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August 2nd, 2015

Calm-fidence

He took some bread and gave thanks to God. Then he broke it and began to eat.

Acts 27

Surprised by calm

It was October 13, 2014. A group of 25 pilgrims from Hickory was excitedly boarding a commuter plane in Charlotte. We’d have a short jaunt to Newark, NJ, an eight-hour layover, then a long flight on a jumbo jet to meet Jesus in the land of the Bible.

About 30 minutes from Charlotte, we heard a VERY loud bang at the left rear of the aircraft, followed by a persistent rattle. We soon learned that the plane had lost an engine. I thought, “We weren’t planning to meet Jesus in Virginia.” A calm flight attendant’s voice asked us to remain in our seats, and the pilot informed us we would be making an emergency landing in Richmond. Linda said to me, “I think you should lead in prayer.” So I stood up and yelled over the broken engine noise, “Let us pray.” And the flight attendant said, “Sir, in the back there, sit down and put your seatbelt on!”

No, I didn’t stand up. But I did pray out loud and even though only the passengers at the back could hear me, we were told later that some of the non-Hickory passengers were very grateful for the prayer. Later I wrote in my Israel journal, “I was surprised at how calm I felt – even pondering the possibility we would lose another engine.” Paul Schowalter, a retired Air Force pilot who was with us on the trip looked pretty calm as well. But he said later, “You didn’t see my wet pants.”

Today is about living in “calm-fidence” in a crisis. What’s your crisis? What’s causing you to wonder if you will survive? Or your family? Or the church? Or the nation?

Ferry ride: Caesarea to Myra

Our episode was nothing compared to Paul’s journey from Caesarea to Rome in Acts 27. There were some parallels – a small passenger vessel on one leg of the trip then a large wide-bodied carrier, for example. The travel date of mid-October was the same. The most important parallel: a crisis that needed experience, prayer, and calm.

map

We left Paul last week “ready” for whatever would come next. He was Spirit-filled, serene, and on point with the gospel as he stood before the Jewish king Agrippa and the Roman governor Festus. They had determined that the charges the Jewish Sanhedrin had brought against him were baseless, but along the way Paul had appealed to Caesar, so Festus made arrangements for Paul to be sent to Caesar.

Paul was considered a prisoner of Rome, but not necessarily a criminal. He was actually given a good bit of freedom on this trip, perhaps because he was a Roman citizen or maybe because he had earned such respect from Festus. He was even allowed a couple of companions – Aristarchus, a traveling companion from Greece[1], and Luke, a physician who will later write both the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts from interviews and notes as Paul’s travel companion, including this great shipwreck story.

Paul is joined by other prisoners under the oversight of a man named Julius (1), a Roman centurion probably based in Rome and assigned to duties like this. Julius takes custody of a handful of prisoners at the Caesarea harbor, assigns each one a soldier to guard him, and they board a small ferry (2) designed to hug the coast as the north current from the Nile River carries them. The passenger boat stops at Sidon, where Paul is allowed to disembark, hang out with friends, and pick up personal items he might need (3). Passengers never traveled light. They needed to bring their own tent to set up on the deck, their own sleeping bag, their own food for the journey, plus all their clothes and other luggage.[2] The winds were not favorable, so the going was slow. But finally the ferry reached the port of Myra, having traveled between Cyprus and Asia Minor.

Winds and warnings: Myra to Fair Havens

At Myra Julius books passage on a much larger ship carrying grain from Alexandria, Egypt, the Roman Empire’s farm belt, to Rome[3] – probably a large sailing vessel with oars as well. Ships varied in size, but a typical commercial ship among the hundreds on the seas might have been 150 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 30 feet tall. It would have been carrying 100-200 tons of grain.

ship

The ship’s 276 passengers on this voyage include Paul with his two friends, a handful of other prisoners, Julius the centurion and enough soldiers to guard the prisoners – I’m guessing no more than 20-30 total. Plus we have the pilot and owner of the ship[4] and however many crew members the boat needed – maybe 30-40? There must have been about 200 passengers who weren’t prisoners, weren’t military, and weren’t crew. Maybe they are business travelers, retirees visiting Rome, Jews going home from the festival, or who knows who else. There was probably a galley (kitchen) and a handful of cabins below deck for the most privileged travelers, but most camped out on deck.

