It Takes Courage to Make Meaning
The most difficult thing to convince most students in a typical high school English class is that things mean things.
I’m referring to the realm of metaphor, symbol, and other forms of figurative language. For example, when an author describes storm clouds are on the horizon, they don’t just mean the character should pack an umbrella. Something bad is about to happen. This level of meaning applies to all art, from the canonical texts teachers cram into students’ ears to the song lyrics students would much rather be listening to. The desperate hope of every high school English teacher I’ve ever met is to simply convince students of this one enormous, profound truth:
Things mean things.
I think our God earnestly tries to convince us of the same thing.
This past Sunday, we heard the prophet Isaiah say, “Lift up your eyes and look around” (Isaiah 60). When I heard those words, I thought about how often I focus on the next worry, the next necessity, and the next obstacle - things that pull our attention down, literally and figuratively. We literally look down at our computers, our phones, and our wallets. We figuratively look down at ourselves with shame and look down on others with judgment. The scariest part about every way we look down, however, is how willingly we do it. Money, deadlines, and memories are easier to see than God.
Pastor Jim reminded us in his message on Sunday that “God knows no boundaries.” Our God works everywhere, through everyone and everything. But we must do two things in order to notice: Lift our eyes. And look around. There are two distinct verbs in this command, “lift” and “look,” and they speak to a two-step process.
First, scripture invites us to “lift” our attention from that which causes doubt, distraction, and despair. We must find a way to separate ourselves, for a moment, from that which limits our perspective so that we might fix our attention on God. One way we do this is by celebrating with each other at service once a week, but another way might simply be taking a walk or going for a drive. Some people meditate or practice yoga. Others still - God bless them - practice doing something even more radical: nothing. By “nothing,” I mean spending a certain amount of time each day literally not doing anything. I think of these small acts as the spiritual equivalent of taking our shoes off and changing when we get home from work. It gives us a sense of separation from the stresses of the day.
Next, scripture invites us to “look around.” This seems easy, but it’s not. I would argue this is far more difficult than the “lift” step. In this case, “look” means more than “move your eyeballs.” It means more than “see.” In this case, “look” means “notice.” It means “make meaning.” It’s our God’s way of saying, “Believe in Me,” and it takes courage. It feels audacious, arrogant even, believing that something we might encounter in the course of our humble lives is the Spirit at work in the world. In us.
But I think we have to believe it, and when we begin to see through the lens of belief, we engage in a conversation with our God about God’s will for our lives. That doesn’t mean every moment becomes the lightning-strike of divine intervention, but it does mean we open ourselves up to the whispers and gentle nudgings of the Spirit.
“Looking” for our God at work in the world is different for all of us, but if it’s not something you’re accustomed to doing, consider taking the following baby steps toward believing that things mean things:
Listen to yourself. God resides within us in the form of the Holy Spirit. That means the Spirit’s voice sometimes sounds like our own. Create time to listen to and explore your own ideas, impulses, and creativity. If they seem to lead you toward justice, healing, and peace, they may be the Spirit nudging you in a certain direction.
Give yourself time for discernment. Of course not everything we hear from ourselves is from the Spirit. Sometimes we hear our own selfish or ill-conceived ideas instead. It requires faith to believe God speaks to us, but it requires patience to figure out which words come from God and which words come from our ego or pain.
Let yourself be challenged. In last week’s gospel, Christ asked those gathered to hear Him teach, “What did you expect to see?” He referred to John the Baptist, a man who lived in self-imposed exile wearing camel skin and eating insects, not exactly a picture of worldly success. But Christ Himself was an even more radical challenge to what many thought a liberating king would look like. Sometimes God’s message for us is not one we want to hear. It’s okay to feel doubtful or skeptical at first. God’s Will often reveals itself like a slow-growing plant rather than a strike of lightning.
If you’re not even sure how to begin listening, start with scripture. A friend of mine once shared with me a simple and helpful strategy for engaging more with scripture. He simply made sure to read a verse or short passage before leaving the house in the morning. Sometimes he would completely forget about it, but sometimes it might knock around in his head throughout the day and provide a small measure of comfort, revelation, or inspiration.
However you look for our God, our God looks for us as well. Sunday’s scripture told us “precious is [our] blood in [God’s] sight,” and Pastor Jim reminded us “there is a visible love within each of us.” Let us lift our eyes and look for that love. And let us believe it means something when we see it.