Charles Wheeler, golf and fear

Notice of the death of former Kansas City Mayor Charles Wheeler reminds me of the only time I met him. It was on a golf course, where he spent a lot of time in retirement. My encounter with Mayor Wheeler that day helped teach me something about playing golf and about living without fear.

          I never played golf much, but when I did it was with Linda’s father, Ed. He had taught me to play, and he remained remarkably patient with my inconsistent and sometimes embarrassing performance on the links.

          One day Ed and I head out to the Blue River golf course in Swope Park in Kansas City. There are a lot of golfers out that day, and we’re told that we’ll have to pair off with somebody, so soon we are introduced to a guy I’ll call Bill.

          The moment I see him, I know I’m way out of my league. The guy has the look. He has the tan, he has the clothes, he has the swagger, and of course he has expensive golf clubs. If he’s not a pro, it’s only because he doesn’t need to support himself with a job of any kind.

          When we introduce ourselves, Ed says he hopes Bill doesn’t mind playing with a couple of duffers, and Bill says he doesn’t mind at all. But then he’s never played with me before, has he?

          As we’re standing around waiting our turn at the first tee, I notice that there’s quite a crowd gathered. Why, there’s Charles Wheeler, the former mayor of Kansas City. And there’s so and so, who’s the head of some political party. And there’s so and so, who’s the CEO of some big corporation.

          There are enough powerful people standing there that we could hold a convention and elect somebody if we wanted to.

          But we’re here to play golf, and eventually it’s our turn.

          Bill goes up to the tee, takes one or two easy practice swings, and then strokes the ball out onto the fairway. It’s one of the nicest shots I’ve ever seen – straight and true and long, just beautiful.

          Now Ed takes his turn. His ball doesn’t go quite as far as Bill’s, but it goes nice and straight.

          And now it’s my turn. And as I place my ball on the tee, I realize that everybody is looking at me. Charles Wheeler and the head of some political party and the CEO of some corporation – all these big shots are looking at me.

          So I’m telling myself, “Just hit it. It doesn’t matter how far it goes or how straight it goes, as long as it gets off the tee. Whatever you do, don’t screw up.”

          It’s that last thought, of course, that gets me into trouble. Instead of being loose and carefree, I am tight and fearful. So I haul off with the mightiest swing I’ve ever made, and when the club hits the ball there’s a crack like a rifle shot, and I just know that the ball is traveling 90 miles an hour.

          The only problem is, it doesn’t go straight out onto the fairway. It goes straight out to the side.

          Suddenly there’s a shout, and people are running and jumping in all directions. It’s like the parting of the sea in “The Ten Commandments.”

          And then I see, as if in slow motion, that the ball is heading right toward Charles Wheeler, the former mayor of Kansas City. It is traveling straight at him at 90 miles an hour, and for a moment he is the one paralyzed by fear.

          Finally, at the last possible moment, he ducks behind a little sapling. The ball hits the trunk of the sapling and bounces off in a new direction, and now more people are running and jumping out of the way. 

          Bill has this look of utter astonishment on his face. He exclaims, “My God, you almost killed Mayor Wheeler.”

          Now that is an exaggeration if I ever heard one.

          Granted, Mayor Wheeler was somewhat advanced in age, and the ball was traveling directly at him and probably would have hit him right between the eyes, but I doubt that it would have killed him.

          Still, I’m thinking I ought to apologize. I walk over to where he is collecting himself, and I tell him how sorry I am that I almost hit him. He gets this sickly little smile on his face and says, “Why don’t you try again? Only put it on the fairway this time.”

          Well, when the former mayor of Kansas City, who has just survived an assassination attempt, tells you to take a second shot, that’s exactly what you do.

          Only this time, I notice that people in the crowd are giving me a lot more room than they did before, and some of them are hugging trees pretty close. I figure I can’t embarrass myself any more than I have already, so I just walk up to the ball and whack it.

          It’s not a good shot, but it’s not a bad shot either. As the ball sails out onto the fairway, I can hear a mighty sigh of relief from the crowd – and there is a scattering of applause, too. I would have bowed, but humility prevented me.

