The Nature of (the) History (Channel)
My wife and I are Netflix users, and for almost two years now I’ve had a monopoly on the login to our account. That’s total control over the queue of movie/TV selections coming our way, but also total credit or total blame for whether or not those choices turned out any good. In today’s Hollywood, it’s a pretty big gamble to find something good, so the pressure got to me and I finally caved by giving my wife the reins. She agreed to not over-girlify things, so no problem, right?
When the bright red Netflix envelope showed up in the mailbox this week, I started to get that usual kinda-like-Christmas giddiness, especially not knowing what Karen had picked. I tore along the dotted line and slipped out the DVD jacket, and what I read there on the label was: “The Life and Times of Teddy Roosevelt: A History Channel Exclusive.” 90-minute run time. Part ONE of TWO. The best part was, we HAVE the History Channel and didn’t need to waste a Netflix slot if she really wanted to watch Teddy Roosevelt. First-world-problems, I know, but still.
I’ll confess that the documentary was solid. It was. Like some of you already know, Teddy was a stout character. I thought I already knew that, but it turns out I had no inkling of the extent of his impact as a person. And one thing jumped out in particular: that Teddy Roosevelt’s influence and incredibly powerful story, hinged on some pretty minute circumstances on a huge multitude of occasions. If he hadn’t been born an asthmatic, he may have never pursued such an energetic lifestyle. As a young man trying to carve a place out of the West, if the severe winter of 1886 hadn’t decimated his cattle, he may have never returned to New York and begun in public service. And so on.
Teddy’s life is exemplary of a lesson that history reminds us over and over — if we start with any significant person and/or event, and retrace the flow of time back to the origins of their stories, there are tiny turning points along the way that, had they gone differently, would’ve changed everything.
Really, we can argue that any and every decision we ever make leads us to a unique future that, had any of those decisions gone otherwise, might never exist. Every classic movie with time travel proves it. If SkyNet could take out John Connor, then no future human problems. If Marty McFly could get his parents together at their high school prom, then he wouldn’t fade out of existence in all of that 1980s special effects glory. Another classic film, Lawrence of Arabia, describes this unfolding nature of life another way, a unique way (and we have it second-hand from Prometheus): “Big things have small beginnings.”
In other words, where we are today has been the result of a million small decisions in the past. And, what we do today, even the small stuff, is shaping the trajectory of where we’ll be tomorrow. This is a fairly obvious truth, and we engage it all the time. Negatively, when we get bogged down in regret over things past, or when we get stuck in indecision concerning things future. Positively, when we can give thanks for the grace of God, seen and unseen, that helped us arrive at a blessed present; or, when we realize that even the extremely mundane and seemingly “small” things of today could actually be a part of the path into what will eventually be earth-changing.
To simplify, we have some choices to make. And in order not to under-value those choices, or agonize over them, or regret them later, we need help. Today’s Scripture reading happens to be about how these very dynamics have worked out, and continue to work out, among God’s people…
Read Acts 16:6-15 here.
Paul and his companions were on some of the first missionary journeys of the Church to fulfill Jesus’ last instructions to them — they were carrying the excellent news, the Gospel for all people. Needless to say, a lot hinged on what they were up to, but that didn’t mean they were “guaranteed success.” They weren’t given pre-crafted speeches or blueprints to evangelize cities. The Holy Spirit didn’t force droves of Romans, Greeks, and Jews into stadiums to hear and to immediately believe and profess Christ as Lord. There were false teachers, cultural obstacles, Imperial dangers, and other opponents. What I’m saying is there were challenges on the ground for Paul and company, the same challenges that we’re familiar with today, that could’ve impeded some small things from becoming big.
For starters, God’s leading appears to be fairly “willy-nilly.” How do the missionaries know where to go and where not to go? The Spirit just tells them, seemingly on a case-by-case basis. On this occasion, someone has a dream. In it, a Macedonian says, “Come on over.” So they pick Philippi as a major city in Macedon, and start feeling things out the best they can.
