I don’t know about you, but I am one of those people who likes to have a plan. My reflexive tendency is to leave as little to chance as possible; I want to have a map in my head of what is next and a fairly good idea of how I am going to get there. For example, when I was getting ready to go off to college, my plan was to become a scientist. I wanted to study environmental science in college, and after college I imagined going to grad school to continue my studies.
In some ways, that plan served me well in school. It kept me focused in my studies, it kept me out of trouble, and it imparted a sense of purpose as I worked away tirelessly on reading, labs, and papers. But the shadow side of having a plan like this is that it left me somewhat rigid. I remember taking an introduction to art class that was required in my liberal arts college. My professor had no trouble telling that I was a science major by my work. I remember one assignment in particular; we had to draw a series of small thumbnail sketches using different shapes and lines, playing with positive and negative spaces.
I churned out endless varieties of very precisely drawn cubes and lines, floating in space, or overlapping with one another, my ruler in hand, making sure that every angle was perfect, every line crisp. When I got it back with a grade, my professor was clearly feeling exasperated, writing in all capitals, “You are too rigid. Try thinking outside the box.” He was right, it was terrible art. There was no inspiration in it. There was no emotion in it. There was nothing spontaneous about it.
A couple of years later I faced the toughest choice I had encountered in my life up to that point. The hardest part of choosing to go to seminary after I graduated was that it didn’t fit into my plan. Not only did it not fit into the plan, it meant throwing all my old plans out. I remember clearly that I felt like I was walking down a new and strange path with no map to guide my steps and no clear understanding even of where it would lead me. For the first time in my life, I truly had to think outside the box.
Somewhere, I suspect my art professor was smiling.
I know that I am not alone in this tendency. While some people thrive on spontaneity and prefer to operate without a plan, many of us like to know what we’re doing, where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there. And it spills into all aspects of our lives. We have plans for getting married. Plans for buying homes. Plans for starting families. Plans for climbing career ladders. Plans for our children. Plans for retirement. And if we’re really on top of things, through estate planning, wills, and funeral arrangements, we even have plans for our deaths and beyond.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that this tendency spills over into our faith. You can see it in all sorts of ways, from curriculum plans for children and adult formation classes to carefully scripted liturgies, from the highly formal parliamentary proceedings of church conventions to the experts and consultants who peddle a litany of plans for church growth, fundraising initiatives, and mission engagement.
It is this last one where our need to have a plan shines most brightly in the church. Jesus sends the disciples, Jesus sends us, out into the world, but we are reluctant to take a single step until every detail has been figured out. Jesus tells us to go out into the world, so we set to work on vision statements and mission statements. Jesus tells us to go into the world, and we do community studies to identify where the need is greatest. Jesus tells us to go into the world, and we come up with strategies for crafting the gospel message to resonate with our target audiences. Jesus tells us to go out into the world, and we send people on week-long mission trips to pre-selected sites with full itineraries. Jesus tells us to go out into the world, and we come up with church ministries like soup kitchens and clothing drives. Jesus tells us to go out into the world, and we send people to evangelism workshops and schedule bring-a-friend Sundays.
And you know what? All of these things can be good and wonderful endeavors. They can and do change peoples’ lives. They can and do bring people into closer relationship with God. And they also make Jesus’ commission less scary. They make the work of being Christian less intimidating, because they make God’s work into something that can be carefully thought out and planned by us. They help us proclaim the Gospel message, yes. They help us do it by letting us proclaim the Gospel on our own terms.
On first reading, our story from the Acts of the Apostles this morning sounds an awful lot like one of these planned church mission efforts. Paul receives a vision one night, and the next morning he and his traveling companions instantly know what it means—God wants to them to travel to Macedonia to proclaim the Good News there! And in a sense, that is what they do.
But if you start reading it closer, especially if you read it in the slightly larger context in which it is taking place, then claiming that Paul and his companions are operating on any sort of “plan” seems like a rather generous statement. The story begins with Paul and company deciding that they will head in the direction of Asia to proclaim the Good News, but after traveling a few days, they discover that the Holy Spirit has forbidden them to speak there. So, they turn and head off in a new direction, passing through a couple towns, only to have the Spirit of Jesus block their way. So, once again, they veer off in a new direction, and while resting one night, Paul has his vision.
Re-invigorated by the man whom Paul has seen, they set off with a renewed purpose toward Macedonia. But they kind of bounce around from town to town on their way there, and after many stops along the way, they finally arrive in a region of Macedonia. But rather than finding the man from Paul’s vision, they stumble upon a small group of women outside the city walls, where they were worshipping God. With the group of women is Lydia, in whom the Holy Spirit has already been working, in whom the Holy Spirit has created the hunger to hear the Good News of Christ’s Gospel message.
At no point does any part of Paul’s plan go as intended. Instead, when we step back and look at it as a whole, it seems more like a wild goose chase through the ancient world. And in that reality, I believe it points to a subversive understanding of the commission that Jesus gives us, a radically different understanding of God’s work in the world. For as much as we want to think that it is our job to go out and proclaim the Gospel, as much as we want to think that we are the active agents of God’s work, that the Gospel proclamation depends on us, this story points us to a different truth: Jesus sends us out into the world to pursue the Holy Spirit and to find the Gospel where it is breaking into creation.
This is hard for us to do! It is hard because it means admitting that we are not in control, that all of our carefully crafted plans will not help us. It means understanding that it is God, not us, who is the active agent in God’s work. It means that we are witnesses to and participants in the Gospel message. What is more, we cannot know where the Gospel message will lead us, we can only trust that the Holy Spirit will take us in wild and unforeseen directions.
What does this mean in practice? It means learning to hold lightly to our many plans for ourselves and for our faith, understanding that they are little more than comfort blankets. It means being open to the spirit, trusting always that the Holy Spirit is working, even in unexpected and unorthodox ways.
But most of all, it means simply going out into the world. It means getting outside of the box of our own plans and strategies. Where will it lead us? I have no idea. But I know this, the Holy Spirit has gone ahead of us and longs to be pursued. God’s spirit is already at work in the world, is working wildly outside the box, and delights to be found.
Preached by Adam Yates