          That’s the day I learned how to play golf. That’s the day I learned that you just walk up to the ball and hit it the best you can, and then you follow it and you hit it again, and whether you land in the rough or on the fairway or the green, you make the best of the journey.

          And you never worry. You never fear. Because fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fear will do you in. Fear creates negative attitudes, and negative attitudes create negative results. Faith creates positive attitudes, and positive attitudes promote positive results.

          Don’t be afraid, the Good Book tells us again and again. When we place our full trust in God, we have no fear. We just walk up to the ball and give it a good whack and go from there.

          Charles Wheeler didn’t teach me that. But he was there — in the room, so to speak — when I learned it. Rest in peace, Mayor.

Real holiness

Sometimes it takes a long time for things to get inside my head.

The current schism in the United Methodist Church has its roots in a conflict that goes back more than 150 years.

The Global Methodist Church and its antecedents (including the Good News Movement, the Confession Movement and the Wesley Covenant Association) are all descended from early Holiness factions in the Methodist Episcopal Church.

For example:

During the great Holiness movement “shakeout” from the 1860s onward, most Holiness believers left to join or form Holiness churches, alliances and denominations. But some stayed and have been pushing for their brand of reform ever since.

It has been obvious, for example, that the Good News folks were schismatics in search of a lever that would work. They finally found it in human sexuality, and they’re finally getting their way: a new church of their own. They couldn’t win the battle the way they wanted to by taking over the United Methodist Church, so now they’re forming their own.

The Provisional Discipline of the Global Methodist Church says: “With John Wesley, we believe that a life of holiness or ‘entire sanctification’ should be the goal of each individual’s journey with God.”

Well, that depends on how you define “holiness” and “sanctification,” doesn’t it? Wesley defined them as perfection in love. Haven’t heard a lot of love from the Global Methodist folks; just lies and ill-concealed hatred of those who disagree with them.

No, their version of “holiness,” which we’ll see more and more of as the new denomination matures, consists of following rules. Love be damned, it’s the rules that count.

I wonder how soon the churches that have disaffiliated from the UMC will realize the phony bill of goods they’ve been sold.

Could be like that big church in Texas where the ruling board voted to disaffiliate without submitting the question to members. Just follow your leaders. Do what you’re told. We know what’s best for you. (A fella named Jones runs that church. Why are you not surprised?)

This is a far cry from holiness. Phoebe Palmer and the other great Holiness advocates would be appalled.

Well, the Methodist church has split many times before and doubtless will again. And as the UMC continues to practice “big tent” thinking, some “holiness” folks will stay, just to keep working to unravel the ropes holding up the tent. It appears that’s what they do best. Real holiness? Nah.

Don’t weep, just read ’em

The attack on Salman Rushdie is the inevitable result of book banning from efforts.

Whether book banning or book burning is sanctioned by the state or by pressure groups or by individuals, it is evil.

The militarization of book banning has but one end, and that is the violent suppression of all non-complaint belief and the enforcement of party line.

It has no place especially in a free society, for if some books are banned, society is not free but captive to the whim and power of a few.

Of course, book banners always couch their efforts in high rhetoric. They’re always trying to save the young and innocent from degenerates.

They want to save our children from those who want to “groom” them for unsavory behavior.

And who, I want to know, groomed the book banners?

Who taught them that this was proper behavior?

Who perverted them?

My daughter Erica gave me this T-shirt for Father’s Day. I wear it a lot.

I probably won’t be reading Salman Rushdie, though. I read The Satanic Verses when it came out and was not impressed. But I defend the right of others to read it, even if I didn’t care for it.

*  *  *  * 

Giving a sworn deposition the other day, Trump pleads guilty more than 400 times.

OK, technically he pleads the Fifth Amendment, the right to avoid self-incrimination. Non-technically that means he’s  GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY.

He once claimed that he could murder someone in broad daylight in front of many witnesses and still get off.

Given the rabid response of his followers to the law enforcement raid on his Florida compound, he’s probably right.

*  *  *  * 

The Trump lie machine says the FBI planted evidence and searched Melanie’s clothes. He is a liar for all seasons. Still, people believe this stuff.

