By Steven Norris

     For the vacationing couple, the off-grid cabin in the woods was a wonderful change of pace from city life. Supercharged by a couple of days hiking up river, their adventurous spirit kicked in when they came across a canoe in the nearby shed. They pushed off from shore, armed only with two wooden oars, a pair of life jackets, and a picnic lunch.

     Not twenty minutes into their leisurely float down the nearby river, the couple noticed a woman on the shore waving her arms. Thinking that she was being a friendly neighbor, they waved back politely. When her waving became more animated, the man said to his companion, “Is she dancing?” When she started jumping up and down, they decided that they should paddle towards the shore to see what was going on.

     As they got closer, it became apparent that she was not waving, but pointing down the stream. From the angle of the shore, they could see what had been hidden from their previous vantage point — a waterfall. Taking the time to get closer and discern the real intent of her message likely saved the couple’s lives.

     This week, I’ve been thinking about how we discern the movement of the Spirit in our lives and circumstances. When the New Testament church wondered about how the Spirit of God was moving, they looked backwards and forward. Read Stephen’s speech in Acts 7. There, he recounts the entire story of the Hebrew Scriptures in light of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. He isn’t exactly quoting chapter and verse, but is steeped in the “old, old, story” and points to it to make sense of their present reality.

     Compare that with Peter’s interaction with Cornelius in Acts 10. Peter understands the clear boundary between Jew and Gentile — who is “in” and “out” as God’s people. However, after listening to the Spirit, he breaks the letter of the law by entering the home of a Gentile. In such proximity, he is able to discern that the Holy Spirit has fallen on this household. Chapter and verse could not contain what the Spirit of God was doing in the post-Pentecost world as the boundaries of “God’s people” kept expanding.

     How many times in our lives have we made judgements about people and situations from a “safe” distance? How many times have we made theological pronouncements on people without inviting them to be a part of the discussion — without getting close enough to discern whether the Spirit is actually moving in a given situation? How many of our church disagreements have taken place on hypothetical grounds around abstract issues rather than in personal dialogue with those directly affected by the issues? How many of our decisions have been vetted by the Spirit through prayer?

     Discerning the movement of the Spirit is about a conversation between the sacred text and the testimony of lived experience. Such a conversation is determined in the context of a Spirit-filled community where members take these witnesses seriously and commit to walk prayerfully together as fellow pilgrims on the sacred path. May we find more communities willing to walk in such a complex, generative, and live-giving path.