I am sure you have heard the old saying; “When God closes one window, God opens another.” Or, perhaps it is classier to quote St. Thomas Aquinas, in Latin, of course: “Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit.” “Humanity proposes but God disposes.”
We think we have control and to some degree we do – free will has its power, we make choices, we can respond. But what Thomas Aquinas is teaching us, and the scriptures seem to suggest again and again and again is that God “writes straight with crooked lines.” Or, as I have heard it said: “Nothing can be judged good or bad until God gets through with it.”
In verse 6 we read that Paul and his team had attempted to move into Phrygia and Galatia – north central Turkey – but the Holy Spirit blocked them, forbid them to speak in Asia. So they head in a new direction but in verse 7 the Spirit doesn’t allow them to go into Bithynia either.
No one likes to be told where they can and cannot go. Nobody wants to be “forbidden.” That is a heavy word “forbidden.” Some folks refuse to take no for an answer or refuse to change direction and so they keep running into the same dead end. However, recurrent disappointments may be a clue that you need to take another look, be open to another possibility, change course.
As Mick Jagger has said, and I am telling you it is gospel truth; I even have a shirt, although it is now in tatters and faded beyond all recognition – which was given to me by Katie Fay – with the well known words: “You can’t always get what you want. But, if you try sometimes you may just get what you need.” Those are words to remember and live by – that each moment is part of some larger picture – and each day you will get your daily bread, you will get what you need.
Who knows why the Holy Spirit forbid Paul to head north. Perhaps other Christians had already been there. Perhaps God was trying to protect Paul from his enemies. But verses 9 and 10, no doubt in response to the tossing and turning, wrestling with disappointment, have Paul wondering “What am I going to do, now?” He has a vision: a man of Macedonia pleading with him in verse 9: “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And so begins the move of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from Turkey to Greece.
From a dead end comes a new direction.
Sometimes you don’t get to do what you want to do. You don’t get into that college. Who hasn’t faced the disappointment of dead ends? But what a marvelous, holy thought to believe that the obstacle may be a blessing, that the job lay off may be a call to something new, the broken relationship may be just what you need.
Disappointment is a call to take stock and change direction. Next time you are awake in the dead of night, wondering what the next step is going to be – remember this story, new visions don’t come easily, they arise in the crucible of tension, of anxiety, of grief – choices mean doing “this” and not “that,” going “here” and not “there.”
Paul struggles in the tension of discernment. But here is the thing – he is willing to remain in the tension until a new clarity comes. He is open. Paul has one of those “aha” moments – another one of those Damascus road experiences – where he sees beyond what is just before him and he intuits a larger possibility. He is no longer blindly forging ahead.
I think of Dr. King’s vision – sitting in the Birmingham prison – now that is a dead end. But the spirit says “Come to Jackson, Mississippi. Come to Washington D.C.”
I think of Nelson Mandela’s vision from Robbins Island – “Come to Pretoria, come to Johannesburg.”
You and I may not get those kinds of visions – those kinds of visions are reserved for those kinds of visionaries – but don’t ever think that the Spirit is not working in you, with you, through you – that you have visions, hopes, dreams – that you too have to wrestle in the conundrum of discernment – trying to get clarity. Are you willing to imagine that the Holy Spirit of a God who loves you is in your tension?
God might not be telling you to go to Macedonia but to Hudson. God might be trying to urge to get out your comfy chair and get some exercise, or to take a class, or to call up someone who has been on your mind.
God may be calling you to stop your dysfunctional behavior and take a look at your life again. God might be calling on you to finally leave that job that drains, be honest with the relationship, go to therapy. All of it is risky. All of it is a new adventure. Do you trust that the Holy Spirit is working with you?
We don’t know our geography of Greece and Turkey – next year the Forest Hill Pilgrims will get to know this area somewhat – but this is a monumental move. So, in verse 11 Paul, Timothy and Luke (I guess) sail from Troas, the farthest Western point of Turkey to Samothrace and then north to Neapolis and inland to Philippi. Philippi is a major city in northern Greece, a Roman colony on the Via Egnatia – which was the Roman road linking Byzantium (Constantinople) to Italy.
Did you notice in verse 10 the change of personal perspective? In verse 6 “They went through the region….” But then, all of a sudden “When he had seen the vision, WE immediately tried to cross over….”
I believe that when one becomes in tune with the Holy Spirit, when you have come through disappointment to a new direction – things change, life changes, perspective changes. Our experience of life is no longer at arms length, keeping distance, refusing to commit.