The human capacity for self-delusion and self-destruction is sad but borne out by millennia of experience. The big question today is whether the American experiment in self-rule will survive or crash into fascism.

*  *  *  * 

Recently spent two great weeks with family in cabins strung along a lovely trout stream in Colorado. Our favorite place. The time went by so quickly!

Before we’d gone there for one-week trips. Now we wonder how we ever got so much activity crammed into just one week. Maybe that was it. Maybe we crammed things in because we had to because we had so little time together. Now we’re all ready for another two weeks. Not sure when we can make that happen, but we all want it to be soon.

*  *  *  * 

One thing our Colorado experience did was reinforce this conviction: I do not want to live in a world without wi-fi.

Arapaho Ranch, where we stayed in Nederland, just up Boulder Canyon from Boulder, has free wi-fi, but in some cabins the reception is not always robust, especially when several people were online at once.

I survived somehow, but I have the need for speed and the desire for connection.

To answer that frequent Facebook meme, I could overwinter in that little remote cabin – but only if it had good wi-fi.

*  *  *  * 

Speaking of Facebook… No, this has been a good day. No need to taint it.

How we got here

The first sentence is a gem: “At a time when so many books are being written, and so many of them are so long, the reader of any book is entitled to ask why it had to be written at all and, if the book absolutely had to exist, why it couldn’t have been shorter.”

That’s how Walter Russell Mead opens The Arc of a Covenant, subtitled The United States, Israel and the Fate of the Jewish People.

Why did it have to be written? Because it’s an informative, exciting and exhaustive (if exhausting) review of how Israel has fit into American foreign policy.

Maybe it could have been shorter. (It has 585 pages of text and 70 more of back matter.) I admit to skimming some parts. But most of it is fascinating. I found the chapters around Harry S. Truman and the creation of the state of Israel simply riveting.

The title, of course, is a play on words. The Ark of the Covenant was (heads up, Indiana Jones fans) a receptacle for sacred objects of Israelite identity. The arc of the relationship between America and Israel has been long and not always bending toward justice. But Americans have always had an almost sacred fascination with the place and the people – Jews especially, but Palestinians as well.

One of Mead’s major contentions is that it is simply nonsense to say that Jews control American foreign policy. Whether mouthed by pro-Zionists or anti-Zionists, it’s gibberish, totally devoid of facts and totally contravened by all evidence.

Commenting on the Trump disaster, he notes, for example: “If American Jews controlled America’s Israel policy, the U.S. embassy would still be in Tel Aviv, the annexation of the Golan Heights would not be recognized, and the United States would be pressing Israel on settlement policy.”

Instead, he says, “the attitudes and ideas that shape American perceptions of Zionism and the state of Israel are deeply rooted and widely dispersed in American history and culture.”

He calls the Jewish influence theory “Vulcanism,” after an imaginary planet called Vulcan that was once thought to orbit the Sun near Mercury. Like Vulcan, overpowering Jewish influence does not exist.

To demonstrate, Mead charts complex and evolving American attitudes toward Israel from the Puritans through Trump. Especially important is the era following World War II. “The cascading disasters and crises of the postwar years were so immense, so unprecedented, so complex, and so terrifying that it is difficult for people today to comprehend the psychological and mental state of our ancestors on whose heads the great storm woke.”

For instance, the blizzards of early 1947 in Britain were so crippling economically that the formerly great empire was forced to totally revamp its foreign policy, especially regarding Palestine.

In the turmoil that followed, the state of Israel was born. Ironically, Israel was able to survive early attacks by Arabs partly because of arms sales brokered by Arab-friendly Russia, which hoped to drive a wedge between Britain and America. American influence in this era was spotty, buffeted by many factions and nominally guided by Truman’s guile, determination and simple luck.

Mead’s writing is clear, often elegant and often droll. The Democracy Train is the American idea that American ideals are automatically transferable to other countries. This Great Miscalculation has misguided our foreign policy for decades. In pursuit of a lasting peace in Israel, it shows up as a quest for the Holy Grail, though it often seems more like a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a distracting red herring.

You don’t have to be a history nut or a policy wonk to love this book. You just have to be determined enough to tackle a big and complicated subject. It ought to be required reading in the White House, in Congress, in the governments of all 50 states and in the campaign staffs of anyone running for public office.

