When I go for a run, I often turn the run into a walk. Of course, that is a sign that I am getting older. But I don’t mind. I am still moving, and moving gives me a chance to see and enjoy life. I am thankful. I have become aware when I turn the run into a walk, I begin to notice more things. That is not surprising, since I am going more slowly with less effort expended. It is like having eyes than can focus on things.
I am not sure how it happened, but I began to notice the various signs along the way. There were the inevitable signs of the road. I saw stop signs, speed limit signs and signs that told me of impending road intersections. Of course, I have seen millions of these in my lifetime. Nothing I saw was novel. But what was new is that I began to ponder what I was seeing. And this led to a sense for the process of knowing.
As I thought about it, I realized the signs were talking. Of course, there was no discernable sound. When I approached the stop sign, I heard no voice saying, “Stop please.” But it told me to stop and told the cars, too. And most of them “heard” it and stopped. Others either didn’t “hear” it, or like my kids when they were young, “heard” it, but ignored it!
I began to think more deeply. It is interesting that we call those things “stop signs,” “street signs,” etc. Typically, they are inanimate objects. They are made of metal, wood or plastic. In this sense they are not materially different than any other object made of that stuff. Some words, or perhaps some symbols are added to the object. And sometimes the object is shaped into a particular form.
We all know the physical form of the stop sign. Usually it is red, although I recently was in a different part of the country and saw a green stop sign! Even though it told me what to do (stop!), I have no clue why it was green. That part of the story is a mystery. And on the shaped metal is the single word, STOP. When I see one of these signs, it is so familiar I almost don’t even pay attention. Habitually, I slow and then stop the car. Look both ways and proceed. And I can announce that I “heeded” the sign. I did what it told me to do.
Only now am I realizing how complex this whole process is. The various signs function to inform and direct peoples’ attention and action. However, this caused me to think more broadly about my experience. I recall my travels to England. I have lived there three different times. When I drive in England, I quickly realize the signs are in English, but I don’t understand all of them.
I realized they talk about “overtaking” instead of passing! There were other signs that I had to get used to the language. “Lorries” are trucks. That’s worth knowing. This pondering took me even further afield. I remembered the times I have been in China or Japan. They also have signs. But that is tough. In both of those countries, I had no clue what the sign was “telling” me. It was “speaking,” but I could not understand. If the Chinese or Japanese sign were not paralleled by a sign in English, I was doomed.
I wanted to push even deeper. I realize that a sign works when it signifies something. In fact, signify is the verb for sign---even though “sign” can be a noun or verb. For example, someone “talks” to a deaf person by “signing.” A Chinese sign or Japanese sign does signify something. The problem is I don’t have the ability to understand the sign and, therefore, it has no significance for me.
I realize I stumbled on to the third step in signs. First, there is the sign. The sign signifies. And if it signifies successfully, it has significance. It could have ended at that point. But I had a revelation. All this can become spiritual.
It occurred to me that human beings can also be a sign. My words certainly are signs. They can have significance. But I can also lie or deceive. This causes people to be misled. Of course that has serious implications. This means that human beings are less predictable signs than stop signs and street signs. They always mean what they say. Humans do not always mean what they say.
Human actions probably are more clear and predictable than words. Actions have significance. It is one thing to say I love you. It is more powerful actually to love you. The significance of loving you is huge. I realize that much of my ministry has actually been a life of spiritual signing. Metaphorically, I have been signing to a deaf world---a world that needs its own language and guidance to know how to find spiritual meaning and purpose.
This is the role all the major religious traditions are called to play. We disciples of those religions become signs. We have to live lives of significance in order that others may see, hear and obey.