and bring him back to Chicago in time for Christmas. But his feisty boss - a Rupert Murdock knock-off - will not let him go it alone. He sends Quinlan along with a supposed angel expert, Dorothy Winters (who is really a dog-trainer while she waits to make it big writing country music), and Huey Driscoll, another reporter who would have been canned years ago had he not been the owner of Sparky, a mongrel dog that has become famous as the paper's prized mascot.
So they set out - Quinlan, Huey, Dorothy and Sparky, a rag-tag team of staunch non-believers in search of, if not a celestial visitor, at least a good story. They arrive in Iowa, meet their letter-writer at the seedy motel she owns, stay overnight in the decrepit cabins, and are finally introduced to Michael the next morning.
We first get to see him as he clomps downstairs for breakfast. To say the least, Michael is NOT what anyone would have expected - not the church, not the reporters, not you, not me. Paunchy, unshaven, wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, he plops down at the breakfast table with a cigarette hanging off his lip. He is a slob, and he is sporting wings such as might have been grafted from a giant soot-smudged pigeon. Dorothy speaks for all of us when she gingerly tells Michael, "I thought angels were...cleaner."
Michael responds, "I'm not that kind of angel." No, he is not. He is the beer-swilling, bawdy-mouthed, barroom-brawling, bull-baiting, sex-starved antithesis of everything anyone ever thought about angels.
But, at heart, there is something very sweet about Michael. And if we need a visual aid to learn this, we get it early and often. Michael loves sugar, and puts copious amounts of it on his breakfast cereal and in his coffee. Later on, he even puts it on his French fries. When a character explains that one should eat a lemon by putting salt on it, Michael says that it is even better squeezed into a glass of water with lots of sugar added. As the film moves toward its conclusion, Michael tells the lovable little dog, "Remember, Sparky, no matter what they tell you, there is no such thing as too much sugar." That is, at least, the gist of both the line and the character, not to mention the message of the movie.
Now, I will admit that, left alone, that sentiment sounds awfully pollyanna-ish. Like the line, "If life hands you lemons, make lemonade." Hard to say that to all those families who lost loved ones on September 11th, or those affected by Hurricane Isidore. As one editorialist has it, "Pain is a human condition. Tragedy happens. Nothing is gained by suggesting that all problems can be solved by simply putting on a happy face."(5) Disease, war, poverty, crime, ignorance, bigotry cannot be papered over with platitudes.
To be sure, the jaded reporters sent to cover this "angel" story felt that way. Each had had their own share of life's hard knocks which made them as cynical as the next person. Now they encounter this strange character Michael who is weirdly innocent. They leave Iowa heading for Chicago and page one of the National Mirror.
Within a short time, things get silly. Michael has this delightful sense of humor that most of us lose by the time we are nine. He asks, "What's the opposite of white?"
His companions answer, "Black?"
"No, YOLK!" And then he breaks into peals of childish laughter.
Michael is enthralled by trailerpark Americana. He is ANXIOUS to see anything that the tour book says is in spittin' distance of their route to Illinois including the world's biggest ball of twine and the biggest non-stick frying pan. And if his fellow-travelers oppose him, he arranges for the car to break down.
Michael dances everywhere, fights for what is right, shamelessly hits on all the pretty ladies, all the while boasting about his creations. Marriage, for example - that was one of his inventions. Waiting in line - that is a good one ("Before that," he reported, "everybody just milled around."). Michael even claims that he invented pie.
His companions are writers, so he says he too is a writer. "Oh really? What did you write?"
Michael answers, "Psalm 85. But that was way back before they started numbering them." Uh-huh.
During the course of all this he lets us know that he wants to see and experience EVERYTHING, because this will be his last visit down here - he has been before, but apparently the heavenly rules are that no one angel gets these earthly assignments more than 26 times. This is it for him, and he wants to savor every moment.
Good lesson there, I think. Even the commercials tell us to "Go for the gusto!" or "Just do it!" Michael's unbridled enthusiasm for EVERYTHING is that message writ large. Enjoy! Enjoy! ENJOY! And "Remember, Sparky, no matter what they tell you, there is no such thing as too much sugar."