Enough prideful posturing

I saw it again the other day – on a T-shirt worn by a woman in a public place.

The T-shirt said, “Faith not fear.”

I suppose she was one of those who claim that they have faith in God, and that means they don’t fear coming down with Covid.

With all due respect, that’s horse manure.

Wearing a mask, keeping a safe distance and getting vaccinated are not signs of fear. They are sensible precautions in the face of a deadly virus.

If I wear a seat belt, does that mean I live in fear?

If I don’t prance down the middle of a busy highway, does that mean I have no faith in God?

If I don’t play Russian roulette with a loaded firearm, does that mean I’m a fearful fraidy cat?

How about locking my door at night, washing my hands after using the restroom and … oh, never mind.

Deuteronomy says we ought not to put God to the test. Jesus says that, too. Good enough for me.

          What these T-shirts should read is, “Pride not fear.”

          Pride ain’t faith, baby. There’s a world of difference.

          By the way, I’m just getting over a bout of Covid. Happily, it was one of the milder cases. I was only down for 11 days. Long enough and hard enough for me.

If you have faith and not fear, say a prayer of support for the loved ones of the 11 million Americans who have died of Covid since the pandemic started – not to mention the uncounted other millions from other countries who also have died. And stuff your pride where it should go.

Lost and found

“Mine is a theology of right relationship, in which we week a loving connection with ourselves, each other, with the earth and with a loving God.”

This is part of a statement from a candidate for ministry at a Unitarian Universalist church, as presented in Search, a splendid novel by Michelle Huneven.

The search committee rejects the candidate as being too Christian. Guess that leaves me out of the running, too.

For a short time in college, I attended a UU church with my girlfriend. Later, but before I got into ministry, I also was a guest speaker at a couple of UU churches. The church I attended briefly had a gorgeous Tudor style sanctuary with white walls and dark wood accents. It had a Sunday “service,” but I’m not sure you could call it a “worship” service.

The organ was strong and loud, but the hymns were dreary, and I thought they lacked substance. We definitely were not singing to any deity, nor was “God” ever mentioned, that I recall. I don’t remember any prayers either. There were several readings that, lacking context, had little meaning. The sermons were supposed to be uplifting, but I was never moved beyond the usual wondering, “What’s for lunch?”

The congregation was welcoming in the usual churchy way – which is to say, guardedly. (How else do you welcome new college students whom you’ll probably never see again?) After several weeks, we gave it up. I am not sure what she was looking for. I was fleeing the horrors of a fundamentalist Baptist church. I needed some assurance that Jesus was not a colossal jerk. I had never been in a United Methodist church.

My girlfriend and I did spend many evenings studying in the Wesleyan Center on campus. We camped out in a small room dedicated to John Wesley. The walls of the room were lined with books by and about Wesley. I had never heard of him, and I never cracked a single book besides the ones I brought in to study. Sometimes I wonder how my life might have changed if I’d read from Wesley then, knowing nothing else about him.

Hardly anyone else was ever at the Wesleyan Center, and no one ever said boo to us. Though the place was always open, there didn’t seem to be much happening. It was easy to slip in and out unnoticed several nights a week for a full semester. And then we were gone.

But not quite for good, at least for me. Six or seven years later, I fell in love with a different young woman, and 47 years ago today, we were married. She introduced me to the Wesleyan way of following Jesus. I immediately was hooked, and 30 years ago I committed to ministry in the United Methodists Church.

Michelle Huneven’s book Search kept me up far too late a few nights ago. Relatively close to the end, I couldn’t wait to find out what happened. The ending is tragic. It’s not at all the ending I wanted. But if you know anything at all about the way churches work (UU or Methodist or Baptist or whatever), it’s painfully realistic. (Damn, I hate realistic books. Give me a happy ending any day.)

          Though he didn’t last long in the running, I really liked the candidate I quoted earlier, because he sounds exactly like me. “Mine is a theology of right relationship, in which we week a loving connection with ourselves, each other, with the earth and with a loving God.” Amen to that!

Theological malpractice

I have tried to soften my response but haven’t found an honest way of doing it. So here goes.

