The Journey Unfolding
I have kept a journal since junior high school. At times more consistently and faithfully than others, but always coming back as a touchstone, a place where I record my thoughts and dreams, experiences and encounters. In the moment you often don’t think much about what you’re writing – at least for me, the writing itself was a way of living more fully into the experience, and I never intended that they be read later on.
But I bet that laying these stacks of notebooks side by side and reading through them would tell a story – the story of my life the way it went, not how I thought it should or would go, not how I planned it or hoped – though those hopes and plans are in there too – achieved, unfulfilled, fleeting or tenacious – they are there and they are certainly part of the story. But also revealed would be the way the writer was changed by the journey itself, the way I grew and my perspective shifted, dreams were altered as they became reality or drifted into impossibility, goals adapted as who I am continued to unfold by the experiences and encounters that contributed to my being and my world, and I write about them in my journal.
Today we have before us two journal entries of sorts.
The first is a dream, John’s dream of the future, God’s future, God’s promise of what will ultimately be. Chaos gone, things as they are meant to be. God living right there, side by side with people, wiping every tear from their eye. Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more. All things made new.
John has a dream and writes it down – can you ever be the same after such a dream? How would the story of life unfold differently when you have an idea that this was its end? How would your own awareness change when you looked at life around you every day, the pain and suffering that will one day be no more, the joy and connection that is a foretaste of eternity, how would such an awareness change you?
The second journal entry we have before us is a travel journal. When Andy and I went around the world 10 years ago, my journal resembled this. There are entries that read things like, “We sailed from Greece to Italy, being delayed a day in a rundown seaside town waiting for a ferry with a schedule change. We spent the night shivering and dozing in the cramped belly of a rocking boat, after offering to pay any amount for a cabin with a bed and finding them all booked. I slept on the floor with my head on a chair, and Andy lay crumpled in a miserable heap with food poisoning, while people snored or talked all around us all night long until the chilly dawn finally docked us in Italy.”
The interesting thing about travel journals is the disparity between the plans you have in advance, and the actual way the trip unfolds. The itinerary is often very different from the trip itself. We had meant to take a bus from Egypt to Israel but things got more dangerous and we ended up buying plane tickets over the phone in Singapore at the last minute. Or the way our two weeks of intended scrimping and backpacking in Cairo wisely became 4 luxurious days at the Cairo Hilton and seeing sights in style instead. The foolishly optimistic 26 country rail pass we cashed in when we got home because we’d already been to over a dozen and didn’t know what we were thinking when we thought we’d try to see EVERYTHING on one trip. The places we decided to linger and enjoy a few more days, just because.
But most of all, travel journals reveal the ways you are changed by the people you meet. You can never anticipate the people. The couple in Australia who took us under their wing and have become surprise lifelong friends. The childhood friend living in London who, recognizing our road-weariness, opened her home to us for 11 days, where we ate home-cooked food, slept in clean sheets, washed our clothes and watched TV until we felt like ourselves again.
The conversations in trains with strangers that make you see things differently, the people you only know in passing, a day here, a few hours there, their lives continuing before and after you, but for that moment colliding and impacting one another – part of each other’s stories, each other’s travel narratives.
Paul’s travel journal is like this. Guided by the Spirit, he is traveling around and sharing the message of Jesus Christ, the crucified and Risen one who introduced himself to Paul like a kick in the teeth and radically altered the trajectory of his life forever. On Paul’s journeys, he doesn’t know where he’ll end up next, he sometimes thinks he’ll go one place and for whatever reason, the door slams shut and God directs him elsewhere. And it all takes its place in a story, that looking back, makes perfectly undeniable sense. Why, of course we’d go there! Wasn’t that always the plan?
When you look back at travel narratives it seems in retrospect that things were meant to go that way all along, indeed, would you have arrived at the same place if they hadn’t? Would you be the same person if things had unfolded differently, if the route had taken a different direction? The best part is that the story is only THAT story because it went THAT way, if you had met different people, if the timing had been different by a day or two, or someone had been held up a few hours that morning waiting for the cable guy, or overslept and missed a train, if just one of the people had stopped for lunch on the way, the story would be different.
