The subject of angels has taken the country by storm. Books, magazines, radio and TV shows are featuring those who believe they have encountered a member of the heavenly host.
In some cases, people report seeing someone who looked just like an ordinary person but inexplicably disappeared when his job was done.At other times, the spiritual visitor appears as an apparition, like the angels who wrestled with Jacob or proclaimed good news on a Bethlehem hillside.
Obviously, angels come in whatever guise God deems appropriate. But sometimes they remain invisible, with only results marking their presence.
Just ask Donald Lay.
Twelve years ago, Lay was a police officer in West Chicago, Ill.
One evening shortly after he started his shift, Lay took a radio call.
There had been an accident on the other side of town, with injuries reported. He and an officer in another squad car were dispatched to the scene.
"It was dark, and snowing lightly," Lay recalls. "I activated my red lights and siren, and went down Route 59. Since I've always believed that it's better to arrive late than not at all, I didn't think I was going that fast."
But as Lay approached an elevated overpass, he hit a patch of ice.
In that split second he lost control of his car - no steering, no brakes.
His heart sank. "The car began to weave into the oncoming lane of traffic," he says. "Suddenly I was looking at the front grille of an 18-wheeler."
He was going to die. Lay knew it, and he braced himself for the impending collision with the truck, now just a few feet away.
But nothing happened. Instead, Lay realized his car was now two lanes to the right and pointed in the right direction. "It was as if someone had picked it up like a toy and placed it down in this exact spot," he says.
He had regained control of his steering and brakes. It was impossible. But here he was, safe and secure.
Shaken, Lay pulled off the road to regain his composure.
Meanwhile, the second officer reached the accident scene and radioed that there were no injuries involved.
Coincidence? Lay's imagination? Perhaps. But Lay has another view.
"I can't say for sure what happened that night," he says. "But perhaps my guardian angel saved me from death because it wasn't my time to go. I believe that if we call on the Lord in times of need, he'll send angels to help us."
Many people ask their guardian angels for help during difficult moments. But sometimes angels act when we aren't expecting it at all.
Several years ago, while living in Mobile, Ala., Rhonda and John Christie tucked their 2-year-old daughter, Kellie, into bed and checked her again before they went to sleep.
Hours later, however, both were awakened by the insistent ringing of the doorbell.
John bolted out of bed. "Who could that be?" he muttered, glancing at the clock. It was almost 2 a.m.
Curious and concerned, Rhonda followed him to the front door, watching as he flung it open.
A young man in cut-off jeans and a white T-shirt stood there, a bike propped behind him.
In his arms was their pajama-clad daughter, holding her favorite doll and incredibly, her little red rocking chair.
Kellie had been sleeping soundly the last time they checked. How had she ended up outside, with this stranger?
"I think I must have freaked out for a moment," Rhonda recalls. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing." John was equally shocked.
"Where did you get her?" he asked, grabbing his daughter out of the young man's arms.
"I found her walking down Main Street, carrying her doll and that little chair," the stranger said calmly. "She must have gotten out of your house somehow."
Rhonda gasped. Main Street was almost two miles from their home, a very busy and dangerous area.
Kellie could have been hit by a car, or injured, or worse. Rhonda couldn't bear to think about it.
She looked more closely at the young man. He was beautiful, she realized, with blond curly hair and eyes that seemed to look right into her soul.
John wanted more details. He turned and placed Kellie in Rhonda's arms. But when they turned around to question the stranger, he was gone.
"Our street was long and straight, and we should have heard or seen him riding away on his bike," Rhonda says.
"But although we went outside, we saw nothing at all." The stranger had simply vanished.
Rhonda and John spent the rest of the night giving thanks to God for bringing their daughter safely home to them. It was only later that another question emerged.
Kellie was too little to tell anyone her specific address. How had the young man known where to bring her?
"It was only a 15-second encounter, but it left its mark on our family," Rhonda says today. "I know that angels are real."
Not every answer to prayer involves an angel.
Last summer, a young woman (we'll call her Nadine) shared her story with Catherine Johns and me on Catherine's radio show on WLS in Chicago.
Abandoned long ago, Nadine's childhood home had fallen into disrepair.
Now it was about to be torn down, so she went for a final visit.
"I was saddened at the devastation," she told the listeners.
"It hurt me to see our house in such shambles. Even though we had moved everything valuable out long ago, there was still some old furniture left, broken and ruined by vandals.
"Everything was filthy and depressing."
Even more difficult were the memories. Unbidden, they came, reminding Nadine of special moments she had shared there with her beloved father.
He had died long ago, and walking through the rooms Nadine had a renewed sense of loss.
"Oh Dad," she murmured, "I wish I could communicate with you just one more time, to know you are safe in God's arms."
Slowly, she went into the bedroom that had once been his. Tramps and animals had been using it too, and it was overrun with trash.
Dismayed, Nadine started to turn away. Then from the corner of her eye, she spotted something on the broken-down, soiled box spring.
She came closer, peering at the object.
It was a Bible.
How had any book, especially one like this, gotten into a room so littered and ransacked? Tentatively, Nadine reached for it, opening it at random.
The pages parted to reveal the 23rd psalm, her father's favorite passage.
Through tears Nadine read the beloved words. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . . "
"Dad, I really miss you," she said to herself. And then her heart seemed to stop.
Written at the top of the page was her father's name.
