BELONGING IN THE WORLD
“Guided by the Spirit” – Acts 16:6-15
May 25, 2019
Sometimes, God answers our prayers by closing one door and opening another.
Oftentimes, the door that God opens sends us in an unexpected direction…
Paul, on his second missionary journey, had intended to travel to all the churches
he had previously founded to see how they were doing.
Paul, Timothy, Silas, possibly the physician Luke, and others were sailing from town to town,
delivering messages from the elders and apostles in Jerusalem.
The churches they visited were encouraged by their presence, strengthened in faith,
and Luke reports that these fledgling congregations were increasing in numbers daily.
Luke writes that Paul and his companions traveled through today’s Turkey,
and then began to move westward because the Spirit forbade them from preaching in Asia.
We are not told how the Holy Spirit turned them away from Asia Minor or why,
but somehow Paul and his companions determined that they were not to go toward the east.
Perhaps it was the prevailing winds on the Mediterranean or even reports of pirate activity?
Whatever the extenuating circumstances, we are told that when they came to Mysia
and began to move northward, toward today’s Istanbul,
once again the Spirit pushed them in a different direction, toward the west.
Paul and his companions arrived in Troas, and it was there that Paul had a vision.
If you search your maps on your cellphone today, you can still find Troas, Troas beach;
it lies right there on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea.
Luke reports that it was there in Troas that Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia.
During the night, a man from Macedonia, today’s Greece,
appeared to Paul and begged him to come and help them.
Hear the Word of God: Acts 6:6-15
They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 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.’ 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.
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 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. 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. 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. 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.
Some years ago, Barbara, a faithful and prayerful deacon of a Presbyterian church,
was driving through town in the middle of the day running errands.
Barbara, who was a mother of two high school daughters at the time, happened to be in the
neighborhood of a young family in the church, a young family with three children.
Barbara reports that she was at a certain stop sign, about to turn right,
when the Spirit forbade her from turning right and encouraged her to turn left.
So Barbara, being a woman of prayer, turned left
and almost immediately saw the home of this young family.
Barbara pulled up in front of the house, walked up the sidewalk, and knocked on the door,
wondering to herself what in the world she was doing there and why she had been led to this action.
When the door opened a few moments later, there stood the young mother with tears in her eyes.
A crying baby who appeared to be teething was on one hip.
Another crying child was not far away in a bouncy seat.
And a third child, a toddler, was running around the den waving toys in his hands.
Barbara smiled, entered the home, took one of the babies into her loving arms,
and for the next couple of hours helped a young mother make in through a challenging afternoon.
As a husband and a young father, I have seldom been more grateful for the work of the Holy Spirit.
I have seldom been more grateful for the attentiveness of a church deacon to the Spirit’s leading.
When Barbara stopped by our home that afternoon, she not only helped Melanie make it through a
challenging day, when she told her story, she reassured us both of the presence and providence of the
Throughout human history, God has chosen to “communicate” with human beings
through a variety of ways and circumstances.
God not only spoke to people back in biblical times, but God still very much speaks to people today.
Though we can certainly misread God’s leadings and confuse the work of the Spirit
with other spirits at work in the world or with our own sometimes selfish spirit,
nevertheless, God’s Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, is alive and well
and blowing where it will in the world.
God’s Spirit moves far beyond the walls of the church,
far beyond the boxes we might create that would limit God’s activity,
far beyond our best imagination or expectations.
Back in the 1700’s, a man named Isaac Penington was the son of a mayor in London.
Penington had a bright future before him as a well-connected young businessman.
However, he had been led by an inclination of the Holy Spirit to become a part of the Society of Friends,
the Quakers, but their manner of worship was different than the one prescribed by the established
Because Penington very much believed that God had truly led him to worship with this community,
and because Penington would not renounce this form of worship,
which was deemed unacceptable by some, he endured five years in the local prison.
The mayor’s son paid a steep price for his faithfulness to a vision,
but his writings reveal that he was a man very much at peace with God and with himself.
Isaac Penington wrote: “Friend, it is a wonderful thing to witness the power of God
as it reaches to the heart and demonstrates to the soul the pure way to life.
Surely, the person who partakes of this power will be favored by the Lord.
Therefore, we ought to wait diligently for the leadings of the Holy Spirit in everything we do.
