January 7, 2024: Discerning God’s Dream

Acts 16: 6-15

January 7, 2024 

          A question for us to ponder this morning:

What is God’s dream for your life as we begin 2024?

          I believe God’s got special plans for you in this phase of your life.

          This is the first in a three part message series that will help us in doing discernment as we begin 2024. Discernment is a way to discover what we are drawn by God to do in our lives. It has to do with making a decision or choosing a certain path.

One of the tools I use regularly in my work of discernment is the use of a spiritual director. My spiritual director, Barbara Toshalis lives in Kalamazoo. I’ve asked Barbara Toshalis to join me and preach with me for my message in two weeks on January 21.

          But today, let’s look at our Scripture reading Ilse shared.

          Paul and his friends were evangelists. They went from town to town. They kept moving forward from one town to the geographically next town and on to the next town. They would preach in the town, build up a church and then move on. But then, all of a sudden, they couldn’t go any further in that direction. Somehow God’s Spirit didn’t allow them to move ahead. They couldn’t go on to Bithynia in Asia as they planned.

On the journey of life we often come to dead ends. We were moving along in one direction then all of a sudden we can’t go further. And we’re confused about where to go…

Sometimes dead ends happen as a result of the normal progression of life like retirement. Sometimes these come because of our health. Sometimes we come to a dead end as a result of choices we make. Other times dead ends are caused by someone else.

When we come to the dead end, we usually have a hard time seeing God’s direction and dream for our lives. It’s like we’re disoriented or lost for a while.

I had an experience of being disoriented and lost one time while paddling my kayak on my lake. I live close to Lake Cora. My neighbor has graciously allowed me to leave my kayak on his beach. Most every morning I walk down to the beach and get in my kayak. I paddle around the lake for a little while. It’s my time with God.

One particular day, I paddled away from shore into a deep fog. It was fine at the beginning. I could see the shoreline I was paddling away from. I knew where I was.

But soon I came to the center of the lake. I looked in every direction. All I could see was white fog. There were blue skies overhead. But it was all fog around me.

I paddled around for a while, just enjoying this strange sensation of the deep fog. But eventually I was ready to paddle back home. I headed in what I thought was the right direction. But I wasn’t sure if I was going straight or not. Soon I wondered if I was going in circles because I didn’t see any shoreline.

 I started to panic a little. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life going in circles in the middle of this little lake.

But then I saw shore. I paddled hard. When I got there, I didn’t recognize any of the cottages. I didn’t have any clue where I was. I just had to keep paddling. Eventually I saw a house with a strange-shaped roof that I recognized. Just beyond that was my beach. I said prayers of thanks as I came ashore.

When we come to a dead end in our lives it feels like we’re in a fog. We don’t know which way to go.

Nineteen years ago it felt like I was in a fog. I couldn’t see where I was going. Our children were both heading off to college. It was the empty nest time.

 I had a sense God wanted me to do something different, but I wasn’t sure what that was. I had a sense God wanted us to move somewhere different, but I wasn’t sure where that was. It felt like I was lost in this fog. 

I came across a prayer by Thomas Merton, which I could identify with. This was my prayer at the time:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.

And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

I trusted the Lord, but at that time nineteen years ago I wanted to discover God’s dream for the next phase of my life.

I took off on a 12 week Sabbatical. I travelled all over the country listening for what God might be calling me to do and where God might be calling me to live.

I had a sense God was calling me to be in ministry with the poor in some way. So I travelled to about three dozen places including ten intentional Christian communities in various cities, six churches, four missions, a hermitage and a monastery.

I kept searching and trying to listen to God. But every place I went seemed to be like paddling in a circle. I was still deep in the fog. I had no clue what God’s dream for my life was.

The important thing to do when you find yourself in the fog is to keep paddling. You don’t give up. You don’t say, “God, I’m too confused. I don’t know what you want me to do, so I’ll just do my thing.” Instead, you continue to say, “Here I Am, God – send me.”

This is what Paul did. He came to a dead end in Mysia. But it didn’t stop him completely. He continued to do what he could while he sought the Lord’s direction.

Paul finally sees what the next stage of his preaching journey will be. The Lord reveals it to him in a dream. He’s called to cross the Aegean Sea and preach in modern day Greece. This will be the first time the gospel is preached in Europe.

Sometimes, clarity about God’s dream for our lives comes in a moment. Suddenly we know.  But usually it doesn’t come that clearly and suddenly. Usually, it happens over a period of time. God reveals his intentions for us through certain circumstances that are then confirmed by certain people. God uses circumstances and people to let us know His dream.

That’s what happened for me.

While I was planning for my Sabbatical, Lori reminded me of the many mission trips we took to Henderson Settlement, a United Methodist mission to the Appalachian folks in Kentucky. I told Lori I’d try to meet with the Superintendent of the Red Bird Missionary Conference down there.

It wasn’t until the last week of my Sabbatical when I finally got to meet with the Superintendent Chuck Jack. He was telling me about the Conference.

Then he said, “By the way, we’ll have an opening next spring at our church on the campus of Henderson Settlement. It’s called Hope Church. The pastor there now is retiring.” My heart gave a little leap. I said, “Let me pray about that.”

I changed my plans for the rest of my Sabbatical to get over to the Settlement in Frakes, Kentucky a couple times. I even went to a worship service on Sunday morning. But I still wasn’t sure.

I arrived home and talked with Lori about all the places I’d been. When I mentioned the Hope Church on the campus of Henderson Settlement, she mentioned she was reading a book entitled Christy. It’s about a teacher that goes to Appalachia. Lori is a teacher. This was one of the confirmations that we were on the right track.

Then we met with a Clearness Committee. I got together this group consisting of a fellow pastor, a few of my friends, and led by my spiritual director. They asked us a lot of questions to try to help us discern God’s dream for our lives. By the time we were done, I felt more confirmation about going to Kentucky.

But it wasn’t for another few days until I woke up one morning with a clear sense from God that we needed to pursue the option of going to the Hope Church on the campus of Henderson Settlement in the Red Bird Missionary Conference. From there, the process went through a meeting with the church and approval by my Bishop in Michigan and their Bishop down there in Kentucky.

Lori and I went down there 18 years ago. We found the people hungry for God. The first year I was there I had the privilege of baptizing in the nearby lake about ten new Christians. It was quite an experience.

Paul had quite an experience when he crossed that Aegean Sea and started preaching in the Greek town of Phillipi.

Paul was preaching outside the city gate by a river. It was a place that Jewish women would gather to pray. After Paul preached, one of the women, Lydia, asked if she could follow Jesus. Paul baptized Lydia and her entire family in that river. Paul and his associates ended up staying for many days with Lydia’s family in her home.

Paul was thankful to have received that direction as if from God themself about where to travel.

How do we respond to what we think is the call of God?

We obey, even though we can’t be sure, even though we might make mistakes. Still, we obey. We move forward in the light we sense God shining on our path.

We move forward until we come to a closed door. Then we listen again to the call and look for the open door.

The question for us to ponder this morning: What is God’s dream for your life as we begin 2024?

          I believe God’s got special plans for you in this phase of your life.

          I pray you too discover signs of that direction in the coming days.

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