Next, how do they know what to do when they get there? Well, they don’t, apparently, or not exactly. They spend several days and just kinda do the usual. Sabbath comes so they find some quiet space to pray. While there, they don’t have a chance encounter with the Mayor or the Governor or even the local synagogue leader, they just meet some women (sorry, ladies, that didn’t necessarily represent much overt influence in those days) including Lydia.
Last, what kind of affirmation do they receive that they’re on the right track? Other than finding a solid hostess in Lydia, the missionaries have very little. In their very next significant encounter in Philippi (continuing in verse 16), through a wild run of events they end up being seized and dragged before the local judges. They’re accused as criminals, threatened by a mob, stripped and beaten and thrown in jail. They would go on to have a pretty miraculous story of deliverance from prison, but in that moment, what sign did they have that they had even come to the right country, or city, or that they had been going about things the right way at all? What knowledge did they have that Lydia and her household and the other believers hadn’t also been dragged to jail or put to death?
What was to keep these guys believing that they were part of anything meaningful at all, or that what they were doing was going to bear fruit the way Jesus hinted that it would?
Following Jesus, carrying the Gospel, pioneer missionaries. It did not look or feel great, all the time. There were a thousand chances for these folks to have bailed out along the way. There was little rational reason to continue, just from an inspection of the “small things” of day-to-day missionary living. But, because they persisted, we know that this little episode in Macedonia would become big enough.
Today, these events make up the start to the bigger picture of what we call “Paul’s Second Missionary Journey.” There are probably maps in the back of your Bible all about it, complete with multi-colored arrows and diagrams. We know now that this would become the Church’s first coordinated foray into Europe. Paul would continue west into places whose names are famous to us now — Thessalonnica, Ephesus, Corinth, and even Philippi — the incubators of early Christianity. Paul and friends would journey on to debate with great philosophical minds and to tangle with people of immense power; they would challenge evil and deep-seated religious cults; they would be beaten and jailed and threatened, again, and multiple times; they would even be shipwrecked, multiple times. As tradition goes, Paul would eventually experience the fulfillment of his call by coming to the end of the road in Rome, receiving an audience before the very Emperor, and bearing to him the Gospel of Jesus the Christ. And then at some point he was, most likely, put to death.
We know that the letter to the Philippians is written to the church that Lydia would go on to help found, and it became a Christian stronghold. We know that Paul and his companions’ legacy, and the Church that they had begun to plant, are the direct ancestors-in-the-faith of nearly every single one of us. It is a safe bet that none of us would be here today without these missionaries’ faithfulness working hand-in-hand with the Spirit of God.
What I’m saying is, these missionaries’ lives were swept up into something huge because they listened to a strange dream, went out by the river to pray, met a woman named Lydia, and kept on going.
The Better Question
In closing, the default question for some of us with this passage of Scripture is, “How?” How did they stay faithful, and not second-guess what looked like small things? How did they know where to go and what to do and what to say, so that big things were the result for the kingdom of God? How did they persevere through so much opposition? I think they answer us in the book of Acts by reframing the question from “How?” to “Who?” Like this: Who is leading us? Who never forsakes us? Who has purpose in mind for his children, and earth? Whose Gospel is this, after all? Who is this Jesus that we’re living, and willing to die, to tell people about?
The story sounds willy-nilly because the missionaries weren’t following a step-by-step tutorial. They were living in personal connection, direct relationship, with the person of God. They were following someone. Someone whose personality isn’t the kind to hand us a perfectly detailed map ahead of time, but someone who just says, “Come on. You’ll see. Come with me.”
The result is that faithfulness, or simply following, in the small beginnings, translates to big things. We won’t all be super-missionaries with a global impact and household name recognition like Paul, but who knows? Even Paul didn’t know, while he still lived, even a fraction of the impact of his witness on the rest of the world. But he did know what it was to live in the here-and-now with the presence of the person of God Almighty, intimately, and for him that seemed to be more than enough.