What happened recently among Methodists in Florida was an act of theological malpractice and organizational malfeasance.

Simply put, Florida clergy voted against approving 16 people for advancement toward ordination because two of them were gay.

Here’s some explanation of the admittedly cumbersome process in the United Methodist Church.

Candidates for ordination first must be reviewed and approved by a committee in their local church; then approved by the local church as a whole; then be interviewed by their district superintendent; then be reviewed and approved by the district board of ministry; then be reviewed and approved by the conference board of ordained ministry; and finally be approved by a vote of clergy at a meeting of the annual conference.

Even this final vote is not final. It is for “provisional” membership. Candidates are commissioned but not ordained until after two more years of scrutiny – and, yes, another vote of clergy colleagues.

Usually, the vote on commissioning is routine. Having themselves come up through the system, clergy know how rigorous it is and they tend to trust the system, so they vote to approve candidates.

Also, many of them either know the candidates personally or have watched them come through the system over the several years required to get this far. Most of them know who they are considering. Their vote may be routine, but it is not blind.

But at the recent annual conference in Florida, the system came unglued. You can guess what issue caused the problem. Two of the 16 candidates were homosexual. The vote of clergy came up just short of the 75 percent required for approval.

It should be noted that not all conferences vote on candidates as a group. My conference, Great Plains, votes on each candidate individually. Usually the vote is unanimous. Though the candidates are present during the vote, they have their backs to clergy voting on them, so they can’t see how individual clergy members vote.

But Florida clergy chose to vote on candidates as a group, and the vote fell short. So 14 “straight” candidates were denied commissioning because two others were gay.

Just about everybody agrees that this outcome is a tragedy, but of course each side in the ongoing debate blames the other for causing the tragedy.

Traditionalists say the two should never have been allowed to get this far in the process. Progressives say the two were up for commissioning because the system worked the way it should.

At issue is the part of the United Methodist Book of Discipline that bars homosexuals for ordained ministry. This little time bomb was inserted into the Discipline by “conservatives” right after creation of the UMC in 1968 and has been a source of division throughout the church’s history.

Apparently the full 16-member group would have been approved had it not been for the negative votes of several pastors whose churches were allowed to disaffiliate from the conference shortly after the vote. They just had to get their digs in on the way out.

It should be noted that all 16 candidates will continue to serve in ministry positions as appointed by their bishop. They will just not serve as commissioned candidates for ordained ministry.

The UMC is currently fracturing. “Conservatives” are leaving, many for the new Global Methodist Church, because they can’t get their way anymore. I don’t think they will be much happier under the new system than under the current one. But at least they will, presumably, have their way on homosexuality.

I wish they were just hurry up and go infect some other church with their narrow theology. I wish they would just get the hell out of my church and let us do ministry without their constant undermining of everything we all say we value.

But even on their way out, they seem to be working to spread lies about those of us staying in the UMC. Why next thing you know, they say, we’ll be ordaining atheists or Buddhists or who knows what sort of alien critter.

Yet they call themselves followers of John Wesley. And Jesus Christ. Actions speak louder.

Fight Like Jesus

“And in this corner, weighing 150 pounds and wearing a purple robe and crown of thorns, is Je-SUS CHRIST!”

That’s the kind of intro you might expect in a book titled Fight Like Jesus. Happily, there’s nothing of that kind here at all. Instead, it’s a timely and useful guide to how Jesus confronted the powers that be during the last week of his life.

Author Jason Porterfield has direct, on-the-ground, experience working for God’s vision of shalom among the urban poor in Canada and Indonesia. His book not only demonstrates how Jesus fought peacefully but also reveals how such tactics might be pursued today.

The book is subtitled “How Jesus Waged Peace Throughout Holy Week.” It is valuable for its examination of how Jesus negotiated the social and political minefields of first-century Jerusalem. It’s also helpful in offering lessons in how those insights might be applied today.

You can, if you like, read it as a review of what Jesus did during Holy Week. Porterfield has studied some of the best scholarly work on the subject, and his presentation is clear and compelling.

