The beginning of a New Year and the ongoing work of a discernment process at the church that I serve brought me to Acts 16:6-10 in the opening weeks of January 2016. Henry and Richard Blackaby in their book Spiritual Leadership (Broadman & Holman – 2001) said that spiritual leaders regularly fill their hearts and minds with Scripture through regular reading and careful study, and thus filled with God’s Word, they find themselves starting to think according to its principles.
When a difficult situation arises, the Holy Spirit will being appropriate Scriptures to mind. When they prepare to make a decision, the Holy Spirit will bring to memory a Scripture verse that provides relevant guidance. (182)
This is how Acts 16:6-10 got “in,” and why Acts 16:6-10 hasn’t budged from my head or heart since the ball dropped in Times Square almost two weeks ago now.
6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
The immediacy and clarity of God’s guidance of Paul and his companions in these verses has always startled me, and, frankly, left me feeling rather envious. You see, this has just not been my experience, at least not very often.
At the end of I Corinthians Paul explained his future travel plans to the Corinthians by writing – “I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me…” (16:8-9). This notion of “open doors” looms rather large in the traditional conversation about how God guides us to know and do His will in our lives. The opportunities that providentially present themselves to us are widely interpreted to be good indications of what it is that God wants us to do and where God needs us to be. They are the “open doors.”
James Abram Garfield (November 19, 1831 – September 19, 1881), a Disciples of Christ preacher, a Civil War Major General in the Union Army, a College Professor and President, a United States Congressman for almost 20 years and the 20th President of the United States, said that he never once actively sought any of these positions in his life, but rather he just simply walked through the doors that the Lord opened to him. That thought has long appealed to me, and I have tried to do this myself. I have both sought “open doors” when trying to make faithful decisions about my life and ministry, and I have claimed “open doors” to explain the decisions I have finally made.
Acts 16:6-10 is a text about open and closed doors. Twice in these verses Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of Jesus kept Paul and his companions from entering certain regions of Asia Minor to preach the Gospel, only to open a completely unexpected door of ministry to them in Europe through a vision and a voice calling them to “come over and help us.” The wonderful icon at the beginning of my blog this week is this story in line and color. The image of the man who is beckoning Paul and his companions to come over is the Risen Christ. This is the Christ of the Mount of Transfiguration in the Gospels and Revelation chapter 1. He speaks from inside a nimbus – a kind of body halo – that signifies the Shekinah – the Glory of God that shines forth like light during a theophanies – God appearances in time and space.
Gordon T. Smith began his book on discernment – The Voice of Jesus (IVP 2003) – with the statement that “every Christian should be able to answer two questions — first, what do you think Jesus is saying to you at this point in your life, in the context of the challenges and opportunities that you are facing, and second (and just as critical) what indicators give you some measure of confidence that it is indeed Jesus speaking to you rather than someone or something else?” (9) The power of this story from Acts chapter 16 for me at this particular moment in my life and the life of this church – “in the context of the challenges and opportunities that you are facing” – is the way that it answers these two questions with such clarity and confidence. I want this kind of clarity and confidence for the decisions that I face in my own life personally, and for the decisions that we face together in our life congregationally. I want doors that are clearly and unmistakably open. I want the vision and the voice.
Carrying this story and its icon with me into the prayer closet of my heart these first few weeks of 2016 has been deeply meaningful to me. One of the important openings that this exercise has created within me has had to do with my own receptivity to God’s guidance. Oh, I say that I want the clarity and confidence of open doors — but what am I actually doing to recognize them when they come? How am I positioning myself for receptivity? What am I doing to train the eyes of my heart to be able to see a door when it appears, and to tune the ears of my heart to be able to hear the invitation to walk through it when it opens?
Pondering all of this, the contrast between Paul and his companions in the icon became that proverbial 2×4 up the side of my head.
In the icon Paul’s companions sleep while Paul lies awake, eyes open wide, waiting and watching. In I Thessalonians Paul wrote – “you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober…” (I Thessalonians 5:5-6). The context of these verses is a conversation about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ that Paul said would break in upon us as “a thief in the night” (I Thessalonians 5:2). But the “middle comings” of Christ – all of those moments when Christ breaks into our lives and our worlds in-between His first coming in the Incarnation and His Second Coming at the close of the age – I have found that all of these middle moments are no less like the unexpected appearance of that final thief in the night.
Jesus said: “If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch” (Matthew 24:43), and there lies Paul in this icon, the only one with his eyes open wide, and therefore the only one who can see the vision when He appears and who can hear the voice when He speaks. That’s who I want to be. Only the one who is awake has any chance of answering Gordon Smith’s two questions: What it is that Jesus Christ is specifically calling you to be or do, and how do you know that it’s actually Jesus Christ who is calling to be or do that?
Robert Schnase, the Bishop of the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church, says that right before Christmas he was at a church where the morning Scripture was Mark 13, that “mysterious, almost code-like apocalyptic text that baffles, provokes, irritates, electrifies, terrifies, or mystifies so many readers.” And he explained that one phrase kept jumping out at him from this otherwise confusing text as it was being read that morning, three times in quick succession, the imperative – “Keep awake!” Bishop Schnase writes–
For Jesus to repeat this so emphatically three times in a row implies that one of the great hazards of the faith journey is spiritual acquiescence, a kind of grogginess that dulls us to what is true, and truly important. Sleepiness of spirit means we miss out on what God is doing, and perhaps overlook the presence of Christ right in our midst. By simply falling asleep, spiritually speaking, we miss God, and miss out on what God is calling us to be and do. The peril of spiritual stupor is real, and we see this theme repeated in scripture many times. The disciples who hiked to the mountaintop with Jesus almost missed the transfiguration because they were sleepy! One story tells about someone whom others assumed was dead, but Jesus says, “He’s not dead; he’s sleeping.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night which the disciples knew would be Jesus’ last among them, they fell asleep. Even after Jesus implored them to stay awake with him, they nodded off. Scripture also records one poor follower who dozed during a sermon and fell out the window. (Let that be a warning to the people in the pews!). If it hadn’t been for Mary and company on Easter morning, the disciples would have slept through the resurrection of Christ.
In Ephesians 5:14 Paul told the church – “Awake, sleeper, and arise, for Christ is shining upon you like the dawn and wants to give you light.” And I can’t help but wonder how would I as an individual, and how we as a congregation would be different if this year we made it our goal to stay awake? What doors would open for us? DBS+