Thus, we will be able to travel through all that is contrary to God and into the things that are of God.”
(Isaac Penington, Excerpt from “Letters on Spiritual Virtues” in Devotional Classics,
edited by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith, p.236)
As many of you may be aware, Melanie and I are in the process of downsizing.
We will soon be moving out of the home where we have lived for 12 years,
the home where we have raised four sons, and into a much smaller home,
a home just a mile and a half away.
This seems “right” to us for this next phase of life, but this process has not been easy.
I have found myself praying often about which direction to take.
I have found myself seeking to listen carefully, to my wife, to our realtor,
to the prevailing winds of the real estate market, to the murmurings of my own heart,
and yes, to the nudgings of the Holy Spirit.
You might even say that, several weeks ago, we were forbidden by the Spirit
to purchase a home that we had under contract, and we were led by the grace of God to this other home.
Now, it should be said that when we wonder where God is leading us to go,
when we seek to discern God’s will for our lives,
when we listen for which path before us is the “right” one to take,
we walk on holy, yet uncertain ground.
God’s nudges are often not as clear or as definite as Paul’s vision seemed to be.
We have to parse out our own selfish desires from what God desires.
Often, it seems that we are left with nothing stronger nor more certain than a “gut feeling” inside,
the feeling that we are either walking in God’s pathways or we are not.
A modern scholar writes that when seeking God’s will versus our own will,
-first, check whether the direction you are tempted to go is in conflict with Holy Scripture,
– second, ask whether you have the gifts and talents and resources
to move in the direction toward which you feel called; does it make sense for you to do this?
– third, ask persons of faith, people who know you best and love you most,
what they think of your vision,
-fourth, check your motives, ensure that your plan might be in line with what God wants,
rather than simply what you want or what someone else might want for your life;
-and fifth, as you pray that God would lead you every step of the way,
pay attention to that “gut feeling”, that inner compulsion.
Even in the midst of wonder and uncertainty, does this feel like what you are called to do?
Will we sometimes misread God’s plan and go astray? Surely.
Will we sometimes run the other direction as did Jonah before he got swallowed by the whale? Probably.
Will we sometimes forge blindly ahead, paying little attention to the Spirit’s urgings? No doubt.
But by God’s grace, we have been given the freedom to choose our response
to the environments in which we live.
As Stephen Covey wrote, we may be highly influenced by our moods and feelings and thoughts.
We may be highly influenced by what others say or do to us.
We may be highly influenced by our childhood experiences.
We may be influenced by the genetics which our parents and grandparents passed down to us,
or the circumstances in which we now live, but none of those necessarily determines
who we will be or how we will respond. (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. p.67-68)
As human beings, we are more than our feelings. We are more than our moods or our thoughts.
We are more than what others may tell us we are. We are more than what happens to us.
We are not simply the result of the genetic and environmental conditions in which we live.
We are human beings created in God’s image, granted spiritual freedom in Jesus Christ,
and occasionally, by God’s grace, granted some measure of guidance from God’s Holy Spirit.
I want to close with a famous prayer by Thomas Merton.
Merton claims that the heart of prayer is absolute surrender.
When we surrender ourselves to God’s will, when we trust in God to guide our daily decisions,
and to offer direction for major life decisions, then, according to Merton,
unspiritual cravings begin to fall away.
As you look toward this summer and the various pathways that your life might take,
whether in a relationship, or a vocational decision, or a health decisions, or some new opportunity,
perhaps Merton’s prayer could become your prayer.
As we open our hearts once again to the leadings of God’s Holy Spirit,
as we seek to trust that God will be with us on whatever path lies ahead of us,
as we endeavor to attempt some small leap of faith, or even a large leap of faith,
let us consider the prayer of Thomas Merton:
My Lord God, we have no idea where we are going.
We do not see the road ahead of us. We cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do we really know ourselves, and the fact that we think we are following your will
does not mean that we are actually doing so.
But we believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you,
and we hope that we have that desire in all that we are doing.
We hope that we never do anything apart from that desire.
And we know that if we do this you will lead us by the right road, though we may know nothing about
Therefore we will trust you always.
Though we may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, we will not fear,
for you are ever with us and you will never leave us to face our perils alone.
Amen and amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church