The book includes insightful discussion questions, making it a good Lenten study for a small group. It’s main strength may be how cleanly it integrates historical study with practical application. You can’t read this without being drawn away from normal violent knee-jerk reactions to provocation and toward risky but non-violent ways of standing up to oppression and abuse.

Starting with Palm Sunday, Porterfield shows how “Jesus was crucified on Friday precisely because of how he sought to make peace on the previous days of Holy Week.” The palm parade leading him into Jerusalem is both a parody of Roman military might and a declaration that God is acting decisively through Jesus.

Jesus’ use of a “whip” of cords to clear the temple marketplace on Monday is often cited as a violent act, but Porterfield argues that the cords were lightweight wicker, useful for shooing away sheep and cattle but unlikely to cause injury to livestock or humans.

Tuesday is a day of rhetorical duels. Jesus stands his ground against verbal attacks and denounces those trying to lure him into political traps. He warns his followers that the violent ways of the nation’s leadership will lead to a horrible war and the destruction of Jerusalem. (It is not, Porterfield notes carefully, a “prediction” of “the end times,” and certainly not a rapture away from the mayhem.)

Wednesday also is a day of contrast. While religious leaders huddle to find a way to get rid of him, Jesus has dinner with friends and praises a woman who honors him as king by anointing him with oil.

One point here is that good ends don’t justify bad means to achieve them. Means are “nothing less than the end coming into existence,” Porterfield comments. So you do reap as you sow, and as Jesus will say soon, those who rely on the sword will die by it.

On Thursday, Jesus prepares for Passover. He gives his disciples a new command, “Love one another.” It can be done only in and through a community where all are welcome and nurtured to grow.

On this day there arises the issue of Jesus telling his disciples to buy swords. The point is not that they should be armed and prepared for violence (as Peter soon shows). Rather, because of Peter’s act, Jesus will be numbered with violent offenders.

Friday, of course, focuses on Jesus’ death. Porterfield shows how Jesus could be considered a scapegoat, but he totally rejects the popular notion that God has to smash Jesus with a mighty hammer to defend the divine honor. He notes: “Christlike peacemakers live by a spirit of mercy, never vengeance.”

The choice offered the crowd between Jesus and Barabbas is the same choice we face today. Which Messiah will we choose: the violent offender or the peacemaker? Which way shall we follow: the way of violence or the way of peace? Even while he’s being murdered, Jesus prays for his murderers. It’s a tough act to emulate.

When the risen Jesus first greets his disciples, he says: “Peace be with you!” It’s more than a greeting. It’s a vision of how he wants them – and us – to live as his followers.

Ultimately the book justifies its title. Jesus is no namby-pamby who is easily brushed aside. He fights fiercely for what he knows is right. But he uses an array of non-violent “weapons” to achieve his goals.

For these polarized times, when we are tempted to view neighbor as “other” and “other” as enemy, Fight Like Jesus offers a difficult alternative: the way of peace pioneered by Jesus Christ. It’s a welcome antidote to our un-Christlike thought and rhetoric.

(This book review is through Speakeasy, which offers free copy of the book in exchange for a fair review of it.)

Another ‘lost’ generation?

Irish novelist Sally Rooney has been hailed as the voice of her generation — millennials, that is.

Wondering what all the fuss was about, I recently read her three novels: starting with the second, Normal People; then the first, Conversations Among Friends; and finally the most recent, Beautiful World Where Are You.

The books focus on the relationships of several sets of friends. In Normal People, for example, Marianne and Connell spend a lot of time having sex, or talking about having sex, or feeling anxious about having sex – either with each other or with someone else. They drift apart and back together several times.

Description of their sexual encounters is sometimes almost perfunctory, sometimes almost clinical in detail, as if automatons were pushing buttons on other automatons. Given all the sex being described, you might think that something interesting was going on, but the stories quickly become tiresome.

Maybe that’s part of the point. Despite some talk about class consciousness, desire for social acceptance and even search for religious meaning, the characters seem mostly unaware of the social milieu in which they flounder.

They want to be “normal people,” whatever those are. They yearn for what they’ve heard is a “beautiful world,” though they have no idea where it might be or how they can find it.

Rooney’s books have been dismissed as “slacker fiction” about people stuck in “horny malaise.” Those descriptions are a little harsh. But only a little.

