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What would you think if you were walking or driving down the street and you saw a sign that said, “Honk Less, Love More” or “Follow Dreams, Not Crowds” or “Have a Great Day?” Would these signs make you happier, or at least more inclined  to behave decently? Might they help lower crime? Would they boost morale ? British artist Killy Kilford seems to think so, and he’s testing his theory in one of American’s most crime-ridden cities, Newark, NJ. According to an article in New York magazine, Kilford is planning on placing hundreds of signs like this throughout the city and has “zero doubt” that the signs will make a positive impact on city.

I thought about this idea on the way to work this morning. I imagined seeing a sign on the side of the road telling me to follow my dreams or to smile or to have a great day. Initially, I was very cynical—I thought that signs like this would more likely than not simply annoy rather than inspire me. I have a very low platitude-tolerance threshold at the best of times, and the idea that some government department somewhere was trying to alter my behaviour or dispositions with a bunch of formulaic roadside wellness exhortations could just be enough to send me over the edge.

But then I began to think about signs more metaphorically. Specifically, I began to think about the practice of holding up ideals before people as an attempt to influence and/or change their behaviour or beliefs. And of course it didn’t take too much thinking along these lines to be reminded that this is pretty much exactly what I do for a living.

I did a wedding over the weekend. I stood outside in an idyllic mountain scene in front of two fresh-faced, beautiful young people about to embark upon the journey of marriage, and I read the famous words from 1 Corinthians 13. Love is patient, love is kind… Love keeps no record of wrongs… Love always protects, always perseveres… Love never fails. I looked at them after reading these words and said, with as much humour and compassion as I could muster, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but you will never be able to love each other like this. At least not fully, not all the time. This love is beyond us as human beings. Only God can truly love like this. But this is your true north. Even though you will be unable to hit it with perfect consistency and precision, this is the target you are aiming for in your life together.” They smiled at me as if I had just recited a Hallmark card to them. Their minds may have been otherwise occupied :).

I did a funeral a few weeks ago, as I’ve alluded to here on the blog few times. It was an incredibly difficult funeral—the young daughter of a friend who died suddenly on a weekend road trip. I stood inside a packed church sanctuary, and I referenced the famous words from Revelation 21. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. I looked out at a sea of tear-stained faces.  I felt the pounding longing inside my own ribcage, and I desperately wished that this hope were not so far beyond us. I wished this target would come closer so we could see it and have a chance of hitting it.  I wished this for a hurting family bravely setting forth into their new “normal” without a daughter and a sister. But this new heaven and new earth, these rumours of God dwelling among his people, this promise of no more death or tears—these are realities that only God can bring about.

Whether it is in moments of joy and promise or crushing grief, this is what I do. I hold up signs before people—I point to ideals that are beyond human experience, to modes of being that have never been. This is what I do every Sunday morning when I get up in front of people and talk about what it means to follow Jesus, about the peaceable kingdom he invites us to live into. Every single Sunday I hold up a target that I have nibbled around the edges of, but whose centre continues to elude me.

IMG_3301-1What a strange vocation this is—to continually hold things that have not been, portraits that we have been given glimpses of but have never beheld in all their expansive beauty, ways of living and being in the world that we have had fleeting encounters with, but which have never taken up deep and permanent residence within us, hopes that we desperately need to hold and sustain us in the deep, dark places which have only beckoned to us from distant horizons. What a strange thing, to be the one to hold up these signs.

But this is what I (and countless others) do. Over and over again, in preaching or writing or whatever, I find myself saying something like: This is what we need, but we can’t attain it. This is how we are to live, but we can’t do it. This is the hope that pulls us along, but we have never seen it. This is what we were made for, but we always settle for less. This is what is good, true, and beautiful, but the destructive, the false, and the ugly refuse to be silenced.

And so when I think of things in these terms, maybe I’m ok with a couple hundred “wellness” signs on the streets of Newark, NJ. (Or any city for that, matter—yours, mine…) We need signs like this. Even if they don’t solve all the city’s problems (and they won’t), they may solve a few. If nothing else, they stubbornly hold up possibility before people. They give us something to aim for. And slowly, incrementally, intermittently, partially they may even alter our course.


Top image courtesy of Russell Berg at Seeing Berg.  

Bottom image courtesy of my daughter, sketched during church last Sunday morning.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Cheryl O'Donnell #

    A great perspective!! And do need to be reminded that there are ideals to aim for – so thank God for people like you who are our “reminder sign” carriers !!
    PS – nice pic – wondering who the lovely artist is.

    September 17, 2014
    • Thank you, Cheryl. I’m very happy to have a lovely artist for a daughter 🙂 .

      September 18, 2014
  2. mmartha #

    Cambridge Inst. for Better Vision promotes natural vision and has charts and slogans that read positively: I am seeing more and more clearly every day, I love to see, and many others.