So when Paul shows up in Philipi, who knows why he didn’t start with the synagogue like he did other places? Who knows why he and his companions were wandering along a river outside the city on this fine Sabbath day, instead of checking in with the powers that be in their local religious gathering? What had they heard about this “place of prayer” they set off to discover? And who knew that it would become a sacred place for them, a quiet place they returned to often?
And surely, as they walked along that day, how could they know they’d meet Lydia? How could they have imagined this “seller of purple cloth”, this stranger, this established businesswoman who happened to be in this place of prayer that Sabbath day, gathered with other women, this worshiper of God- meaning, a gentile who followed the God of Israel- how could they have imagined she’d have anything to do with them? Who was she to them a moment before?
And what if we had her journal? She didn’t know when she awoke that day that Paul would come wandering up and pull up a rock to chat. She didn’t know that her life was about to radically change and take whole new direction.
All over this story we see the fingerprints of God, the breath of the Spirit, blowing the story along, leading and prompting people into situations they could never have imagined, and yet, looking back, could never imagine their life without. Isn’t that just like every story? And if we were John, with our vision of God’s future leaking into our day to day lives, perhaps we’d be more aware when it’s happening, but most of the time, we’re not.
So Paul meets Lydia. And when he tells her about Jesus Christ, God opens her heart, and she knows what Paul is telling her before she hears it, it resonates deep in her being, it is meant for her, she is meant for it. This is her story; she’s ready to live it. Immediately she is baptized – her whole household is, in fact. And she urges Paul’s posse to stay with her, and their plans shift; she prevails upon them and they relent and are embraced by the astounding and abundant hospitality of this first Christian convert in Europe. This Jesus-follower’s house becomes for the road-weary little band a kind of home base, a place to eat home-cooked food and sleep in clean sheets and wash their clothes, a place to which they can return and find comfort and care, find themselves again. And when Paul and Silas are released from Prison a little later, Lydia takes them in.
Lydia quickly becomes for them the friend you keep in touch with over years and distance, the one you can send friends to when they’re passing through town and she will throw open her door and croon, “mi casa es su casa” as she hugs them over the threshold. “Any friend of Paul’s is a friend of mine!” she laughs as she takes your coat and boots. That was Lydia’s house.
God invites Lydia to the table, quite apart from Paul’s initial plans or intentions, then God brings together these two souls, on different paths in different parts of the world, and weaves them together so that they would both look back and not even know who they were in their lifetime if they hadn’t met one another in a seeming coincidence on that one day back then.
And not just Paul the individual was changed, but the church that was coming to life, here and there, spreading and growing, in homes and communities, in lives changed and hope shared. Pastor Lydia, Leader Lydia: Lydia’s house, Lydia’s table and her message, her influence and her energy, Lydia’s hospitality… she embodies the gospel message that Paul wanders around telling people about. And certainly Paul’s very message itself gets a jolt, a shift, when instead of a Jewish man from Macedonia – as he had expected and intended to meet – the person God bumps him into is a Gentile woman who already knew, but was waiting for an introduction to, Jesus the Christ.
And we sit here, the legacy of Lydia and others who were woven into this story, this story of the Risen Christ changing lives, calling people to open their hearts, their lives, their homes to the people that come across their path, to discover and marvel at what mysterious and magnificent stories unfold when the Spirit of God moves and strangers meet.
What would our travel journals read like? The story of the Spirit’s prompting and leading in surprising and unexpected ways in each of our lives and in the life of this little community of Jesus-followers? How might we one day look back and say, Of course! Could it have been any other way?
And standing here in the middle of this unfolding journey – I wonder, when all is said and done, and all the journeys converge around the same table, when we’re gathered together in John’s vision, beyond pain and suffering in the presence of the one in whom all things are made new, when we lean back from the meal and over drinks the travel stories start to come out, what will they reveal? How will we have been part of another’s journey? How might we discover we’d unexpectedly joined God’s plans? How will we have recognized God’s fingerprints, gone where the Spirit nudged us? What will be the stories where we’ve thrown open our doors and hearts to the ones God would have us changed by?
How are we living this amazing journey?