Discerning The Spirit
6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district[ of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
I was caught up short with this passage when I read that the Holy Spirit had forbidden Paul from speaking in Asia. I usually think of the Holy Spirit in terms of inclusion, connection and inspiration. I was startled to consider that sometimes the Spirit blocks our intentions (even our good intentions). It is yet another reminder that our way is not God’s way.
Both Peter and Paul’s vision of the what the church should be was radically altered by the Spirit. Both men were well intended and had clear visions of what it meant to be faithful. Peter had to consider that God wanted him to live in a world without distinctions and Paul had to learn that killing in the name of religion was unacceptable. In both cases the spirit blocked these men at the same time it called them into new relationship.
In our discussion in FIRL, there was a tendency to view the spirit as a kind of friendly ‘Father (or Mother) knows best’ that steers us to a good end. We can not help but measure God’s providence by the desirable outcomes in our lives. For the most part, the left turns of our lives—school rejections, broken relationships, moves, failures and losses were seen, in retrospect, as part of the weave that brought us to this place—in time and in community. And I’m sure that is true but it unconsciously connects outcomes that we like as indicators of the spirit. That kind of thinking works—as long as we survive.
It has been 50 years since I read Victor Frankel’s, Man’s Search for Meaning but his central premise has stayed with me. You can have life and meaning no matter what happens to you. You can love even in a concentration camp. In Christian language, the spirit is present in the most extreme places of despair. The spirit is present whether we live or we die. This is an enormous faith claim and it separates the promise of God’s presence from any outcome of life.
We, with Paul have no clue as to why he was forbidden to speak the word in Phrygia and Galatia nor why the Spirit of Jesus blocked his entry into Bithynia. Any explanation is speculative. In real life we often do not know why any particular thing happens. All we know is that no matter our circumstance, we have choice about how we will live. Will we orient ourselves toward love? Will we choose life even when everything we have known has been altered beyond recognition?
But bold declarations like ‘Choose Life’ or ‘Choose Love’ are inspirational are terribly limited in real life. In real life it is very difficult to discern the Spirit. How does the Spirit lead and how can we tell? Paul’s path to the Lord came by way of his killing Christians. His way to Macedonia came because the more proximate places were blocked. Then, even with a vision calling him to Macedonia, Paul still had to deal with the unexpected. (A man calls him but it is an unconventional woman that he meets in an unconventional place.)
I want to give three real life struggles in our faith community where it is very difficult to discern the Spirit—an encounter in the FIRL groups where it became impossible for me to include someone, a struggle in our church community with how and how much we can include the homeless and finally a particular woman’s struggle with loss.
FIRL GROUP: About five or six weeks ago a woman appeared in our group and earnestly sought to share the word with us. She would excitedly raise her hand and quote scripture to us. She rarely connected her choice of reading to the discussion and she later told us she had been called by the spirit to prophecy to us. I made a concerted effort to involve her in discussion and asked her to tell us what inside of her generated her choice of scripture passages. That didn’t work. We were clearly speaking different languages.
In the end, I told her I did not know how to include her. I (and the entire group) found her to be so disruptive that continuing group conversation was difficult at best. Her desire was to preach. My desire was to have a dialogue. I finally told her that if she wanted to speak, she could not simply quote scripture. The irony of telling someone they cannot use their bible in a bible study group does not escape me.
I raise this example because in real life, our values and our actual abilities are often in conflict. Who is to say that her call is more or less valid than mine? I did not find her call helpful and she certainly did not find mine any more so. In real life we run into this kind of difficulty all of the time. I do not have an answer but I do say we should be troubled.
I am a ‘Call the Midwife’ fan. ( It is a warm and well textured story of midwives and nuns working together in the East side of London to provide care for the community.) Last night, we were catching up on some unviewed episodes. A seventeen year old girl chooses to keep her baby over the objections—and subsequent rejection of her parents. It was an irreconcilable conflict. A path is taken but an answer is not given. The narrator’s voice at the end of show included the following: “The quarrel is not between ourselves. The quarrel defines us. It everything we are.” Perhaps it was the spirit, but what I heard in those words is the faith that the spirit is with us—in our limitations and divisions. It is important that we struggle and it is important that we are troubled. In the experience, we confront our limitations and creatureliness.
Homelessness and our Faith community: The same issues that presented themselves is our FIRL group are also confronting us at our church doorstep. For reasons well beyond our control, the volume of homeless people at our doorstep has increased dramatically. Not only have we been confronted with the face of human need well beyond our ability to respond, we have had to confront our limitations and stereotyping. We are ill equipped to deal with the mentally challenged and we can only offer limited resources in terms of money, food and shelter. We have to say no far more than we can say yes. And to make matters worse, saying no challenges our concept of ourselves as inclusive and giving Christians. We are not what we wish we could be and we are not what we think we ought to be.
We have dangerous stereotypes about wealth, sharing and homelessness. It is too easy to view wealth as selfishness—though sometimes it is true. It is likewise all too easy to feel guilty or offer to the homeless special dispensation because of their hardships in life. Homelessness sometimes make certain behaviors understandable but it is still unacceptable to trespass and to disrespect other people’s boundaries.
We share the common value that we should be mindful and we should be caring. But we care about people, not categories. As soon as we label and stereotype—whether the generalizations are generous or blaming, we cease to be loving. Everyone, on any point of the economic spectrum needs to be met as an individual. That means we will find unexpected kindness and humanity but it also means we will find self interest and manipulation in equal measure. The hard part is holding ourselves accountable for meeting the person and not the category—be that rich or poor.
The spirit calls us to this high standard. It routinely confronts us with our limitations—and we will fail. We are called to orient ourselves toward love (the baptism of repentance) and trust that the Spirit will be with us. But, and notice the theme, we must face our limitations and trust God with our inabilities.
Surviving Loss: In our grief group, one of our participants has reported a listlessness and lack of focus. She spent her life as a very competent care taker but now that organizing principle of her life is no longer present. Her grandparents, parents and now her husband are gone. She asks aloud: What now? The question I ask her, Is this the end of you? How will you use the life you have left? If we cannot leave room for the spirit in such devastating times, the time we have left will be leftovers. That is not what God wants for us.
None of us get to keep what we love. Nor do we get to keep the life we have known. Our identities will slowly be stripped from us. It will be tempting to describe such losses as the absence of God. But in fact, it may well be the only way we can discover how to rely upon God. The spirit is with us, even when we don’t like the outcomes of our lives. We are the sum total of all of our experiences—the so called good and the so called bad. It is not up to us. It is always hard to give up what we know but it often the only way we can leave room for God.
Paul ended up in Macedonia by having his way challenged and blocked. He changed direction on the road to Damascus and discovered the unexpected in Macedonia. Who would have thought that his ministry would lead him to an immigrant, rich woman as a convert and a patron. She didn’t fit any of the stereotypes.
We usually do not know why or how the spirit is acting. Help us to trust that you are with us in all things and at all times. Let it be so.