The closest Michael ever comes to despair is in his attempt to get the angel expert/dog-trainer/country singer and the jaded reporter past their deep-seated cynicism long enough to fall in love with each other (which apparently, was his angel assignment all along). Tough job. We live in a pretty cynical age, and everyone is affected - not just movie characters, but you and me too. Everyone knows Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic: someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I like H. L. Mencken's description: "A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin."(6) For Dorothy and Frank, their cynicism is especially directed at the opposite sex.
Well, Michael being Michael, with all that pent-up power, you can imagine how things turn out. Michael is finally successful. And that makes me wish the story were not just a story. We could use old Michael to work some celestial magic on LOTS of folks.
There are too many cynics out there (maybe even in here). All their lemons are eaten with salt. The only side of anything is the DOWNside. Instead of seeing progress on a problem, the cynic sees only that the problem is still there. Instead of giving a pat on the back for a step forward, the cynic proclaims it was really one forward but two BACK. There is no hope in the cynic's soul. And they probably cannot make decent lemonade either.
Sometime back, someone wrote that some folks "walk into a room and their ill-humor sucks the air out of it. Their presence weighs down on everyone. They have not a kind word for anyone or anything. They are not curmudgeons, for that implies some wit, but rather they are simply disapproving people full of black thoughts and dire predictions, critical of everyone but themselves."(7) Know anybody like that in Warren? I, for one, am tired of them.
"Michael" is not a movie for such folks. It has too much hope, too many examples of pleasure in simple things. It is a movie for those who live to enjoy each day the best we can. I hark back to words that Jesus spoke once while talking to his disciples about the good shepherd and his sheep. He said, "I came that they may have life, and have it ABUNDANTLY."(8) ABUNDANT LIFE. Joy! That is part and parcel of Christ's gospel. I can easily imagine Jesus saying, "There is no such thing as too much sugar."
Please be aware that I am not advocating some sickening sweet, pie-in-the-sky bye-and-bye, attitude that ignores or denies what is amiss in the world and sees life through rose-colored glasses. Jesus never did that. I do not want that any more than I want folks who view the same world as an abyss into which we are all falling and view every waking moment through lenses of grimy gray. Jesus CERTAINLY never did that either. But if I am going to lean in one direction or another, you know which it will be.
Give me a bit more sweetness. Life, as Michael attests as a "short-timer" on earth, is much too brief and much too wonderful to constantly waste on the gloomy side of things.
Are you familiar with the name Max Cleland? In 1968, Max - at the time a US military officer in Vietnam - was blown apart by a grenade; one moment healthy, the next minus two legs and one arm. It would have been so easy for Max to see nothing but the dark side of life on his return home, but something inside gave him a different perspective. He entered politics and served two terms in the Georgia State Senate. He ran for Lieutenant Governor, but lost. Max says it was at that moment - losing the election - that he became the most deeply depressed, and he begged God to help him. God gave him a sense of peace about those things in life he could not control and opened him to new possibilities that might come along.(9) Soon he was tapped to head our nation's Veterans Administration bringing to that bureaucracy the unique perspective of one who had needed and been helped by their care. Max could have lived his life as a cynic, and who would have blamed him? But he did not. And he DOES not. This year Max Cleland is running for a second term as United States Senator from the state of Georgia. Michael would cheer.
I would love to tell you that "Michael" is a wonderful movie that is true cinematic genius...but it is not. And the hero is certainly not the object of the church's veneration on this feast day of St. Michael and All Angels. But spiritually, the movie says something important to this cynical, jaded society that continues to shape us and regularly threatens to bring us down. It challenges us to look for the small joys that abound everywhere. It reminds us of the ABUNDANT LIFE that Jesus came to bring us. And it says one more very important thing: "Remember Sparky, no matter what they tell you, there is no such thing as too much sugar."
1. Daniel 10:13,21; 12:1
2. Brian Stoffregan, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #7020, 9/23/02
4. Produced & Directed by Nora Ephron, a New Line Cinemas release, 1996.
5. Myrne Roe, "'Michael' reminds us to add a little more sugar to life,' Greensboro News & Record from the Knight-Ridder Newspapers, 1/13/97
6. Correct Quotes via diskette, WordStar International, 1991-92
7. Myrne Roe, ibid.
8. John 10:10
9. Norman Vincent Peale, Powerful Results, (New York: Foundation for Christian Living, 1982), pp. 109-111