Peace Covenant CoB
The only time I’ve ever heard God speak to me – audibly, as in a vision from on High – it was a pitch perfect imitation of the voice and cadence of comedian Louis C.K. I’m not kidding.
I’d just landed in L.A. after an early morning cross-country flight, picked up a rental car and drive through rush hour traffic to a retreat center on the top of a cliff overlooking the Pacific. A group of clergywomen was there to plan a big event, and overtaken by jetlag and the incredible beauty of the place, we decided to take a few moments to walk the labyrinth on the property before getting down to business.
I don’t remember all the details of what was going on in my life and the life of the church in those days, but I do remember feeling really, really raw. I remember feeling like I was in need of some direction for what to do or how to respond next. And I remember that I’d read an in-depth magazine interview with Louis C.K. on the long flight out west.
A labyrinth, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is an ancient Christian spiritual practice. It looks like a maze, but with one big difference: there is only one path. You never have to choose which way to go, because the path never diverges. You simply walk back and forth through the labyrinth until you arrive at the center, pause for a few seconds, and then venture out again on a return journey.
The idea for walking a labyrinth is that as you enter and walk toward the center, you lift up all that weighs on you, shedding the weight of worry and anxieties, praying all the pain and lament and grief out to God. You lift it all up and lighten your own load. When you reach the middle, you pause, pray again, ask for God’s guidance and care, stand still for as long as you need in the presence of God’s Holy Spirit there in the center of this twisting, winding path that has only one possible ending. And then, having emptied yourself, and opened your heart to God, you begin the journey back out, receiving the gifts God has to share, to fill you back up with spirit-filled graces.
And, while we’re introducing things, Louis C.K. is a whip-smart comedian whose observations about modern culture dive straight to the heart of things in a way that makes you straighten up, pay attention, and laugh ‘til your guts ache. Some of my favorite riffs of his are from appearances on late night shows: you can google his name and you’ll find an eye-opening rant about our use of cell phones as a way to avoid the reality of our mortality and a jeremiad about complainers, where his money line, after decrying the entitled grousing of grumpy airline passengers complaining about a flight delay when they are about to sit in a chair in the SKY and fly across the country is: EVERYTHING’S AMAZING AND NOBODY’S HAPPY!
Louis C.K. gets it. But he’s also incredibly funny and, warning, incredibly vulgar. His jokes pack an existential punch.
So. Back to the southern California labyrinth, where my jetlagged brain was unloading who knows what all pain and frustration built up from the simple practice of living life. I walked slowly through that labyrinth, one step at a time, careful to not bump my companions as they walked their own walk, and railed a bit at God. I unfurled a ton of anger and disappointment and frustration. And as I walked, the simple possibility arrived in my consciousness: “Perhaps, Dana, just perhaps: You are being refined.”
And, oh, I was mad. That is NOT the answer I wanted. I wanted to be comforted, to be soothed, for all the pain that I was unloading to be swept up and far away from me, for life not to hurt so much in that moment. I did not want what was happening to be part of some kind of conversion or transformation or long, painful process of “refining,” whatever that meant.
And so, I stood there in the center of that labyrinth and prayed, angrily, BUT GOD, WHY DOES ALL THIS REFINING HAVE TO HURT SO MUCH?
And I swear to you, the voice of God in the guise of Louis C.K. flew as if on angel wings into my ears and said – and I quote, with a little profanity because that’s how God said it to me, so please excuse the language. It’s God’s, not mine:
“Because it’s FIRE, you asshole!”
And I couldn’t help it. Right there, in the middle of that labyrinth, in the quiet early morning California sunshine, I laughed out loud, long and hard. All my companions looked up from their contemplative walking with questioning looks but I was laughing so hard I couldn’t get another word out to explain to them that God had actually spoken to me, and that it turns out that God is freakin’ FUNNY.
There are plenty of other times I’ve felt God’s presence – moments of great pain and great joy, singing with a gathered community, communing with nature on a mountaintop, all the usual suspects. But that moment in the labyrinth is the closest I’ve come to an actual, honest-to-God spiritual vision. And I cannot tell you how relieved I was to discover God’s sense of humor.
These days, it seems like we don’t talk much about hearing God’s voice or seeing spiritual visions. But recent cultural polling tells us that even though Americans are less and less likely to participate in organized religion, we are more and more willing to confess to having spiritual experiences. Diana Butler Bass, in her book Grounded: Finding God in the World, cites a recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute, who has compiled something called a “spiritual experiences index” that says that 65% of Americans score in the moderate to “very high” range of spiritual connection.
I’m pretty convinced that it isn’t that people are more or less likely to HAVE spiritual experiences like hearing Louis C.K.’s divine advice while walking a labyrinth, but that depending on the cultural assumptions and compulsions of the day, we are more or less likely to recognize them as such, more or less likely to ADMIT to them.
Scripture does not have this problem. In scripture, people are forever having visions, seeing angels, hearing God’s voice directing them to immediate next life decisions. And usually, those people are not the least bit loathe to admit what has happened. In fact, usually, these people can’t help but share the good word that has come to them in such strange ways.
In our text for this morning, Paul has received one of these visions from the Spirit. In the book of Acts, this is no surprise: the Holy Spirit – invisible but immensely powerful – is behind every important plot point in the story of how the church came to be. For Paul to have a vision is entirely consistent with the world of Acts. The Spirit blows where it will, and carries the first Christians right along with it.
