Closed Doors and Open Doors
Scriptures: Acts 16:6-15, Luke 9:1-6
Several years back I was given a book called The Good News
from North Haven, by Michael Lindvall. It's the story of a Presbyterian minister in the small town of North Haven, MN. There is no real town of North Haven, MN. It's kind of like Lake Wobegon. But the book has some great stories in it, and here is one of them:
One day Pastor David, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in North
Haven, was invited to the home of two long-time church members, Angus and Minnie McDowell. Apparently they needed to make a confession.
"David," Angus began, "you'll remember that I was the chairman of the Pulpit Nominating Committee that called you to be our pastor four years ago. . We received twenty-eight dossiers from ministers. We read them all and narrowed the choice down to two, you and the Reverend Mr. Hartwick Benson of Indianapolis. We invited both you and Mr. Benson to visit North Haven. We listened to both of you preach up in Willmar."
It came back to me as though it were yesterday.. What elation, what affirmation, when a simple handwritten note came four days [after my interview] postmarked "N. Haven, Minn." There was no heading, only a date, and then "Dear Sir: We are most pleased to inform you .[that we wish to call you as our pastor]."
"David," Angus went on as his eyes shifted from me to his wife, "Minnie was secretary to our committee. She typed up all the letters. She typed up one to Reverend Benson and one to you. Somehow they got into the wrong envelopes. Mr. Benson got your letter and you got Mr. Benson's letter."
At this, Minnie started dabbing her eyes with her hanky and then wrapping it tightly around her index finger in a sort of penitential self-mortification. "We never realized the mistake until you called on the phone to say yes, you'd come. You were so eager, we just decided, well, what the heck, and let it go. A few weeks later, I heard Mr. Hartwick Benson got a call to a church in Hawaii" (pp. 77-78).
That's why I have never asked how I happened to be called to
Southminster. Sometimes it is better not to know.
But even this is not as strange as the way the Apostle Paul was called
to ministry in the town of Philippi. Here is a map of where Paul and Silas went on their second mission trip. [Slide 1] According to Acts 16 they started out in the towns of Derbe and Lystra, marked on the map with a box. It was Paul's plan to go straight into a province called Asia, circled here. [Click 1] This is not the continent of Asia but a region called Asia which today is in the western part of Turkey. But verse 6 says they were "forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia." [Click 2] What? Since when does the Holy Spirit forbid someone to share God's word with people? Well, Paul shrugs and turns north trying to go into Bithynia. [Click 3] But verse 7 says, "When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them." [Click 4] Huh? The Spirit of Jesus does not allow then to take the Word of God into Bithynia? What is going on? Does God not like those people?
Of course God likes these people, and will eventually
provide someone to share the gospel with them. But in the meantime, God has something else in mind for Paul. Verses 8: "So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas." On the map Troas is here. [Click 5] When you look at the map, you can see what is going on. Paul is being steered. He tries to go west and that door is closed, so he tries to go north, and that door is closed, so he ends up going between them to a town on the coast called Troas. Then during the night Paul has a vision-verse 9: "There stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us.'" So he crossed the Aegean Sea to Macedonia and ends up in the town of Philippi. [Click 6] And that is how Paul is called to ministry in Philippi.
When I graduated from seminary I applied to at least a dozen churches
all over the Pacific Northwest. I had interviews at churches in Boise, ID; Ontario, OR; Hermiston, OR; Portland, OR; and Vancouver, WA. They all chose someone else. I kept thinking they got the wrong letter in the envelope. So when the people of Potlatch, ID, invited me to be their minister, I accepted before they had time to discover their mistake.
And it turned out to be a wonderful ministry. My seminary
friends made fun of it. They called it Potluck, Idaho. But the people of Potlatch were caring to me and my family, just like the people here at Southminster. It was the kind of place where a new minister could make mistakes and be forgiven and learn and grow and know that he was still accepted. And even though the Potlatch mill shut down the year after I got there, the two churches I served in that town actually grew, at least a little bit, during the nine years I was there.
That's what happened to Paul. We do not know why the doors
to ministry were closed in Asia and Bithynia. Paul does not even know why. But Paul had an amazing ministry in Philippi. First he met a business woman named Lydia. She and her whole household were baptized. I think it is ironic that Paul has a vision of a man asking him to come to Macedonia, but his first convert in Macedonia was a woman: Lydia. And the first Christian church in that region was established in her house. Later in Acts 16 Paul rescues a slave girl from exploitation, and she becomes a follower of Christ. Then, Paul is put in jail for rescuing the slave girl, and the jailer becomes a Christian, and the jailer and his whole family are baptized. Eventually the church in Philippi becomes one of the strongest churches in the New Testament. In his letters Paul says more good things about the church in Philippi than any other church.
Does this mean God does not care about those other places?
Of course not. Look at this different map of the same area. [Slide 2] Notice some of the places to which Paul does not go: the region of Cappadocia, [Click 1] the town of Colossae, [Click 2] the town of Smyrna. [Click 3] Yet all of these places had important growing churches by the second century started by someone other than Paul.
One thing we should clearly learn from this scripture
passage is that none of us has to save the world by ourselves. God can use other people to reach those whom you are not the right person to reach.
At the top of that list may be your teenage or young adult children.
Let's face it. Parents have a great opportunity and responsibility to share Jesus with their children, but there comes a point when your influence is, well, low. At that point God may need to use other faithful adult Christians to share Jesus with your children. That's why we have Pastor Aaron and the Sunday School teachers and the adults that help as advisors or drivers or meal providers for some of the programs we have in our church. That's why we have SPC Together. It takes a village to raise a child, and the same is true when it comes to raising children in faith. You are not asked do it alone.
The same is true for others in your life with whom you may
want to share your faith. In my files I have a cartoon from the New Yorker magazine. It shows a man on a subway wearing a T-shirt that says, "Ask me about my religion." He is sitting all by himself. The caption says, "Another way to keep an empty seat beside you on the train." Some places are not the right place to try to share your faith, and some people are not the right people for you to try to convert. When a door to sharing your faith closes, it may mean that God has someone else in mind to help that person and someone else in mind for you to help.
I think the same idea applies in many areas our lives. I am
willing to bet that all of you at some point have run up against a closed door in your life: a job that did not work out, education or career goals that did not work out, a relationship that did not work out, plans for your life that have not played out the way you imagined. Every one of us at some point has heard the sound of a door latching shut in our face. But that is never the end of God's story in your life. That is never the last chapter. God still has a place for you where you will end up blessing people in ways you never expected. Somewhere there is an open door. You find it when you keep going forward in faith step by step.