It is the middle of October.[5] Travel on the Mediterranean Sea was considered somewhat dangerous after mid-September and was outlawed by Rome after November 11 because of unpredictable, dangerous winter storms. This voyage takes place in between “safe” (summer) and “crazy” (winter) – it’s “risky.”

The first leg of the voyage on the cargo ship is a little difficult, and they are still hugging the Asian coast. The most direct route to Rome passes between Greece and the island of Crete, but the wind forces the vessel to the south[6] of Crete, the “lee” or less windy side. The boat docks at Fair Havens, but it is now obvious they aren’t going to get across the Adriatic Sea before November 11. A larger and safer harbor for boats and a nicer place for passengers was only about 50 miles away on the west end of Crete.

map2

The ship’s council gathers to make a critical decision. That includes the cargo ship’s owner (who has the most to gain or lose financially), his pilot (the most experienced person on board), Julius (the Roman centurion), and, surprisingly, Paul (the prisoner!). The pilot and owner think there will be no problem getting to Phoenix. Paul says, “Men, I don’t think so. We’re risking great loss to the cargo, the ship, and even lives. We should stay here in Fair Havens” (11). The centurion asks for a vote, and the majority ignore Paul’s advice (12). When a breeze from the south makes it seem like they’ll be able to hug the shore, they sail (13).

As they round Cape Matala a typhoon-like wind from the northeast sweeps down from Mount Ida and blows the ship out to sea. Sailors had a nickname for this feared wind: “Euraquilo,” or nor-easter (14). The experienced sailors know better than to fight a wind that strong. They roll up the sails and allow the wind to take over (15).

Shipwreck on Malta

  • Day 1 of the storm: Luke and other passengers help haul the lifeboat up and secure it on deck (16-17). The crew passes cables under the ship’s hull to hold it together (17).
  • Day 2: They throw cargo overboard, saving only enough grain for food (18).
  • Day 3: The men disassemble part of the ship’s mast and equipment, tossing everything nonessential overboard (19).
  • Days 4-13: Thick clouds and battering wind and rain block the sun in the day and the stars at night. Everyone’s been forced below deck. Seasick and miserable, they are terrified that no one will survive (20). Nobody eats (21). On one of those dark days Paul quiets the prisoners, soldiers, crew, and passengers:

Men, I tried to warn you about this. But don’t give up. The ship’s going to be lost, but not you. The God whose I am and whom I serve has sent a message. His angel stood beside me last night and said, “Don’t be afraid. You’re going to make it to Rome and stand before Caesar. Everybody on this ship will be saved.” You may not have faith, but I have enough for all of us. When God tells me something, it happens. However, the ship is going to run aground on an island.

Day 14: The water becomes more shallow, and the crew decides to escape on the lifeboat under the cover of darkness. Paul rats them out to Julius and his soldiers: “You’re going to need these men; without them you can’t be saved.” The soldiers cut the ropes and let the lifeboat fall away (27-32).

Just before dawn Paul speaks again to everyone on board. Paul takes bread, gives thanks to God in front of them all, breaks the bread, and begins to eat (33-35). Everyone is encouraged and joins him in breaking the fast (36). They throw the rest of the bread and grain off the ship to lighten the ship one final time (37). Finally the crew hoists the one remaining sail and guides the ship toward a sandy beach on a bay (40-41). When the ship hits shallow sand and rocks, it begins to splinter apart.

The soldiers decide to kill all the prisoners, including Paul, but Julius stops them. He yells, “Swimmers first!” and those who could swim jump off and make for shore. Others grab pieces of the ship as it breaks apart. Everyone makes it to land (42-44).

