Gandolfi, Joseph's Dream

Divine Guidance

Reading through the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel this morning, I was struck afresh by the overwhelming amount of angelic intervention.

  • An angel tells Joseph what’s up with Mary’s pregnancy and not to leave her high and dry.
  • The magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod
  • An angel warns Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt
  • An angel tells Joseph it’s o.k. to return after Herod dies
  • Joseph is warned in a dream about Archelaeus, so he goes to settle in Nazareth.

This sends a clear message: God is involved. God is directing. The reader knows that this is story that has God’s undivided attention, and in which God is intervening to secure the needed outcome.

When we read Bible stories, we are always reading of the special, dramatic moments. We are reading about the few blips of tangible divine intervention, in word or deed, that unfold over thousands of years.

At times, this kind of drama has created some false expectations for me about how God would direct me in the everyday mundane.

I grew up in a house where everything evolved under the hand of divine direction. I think that, by and large, this was a good thing. My parents prayed a lot, and were always looking for the hand of God directing the events of our lives, and/or listening for what might be next.

The one time I clearly remember them not doing this (the decision for my dad to retire from the navy and my parents to move to Charlotte after my brother and I graduated from high school) it was a total disaster.

I think there were times when I super-sized my parents’ commitment to seeking divine guidance.

I would give God if/then scenarios when confronted with decisions. How could I know if a thought was God’s or my own? “If you want me to do this job, then have that guy bring it up.” Saul's Conversion

I think I missed out on some opportunities that way.

Maybe, just maybe, my unfolding life isn’t the birth of the messiah. Maybe, just maybe, my life call isn’t to evangelize the whole Mediterranean basin.

Maybe, just maybe, my life is lived in the fits and starts and wondering and groping after wisdom that typifies 99.99% of the life of the people of God, rather than the biblical .00000001% that finds dramatic divine intervention for a specific plan of God to be enacted.

There have been times, though, when I got my dramatic sign.

When I was a freshman in college God told my seventeen year old self that God wanted me to be a preacher. That gave my life solid direction for the most of the next fifteen years.

Seriously, I never understood when people would try to probe motivations for why someone would want to be a pastor / preacher. I didn’t have any ulterior motives. God told me to. What do you people want from me?

It was awesome.

Until it wasn’t.

Until my denomination wouldn’t ordain me (its own severe mercy, for which I am and shall be eternally thankful). Until I could not get a job as a preacher. Or pastor.

Then my world came unglued.

It wasn’t just that I had a goal that was part of my identity that had been stripped away. It was that the one place where I had had my angelic intervention, heard the divine voice, had… what? misled me? been an object of my own making?

In all honesty, I still think that I am most myself when I preach. That sense of divine call sometimes nags at me still from the back of my mind.

Listening to oracles is always a tricky business. Rarely do they speak. And rarely do they mean what we think they mean when first we hear them.

But I don’t think this leaves us helpless or hopeless. It simply means that the mundane processes of acting wisely will involve more of us, and our community, than we might have imagined by watching the sexy highlight reel that is the biblical drama of divine intervention.

It means that the ways we seek for God will be through conversation and prayer. Yes, there will be the Spirit’s promptings, and we will need to learn to listen to those as well.

But in the end, we realize that most of what is before us is in our own hands, to do with as best we can, with all the fidelity to self and family, to community and calling, to God and neighbor that we can muster.

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8 thoughts on “Divine Guidance

  1. Very timely Daniel. As a person currently praying through what I feel God clearly calling me to do (move to Idaho and dialogue with members of the LDS community about His Son) your parents story resonates deeply with me. I feel I know what I heard on August 8, 2014, yet there are godly people in my life, people who have discipled me for many years, telling me they do not want me to leave the Bay Area. Then on March 29th I read a devotion of Oswald Chambers that said in part; “Trust no one, not even the finest saint who ever walked this earth, ignore him, if he hinders your sight of Jesus.”

    If I feel I clearly heard God once, is it fair for me to ask Him again, “Lord, are you sure that is what you want me to do?”

  2. “God told me to [& so] my denomination wouldn’t ordain me”

    Got to say that evidently your denomination doesn’t understand what preaching _is_. Assuming conduct & proficiency which I’m sure.

    “the mundane processes of acting wisely will involve more of us, and our community” … yes
    “But in the end, we realize that most of what is before us is in our own hands” … no.

  3. I recently re-discovered your blog. I had followed it for a while in the past, lost it as you had some different iterations but am happy to find you blogging again. This is a lovely post and I appreciate you sharing your story.

  4. Thanks for this post. I am particularly struck by your thoughts on your call to be a preacher because I’ve often wondered about how I interpreted God’s call on my life during my undergraduate years. I had (and still have) a tremendous desire to teach the Bible that began as an undergraduate, and while I never thought that God had spoke to me per se, it seemed clear to me at the time that going into biblical studies was my calling. I think God gives us certain gifts and desires that can be used in a variety of different ways, and so when we think we’ve found our niche, we quite legitimately interpret it as God’s call on our life since we’re doing the sorts of things that align with the abilities we’ve been given. (I’ve sometimes felt that I would make a good pastor and that my gifts would be well-used in that capacity, but because I traversed circles that did not encourage women in the pastoral ministry direction, I’ve never moved toward that profession as a way of fulfilling God’s call on my life.) I think, though, that there’s a certain apprehension that comes in a world of so many choices–we feel the pressure to make the “right” choice and want to make sure we have God’s stamp of approval for our decisions. We’re groomed from a young age to admire Bible “heroes” and want to do great things for God–but I often think this is more our American individualistic hero complex talking. We want to step into a role (just not one that anyone but God has picked for us) and this becomes our identity (which becomes a problem, then, when God closes certain doors because we’re forced to give up the sense of identity we found in fulfilling that particular role). I very much doubt that Mary was seeking or expecting that God would visit her in such a particular way and choose her to play such an important role in salvation history. If God had not chosen her, I imagine she would have been content to simply be a God-fearing Jew in a community of Jews who did justly, loved mercy, and walked humbly with their God.

  5. My wife and I always used three criteria in making major, life changing decisions. One, is it Scriptural? Two, has God opened the door, and three, do we have peace about it.

    We’re in the “life review” part of our journey now; both in our 70s; retired. Looking back, we can see how it could have only been God who directed “our” decisions. And the outcomes, sometimes, were more for others than they were for us. Like God told Moses, “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” And he did. It’s sometimes only after the fact that God confirms it was Him all along! And I have been struck lately in reading the OT Scripture how many times God said, “And then they will know….” or some version of “then”.

    Finally, my new “calling” is “to know him better”. Ephesians 1:17. God gave me that verse right before I retired. It answered my question, “Now what do I do?” So I have a new vocation now. I haven’t been disappointed. Thank you for your blog.

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