Before I became a husband and a parent – I could observe and describe what being a parent or a husband might be like. But it is a whole different thing when you are actually a real husband or parent. Before we have that personal experience, “Life” is all out there, life is what happens to them. In the movie “The Godfather,” the line is spoken by the mobsters, “It isn’t personal, it’s business.” Well, when the Holy Spirit moves you and you take the risk, when you have that experience of awakening, of the risk of doing something new, it gets very personal – very first person. When the “they” becomes a “I” or a “me” or in community “we,” there’s no telling what can happen.
Here is something for the students in the balcony this morning – maybe this has never happened to you in school – a lot of the day may be boring and then a teacher may say something, or a student may ask a question, or there may actually be something in a book that you are reading that grabs you and all of a sudden you are there – you lean forward because you don’t want to miss it, and the abstract becomes real. Those moments may be rare – but they happen. Love is like that too – remember when you fell in love – what it felt like, what you were willing to do? When the 3rd person becomes the 1st person and you experience that expulsive power of a new affection – you are ready, like Paul, Timothy and Luke, to do whatever immediately.
So they make their way to Philippi in verse 12 – and we read that they “remained in the city for some days.” That is an important detail – after the initial energy – you still have to sit and wait and prepare. You have to calm down a bit. You have to cultivate a discipline of waiting – of nesting, of brooding, of letting things unfold a bit – even as you keep your energy. My sense is that Paul and his team are alert, getting the lay of the land, keeping their eyes and ears open.
So what do they do and where do they go? If you are going to spread the gospel, and seek out the seekers you go to places where seekers go. Verse 13, they go outside the gate to the river “where we supposed” there was a place of prayer – the place of gathering. And they meet Lydia in verse 14- an independent business woman who is probably wealthy because “purple” is the color of money, is the color of status.
Outside the walls. Isn’t that rich. Sometimes I fall victim to narrow thinking – that I have to follow this set of rules, walk along this proscribed path, that the spirit and the gospel is contained within these four walls or is contained in an institution. But in this Easter season while we await Pentecost – it is all about bursting out and busting forth – out beyond the walls of expectation, bursting out from the tombs. Progress is always about pushing the boundaries, going outside the norm, the expected – trusting that vision that is just beyond.
Here is Lydia and the other women – they can’t find their place of prayer within the walls so they make their own space and place of holiness down by the river. Their yearning for some kind of religious experience isn’t met by institution or convention. Even if Lydia is rich, she is still on the margin – it’s a man’s world. Folks on the margins find places outside. It isn’t an anti-man thing at all – Paul and Timothy maybe the writer Luke are there – I love that Paul isn’t intimidated to go outside the walls and that the women aren’t exclusive – they show hospitality and are open. But outside the walls of expectation the divine meeting occurs.
Our culture may not be as religious as it once was, but we live in a deeply spiritual time, a profoundly seeking time. And I am agitated to wonder – are we meeting folks where THEY are – not to judge, not to convince, but just to be with, to listen to, to talk with and share story? Sometimes we fall prey to the idea that we have to bring people to us, in here – but maybe the agitation is for us to go out there – to them – at Starbucks, at Ballys, at a yoga class.
The last detail that caught my eye is that in this section we don’t get any report of what Paul said – and I am glad about that. We don’t get dogma, we don’t get the message to reproduce, but Paul said something that made an impact in Lydia’s life and I won’t even attempt to guess what Lydia needed to hear, or what moved her – but I continue to believe that the love of Jesus Christ is transformative to all – and it doesn’t come down to presentation as much as presence, a willingness to listen and share our truth, to lean close to hear their story as we share our story.
Perhaps Paul just wanted to pray in an authentic place too. He was sick of the synagogue and the temple and the usual places. He needed to be reconnected too. So maybe being with Lydia and the other women, opened him up as well – to perceive, to think, to understand, to be stretched – to take a risk as big as sailing to Philippi in the first place – to have a new experience of grace that enabled him to see in this gathering of women the power of the Holy Spirit.
And Lydia’s whole household was baptized (verse 15) and she showed hospitality. Transformation always leads to sharing, to an open door policy.
What happened that morning created a new relationship, forged a new powerful trajectory of the gospel – the church in Philippi was founded by the riverbank outside the city walls and we know that Paul loved that community of faith – he wrote to them from prison later on. “I thank my God every time I remember you.” (Philippians 1:3) The memory brought Paul hope in the midst of the dark prison cell. The memory of perhaps that day on the river bank caused Paul to encourage his friends with the words I leave you with: “rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice… Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (4:4-7)
Paul can write this because he remembers the experience of disappointment being the push to a new direction. Blocked (twice), forbidden to move – a new vision came and it changed everything.