The New Year is always a time for signs, but what kind?
Farmers read signs in soil and sky. Sailors read signs in wind and water. I wonder, do city dwellers have a harder time reading signs because there is so much competition among them for the limited attention one can give at a glance? The next week or two will be filled with articles in the media offering signs about the year ahead, with politics and the economy dominating prognostications.
Humans have always wanted signs that predict the future, or validate plans of action. What will the winter bring, who will win the battle, will my plan work, what is the right thing for me to do? What are the signs to show the way? I suppose our signs are more sophisticated than our ancestors’ bones, clouds, chicken guts, and oracles. After all, to conjure up our signs we have computers, algorithms, and data sets, all very rational in a Spock like way. Whether they’re more accurate is another question. My guess is one’s as good as the other.
We’re coming to the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which we remember the wise men arriving in Bethlehem with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the new born king. They had seen a sign in the sky, a star said to be that of a newborn king of the Jews. What could it mean? Where would it lead? What would they find? It took both curiosity and courage to follow it into the unknown.
Signs from God are like that. They’re unexpected, unusual, and call those who see them to follow where they lead into the unknown. But they have several things in common. They’re always in the direction of greater love, greater inclusion, and for building up that which is good. God’s signs come to those to whom they’re sent. One can’t just wander into the local sign store to cast lots, read tea leaves, or see what the latest computer projection has to say. Abraham heard an unknown voice, and followed where it led. Moses saw a burning bush, and went to see what it was all about. The Shepherds saw angels in the sky, and went to see this thing that had happened. The wise men saw a star, and followed it. None of them asked for it. The signs came to them, and they had the courage to follow where they led.
Signs from God are like that, but it doesn’t stop us from demanding more easily understood signs to guide decisions we already know we have to make. Gideon laid out his fleece, priests and prophets cast lots to guide kings into battle, and the apostles cast lots to see who would replace Judas. Were any of them genuine godly signs? Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows? Either way, we have not given up asking for signs to guide us in our own day. Asking for signs, and thinking about godly signs in that way, obscures our ability to see the more important signs, the ones God initiates, that are unexpected, that demand to be followed into the unknown. Religious leaders in Jesus’ day demanded that he show them a sign, one of the usual expected signs they might recognize. He didn’t because he was the sign. He came unexpectedly, he invited others to come and see this thing that had happened, and to follow him. Follow him where? To the cross and beyond? How crazy was that?
I wonder how observant we are of the signs about us that call us to come, see and follow. They’ll be unexpected. We can’t anticipate a replay of the burning bush, angels in the sky, or a new star. But they’ll be unusual, a curiosity out of place attracting our attention, if. If we’re willing to see them, which I suspect we’re not much inclined to do. We’re more inclined to like predictability, a little excitement but not too much. Even chaotic, out of control lives can feel normal compared to following a God sent sign that probably no one else can see.
The common assumption is that God-sent-signs call people into an intensely religious life. They certainly call people into a life of greater intimacy with God, but Abraham kept on being a herder of livestock, the shepherds went on keeping sheep, and the wise men went back home to continue being wise. David became a king, Isaiah a prophet, and Nehemiah a governor. Who’s to say the greater number of God-sent-signs don’t call people to be teachers, executives, politicians, firefighters, cops, farmers or fishermen? But always for an unexpected God-sent-purpose plunging one into the unknown with no guarantee other than “Trust me, do not be afraid, go where I send you.”
When we look for signs, and we do look for them, we tend to scan the environment, watch body language, read horoscopes, watch the Dow Jones, and dive into the latest polls. We ask our friends, seek therapy, and hire personal coaches. We interpret the usual signs from our experience, learning, prejudices, gut feelings, and public pressure.
When God sends a sign, it comes out of the nowhere, unbidden, and odd. It may be why it can go unseen. It’s the old problem of the Black Swan that couldn’t be seen because everyone knew there were no such things as Black Swans. I wonder how many signs there have been that we have not seen. I wonder whether there are ways for us to be better at seeing them, and having seen to go where they lead, remembering that they are always in the direction of greater love, greater inclusion, and for building up that which is good.