Tag Archives: Isaac

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: How to Determine God’s Will

detail from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

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.

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus and Dines at His House
from the Gospel Book of Heinrich II
German (Reichenau)m ca.1007-1012
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4452_fol.200r

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.

David, Donatello, Early Renaissance

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.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Trees and People

I wasn’t going to write a blog about trees and people until I read the news this week. Indeed, this blog is not going to be about trees and people, not really. It’s rather about the way that people are like trees.

DSC_0036The oak is a symbol in Virgil for strength. Indeed, the very word for oak, robur, -oris, is also used for strength in Latin generally. When Aeneas is described as having decided to leave his lover Dido, Queen of Carthage, he resists her stoutly (cum robore) when struck with her bitter objections, which come at him like cold, Alpine blasts of the North Wind. Notably, on that occasion, Aeneas’ oaken roots reach so far into the soil that it is as if they extend to the gates of Hell itself (in Tartara tendit).

But this is not how I want to say that people are like trees. Rather, I want to state something even more obvious. I want to say that people are like trees because each family member is like a limb on a tree and each family is a tree. Some families are oaks, some are pussy willows. But the important thing is that they are trees, with limbs, and they are all vitally connected, with grafts of saplings that form new, strong branches. And that rather obvious thing is the way that trees are like people.family tree

So when I read this week that a member of the terrorist group that is destroying the Middle East killed his mother because she wanted him to disassociate himself from that group, it struck me hard. For I have edited and written my mother’s Curious Autobiography, and through that experience I have appreciated her life even more than I had before I wrote it. 9781480814738_COVER.inddI saw in the writing of her story that it was, in fact, a story that was already written. I was just recording the story that someone else had written. She had written part of it, and God the other part. And that story touched (and if you buy the book, will continue to touch) all those connected to it—those privileged enough to have known her, to have appreciated and learned from her worldview, to have understood that behind her perception of the world lay that of her parents, and behind their view of the world, that of her parents’ parents, and so forth, stretching back generation after generation. That is the story and the origin of the values that supported it—it is what enabled Elaine’s curious life to be what it was, enabled it to have meaning and significance, which it most certainly did.

The values that those who had come before her were trying to pass on were transmitted imperfectly. Sometimes the full impact of those values could be lost, or at least misunderstood. But in the final analysis they were transmitted, even if occasionally they wound up skipping a generation. But they did not go away.

a family headstone

One of my cousins and I once stood in front of our grandparents’ headstones and talked about meaning and significance, values and morality. His view was that he was constructing values from the jumble that he had been handed. My view wasn’t very different in terms of “jumble” or that the values were somehow “handed” (off? over?) to us. The only difference was the verb. I was trying to derive values from what I was given, he was trying to impute values based on what he had been given. We share the same tree, we have inherited the same sap. And our tree is an oak.

But, to change the subject from a tender moment that two cousins once shared to the recent, terrible news, what values could a person inherit that would lead him to kill his own mother in the name of religion? Several times this week I found myself mulling the event over in my mind, contrasting that event with Abram’s obedience when he was instructed to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.

CARAVAGGIO The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1601-02
CARAVAGGIO, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1601-02

He couldn’t have known that he was doing something that would be a pattern, a harbinger of what God himself would someday do, for God provided a lamb for him from a thicket; Isaac was saved from death by a different kind of sacrifice. But in the case of the young mother in the news story—she was but 35 years old, in one account of the incident that I read—no one came to take her place. There was only a terrorist who, in the name of God—at least what he regards as god—decided that his mother’s desire to escape the juggernaut of the violent religious regime that was coming upon them in Iraq qualified her as a heretic. She merely had decided that what she was hearing, reading, learning, seeing—a blood bath, carnage, destruction, fear mongering, hatred, threats, wholesale executions—these things could not be from God. And she was right.

If you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of time trying not to kill trees. I try not to do stuff that will hurt the environment. I try to recycle; I avoid printing; I try not to use paper towels unless really necessary; hey, I even bike to work every day so as to minimize my personal use of fossil fuels. But while I’m worried about a real tree in this country, maybe I should be more concerned with the metaphoric arboreal destruction that is going on abroad. A young man killed his mother in the name of God, because she was viewed as heretical. I don’t know what I can do about it except pronounce first, that his mother’s life, like my own mother’s, had significance and meaning.

I don’t know much about her life, but I for one will not let her death simply be a casualty of war. I will proclaim that woman as a kind of martyr, for she bears witness to the fact that the members of this terrorist group must be stopped. We in the West cannot sit idly on our hands while thousands of people, who in a fundamental human sense are our brothers and sisters, are murdered. Some Muslim, some Christian. But either way, they are killed tragically. We can, at the very least, get off our hands, fold them and pray for those folks. And perhaps, before long, western governments can help them. Admitting the destitute as refugees may help for a time, but it will not solve the problem. If that regime continues to capture city upon city and impose radical Islamic law upon the territories acquired, then all that will happen is more people will die or be cowed into submission.

Until the governments act, whether western or Middle Eastern, all we can do is pray, and by praying we can save a different kind of tree than that which provides us with paper towels. And prayer is more than just a little, for God is far more outraged with the death of that mother than we. She was an oak, for she showed robust fortitude, she was courageous in the face of death. Her life had significance, and I pray, it will continue to have significance, for she risked it—or rather lost it—for peace, for hope, and for the love of her son, the very son who killed her. What was her name? We don’t know her name yet. But God does.