[The centurion] ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on pieces of the ship.
From Bad to Worse
The story of Paul’s ill-fated voyage to Rome keeps coming to mind lately as the global economy continues to spiral out of control. One watches in horror as perfect storms gather over homes and businesses with almost random indifference and people fight to stay afloat as conditions go from bad to worse. Families sinking beneath runaway healthcare costs lose their homes. Debt—much of it accrued by imprudent spending—drains the flow of commerce, taking away jobs by the thousands. Governments sit stranded in shallow waters, without the depth of resources and knowledge to forge ahead. And a foreboding sense that this standstill presages a full-on cataclysm has gripped our planet. Those familiar with Paul’s perilous journey no doubt have picked up the nautical metaphors. That episode strongly parallels what’s happening today.
Prisoner at Sea
Paul boards the ship in Roman custody with other criminals being shipped to the capitol to stand trial. He’s already been through quite an ordeal. He’s been called before a newly appointed governor to answer fabricated charges brought by the religious establishment. The governor intends to rule in his favor but he doesn’t know this and makes a terrible blunder. He exercises his right to plead his case before Caesar and is soon headed for Rome, a prisoner at sea. The Bible doesn’t go into his thoughts and feelings about his situation. It couldn’t have been easy for a man as smart, driven, and committed as he to feel flummoxed by his circumstances. However he felt, he had little time to ponder it as things steadily worsened until it was doubtful he and his shipmates would live to see Rome.
Two days out, the wind changes making it impossible to sail forward. The ship stalls off the Cyprus coast to avoid getting blown off-course. The centurion in charge of the prisoners transfers them to a ship capable of withstanding the wind. Still, it’s slow going and many days are lost. Paul urges the centurion and pilot to find harbor, but they keep going in hopes of docking in a larger port. The wind briefly turns favorable before a terrible storm drives the ship far out to sea. It buffets them for two weeks; everything they do to correct their course fails. Finally they spot land and decide to beach the ship so it won’t get swept away. As they steer to shore, the ship strikes a sandbar and crashes to bits. The guards decide to kill the prisoners to ensure none escape, but the centurion nixes their plans. He orders those who can swim to jump ship and those who can’t to grab pieces of the vessel and ride them into shore. Everyone lands safely.
Well, that’s some saga. Were Spielberg to get hold of it, he could turn it into a special-effects blockbuster. But while the Bible never misses the chance to spin a riveting tale, the stories it tells contain something important—essential—for us to know. In 2 Timothy 3.16 we read, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” So what’s the lesson here? There are many, but let’s look at three.
Number One: We must never allow confrontations—especially those questioning our faith—to rattle us. What was Paul thinking? That the religious establishment wanted him out of their hair was no secret. That they concocted a bunch of false accusations against him was no surprise. That they tried to manipulate the government to do their dirty work was nothing new. They tried all these tactics on Jesus. If Christ wouldn’t answer His accusers, what possessed Paul to think he should? Jesus told us to expect opposition: “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10.22) And not having a pocket New Testament handy doesn’t absolve Paul from creating his own problems. Why didn’t he fall back on Exodus 14.14? “The LORD will fight for you; you need only be still.” When we try to defend ourselves or outwit our accusers, we get in God’s way. He does the fighting. We stand firm.
Number Two: As we see now and with Paul, circumstances can rapidly change from bad to worse. An impetuous mistake (like Paul’s) can toss us out to sea and leave us at the mercy of elements beyond our control. But once we’re in the thick of it, we can’t forget we’re not alone. In the middle of the chaos, Paul tells the crew an angel of the Lord stood beside him and said, “Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.” (Acts 27.24) Our worst crisis poses no problem for God. He is our Savior and when we need Him most, we need to trust Him most. Our God protects us and He graciously protects all who sail with us, too.
Number Three: Storms are destructive. When they’re raging, it’s entirely possible something’s going to fall apart. We’re going to crash into sandbars occasionally. Going down with the ship is not an option. We need to head for shore. If we’re strong swimmers, it’s time to dive in. But if we can’t swim—or don’t have the strength to swim—we grab a broken piece and ride it to safety. How we get to shore doesn’t matter. How many fast swimmers pass us isn’t important. Arriving on pieces is nothing to be ashamed of. Drowning because we’re too proud to admit our weaknesses or because we can’t let go of a shattered ship is.
When life's storms shatter our ships, we find pieces we can cling to and head for shore.
Postscript: All Creation Waits
You must—you must—make your way over to All Creation Waits—Considering Christianity: Failure and Challenge, an altogether superb blog written by Kedda, who often graces Straight-Friendly with her comments. Her gifts as a writer are only surpassed by her keenness of thought. Although ACW has only been up since Christmas (“Perfect Time to Start a New Blog” is the first post), Kedda has stocked it with a wealth of provocative contemplations and questions that inspire her readers to reassess Christianity’s role in the world and our role in Christianity.
The opening lines of Kedda’s inaugural post will give you an indication of what ACW is all about:
This blog is dedicated to providing a different vision of Christianity. At this stage of my life journey I am pondering the whole experience of Christianity down through the ages. If Jesus the Christ is the Incarnation of God, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God come into the world, why is the world still a mess, and so far from God?
Don’t let the probing urgency in this statement mislead you to think Kedda’s off on some kind of where-have-all-the-Christians-gone rant. She’s pondering. And she’s doing it with tremendous grace and candor. A lot of heavy lifting goes on at ACW, yet it’s not heavy reading. Those of us who blog our faith in particular will surely find ourselves wondering, “How does she make wrestling with such profound aspects of belief look so easy?” Or, “I wish I’d thought of that.” Or, “Why aren’t more Christians thinking this way?”
Really, I could go on and on—but the longer I type, the later you’ll be in getting to ACW. So please stop reading and click on the link already!
(Big thank-you to Sherry Peyton as the conduit that linked S-F and ACW.)