We set sail from Troas, making a straight run for Samothrace, and on the next day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, a leading city in that district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We spent some time in that city. On the sabbath we went outside the city gate along the river where we thought there would be a place of prayer. We sat and spoke with the women who had gathered there.
Jesus said to his disciples: “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. And you will also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
John 15: 26-7
To read of the journeys of Paul and his companions can leave us almost breathless. At one level it seems as if the entire venture is essentially ad hoc. For certain, the group must do some form of appraisal in terms of where and when to travel on to the next place, and even why on the sabbath to head outside the city gate and to the river, where they encounter the women who had gathered there in prayer, quite a radical act in its own right.
There is, of course, a single driving motive and idea behind the choices which Paul and his companions make; it is the proclamation of the gospel and the sharing of the life of the risen Jesus throughout their known world. Yet, the question remains that in light of that end how are they to make their specific choices about where to go and how and to whom to proclaim the message. In this way, the experience of Paul and those who are working with him is not so different from ours.
The Book of Acts is essentially a narrative about the work of the Holy Spirit following Jesus’ Ascension. What becomes “the church” is coming into being by the power and presence of the Spirit in the lives and works of the early disciples, including Lydia whom we meet today. Today’s gospel reminds us that the same Spirit continues at work today and in us. Discipleship is simply “to testify” in word and deed in accord with the testimony that the Spirit gives us.
To do so requires of us first that we work to reform and transform our consciousness so that, as the disciples in Acts, we begin to live from a singleness, a purity of heart and intention: to serve the will of God and to proclaim in our words and deeds the love of God in Jesus, the Risen One. It is to be a bearer of the good news that to be a human being is to be no less than a child of God, a brother or sister to Jesus, and so to share the very life of God. The Spirit through which the world came to be is the same Spirit that is the core of our very life. So, when Jesus in John’s gospel says that the Advocate who comes from the Father will testify to him and we shall also testify, he is telling us that that same Spirit is our life and our Way.
So, just as somehow Paul and his companions had to appraise the Spirit’s call to them, so also do we. This is not a theoretical or ethereal idea. It is about the actual choices we make whereby we incarnate in the world our own Divine calling. In the Fundamental Principles we read in their very structure a process of appraisal and discernment. To appraise what God is asking of us we must at once take into account our own unique call, our life in relationship to and in community with others, and then “the needs of the world and the desires of the Lord” in our regard.
Appraisal of God’s will and the Spirit’s direction for us, thus requires that we understand that our life is not somehow separated from others and the rest of reality, rather it is a dynamic field of forces and relationships. The answer of what to do lies not merely within, nor does it lie merely in the prudent following of another’s precepts. Frederick Buechner has written: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Our deep gladness is the call that is our own deepest life and identity. This is revealed to us, as the Fundamental Principles tell us, in our sharing of love and friendship in community. As each of us lives a unique version of the life of the human community, of ‘the world,” the world’s deep hunger becomes known to us in the hunger of each other. As the nature of the Spirit is boundless and inclusive, our openness to each other becomes an openness to the world. Our call to attend to the hunger in the person before us becomes a desire to “stand ready” to respond wherever that hunger shows itself. As a communal standing ready, we become available to the world’s hunger and God’s call in all of our unique capacities combined, in an availability to God’s call and to the world in a way that is far greater than the sum of its individual parts.
All of this sounds like a lot of listening, however. And so it is. It presupposes that we are deeply listening to the life of the Spirit within ourselves, among each other, and in the world. It requires a listening which is an openness to relationship at many levels. First of all, it requires a relationship to ourselves which is, in fact, not that common. Perhaps most of the time we relate to ourselves as if “our self” was an object to be judged, to be promoted, to be ashamed of, to be stifled. To recognize the movement of the Spirit within ourselves we must relate to ourselves as subject. We must not somehow, strangely, stand outside ourselves and look at the world through the distortion of our own “self-image.” We must “step into ourselves and be ourselves” as John S. Dunne writes. We must slowly begin to see ourselves as God sees us. Then do we begin to understand what “the love of God” really means. From that place, our true place, it is the love we know that is a love common to all that becomes the source of our relationships. To know the love of God is to know this love to be an act, or “a direction” as Simone Weil says. “Love” is not a thing, an “experience”; it is a direction and a call.
To be truly present to and in ourselves is to be moved to relationship. It is in relationship to those who are other than us that we learn how to live this direction of love. We need to suffer the experience of loving each other in order to learn the ways of love. Recently we have attempted within our own community to enter into a process that challenges us to relate to each other more deeply and authentically. It is interesting to hear so many of us, now well advanced in years, saying how new and different this experience is. To realize how much we are always novices in love is to begin to realize how narrow is the way to knowing the reverberations of Spirit that constitute life and love between and among us. It is to begin to realize how much of our heart is yet to be open to the reality of the others and so to the reality of the world, a reality that that we must know if our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger are to meet.
The Acts of the Apostles is expressing that, although the activity of Paul and his companions may make us breathless, it is not arbitrary and random. Quite often we are not able to say this about our own busyness. The evangelization that Paul and the others engage in is always sourced by their own deep hunger and by the community in which they “help, encourage, and edify one another . . . and work together.” Often our activity and busyness arises out of our attempt to deny our own hunger. If we are evading ourselves, however, we can know neither our own deep gladness or the world’s deep hunger. Recently I had a long conversation with a former student from over forty years ago. As we spoke of our lives in the present, I felt again the deep gladness that I know when another allows me a place in their lives to serve their human and spiritual formation. The source of this gladness in me has been the desire for others to know a love for them in the places where they cannot love themselves. I have longed to be this from the moment in my life where, by the mediation of others, I came to know this love myself. My gladness lies in mediating that love. When young, I thought it was in being that love, but life has taught me that the deep hunger of the other is not for me. It is for something and Someone that is within themselves.
In retrospect, I never cease to marvel, even at unexpected moments and periods of life, how God takes me to persons and places whose hunger appeals to my gladness, whose appeal is an appeal to my unique life call. Sometimes I am taken to such places of encounter resisting and screaming, sometimes much more willingly. Yet, in every case, the call comes from a place of deep personal, but intimately shared, reflection. It comes from a willingness to hear and to heed the call of the community and the world, but also the willingness to bear and to wrestle with the inevitable tension between the inner voice and the outer one.
These days our congregation speaks about a moment of “graced crossroads.” It is a moment of choice, a choice that carries with it the terrors of the night and the arrows that fly by day (Psalm 91:5). Yet, its fearsome sense of responsibility also carries with it a sense of hope. The disciples in Acts do not move randomly and arbitrarily. They are influenced but not driven merely by their own emotional impulses, or the pulsations of their time and culture, or their own fear and ambition. They move and act in response to the Spirit, within them, among them, and creatively blowing through the world. They make responsible choices based on their appraisal of the Spirit’s call and God’s will. By the grace of God and in the power of God’s Spirit, may we today have the courage to choose responsibly to follow that call.
Another to Echo
How beautiful you must be
to have been able to lead me
this far with only
the sound of your going away
heard once at a time and then remembered in silence
when the time was gone
you whom I have never seen
o forever invisible one
whom I have never mistaken
for another voice
nor hesitated to follow
beyond precept and prudence
over seas and deserts
you incomparable one
for whom the waters fall
and the winds search
and the words were made
W. S. Merwin