Calm-fidence

Other than the fact that Luke was a great storyteller and an eyewitness to this drama as a fellow passenger, I can only think of one reason Luke tells this story in such detail. He wants us to learn from Paul how to find and inspire calm-fidence in a crisis. Paul speaks four times in the shipwreck story. Each time he’s modeling a critical principle.

Know where you are. The first time Paul speaks, he warns the centurion, the pilot, and the captain, “Men, if we leave Fair Havens, it’s going to be a disaster for the ship, the cargo, and human life” (10). Note that he was only 2 for 3. The ship and cargo were lost, but all human lives were saved. At this point in the story he was speaking from his gut and his experience. He wasn’t 100% sure he was delivering a message from God.

They didn’t take his advice, and he backed off. That’s what I mean by “knowing where you are.” This was early in the experience, and Paul was just one of the prisoners. He didn’t have the right to take charge. In a crisis, you have to release your need to control. If you’re not in charge, offer your opinion, but then let it go. Those around you may have difficulty doing this, but as a believer you know Who is really in control.

Know whose you are. The second time Paul speaks in this passage is after a week or so of raging storm, crashing waves, and surges of nausea. The smell of vomit, urine and excrement filled the hell hull. Nobody had slept or eaten for a week or more, and everyone had given up all hope of being saved. Paul gets everyone’s attention says, “Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said…” (23) What did the angel say? It doesn’t matter.

What is important about what Paul said was not the angel’s message. It was Paul’s introduction: “the God whose I am and whom I serve.” We hear a lot in our day about knowing who you are. I’d love to throw out that phrase for believers and talk about whose you are. Knowing who you are will give you no calmness in a crisis. It will make you selfish, or angry, or anxious, or petty. But if you know whose you are in a crisis, it changes everything. You know there’s nothing that can happen in the life that will separate you from the love of God, and if the worst happens in this life, you have him to enjoy forever in the next. Meanwhile, you know whom you serve, and that what he thinks of you is the only thing that matters. It’s always win-win when you know whose you are, and that inspires calm-fidence in you and in others in a crisis.

Knowing who’s around. When Paul noticed the crew trying to escape on the lifeboat, he said to the centurion, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved” (31). The double entendre of “saved” is intentional. Paul knew God’s promise that everyone was supposed to make it to shore, but these guys were thinking, “I’m going to save me and I don’t care what happens to you.” Paul didn’t just care about the soldiers. He cared about the crew and everyone else aboard. He wanted them all to be saved. In a crisis, I’ve got to get my mind off saving my own skin and long for others to be saved.

Knowing what you are. I love saving the best for last! Just before dawn on the day of the shipwreck on Malta, Paul, whose credibility had skyrockted, urged them all eat, saying not only will they all live; they won’t even be hurt (34). Then “he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat” (35).

Just before Pastor Paul boarded the plane in Charlotte Monday for Dublin, I dropped a hint that I wished I’d had some sermon thoughts from him on Acts 27. He took the bait and read the Scripture on the first leg of his trip then texted me from Boston, “Only Paul would have the idea to have communion in the middle of a storm. What a great story!” Commentaries debate whether you can call what Paul did “communion,” but “took bread,” “gave thanks,” and “broke it” sure sound like it.

I was still pondering the meaning of all this yesterday when a friend sent me a link to a blog, The Emmaus Option. The writer is Ann Voskamp, known for her best-selling book, One Thousand Gifts, about her journey through cancer treatment. She knows crisis.

Ann began her July 31 post, “It can feel like the sky is falling in. Can feel like the edges of all things sane and good and beautiful and right are being crushed by an indifferent madness.” She then references everything from racism to abortion to ISIS beheadings to forest fires to the widely reported numerical decline of active Christians. She’s speaking of crisis in the culture, in the nation, in the world. What do we do?

There’s the militant option, she says – fighting the war. Some are advocating the Benedict option –getting away from the world. Ann suggests the Emmaus option.