Somewhere along the way, I picked up the notion that proper stories are about people who are changed by events and interactions with other people. Maybe in her next book, Rooney might allow one or two of her characters to wake up to their situation, take an honest look at themselves and take some faltering steps toward change.

Jesus calls us

Jesus Calls Us – message delivered May 22, 2022, at Paola United Methodist Church, from Acts 16: 9-15.

In our Bibles, the book of Acts is formally titled “The Acts of the Apostles.” Many commentators think it might better be titled “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” because the Spirit is the real power driving the story.

We see that clearly in today’s episode focused on the calling of Lydia.

This episode raises several important questions for each of us about our own calling, how we experience that calling, and how we respond to it.

Let’s place this episode in the broader story of Acts.

The Apostle Paul is ready to set off on his second missionary journey. He’s recruited three new helpers: the study and experienced Silas; the young and inexperienced Timothy; and a fellow named Luke.

Luke doesn’t contribute much to the story itself, but when he later records it in the book of Acts, he signals his presence by mentioning the things that “we” did, or happened to “us.”

These four know where they want to go. But God keeps telling them no.

They want to go north into Asia, but Luke says the Holy Spirit forbids it. How the Spirit forbids it, he doesn’t say. So they decide they’ll go to Bithynia; that’s closer anyway. But the Spirit won’t allow that either. Again, we’re not told how the Spirit makes this known.

What we are told is that one night Paul has a vision. It may come in a dream, but Paul is perfectly capable of having visions outside dreams. Paul is a mystic. He is aware of spiritual forces that most of us are only vaguely familiar with. In his vision, he sees a man from Macedonia who pleads with him. “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

The four are immediately convinced that God is calling them to proclaim the good news in Macedonia. So that’s where they go. Traveling by sea, they head for northern Greece, and they land in the Roman colony of Philippi.

It is Paul’s practice to go first to the synagogue to tell local Jews about the content of his preaching. He knows he’ll likely get thrown out of the synagogue, but he always starts there before he turns to Gentiles, to whom he feels especially called.

It takes at least 10 men to form a proper synagogue, but apparently there aren’t that many Jewish men in Philippi, so Paul looks for someplace else believers might gather for prayer on the Sabbath. Gathered by the river outside of town, he finds a group of women – and the one who responds most strongly to his message isn’t even Jewish.

Luke describes her as a God-fearer. That means she’s a Gentile, a non-Jew, who is moved by the Jewish message about God but is not ready to convert.

In fact, Paul always finds some of his best converts among God-fearers. Leaders of the synagogues resent this. They think he’s targeting God-fearers and essentially stealing sheep from their pasture.

This particular sheep would be a good one to rustle. Her name is Lydia, and she is a wealthy and independent woman. Luke says she’s a dealer in purple cloth. In those days, purple cloth was difficult to dye, and therefore both rare and expensive, essentially reserved for royalty and the upper class.

Whether she’s a widow or an especially good businesswoman, or both, Lydia has done well for herself. She has her own home in Philippi and a household that may include slaves or free domestic staff as well as children.

According to Luke, the Lord opens Lydia’s heart to respond positively to Paul’s message about Jesus. She makes a confession of faith right then and there, and Paul responds by baptizing her and all her household in the river.

She invites Paul and his friends to stay at her home, and it becomes the center of Christian worship in Philippi.

Lydia is the first Christian convert in Europe, and her home is the first Christian church in Europe. Today, she is widely considered a saint, and many Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate her feast day on May 20.

The church that Paul founds in her home at Philippi will be one of his favorite churches. The letter that he writes to the Philippians some years later is one of his warmest and most charming letters.

Lydia also is notable for being the first of several women whom the New Testament lifts up as heroes of the faith. Paul is often derided as a misogynist, a woman hater, but he encourages and celebrates the leadership of women in the church, including Rhoda, Tabitha, Eunice, Lois, Priscilla, Euodia, and Syntyche.

Lydia, though she now lives in Philippi in Greece, hails from the city of Thyatira in Asia Minor – what we today call Turkey. Forty or fifty years later, Thyatira is one of the seven churches that John of Patmos writes to in the book of Revelation. It’s a strong enough church that it survives for 1,800 years. We might wonder if Lydia wasn’t at least partly responsible for founding it.

