Every year your pastor or priest, if you have one, or your Rabbi, or your Imam will take a few minutes, to quip on, allude to, or at least make mention of New Year’s Resolutions. They will probably tell you the latest statistic, that the average sincere resolution maker quits within two weeks of making that resolution.
I will not pretend here to be able to suggest precisely why we, as a species, so quickly lose our resolve, so quickly walk away from a personal commitment. I can say generally why, though: we are not perfect. (Okay, maybe that’s pretty obvious.) And we are weak. We don’t like hearing that or admitting that, but we are. We can be tempted beyond what we think we can endure by our own strength. We can be misled by our own desire—desire for a cookie, a new car or even a new job, or even a child.
A long time ago a couple named Sarai and Abram were so misled. They wanted a child—one promised to them, mind you—so badly that they were willing to go rogue to get one. Sarai induced Abram to sleep with their servant Hagar to achieve their desired goal. The result was a never-ending rivalry that sprung up between two brothers—half brothers, at least—a rivalry for the affection of the Father that goes on, one might even argue, to this day. The point is this: our desires can make us do some pretty stupid things, things that harm others and treat others like commodities. Hagar was merely a vessel, one could say, for that couple’s desire for a child and, perhaps, the recipient of Abram’s private lust. So strong are our desires for that cookie, that car, or that relationship, or that goal, even the “good” goal of having a child. So strong.
At the end of one conference that my philologist friend goes to year in and year out there is a committee that makes resolutions about the place the conference has been held. That committee begins each statement playfully with the affirming, “Be it resolved….” Maybe instead of personal resolutions, like resisting cookies or cars or paramours we should, this year, start a few sentences with “Be it resolved.…” I offer a few examples:
Be it resolved to treat people kindly, the way I would like to be treated.
Be it resolved that I should deepen relationships.
Be it resolved that I be a better listener.
Be it resolved that I should be compassionate to those in need, whatever that need might be.
Be it resolved that I give more money to the poor than ever before.
Be it resolved that I have a better sense of humor and not look for offense in the words of others.
Be it resolved that I not do everything by my own strength, but I recognize my weakness, and trust God to fill in the gaps.
Be it resolved that I be all I was created to be, humbly, gently, and bravely.
May 2019 make you a bit more resolved. Happy New Year!
Well, now, there’s a provocative headline for you, n’est-ce pas? I’m sure you agree, I mean, about the title being provocative. But seriously, I have had many a friend ask me how one can determine God’s will. It’s a scary question, in a sense, even otherworldly, especially if you turn around the possessive from “God’s will” (friendly sounding) to “the will of God” or “the will of the Lord” (more august, a touch scarier). Some of those friends are spiritual folks, like a good friend of mine from Montana, who earnestly tries to do the right thing and sometimes calls me for advice, advice ultimately about what God’s will might be for the next big decision, the next step in that friend’s life. Other folks, who themselves are quite skeptical about spiritual things, ask me a bit more petulantly, almost mockingly, as if I couldn’t possibly really know what God’s will is. And they’re right to think that I am no oracle or even a holy, religious man. I am just a Christian, and a boring one (Lutheran) at that, which may obliquely make the title of this blog even more provocative.
I write this week, I confess, somewhat autobiographically, which is fitting, I suppose, for a website entitled The Curious Autobiography. I myself have often faced big decisions, and who knows, I may even have to do again soon. In any case, I recently found myself asking how I may know what the will of God is. And I thought about what I have done in the past when confronted with a big decision: what worked and what didn’t work. In thinking about the question of God’s will, the answer simply donned on me, so I thought I would share it cathartically with you.
That answer—the short version at least—lies in what one might call “overlaying” or “mapping.” For me that begins with prayer and knowing some key bible passages well enough to have them at my fingertips; if you’re a sceptic, perhaps I’ve already lost you. Perhaps you think the Bible just an old and irrelevant book and you haven’t prayed since you were six years old. But, I think I will just tell you anyway, if you’ll keep reading. Because I believe God to be a loving, kind, and tender person (an opinion about him I have largely derived from the comportment of his Son), I ask Him not that I may know precisely what His will is, or for a sign that would confirm that x or y or z is His will, but rather I ask Him to equip me to learn from this new challenge what I need to learn and, most of all, ultimately to seek to do His will, even when I don’t know what it is or even why it is. In other words, I ask God to make me like a character from the Bible who behaved in a similar fashion, particularly one whom I perceive to have been in a similar situation.