    Both illustrations for “Signs” are just-right. The charming details at the Cross are loving, such as the beehive that looks much like an oriental lantern and speaks to the world in quite a few ways.

    September 18, 2014
    • What a great idea. I think little efforts like this can’t help but have positive effects.

      September 18, 2014
  3. Paul Johnston #

    I am always perplexed when you write like this, Ryan. I acknowledge your gift and not so secretly wish for a similar talent. You make your points with precision and poetry. Layer by layer, point by point, you build a compelling advocacy and yet, at times, your writing troubles my spirit.

    So often your faith seems less then it should be, to me. Mostly hopeful (sometimes not) often uncertain, wishful….The Kingdom is here! The Kingdom is now! If we want it. If we cooperate with His Spirit. :)…We must be nothing less than certain in our faith, certain about our God. Realistic about ourselves and others. The “weakness” and source of uncertainty resides within us. It is made more manifest the further and further each of us chooses to live apart from God. The closer we come to God, as individuals and communities, the closer we come to Kingdom life, here on earth. Now!

    YOU MUST BE CERTAIN OF THIS, MY BROTHER!! :). The Kingdom is now. The Kingdom is today. In you, in me and in any other who lives and acts, out of a faith that is certain.

    We can “walk on water” if we dare. If we have faith. :)….

    It has taken me until my mid fifties to know this to be true. You’re a smarter guy than me. 🙂 You’re gonna learn and apply this lesson sooner than I did. 🙂

    September 18, 2014
    • I am equally perplexed at your perplexity regarding posts like this 🙂 .

      I am saying nothing more (or less) than that, while I agree that the kingdom has come near and is an inaugurated reality here and now, it has not come in fullness, and that our sanctification will remain incomplete this side of eternity. This seems incontrovertible based on the witness of scripture, a glance at human history, and even the slightest attention to my own life and the lives of those around me. The kingdom is both now and not yet and is experienced as such by fallen, finite human beings who eagerly anticipate the consummation of God’s salvation.

      My faith is certainly less than it should be. I think the same could be said, to varying degrees of course, and for different reasons, about every other follower of Jesus on the planet.

      (Thank you, incidentally, for your very generous words.)

      September 18, 2014
  4. mike #

    To me, this is Ryan at his very best .. a ragamuffin. In fact, If we can be honest, this is Christianity at it’s best for most of us… shaky and often unsteady. Ryan has a way of speaking to people like me in a language that comforts and assures us,with all our doubts and insecurities, that we are not alone in the dark night and that All is Well, even when it isn’t.

    ““There is a beautiful transparency to honest disciples who never wear a false face and do not pretend to be anything but who they are.”
    ― Brennan Manning- Ragamuffin Gospel

    September 18, 2014
    • Thank you, Mike. Really appreciate this. And I can’ think of much better company to be in than the ragamuffins 🙂 .

      September 18, 2014
    • mmartha #

      I share this column frequently with friends and family who are grateful for its pastoral help as I am.

      September 18, 2014
      • Very gratifying to hear this. Thank you.

        September 18, 2014
  5. mike #

    submitted for your approval:

    September 19, 2014
  6. Paul Johnston #

    I don’t disagree with anything said here, and I truly appreciate the generosity of your responses, (particularly yours, Ryan) when it would be so easy to read offense into my comments…and yet there it is, this self centeredness….when the focus is Christ centered and Christ experienced, our self experience, doubt and weakness (ragamuffins all I suppose) loses power over us. Satan wishes us to be self absorbed for it is alone with ourselves where we are most vulnerable, most exploitable…I watched the video you posted Mike and couldn’t help but think that the gentlemen speaking was but a commitment to a sacramental life away from realizing his dream. In the Eucharist he will encounter Christ, not an apologetic or a belief system….we must decrease so that he may increase….30,000 denominations was the claim in this video….so much self interest, so little Christ interest…physicians heal thyself!!…

    September 19, 2014
    • I don’t think that acknowledging the “in-between-ness” of our existence—in between the inauguration and the consummation of the kingdom of God, the peaceable kingdom—is a reflection of self cent redness or that it means that we aren’t “Christ-centered” or whatever. Again, it is simply an acknowledgment that our faith is worked out, with fear and trembling, in the context where the enemy has yet to be defeated. In this context, absolute victory, final sanctification, consummated hope, will remain elusive. We will continuing to be straining, pointing, longing for what is to come. We will continue to hold up these signs of a reality that we are convinced has come, is coming, and will come in fullness.

      Because of this reality, I’m not sure what to make of your comments about the gentleman in the video. If you are suggesting that a “sacramental way of life” can be a means by which the risen Christ is encountered, hope strengthened, and holiness grown, then, of course, I absolutely agree. If you are suggesting that this way of life alters the “in-between-ness” of our present experience, then I would respectfully disagree.

      September 19, 2014

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