by Peter Levenstrong
Last night, I stayed with friends in New York City, friends I hadn’t seen since before the start of the pandemic. My college buddy is living with his girlfriend of two years, and even though they’re far past the new-relationship phase (which arguably is truncated severely when sheltering in place together), it was my first time seeing the two of them together. And it was a delight and a surprise to experience how many new things there were in my friend’s life, that hadn’t been a part of it two and a half years ago.
One item became a topic of conversation, the statue of Ganesha placed over one of the doors. My friend’s girlfriend being Hindu, it seemed perfectly natural for them to have a Hindu religious artifact in their house; Ganesha, the “remover of obstacles,” presiding over the entrance to the room, guiding and caring for those who might pass below.
Having discussed Ganesha just last night, it struck me from today’s reading how the Holy Spirit is so often depicted as a God who places, not removes, obstacles in the path of Her followers.
“They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas” (Acts 16:6-8).
What does it mean for us as Christians to worship a God who places obstacles in our paths? In fact, what drove the author of Acts to interpret obstacles as being from the Holy Spirit, rather than the forces of evil? Wouldn’t it make more sense to interpret obstacles to the spreading of the Gospel as being devil-sent, and not God-sent?
There is no indication that these obstacles saved the Apostles from some greater evil, like we might think of the traffic jam that saves a traveler from getting on the plane that crashes. There is no indication that they changed their mind about wanting to go to Asia or Bithynia to preach the Gospel. Rather, the text seems to indicate that they simply trusted that whatever obstacles blocked their way were placed there by the Holy Spirit, for reasons unknown to them.
Their trust is powerful. Not only do they believe in a God whose ways are not our ways, whose thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8); but it also displays how their profound and abiding belief in a God who makes all things work together for good, for those who are called according to God’s purpose. (Romans 8:28)
I don’t have a clear-cut idea as to how Christians should respond when God stifles our plans for reasons we may never comprehend. I don’t pretend to have that trust, myself, so I certainly can’t say that Christians should all be like Paul and Timothy in this regard. And I certainly don’t have an answer to what it means that we worship a God who is not only a remover of obstacles, but also a placer of them.
Perhaps what I can say is simply this: that we can trust in a God who sometimes places obstacles in our path, but who also sometimes removes them. And that we can trust that She will remove the obstacles that are in our ways when the timing is right.
Peter Levenstrong is Associate Rector at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Having grown up non-religious, he enjoys bringing “a fresh pair of eyes” to explore the Christian tradition, and is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and justice. You can find more of his sermons at https://peterlevenstrong.wordpress.com/