Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Finding God’s Better Dream

I still remember the moment I received the news. At the time, we were dreaming big dreams. The architects had drawn up grand plans. It would be a state-of-the-art sanctuary with theatre seating. This was a building that would take us into the future. We would be a preeminent church on the west side of Portland. The economy was surging, and costs were inflating by the day, so there was no time to waste. Architects and contractors were urging us to sign on. But then came the crash.

In reality, there were two crashes. The first was an email that hurtled into my day, notifying me that the cost was projected to be 25 million dollars. I immediately thought—I will be remembered as the pastor who bankrupted the church. The second crash was the economy. It was 2008, and shortly after everything was set to launch. the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression of 1929 stopped us in our tracks.

Has something like this ever happened to you? You have dreamed, and from everything you can tell, it appears everything has lined up. But suddenly, things begin to fall apart. The loss of a job just before the long-planned vacation. The failure of health, just when everything was set for a new chapter. A sense God is calling you to something, and then the door slams shut.

We were so certain that God was in all of this. We had prayed. We had done our due diligence. Endless meetings and infinite experts. How could we have been so off? It was in this dark season God took me to Acts 16, and suddenly I could so relate to Paul.

Paul was a first-century apostle—a “sent one.” He too was on the move, for he had his dreams. He was a follower of Jesus determined to go wherever God summoned him to go. He was deep into his second journey, and the itinerary included places he had been to on the first. Things were going well. Churches were strengthened in the faith and were growing. Paul sensed a green light to press on to places beyond. His plans included a larger part of Asia. He could imagine his next prayer letter sent to supporting churches telling of open hearts and God’s mighty power to fill them. Here was a man at full press, the Spirit moving the course of his life.

And then God said no.

Being the tenacious leader he was, Paul adjusted and changed course. To use a nautical term, this was no time to be “in irons.” Time to reset the sails to catch the wind of the Spirit. Next stop—Bithynia. But while he was attempting to enter, he again found himself at cross purposes with God. And so, having passed by Mysia, gun-shy to enter almost anywhere, he and his companions came down to Troas. (I wonder if “down” has more than a geographic meaning). Paul and his companions had traveled over 1000 miles to nowhere.

I’m thinking about this moment tonight because I will soon be on my way to study Paul’s journeys with a number of travelers, and among the places will be Troas. I have been there before, though we spent an hour trying to find it. There’s little left of the past. Among the oak trees are some ruins. It’s a nothing place that can easily be missed. Once here, I plan to do what I did before—walk the same stretch of shore Paul must have walked, trying to imagine what Paul must have felt. He must have been asking—”God, why are you closing doors on us?” “Where are you taking me?” “Have I missed your will?” “Have you withdrawn your hand?”

I too am acquainted with these questions in my own life. I will probably ask some of them. And maybe I will again listen for my own Macedonian call. God is always calling.

It’s in a place like Troas I am powerfully reminded that God’s will is less about destination and more about transformation. It is likely God took Paul and Timothy on an out-of-the-way road to give them time to build and refine their relationship. Maybe help Paul to come to terms with how he handled the situation with Barnabas and Mark. Perhaps help Paul see that God’s will is seldom a straight line. And most likely, prepare Paul for something beyond what he imagined, a call to come to Europe. A vision in the night revealed this. But he had to first encounter closed doors, aching disappointments, and unmet expectations. He had to let go of Asia.

Thinking back to 2008, I remember asking God why he took me on the course he did. I had to let go of my Asia. We all do. I still ask these why questions from time to time. Why did you send me to candidate in Seattle only to be rejected? Why did I have to endure a relationship that almost ended my ministry? How did a family’s unfair lawsuit make any sense? Why did I feel abandoned by the church for a season?

Often we must endure the frustration of our own plans before we discover his.  

Gratefully, in every case, God has been doing something beyond my imagination. He continues to do this. It’s what wakes me up each day.

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