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August 13, 2022

Angel Wings

The other day I caught sight of a white mark on a table that stands a few feet away from my writing desk.
5 min read

The other day I caught sight of a white mark on a table that stands a few feet away from my writing desk. The table is a remnant of another time in my and my husband’s life, when we were young, childless, and counting our pennies more carefully. We purchased it at a garage sale and used it to eat our meals in a small apartment.

Now, more than two decades later, my ten-year-old autistic son has started sitting at the table, playing with toys or watching his tablet (or both) as I do exercise videos in the same room (which serves as both office and gym) or work on the computer. His choice to do so warms my heart, because I take it as a sign of emotional attachment—his desire to be near me rather than remaining aloof as many children with autism do.

The first thing I noticed about the white mark on the table was its shape, which resembles a butterfly or perhaps angel wings. But beyond that observation I could not determine much else. What material was the white mark made of? How did it get there?

What was clear to me, if not the “what” and the “how” was the “who.” My son tends to leave forensic evidence of his presence wherever he goes: popcorn pieces, half-filled drinking cups, toys strewn about. Plus the mark was located right where my son sits when he visits me. And it is for that “who” reason that I have felt no compulsion to clean the mark and restore the table to its original state. Simply put, I like the reminder of the love that binds my son and me together despite Everything—every difficulty and deficit autism may present.

I have also discovered that when I look at the mark as angel wings, it offers me a surprising spiritual lesson, one derived from a story in 2 Kings 6:8–23. After repeated attempts to raid Israel’s camp, the king of Syria is thwarted by the enemy’s uncanny ability to predict where he plans to attack next. His servants explain that Elisha the prophet, who serves the opposing side, “tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom” (2 Ki 6:12).

Armed with this information, the Syrian king musters a large force and surrounds Israel’s army by night, where they are encamped in Dothan. When the army awakens in the morning, they are hemmed in by horses and chariots, seemingly choked off from any path of escape. In a panic, Elisha’s servant asks his master, “What shall we do?!” (2 Ki 6:15)—to which the prophet calmly replies, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Ki 6:16).

After his master petitions God to “open his eyes that he may see” (2 Ki 6:17), Elisha’s servant suddenly perceives that Israel is, in fact, surrounded by horses and chariots of fire which have been called down from heaven to fight for them.

What happens next upends my expectations. Rather than immediately engaging the Syrian army in a clash of swords and spears, Elisha prays that God would blind the enemy instead, confusing the soldiers so that they do not know where they are or what they are doing. Speaking kindly, Elisha misdirects the spellbound army away from Israel:

“This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria.

(2 Ki 6:19)

Only when the Syrians are safely ensconced in Samaria is their sight restored by further intercession from Elisha. Seeing a choice opportunity to pounce upon his disoriented enemies, (“How did we get here?!”) the king of Israel asks the prophet’s permission to strike them down. His request is flatly denied:

“You shall not strike them down. Would you strike down those whom you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go their master.”

(2 Ki 6:22)

Happily, the king of Israel does one better, preparing a “great feast” (1 Ki 6:23) for his enemies before sending them home. The result of his largesse: the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel. (1 Ki 6:23) My guess is that the Syrians were thoroughly confounded (and more than a little frightened) by their encounter with powerful “magic.”However well it turned out for them—­this time—they did not wish to repeat the experience.

Years ago, when this story was the topic of discussion for a class I was taking on Biblical storytelling, one student appeared somewhat frustrated with the text. “But what did they actually do?” she kept asking, pointing out that the narrative lacked any specific description of how the angelic army interceded for Israel. In fairness, the warriors of fire simply appear on the scene, their presence reassuring Elisha and his servant (and the reader) that Israel actually has the advantage over their enemies. When I search the text, a few possibilities present themselves. Perhaps the angels implement the blindness that Elisha imposes on the Syrian soldiers. Perhaps they convey them from Dothan to Samaria. Perhaps they play a part in the incredible restraint Israel’s king shows despite his eagerness to strike down his enemies, once and for all.

The text simply doesn’t say. For me, the most faithful reading of this story must concede that the matter remains a mystery. Those on God’s side are blessed with the opportunity to witness a miracle firsthand, and then resolve their big problem by showing big mercy.

When I ask myself whether I ultimately would be satisfied with a similar form of provision—immanent yet enigmatic—I think: heck, yeah, send down the angels because I am surrounded!

Then I think: what if the mysteries of God were not just something we acknowledged whenever we chanced upon them but were something that we depended upon daily?

So often I am left scratching my head when I’m caught in the midst of a struggle, particularly a painful or scary one. I cannot see the One who is with me, just the horses and chariots lined up against me. And if I am being entirely truthful, I entertain dark thoughts about God’s nearness and goodness because what’s happening is NOT how I would handle things at all. And that doubting leads me down a path that I do not want to go, if I could but see the situation clearly.

What it boils down to is: am I willing to let God be His totally Other, sometimes utterly confounding Self as He deals with me? Will I surrender to His ways of doing things, trusting that He’s working hard to get my enemies off my back—for good?

One small detail in the story helps me answer these questions in the best way possible. After the Syrian army wakes up in Samaria and the king of Israel pauses before pressing his advantage, he asks Elisha: “My father, shall I strike them down? Shall I strike them down?” (1 Ki 6:21) That the exalted ruler addresses the prophet with the honorific father shows me that, however supernaturally circumstances have unfolded before him, he has his head on straight. He knows who’s really in charge, and that it’s best to obey Him, no matter how eager he may be to do otherwise (note the impassioned repetition of his request). I have a Father whom I can consult too, One whose Son promised:

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

(John 16:33)

Note that Jesus doesn’t say how He will accomplish the overcoming, just that He has—the implication being that His intervention on our behalf will involve mystery. Powerful and personal moves of mercy that we will be so glad we surrendered to, no matter how long it took us when we were operating in the dark.

Holy One,

You are the God of Mystery and Mercy. And your intentions towards us are always good, even when we don’t understand what is happening to us.

Please help us to trust You.

Please open our eyes to glimpse Your Presence with us, especially when we are tempted to panic or take matters into our own hands.

Now, in this moment of clarity, we choose You, exactly as You are.

Please show us that You love us as we contend with the troubles of this world.

Show us that we ultimately will overcome – sometimes in ways beyond our comprehension—as we choose to walk with You.

This, Father, we ask in the Name of Your Son, Jesus,