When the Way Is Blocked

A battle of wills provides the drama in this morning’s Scripture lesson from the New Testament book of Acts.

The apostle Paul has just returned from a busy mission trip on which he founded dozens of churches across the biblical world, and Paul is eager to hit the road again to check in with his new sisters and brothers in Christ to see how they’re doing.

But who should go and in what direction is a matter of heated debate, and so the Holy Spirit steps into the fray to settle the argument by opening doors for some and closing doors for others. In the Lord’s Prayer, we plead “thy will be done,” and in response to an urgent call for help, this is a story of God’s will being done through the work of the Holy Spirit. Listen, now, for the Word of the Lord.

As they went from town to town, Paul and his colleagues delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.

So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.

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. (Acts 16:4-10)

Who knew? The Holy Spirit “forbids” Paul, Silas, and Timothy from speaking the Word of God in Asia.

Go figure! The Spirit of Jesus does not allow them to go to Bithynia and instead turns them in the direction of a desperate call for help.

Thanks be to God! The Holy Spirit never hesitates to step in and take control – guiding, assisting, and inspiring followers of Jesus.

Precisely what the Spirit actually does to keep Christ’s missionaries on task remains shrouded in mystery, but clearly, God is the One who’s in charge of the Church and its members and their activities. The Holy Spirit actively and persistently ensures that the divine plan for changing the world and saving its inhabitants keeps moving forward to fruition in the ways that God wants it to unfold.

The Spirit’s firm direction of Christ’s followers underlines the real concern that the Lord has for his people. Maybe something like the voice that comes out the navigation system on your vehicle’s dashboard, the Spirit of Christ leads God’s agents of care, concern, and salvation to the places where grace is sorely needed.

The cries go out: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” “Come across the street, or down the block, or across town and help us.” The Holy Spirit hears those cries for help, and up on the screen flickers the road-mapped route that takes disciples to the places where God wants us to respond when the alarm bells sound. Chances are, those directions won’t follow the paths that we intend to go or even want to go, but the Spirit nevertheless drives us that direction.

Maybe think of the Holy Spirit as the 9-1-1 dispatcher who answers someone’s desperate call for help, sets off the pagers, and tells first responders where the help is needed. As followers of Jesus, you and I shouldn’t hesitate to respond either whenever the alarm bell sounds

Problem is, like Paul, Silas, and Timothy, you and I do – sometimes – hesitate to respond.

We prefer charting our own course, and our travel itineraries don’t always sync up with the Lord’s.

Whether out of fear, or indifference, or prejudice – or some other distracted feeling or wrongheaded belief, we can be a little slow off the mark or even stubbornly stuck in place.

Or, we’re simply bound and determined to run the other way from the Lord and the work he calls to do. That’s when the Holy Spirit steps in, “forbidding” us from going that way by putting up holy roadblocks in hopes of turning us around and getting us back on God’s track.

This godly, Spirit-laid track that leads us to serve people in times of need is about more than just being “nice” or “neighborly.” It really points to God’s desire for us to be in relationship with one another. Like Paul’s passion and commitment to safeguard the faith of new congregations he’s organized, our passion and commitment to check in with one another and offer help and support when it’s needed helps us enter into and enjoy caring relationships with one another.

Like Red Green tells the men of Possum Lodge, “We’re all in this together.” Our togetherness is strengthened and bridges are built whenever we’re moved to action by the cry to “Come over and help us,” and the Holy Spirit is the One who opens certain doors and closes others to make it all happen.

Here in this place, the doors of several directions that we wanted to go appear closed.

For months now, the elders have been working on a number of projects that have stalled out through no fault of their own.

For starters, the front porch at the manse needs some masonry repairs, but we’ve been waiting since spring 2022 for the contractor to begin work. Plans to air condition the Sanctuary and install solar panels to power the system and reduce our utility expenses are stalled, because we can’t get any potential contractors to give us cost estimates. The experts were here months ago to get the lay of the land but have been less than forthcoming in providing bids.

Also stymied are efforts to recruit a new office manager. The position has been open since springtime, and a few weeks ago, we extended an offer to a well-qualified candidate who ended up declining our offer. And the employment pipeline doesn’t hold a good runner-up.

So, we’re left scratching our heads: What’s the deal? Where is the Lord in all those no’s? Might the Holy Spirit be “forbidding” us from going in the directions that leadership wants to go?

My prayerful sense of it all is “yes,” the Holy Spirit is not now allowing us to go in those directions.

She is closing certain doors and inviting us to open others. So, after some healthy and faithful conversation, here’s how the elders and I who serve together on Session believe God the Spirit is at work amid our impatient frustration.

First, we’re putting all our capital improvement projects on hold – the manse project, the air conditioning project, and the solar panel project. Special offerings that you’ve made to support these projects will be invested in short-term CDs earning nearly 5 percent. The money and the interest it’ll earn remain earmarked for those projects, which remain on our radar but now by the Spirit as smaller blips at the outer edge of the screen. These, along with replacing the manse roof, are projects for that’ll come to fruition in due time sometime down the road.

Also on hold is our search for a new office manager. Re-advertising the position now most likely will not identify good candidates. We will continue to rely on volunteers to get the essentials done. For the moment, we sense God has given us the human resources we need. The elders will re-evaluate this decision in early fall while in the meantime keeping our recruitment eyes open for good candidates whom God might place before us.

Those are the doors that seem to have closed – hopefully for the time being, and these are the doors that the Spirit seems to be opening:

First, encouraging and supporting our volunteer bookkeeper, Jim Johnson, in his efforts to get some “bugs” out of our bookkeeping software and sweep up some administrative tasks that have fallen through the cracks.

Second, compiling a manual of church operations that brings together in one place all church policies, guidelines and procedures. This isn’t the sexiest of projects, but it surely helps when the right hand knows what the left hand is doing – and how it’s supposed to be done. At my request, another member-volunteer, Jess Welsh, is preparing a proposal to things moving. She and I hope to have something to present for the Session’s consideration in the coming weeks.

Third, building and strengthening relationships with members and friends through new means of hospitality and connection. Deacon Maura Jones has put together some excellent thoughts and suggestions. I’m hoping to clarify and expand a few ideas in Maura’s proposal, and I’m hoping she and I can present the plan for Session’s review yet this summer.

And finally, participating in an ecumenical effort to provide children age 18 and under with weekday lunches and weekend breakfasts. The Waukon schools provide those meals in June and August, but no meals are served in July. So, our neighbors at Zion UCC assembled a planning team of leaders from several congregations to organize “Feed the Kids.” Lunches will be served weekdays starting Wednesday, July 5, over at Zion. For our part, we will be preparing take-home breakfast bags that will be distributed to children and teens on Fridays. This morning’s bulletin contains information on how you can support this community effort.

Thanks be to God that the Holy Spirit breathes deeply into what you and I make of our earthly life – turning our roadblocks, disappointments, setbacks and frustrations into incubators of blessing for those crying the loudest for help, even as we wait patiently and faithfully for other doors to open.

Let there be no drama, no battle of wills, but only confidence that God’s will is being done.

Let us trust that we are proclaiming Good News to precise souls whom the Lord desires.

May we abide comfortably and completely in the Spirit’s promise to provide anxious hearts and minds with peace that surpasses all understanding.

Amen, and amen. 

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, June 25, 2023.

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