"Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs ..."
Over the years, there have been times when I have been on retreat with my fellow clergy. Quite often, the retreat centres where we stayed were places run by the Sisters, either Anglican or Roman Catholic. These were times and places when and where I could not help noticing the number of signs posted to admonish the guest to adhere to certain rules. These were often to do with rather minute matters that I figure indicate a preoccupation to detail shaped by the regimen of an ordered daily routine, embedded into every nook and cranny of the convent or centre. Sometimes I've even mused about these being examples of scrupulosity run amok.
If you ever happen to be on a retreat sometime in one of these centres, check it out for yourself. I think the Sisters among our Roman Catholic cousins may excel a bit more at this than do our own Anglican Sisters.
Looking at it from a bit of a different perspective, maybe it is part of human nature to be looking for signs.
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When I began thinking about this, a popular song from the seventies or so kept coming to mind. The lyrics don't connect completely with what I am getting at here but they do in part. Plus it’s still a pretty good song that was making a statement about the world and society in that time. Having looked up those lyrics, I realized that it is certainly a more theological message than I had ever thought with its commentary on the state of the natural environment. The song's message remains relevant.
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We do tend to be looking for signs … more as indications of how to proceed, what decisions to make, how to respond… things like that.
So when you’re looking for signs or some kind of direction for understanding, as were the followers of Jesus when he had disappeared from one side of the lake and turned up on the other, how would it be if you asked a question something like: “How did you get here?” And Jesus replied with something like “Well, you’ve been looking for me not because you saw any signs but because you ate your fill of loaves.” … As the song says "‘breakin’ my mind”.
Looking for more signs of clarity, the people then asked: "So what do we have to do to be doing the works of God?" And then Jesus replied with "Don’t be working for things that don’t endure… that won’t make a difference in the end." It has not so much to do with doing as it has to do with believing. Again, a rather enigmatic response to what one would have thought was a simple question.
"Then, what sign do you do so that we can see? What sign do you have for us?" Perhaps they asked because they had seen what they considered to be signs in their own history of their people’s journey in the desert.
But Jesus, doesn’t give a sign as they were expecting. They were looking for proof but the thing is that there is no proof for faith as in some kind of mathematical or logical sense. Think about our creeds, we begin them with “I believe” or “we believe”. We don’t begin them by saying that “we know”.
We could get all caught up in the metaphor of the bread that Jesus uses. What Jesus does point to though is to faith. Faith is a gift from God. Faith is the practice of believing.
Psychologists will tell you that what we believe deeply is what shapes you and me and what animates our actions. What we believe is who we are, what we do, and how we understand our world, our journey, those around us and others. Belief is the obedient trust in God and the work that is the one thing that is pleasing to God. There’s the sign that Jesus tells us about.
When people ask for signs, I think they are looking for something that brings clarity. The thing is though, there are no easy answers in the midst of the shades of grey in life. It’s not all black and white, at least as far as I have experienced.
And that leaves you and me, I think, with the challenge of faith: to be seeking to integrate our experience of life with the insights that Jesus teaches us. It is the integration of our experience of faith and our experience of life so that each informs the other. The outcome is both a deeper understanding of what Jesus’ teachings mean and a deeper understanding of our journey and experiences in everyday life. I think that is the work of God to which Jesus points us. It has to do with discerning the depths of belief, the teachings of scripture that brings a congruence and meaning to the journey.
That probably sounds obtuse – or unclear. How about this: the journey of faith is to understand the teachings that inform what we believe in a way that it integrates with what we actually experience in life.
Both our understanding of the teachings of scripture and our understanding of the experiences of life have to come together so that the one leads us to understand the other. And so, as if in some kind of crucible, faith informs our understanding of the events of life and our experiences help us to have a clearer understanding of what the teachings mean.
And how does one do that? By some serious examination of ones actions and by self-reflection. Then by pondering the insights that one gets and seeing how that relates to particular teachings of Jesus. It's an action/reflection kind of model... letting things float in your mind. It's also a prayerful kind of encounter. It means work.
That's the kind of prayerful work that Jesus says is pleasing in God's sight. It's a journey into deeper faith.
“Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs”. We just have to see them in a new perspective and differently than we may first have been expecting.
According to Jesus, it is a lifelong journey of obedient trust to become able to recognize the signs as ones that lead to understanding, to meaning and ones that endure into eternal life.
That’s what Jesus was talking about when he told us about the bread that gives life to the world.