Ages and Angels

Angela Pupino (’18)
Thursday, September 24, 2015

Romans 12:1-2 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

The moment that Abraham Lincoln succumbed to an assassin’s bullet in 1865, the then Secretary of War Edwin Stanton proclaimed, “Now he belongs to the ages”.

According to one version of the story, that is. In the other, Stanton announces: “Now he belongs to the angels”.

The witnesses in the room that morning, of which there were many, could not quite make up their mind as to the exact word Stanton had used. For every person that asserted “Ages”, another was certain that it had been “Angels”.

This historical mystery is fascinating not only because it is likely to never be solved, but also because it mirrors the faith dichotomy that so many people try to put themselves and others into: You are either faithful or you are not. You are either devout or you are not. You are Christian or you are not. You either have a religion… or you don’t.

Coming into American University last year, I had one overarching goal for my freshmen year: avoid the Christians at all costs.

Seriously. The Christians I had known in Ohio did things like becoming Pastors and forcing the Youth Group Advisor to spy on kids or sending (humorously) grammatically incorrect hate mail to my school’s Gay/Straight Alliance, or giving impromptu speeches on the benefits of accepting Jesus Christ as your lord and savior versus, say, going to hell for all eternity. So I came to American University having been raised vaguely as a Methodist, bordering between atheism and agnosticism, and somehow drawn to every non-Christian religious community around me. I joined the Muslim Student Association even though I knew nothing about them, attended Hillel’s shabbat services so frequently that my Suggested Ads on Facebook were all about discovering my “Jewish heritage”, went to S’mores with the S’Methodists only to eat a s’mores (I ran away as soon as someone wearing a cross necklace approached me!). There was only one flaw in my Christian-less freshman year plan, and it took me completely by surprise: the Interfaith Council.

One of my close Muslim friends, a convert, admitted that her conversion was in part because she had encountered so many amazing Muslims while learning about the faith. “When you meet people you like,” she said, “You want to be more like them.” As I grew closer to the Christian Interfaith Council members and they invited me to their events, something in me crumbled. I mean, who among us can look Rachel Ternes in the eyes and say “No”? So I went to a Healing Service, mentally preparing for the same horrifying Christian diatribe I had gotten my entire life. But by the end of that service, I was in tears because of the beauty of what I had seen. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had a community that was making me feel whole. Plus, Emma Claire gave the sermon, so it’s easy to see why I came back….

I stand before you as someone who has seen both sides of Christianity, and both sides of religion. When I’m tabling for the Methodists, I often see the type of person I used to be. They smile, approaching the table, not realizing what you’re tabling for. Their eyes fall on the cross, smile fades, they awkwardly flee. There were plenty of times when it felt more comfortable for me to say “Now he belongs to the ages” than “Now he belongs to the angels”. I’ve scoffed when someone talked about Jesus around me; I’ve felt like religion is only for fools. I’ve run away from people with cross necklaces. But for whatever reason, right now, I find myself running towards them.

When I think about the meaning of the verse read earlier, I feel that familiar tug in my heart. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. I like that, I can work with that. Unfortunately, the author of Romans leaves very little context clues as to how this is accomplished. I like to think that this idea of nonconformity and constant spiritual renewal leaves room for some big questions of my own: Am I religious? Am I spiritual? Am I nothing? Is my life for the ages? The angels? Both? Neither?

During my own quest to find a spiritual community, I explored many different religions. Tonight we will pray the prayers of some of those religions and realize that the beauty of prayer, the beauty of spiritual wonder and mystery and excitement, runs through all of them. As I explored my own spiritual conscience and the religious ideas that appeal to me, I came to a startling conclusion: When it comes to religion, I might not be the round peg that fits neatly into the round hole. I just might a peg that fits pretty neatly but not quite perfectly into a bunch of different holes. I want to panic, but then I remember that the religion I’m searching for isn’t an either/or situation. I remember that history is on my side: Lincoln during his life made the slow transition from a kind of elitist atheism to a kind of quiet spirituality. He never joined a church, never committed to one sect of Christianity or even Christianity at all. That didn’t stop him from leading a spectacular life, so it won’t stop me and it definitely won’t stop any of you.

I look at the verses above in Romans as a kind of challenge. A challenge to pray a little bit differently today. To try a new kind of meditation or devotional. To look for beautiful words to live by not only in your religion’s holy texts, but in the holy texts of other faiths as well. To ponder the big questions. To learn more about yourself spiritually, mentally, emotionally. To reconsider tired old interpretations. To not think of religion as a series of rituals to perform on Sunday (or Friday or Saturday), but as a way of living. To be present in yourself and present in your faith.

So, big question time: Did Stanton say “Angels” or “Ages”? Which one was it? Which one is it? Was he talking about something secular or sacred?

And does it have to be one or the other?