Such mapping can vary widely, as the situations of the assorted characters of the Bible so vary. So, to take a banal example, a few weeks ago I invited a friend over to dinner whose spouse had been out of town for quite a while and I thought it would be nice to share a meal together. So I perhaps was thinking of Zacchaeus, the wee little man who welcomed Jesus to dinner on short notice. Or perhaps I thought of him the first time I did that kind of thing on short notice and now have simply become Zacchaeus to some extent. I am so used to imitating him that I don’t have to look at my arm-band and think, “WWZD?” (“What would Zacchaeus do?”). That’s a rather mundane example. But when I moved with my family to Texas from New Jersey, a long time ago now, the mapping was more extreme—it was more like Abram leaving Ur of the Chaldeans, where he and Sarai had been, I suppose, more or less happy Chaldeans minding their own Chaldean business, hoping to have a large Chaldean family but being entirely unsuccessful. Yet, perhaps they were content with just trying to do so when they were young. And yes, no doubt as time wore on they were frustrated by their lack of success. But maybe not having children allowed them to amass wealth that might not have happened otherwise. I’m not sure. It seems from Scripture that Abraham eventually became pretty wealthy, and I imagine that my wife and I would be a much wealthier if we had not had children or, if we had had, as Abraham and Sarah (and Hagar) eventually did, only two children, one of whom was sent packing with no alimony payments. Poor Ishmael, and Hagar, too; at least, though I’ve always found it strange, Hagar got some nice double-knit slacks named after her.
And there is, of course, in these paradigms, also anti-paradigms. Each of these folks were not perfect, so we have to learn from their mistakes as much as from their steps of faith. But in the end, I want to remember as we look at their lives, what they did that was noble and good and was clearly “doing God’s will,” and I seek to do likewise. Moses obeyed God and, even though he was happy herding sheep on Mount Horeb, he listened to God and did what God told him to do. Joseph was an obnoxious teenager as I suppose I was, but when God rescued him from the pit and had him sold into slavery, he remembered the faithful God of his youth and obeyed Him and received God’s special gifts and blessings—even though he was in jail. Gosh, I’ve felt like Joseph a time or two.
And David was minding his own business until he saw Goliath making a fool of the army of God. He could bare it no longer and became the highest paradigm of faithful heroism. Inspired by David’s bravery, no doubt many a soldier has dived on a grenade to save others in the foxhole.And Abraham of the Chaldeans, he is the one that St. Paul holds up as the best example of all: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). The writer of Hebrews, too, speaks of Abraham’s faithfulness “by faith, Abraham, when he was called to go … went out, not knowing whither he went.…” (Hebrews 11:8).
“Now you’re waxing theological,” someone from the skeptical set might say, “and you’re losing me.” I apologize but, seriously, what do you expect from a blog entitled, “How to Determine God’s Will”? And with that I will close. I determine God’s will simply by studying characters in the Bible who I perceive to have done God’s will and then I try to do likewise. And I will do that same thing with my next big decision. In the meantime, I will try at every opportunity to show good hospitality like Zacchaeus, a wee little man with, no doubt, a big heart.
David Crowder is a musician whom one of my dearest friends really doesn’t like but of whom I happen to have firsthand knowledge. Having met him in a grocery store, I came away with a thoroughly positive impression; he even told me to call him “Dave.” His music is remarkable. Dave sings songs that sometimes involve angels or are suggestive of the beating of angels’ wings. When he mentions “the rush of angels,” compositionally Crowder does something interesting in his musical arrangement: he introduces a change in tempo. For example, he might adjust a time signature, just for a measure, and then quickly return to the previous signature (e.g., in his song “Shine,” which is a particularly powerful and emotional song on a variety of levels). As I am fortunate to be able to perform Dave’s music fairly frequently, I’m especially sensitive to rhythmic changes; I can say, from the vantage point of a drummer’s stool, at least, it seems to me that it is owing to angels that David Crowder’s music can be more difficult to play than that of other musicians.
Though angels are, of course, known in the Old Testament, the English word “angel” is derived from the Greek angelos. Both it and the Hebrew (malak) have approximately the same connotation, “messenger.” While many of us (i.e. Americans, and perhaps Westerners in general) may think of angels as oversized cupids (or worse, cupids to scale), the ancient descriptions of them do not bear this out. The mistaken, erotic image seems rather to have been the product of a strange form of syncretism.
Another fictionalized portrayal of an angel, in this case one that I rather like within its storytelling (i.e. mythical) context, is that of Clarence in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Bungling, charming, human, Clarence defies any angelic stereotype. He is not the bold image of St. Michael expelling the fallen parents of humankind from the garden.
Nor is he Gabriel, charged with the impossible task (but pulling it off brilliantly) of having to announce to Mary her soon-to-be, quite-difficult-to-explain-to fiancé/parents/friends new situation.
