There once was an orphan named Bette who was adopted as a child by a farm couple. From the beginning, there was no pretense of love. She was there as free labor, nothing more. Worse, the couple lived in their own cycle of violence and their cruel abuse regularly found a focus in the little girl.

When Bette was twelve, the couple went away and left her to tend the farm. The next morning she rose early. After feeding the animals, she went to the pump to draw water for them, but the pump was broken. When this had happened before, she remembered seeing her “father” open the cover off the well and draw water up in a bucket. She found the bucket and a brand-new length of rope the farmer had just purchased. Fastening it tightly around the bucket handle, she stood by the well and lowered it into the dark hole in the ground.

Unfortunately, the water table was very low, and by the time the bucket hit water, Bette could hardly keep her balance. The bucket filled quickly and began to sink. Although the girl tried desperately to get control, the weight of the bucket and water was too much for her.

Bette immediately knew she had two choices: be pulled down into the well to drown, or let go of the bucket, lose the farmer’s brand-new rope, and suffer the consequences. The answer was simple. She would hang on.

But as the weight jerked her muscles and the pulling rope burned her hands, an unexpected thing happened. A voice spoke audibly and clearly: “Lie down on your stomach!” Bette heard the words, but she was so surprised by them that she didn’t have time to process the command and obey it before she was pulled head-first down into the dark well shaft. Down and down she fell, bracing herself for the icy splash of the water. It never came.

For somehow, something even more unexpected happened—she ceased falling down. Then she began falling up. She “fell” all the way up the shaft, and found herself seated neatly on the ground beside the well. But before she had time to question what had happened, the most incredible thing of all took place. The shaken, terrified twelve-year-old girl felt herself surrounded by a presence. And then she felt something she had never felt in her entire life. She felt totally, completely loved. It was a feeling that bathed her inside and out. She felt peace and happiness—but overriding it all was love. Someone loved her. Someone was watching out for her. “At the time, I had never heard of angels,” Bette told me. “I had heard a friend of mine mention God, and I somehow knew God was behind my rescue. Only later, after I heard about angels did I recognize that it must have been an angel who saved me from the well.”

Like thousands of people—from peasant girls to famous painters—who have experienced angelic encounters through the centuries, Bette Fetters’s life was forever marked by that experience. Beyond gratitude for the physical rescue, the sure knowledge of such overwhelming power and love dramatically changed the abused girl and prepared her for a life of hope and wholeness of which she had never dared dream.

Chances are, you already know what you believe about angels. This book doesn’t aim to change your beliefs: quite the contrary.
It means to give you information about why you believe what you do and an understanding of why your friends and neighbors believe as they do. As Flannery O’Connor says, “The truth doesn’t change based on our ability to stomach it.” Indeed, the purpose of this book is to fill you with wonder, and to help each of us live with a deeper sense of awe and mystery in our everyday lives.

For while facts and cosmology are fascinating and informative, they are not as important as the angels in your life. You see, in almost every tradition, almost every language, the word angel means messenger. And as awesome as the messenger’s appearance may be, what’s really important, according to the scriptures of most traditions, is the content of the message that’s received. God never uses angels frivolously. They are sent when something significant needs to take place. Someone is being called to do something, or be something, or stand firm about something, and that person’s actions or agonies or spiritual comfort are so urgent that God does the equivalent of sending in the Marines to make certain nothing goes wrong. But the angels themselves are so fascinating simply because they are supernatural—beyond the natural world as we know it—and the effects of their work are so dramatic. Just feeling their presence can explode a normal human’s concept of the universe. They also give us hints—big hints—about the character, nature, and being of God. People who have had encounters with angels tend to fall into two camps: either they’re afraid no one will believe them and they keep their encounter a secret, or they’re so blown away by the experience that they can’t stop talking about it.

So, is an encounter with an angel something to be hoped for? This is a question that will be explored in this book from the point of view of several faith traditions. History, however, sounds a word of caution. An angelic visitation is seldom something that happens lightly. True, we’d all appreciate a visit from an angel on a life-saving mission—lifting a girl out of a well, stopping a traffic accident, healing a child in the hospital, bringing words of peace to those in grief—and this book contains many such stories.

But when angels come to you with a message, it’s possible that your life is not about to get easier. An angel in the form of a burning bush sent Moses, content as a shepherd, to confront the Pharaoh of Egypt; Elizabeth and Mary, both mothers of babies announced by angels, saw their sons eventually executed; young Joan of Arc followed angelic instructions only to be burned at the stake. It is not an easy path that angels call humans to, and yet so unshakeable is the experience that those who have had such encounters cannot deny the power and reality of their calling, even in the face of death.

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