Still, this particular vision is an interesting one. Paul has been journeying through the ancient world, within and around what we think of today as the Middle East. His circuit riding is beginning to expand as the gospel spreads farther and farther, and Paul is convinced that he needs to go East, to take the good news of Jesus Christ into Asia. He makes plans, picks companions, and plots out an itinerary. He’s ready for this next missionary journey, certain that Asia is the way to go. But before he can get on the road, we learn that “the Spirit did not allow them” to go where they’d planned to go. The path being so blocked, Paul and Timothy settle in at Troas, on the Western coast, to spend the night and regroup. And during the night, Paul receives a vision.
He sees a man from Macedonia – a place in the exact opposite direction of where he’d been headed, in EUROPE, not ASIA – pleading for them to “come help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, two things happen.
First: Paul, Timothy and Silas immediately act on what Paul had seen. They immediately set sail across the ocean toward Macedonia, through Samothrace to Phillipi – you know that place, because later on Paul will write a beautiful and enduring letter to the church there. They do not hesitate, they do not linger on their old, dead-end plan of heading toward Asia, they do not bicker about the veracity of the vision, they do not wait to secure funding for the voyage, they do not even send back to the Jerusalem church to make sure that the larger church, the church that sent them, is okay with this radical move. They just GO.
Second, a weird grammatical thing happens right here. Up ‘til now, the book of Acts has been written in third person – Paul did this, Peter did that, then they all did such and such. But here, in verse 10 of chapter 16, suddenly the perspective changes to first person: “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.”
Scholars aren’t sure exactly why this happens – maybe the author of Acts is meaning to convey that he was in fact a companion of Paul, maybe one of his sources for the tradition that had been shared orally for so many years was finally written down in first person, maybe there’s another reason entirely. What we do know for sure, though, is that HERE, after this vision that turned Paul around in a 180, the narrative becomes much more immediate. We are in the story. WE immediately set sail. WE went to Phillipi. WE went looking for a place of prayer and WE ended up outside the city gates where we met a rich businesswoman named Lydia.
And while we were sharing the gospel, Lydia – who was a merchant selling purple cloth to the richest people in that important city of Phillipi – listened to us intently. We knew that her heart had been opened and that God had moved her to hear the gospel. We baptized her and her whole household, and she prevailed upon us to stay with her in her home. We knew that there was something special about this because Lydia was…a woman. And not just any woman, but a woman of means, a woman in charge of her own business and her own household and her own self. Lydia, whose heart was opened, became the first European Christian: a rich, self-reliant woman of means who worshiped God and allowed her heart to be opened.
Think about that for a little while: if Paul hadn’t had this vision, who knows when or whether the gospel would have made it into Europe. Who knows whether our spiritual ancestors – cathedral builders and radical reformers alike – would have ever become Christians. Who knows whether Brethren would have existed, who knows if that gospel would have made it to America, who knows if we would be sitting here, rich, self-reliant people of mostly European descent, ourselves. Who knows?
The vision that the Spirit granted to Paul was, it turns out, an important one. It changed not only the direction of his travels but also the entire scope and history of the Christian tradition. It is one among the many faithful decisions that makes this very gathering this morning possible. It’s hard to imagine what life would look like here, for us, if Paul had ignored that vision and pushed ahead, bullheaded, with his own plan.
Which brings me back to the experience of the Labyrinth. One of the reasons walking a labyrinth is a SPIRITUAL practice and not just a fun experience is that the labyrinth path itself is an expression of faith. Unlike a maze, where we’re faced with left or right decisions every step of the way, the labyrinth allows us to rest in the knowledge that we are not in charge of the ultimate outcome. We follow the path. We trust that we will eventually end up in the middle, no matter how twisted or inefficient the journey feels. We arrive there, in the middle, soaking in God’s presence, and are able to depart confident that we will find our way back out into the world, no matter how long or confusing the journey is. The labyrinth is a practice of trust and faith.
Paul was able to experience this vision and turn on a dime to act on it immediately because, as the first person narrator tells us, “we were convinced that God had called us” this way. Even though it was directly opposed to the direction they’d planned for themselves, even though it required sailing instead of walking, even though it took them to a place and a culture even more foreign than the places they’d planned to go. Paul and his companions trusted that God was leading them, that they were on a path with a single destination, that if they let go of the desire to be in control and direct their own steps, they’d end up where they were meant to be – in God’s presence, with God’s people, acting as agents of God’s grace and preachers of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
So, I wonder. What if we began to think of our lives and the decisions we make – both big and small – as corners in a labyrinth instead of a maze? What if we began to trust that God is, in fact, in charge of the world and that God will, in fact, guide our feet if we pay attention? What if we began to put more stock in the Holy Spirit’s movement, experienced through prayer and encounter and scripture and, yes, even inexplicable dreams and visions?
Certainly that’s how Paul and his early church companions encountered the world. The depth of faith that allowed them to turn on a dime when presented with God’s plan for their next steps is mind-boggling to me. But they were from the fresh tradition of Jesus’ resurrection. They knew that Jesus was Lord and that God was in charge in real, immediate, visceral ways. So when they encountered God’s voice, they listened, and followed suit. I sincerely doubt that the man in Paul’s dream sounded like Louis C.K., or any ancient comedic equivalent, but who knows? The Spirit blows where it will, and God’s plans rarely sounds like what we expect them to.