Well, you might chalk this episode up to a string of happy coincidences. But instead don’t you see the slender but strong thread that the Holy Spirit weaves through lives and events to bind them together?

Paul is warned away from Asia and Bithynia and led to Macedonia. There, in the pagan city of Philippi, he is led to a gathering by a river, and he meets a spirited and influential woman who will help spread the good news of Jesus to everyone she encounters.

Coincidence? No, no – not at all.

Allow me to jump in time and space. In 1738, in the city of London, the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, are in spiritual despair. They have just returned from a disastrous missionary journey to Georgia in the American colonies, and they are discouraged and distraught. They both preach salvation, but they cannot feel assurance of it personally. And they so much want such assurance!

In early May, Charles falls seriously ill. Everyone is convinced he is going to die. Instead, on May 21, he senses what he calls “a strange palpitation of heart,” and he suddenly feels at peace with God. He shouts, “I believe! I believe!”

Three days later, on May 24, John ends a long and tiring day by reluctantly attending a meeting of a religious society on Aldersgate Street.

The class leader is reading from Luther’s writings on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. John describes what happens next: “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change that God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.

“I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

This episode is frequently called a “conversion experience,” as if somehow he was not a Christian before it. It is not a conversion. It is an awakening and a deepening of a faith that was already there but had been pounded flat by events in his life and needed to be revived and fanned into flame.

And so it was. For the next 50 years, John and Charles lead a revival that blazes across England, into Ireland and Scotland and to America as well.

Their awakenings by the Holy Spirit do not come out of the blue. John and Charles had prayed and studied and prepared for such a thing – alone, together and with others.

Just as Paul and Silas and Timothy and Luke prayed and studied and prepared to receive guidance from the Holy Spirit, and received it;

  • just as Lydia was led to gather by the river that day, and rejoiced in the message she heard;
  • just as John and Charles Wesley rejoiced in the blessed assurance they received in May of 1738;
  • so today we also pray and study and prepare to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit calling us – calling us to new adventures in faith, new encounters with others, new direction from above.

To the Romans, Paul says that the Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we are beloved children of God (Romans 8:14-17).

To the Corinthians, Paul says: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). We never walk blindly, though, for we are assured that God walks with us every step of the way – behind us, beside us and before us, every step of the way.

The great contemplative Henri Nouwen once said that 10 years earlier, “I didn’t have the faintest idea that I would end up where I am now.” I was so busy running my own life, “that I became oblivious to the gentle movements of the Spirit of God within me, pointing me in directions quite different from my own.”

And were the directions you set for yourself so superior to those in which you were led by God? Haven’t you felt the tug of the Holy Spirit at key moments, nudging you toward paths you never considered before?

It is sometimes thought that Jesus calls only those who pursue vocations within the church. That is simply not so. Jesus calls each of us and all of us. Through the Holy Spirit, through Scripture, through the experiences of our lives and the encouragement of loved ones, Jesus calls each of us to follow him in ways that are both common to all and unique to each of us.

You may never have had what you thought was a vision from God. You may never have encountered a man from Macedonia or anywhere else saying, “Come over here.” But surely you have heard Jesus calling you.

You may be afraid because you’ve heard about the violent fantasies of killers who claim they obey the voice of God. You can be assured that any voice they hear is not the voice of God, for God never calls anyone to harm anyone.

You also may be afraid because you imagine, “Oh, I just know God will send me to Africa.” More likely, God will send you to an even scarier place – right next door.

You can’t just sit and wait for it to happen while you watch TV or scan social media. The Wesley brothers called this “quietism,” and they condemned it as spiritual laziness. Like the Wesleys and Paul and others, you have to want to hear the call, and you have to pray and study and prepare so that when it comes hear it and when you hear it you’ll know how to respond.

Will you do it? Are you ready to hear it? Are you prepared for an Aldersgate experience? Are you primed, like Lydia, for the next chapter of your life?

Jesus calls us, the old hymn says.

Day by day his voice calls us, saying, “Christian, follow me.”

Can’t you hear the call?