This was his Bible. Surely they had moved it with their other belongings years ago.
Yet here it was, having survived the looting and devastation, as if it was waiting just for her.
Nadine never discovered how the Bible suddenly appeared in the house. But it didn't really matter. She knew her father was safe and happy and God had sent a sign from heaven to tell her so.
David Moore's wife, Florence, was tending her sick mother in Hendersonville, N.C., many miles from their home in Texas.
David missed her, and one day he accepted an offer from Henry, a pilot-friend, to fly him to North Carolina.
David had never flown in a small plane, and he was nervous as the two men taxied down the runway early the next morning. But the little aircraft lifted gracefully.
Within a half-hour, however, they ran into fog. They were able to land and fill their gas tank at Jackson, Miss., but later, as they approached Asheville, the fog looked even more solid.
Henry radioed the airport for instructions.
"Our field is closed because of fog," the air traffic controller responded, "and we have no capability for instrument landing. Go to Greenville and land there."
"But I can't," Henry protested. "We're almost out of fuel."
There was a silence. Then, "OK," the radio voice snapped. "Come in on an emergency landing."
David gripped the sides of his seat. They seemed to be flying in a dense gray blanket, and the Asheville control tower couldn't possibly see them.
How were he and Henry going to get down?
Suddenly a voice came over the radio. "Pull it up! Pull it up!"
Henry immediately pulled up on the stick. As he did so, the men saw a split in the fog, and the view beneath sent tremors of fear through each of them.
They were above an interstate highway. Had they descended a few feet farther, they would have hit a bridge and certainly crashed.
Then, with enormous relief, they heard the controller's composed voice breaking into the tense silence in the cockpit.
"Come down just a little," he said. "Now over to the right. Down a little more."
David gripped the seat, praying intently. The controller had been able to pick them up on radar, despite the airport's apparent lack of the necessary instruments.
But would they make it in time?
The fuel needle hovered on "E," but the voice went on with calm authority.
"Not so fast. Easy, easy now. Raise it up a little."
Then Henry dropped the plane through the fog, and the two men recognized the beginning of the Asheville runway just ahead, with lights along both sides.
It was the most welcome sight they had ever seen. Within minutes, they had touched down.
Tears of gratitude and relief filled David's eyes as he saw Florence standing at the end of the runway.
The plane taxied to a stop, and the two men offered a quick prayer of thanksgiving. Then Henry turned the radio on again.
"Thanks so much," he told the air traffic controller, his voice shaky with relief. "You probably saved our lives."
But the controller's response stopped both men in their tracks.
"What are you talking about? We lost all radio contact with you when we told you to return to Greenville."
"You what?" Henry asked, incredulous.
"We never heard from you again, and we never heard you talking to us or to anyone else," the controller told them. "We were stunned when we saw you break through the clouds."
David and Henry looked at each other. Who had guided them through the greyness and onto safe ground? They would never know for sure.
But even today David never hears a small airplane without thinking of that flight.
"I know now that, insignificant as I may be in this big world, God always has his eye on me," he says.
"He sustains me through the storm and the fog."
A few days after Christmas, Kathy and Phil Lindstrom went to a party near their home in suburban Chicago.
Several feet of snow had fallen, and temperatures were plummeting to minus 20, but they dressed foolishly - light coats, no hats and Kathy in high heels.
It was after 2 a.m. when they started home in their pickup truck. But blowing snow obscured their vision, and Phil took a wrong turn off the highway.
The pickup swerved into a ditch and stopped, as if the wheels were caught. Phil couldn't dislodge it.
"I'll walk to the highway," Phil said. "I think we passed a gas station back there."
"But the wind is terrible - you'll freeze!" Kathy objected.
"Well, we can't stay here. We'll get hypothermia or frostbite." Phil jumped out of the truck.
Frightened, Kathy thought of their two small children at home with a sitter.
Why had she and Phil put themselves into this dangerous situation?
Intense cold permeated the car's interior. "Please God. Get us out of here" she prayed.
Eventually Phil returned, with bad news.
"The station's open, but its tow truck won't start - and there aren't any others available," he told Kathy. "We'll have to walk back."
In high heels, in these huge drifts? And how could Phil endure the trip again?
Then, unexpectedly, light spilled into the cab. Ahead of them stood a tow truck. Where had it come from? But Phil was too grateful to ask questions.
Getting out he spoke quickly with the driver, who hooked up the pickup.
"What a lucky coincidence!" Phil said as he got back into the truck.
The tow truck started to pull, and the pickup lurched, then slid precariously toward the right.
"Phil, we're falling - we're going to turn over!" Kathy screamed.
Suddenly she heard men shouting - five or six of them behind her - as bright headlights illuminated the scene.
"Here, I've got it."
"Give it a push!"
Stunned, Phil and Kathy listened to the babble. They had seen no lights approaching. Where had all these men come from, especially all at once?
Hands seemed to actually lift the pickup, and soon it was free. Immediately, the lights behind them went out.
"How?" Phil leaped out of the pickup, but there was nothing to see but the tow truck.
No army of volunteers, no receding headlights or engines running in the frigid night.
Just a driver, whose arrival had, itself, been inexplicable, and who knew nothing of the men or how they had arrived.
The couple drove home, lost in thought.
"Kathy," Phil finally spoke. "I think God just sent us a bunch of angels."
Kathy thought so, too. Christmas was over. But heaven had saved the best gift for last.