By Pastor Phil Ruge-Jones
To say we were a bit skeptical about returning to listen to the same passage of scriptures dozens upon dozens of times would be an understatement. But we are a dutiful group of faith innovators, so we listened to each other reading Acts 16 over and over again.
Why not take a moment and listen to the passage we traveled through?
At first as we listened, we wondered if we’d hear anything from this seemingly random passage.
Stick with the process
But we stuck with a process which proved to be very fruitful time and time again.
As we stumbled through unfamiliar place names, we felt the Spirit pushing certain words or phrases in our direction: forbidden, Sabbath, vision, convinced, opened, baptized. Sometimes the hearers had a clear sense of why this word spoke to them, but other times we chewed on the word in the days ahead puzzling out its importance for us.
We noticed that as we sat in the same room, we nonetheless had different elements of the story seize our attention. We dwelled in that diversity together, pondering what it might mean in terms of how God speaks to different people.
We formulated questions:
Why did the Spirit stop them from going into some places? How did they know that it was the Spirit doing that? Did they really know immediately or is that something they later put into their reflections well after the events? Did all the travelers always agree on the Spirit’s nudging?
Why did a man from Macedonia appear in the dream when only women in Macedonia end up hearing the word by the river? When Lydia convinced them to go to her home was that right there in Macedonia or back in Thyatira where we are told she came from?
What was the content of the message that Paul shared? How did the travelers know about the river gathering for prayer? Is it important that they were by a river?
What happened on this road trip between the itinerary points we are given? How far did they travel? By what means besides the ship?
Place the text into our context
And finally we interpreted our own context through the lens of this story asking what God is up to on our journey.
We thought about where God might want us to be journeying in terms of our ministry and where not. We discussed nudgings that we had experienced together walking our neighborhood. We asked each other how each of us discerns what the Spirit is telling us to do and what not. Once one participant suggested that while we naturally imagining ourselves as the missionaries going out, we could also see ourselves as the community gathered in prayer that outsiders came to guided by the Spirit. What would it mean for us to be open to strangers bringing the word to us?
For six months our ten members, a tithe of our worshipping community, dwelled in this word again and again. Amy noted that we learned to persist in the word. We returned to it again and again, and tried our hardest not to lean on what God had said to us at earlier times of discernment but to be present enough to hear God’s word in the particular moment which we found ourselves indwelling. To the extent that we were able to listen in the moment we came to know the word as a living word that speaks to us anew in fresh ways again and again.
Listen to, and learn from, each other
We learned to attend to each other in our attending to the word.
“Wow, that is what you heard? Huh. This is what struck me!”
After six months of this dwelling, we found ourselves deep in the action that the Spirit had opened before us, ways that our group of ten would engage the community around us. As the preparations built and wove themselves into the already busy time of Advent, I was exhausted.
I returned to this passage another time and God said something new to me, “I’m watching over this process, you know. I’ll be God so you don’t have to be. Your to-do list is way too long. How about I forbid you from doing some of it?”
The “forbidding” (Acts 16:6) that earlier had seemed foreboding came now as a gift. “Be still, Phil, and I will handle the rest.”
The word become flesh and has indeed dwelled among us; the spiritual practice dwelling intentionally, persistently, and communally in that truth provides guidance for the faithful and grace upon grace upon grace.
About the Author
Phil Ruge-Jones is a pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and part of the Faithful Innovations Network in the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin, ELCA.