However much one may adore the early work of Leonardo, one nevertheless might say or at least think, “Come on, nobody seriously believes in angels today.” Well, about that one might be both wrong and right at once. It is right in the sense that, if one says “nobody” in such a sentence, one does not intend to be taken literally. Rather, the speaker’s purpose with such a statement to be perceived as fan of folk wisdom, a purveyor of practical advice, an unsolicited but hopefully helpful social commentator. Yet this overarching truism is obviously wrong, as David Crowder has such high regard for angels that not infrequently he even changes time signatures for them.
But this blog is not meant to engage in a debate about the existence of these heavenly beings. Rather, it is meant to analyze them, ever so briefly, so as to suggest that they can help explain, on the one hand, the strange behavior of some of your friends who might bring to you strange-sounding “religious” information and, on the other, to suggest that we can all, religious and non-religious alike, take a page out of the angelic playbook. Let me start with the latter of these two ideas.
One role of angels that I have alluded to in a previous blog seems to be protective; hence the idea of a “guardian” angel. For this reason the notion of a fallen angel seems particularly evil: the guardian has turned into the predator—how perfectly Satanic. One thinks of the abuse of power in the hands of any person given charge over a dependent. Few would disagree that such abuse of a guardian’s role is evil, even if fewer yet would admit that it is Satanic. Yet it is, as I said above, not merely Satanic, it is perfectly so, precisely because it is the abuse of one’s authority. Would that our elected officials or any overpaid overlord bear that in mind.
The concept of a “guardian” angel no doubt derives from the notion that angels appear in the Old and New Testaments fairly frequently in this role. I need not burden this piece with examples, as one or two will do. An angel appears to Hagar, the maidservant of Sarah and helps her in her time of need. Peter’s escape from prison is another example. In both cases angels show up unexpectedly and deliver someone from distress. And in our lives, there may be times—hopefully there will be—when we can show up to help someone in distress. One need not be a true believer to conclude that one should help a person in distress. The degree to which one engages in such help may correlate to the depth of one’s faith (or may even provide a path to faith), for such a merciful act is fundamentally God-like. Yet it is also fundamentally human. But I posit that as a challenge to believers, not as a rebuke of those who reject the faith. Suffice it to say that anyone can “angelify” in this sense of helping another human being in need.
I now turn to the second aspect of angelification which must begin with a kind of apologia. I use the Greek term here, borrowed of course from Socrates’ famous defense speech in which he explains the sum of his life’s work successfully to generation upon generation of readers but unsuccessfully to the jury at the time. Thus I use that term to explain how the Greek term differs from its English cognate (the English word “apology” obviously derives from the ancient Greek). The ancient kind of apology is not meant to express regret or remorse but rather merely to offer an explanation, an “after word,” which is what apologia means in Greek. And that explanation is simply this: those Christian folk—for I offer this apologia only for that group—who are eager to bring others with them to church or a group meeting or the like, are acting as messengers in the truest sense, for what they try to explain to their fellow human beings is a message.
A touch more explanation here may be required, as it is not just any message that that person is trying to share: it is the good message (Greek, euangelion), sometimes translated as “good news.” My apologia, then, is not for that news, which, since it is good, needs no apology. Rather, it is for us messengers who, not being angels and thus imperfect creatures, might sometimes come across poorly, misspeak, or even jumble up the message—not explaining that good message in every instance as well as it deserves, for it is a message of hope and forgiveness, a good message indeed in a world full of grief and sorrow.
In trying to bless in either of these ways, whether by offering a helping hand or acting as a messenger, one is playing the part of an angel. One thus “angelifies”; one metaphorically becomes an angel, like Clarence trying “to win his wings,” which, if not the best theology, is nevertheless the narratival catalyst for that old, quite wonderful movie. And in the process, one is blessed—one does get one’s wings, so to speak, though not the kind that Clarence seeks. Rather, by blessing, one becomes blessed, by understanding others and meeting them where they are, perhaps one can, oneself, be better understood.
Thus, figuratively speaking, one can angelify and be blessed by so doing, helping another, speaking the blessing of good news to a desperate world. If one does, one must be careful of the rush of angels’ wings roundabout, for those wings will be beating close by, as a being from outside our own time bumps up against our mortality. That will effect a change of time signature, a new beat, and it can affect the way we think about life and even how we might live our lives, now and forever. There are indeed, at least in that sense, angels among us. And I myself have heard of others, too—a chapter in the Curious Autobiography(pp. 225ff.)—perhaps, in the distant future, of yet another blog on angels.