What else did Luke write before Acts? The Gospel of Luke. Do you remember that wonderful narrative in Luke 24 when Jesus was walking with the two disciples toward Emmaus unfolding all the Scriptures that spoke of him. They insisted he come inside their home and eat dinner. Up until then those two disciples didn’t realize they were walking with Jesus on the day of his resurrection. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” (Luke 24:30).

Do you think Paul was thinking about the Emmaus option in the belly of that foul ship as Day 14 dawned? I do. I think Luke deliberately connected the stories. Paul was doing the same thing on the ship that Jesus had done for two despondent disciples after he had opened the Scriptures for them. He was passing on a pattern for how we live and share calm-fidence in a crisis. Ann Voskamp calls it “The Emmaus Option” when the sky is falling. She says the breaking of bread means –

  1. Breaking open the Scriptures to see how every page isscarred with the passion of Christ.
  2. Breaking our plans and agendas to stay by people, stay close to people,stay with people
  3. Breaking bread with people, thebreaking cynicism to give thanks amongst the people, the daily gift of being broken and given to the people.

 

Do you know what you are in the middle of a crisis? You are broken bread among others who are broken. The world doesn’t need warrior Christians or sequestered Christians condescending toward their brokenness. The deeper the crisis, the world needs those who look a lot like Jesus on the cross – suffering with and for them. The visual Jesus gave is bread that is broken. His body is broken. We are his body. Our greatest display of his love is knowing whose we are even when our brokenness is so real. Amen.

[1] Acts 19:29; 20:4; Philemon 24. Colossians 4:10 indicates he may have been one of the other prisoners.

[2] For more details, read this essay on “Roman Empire Sailing.”

[3] This web site offers additional background on the merchant ships and commerce of the first century.

[4] See verse 11.

[5] Luke says it was “after the fast” in verse 9, which would have been October 5 in the year AD 59.

[6] The “leeward” side is opposite the “windward” side

July 26th, 2015

Ready

Before a crossroads will often come a season in the wilderness; use it to get ready.

Acts 26:19-32

A different Paul

When we left Paul last week, he was standing in front of the Sanhedrin and tensions were high. The high-strung chief priest Ananias ordered Paul to be smacked in the face. Paul shot right back with an insult for which he had to apologize. Then Paul cleverly divided the Sanhedrin down the middle and had them arguing with each other instead of attacking him. That seemed to be a good thing until the meeting became so violent that the Roman commander Lysias, who had brought Paul to the Sanhedrin for questioning, thought Paul might get harmed or killed in the melee, so he removed Paul from the assembly. In Acts 22 Paul was edgy, impulsive, some even say devious.

In Acts 26 Paul stands before Agrippa and Festus as a different man, ready for anything. He is in control of his mouth and his actions. He is Spirit-filled, respectful, serene, and focused on the Gospel. He’s assertive without being aggressive. The question for today will be, “What caused the change?” What causes a believer to be ‘ready’ for whatever happens? We begin here: Who are Festus and Agrippa? Read more »

July 23rd, 2015

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS for short) has settled the issue for all of the United States of America, whether or not anyone likes it. If we believe the polls, the 5-4 SCOTUS ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, represents roughly the same percentage of Americans who now agree the legal definition of marriage should be between two people, not necessarily a man and a woman.

I’m one of those who believes God created the gift of sex for marriage between a man and a woman. This seismic shift of cultural values can produce anxiety. I’d rather be in the moral majority than be classified as the immoral minority that is intolerant and judgmental. Many fear that the new majority hopes our views on homosexuality will soon be placed on the same moral plane with those who advocate apartheid or child labor or subservience of women to men in home and society.

In a previous blog post (written before the SCOTUS decision), I discussed several key passages of Scripture as the basis for my reflections. The more narrow question of this post is how to have conversations in your family, at work, or even at church with those who are gay or who affirm the Supreme Court’s decision – if you don’t. Read more »

July 19th, 2015

En-courage-ment

Every part of the Bible is given for our instruction.

Acts 23:1-11

In need of encouragement

Pause for a moment and think about a time in your life when you most needed encouragement. Maybe it’s now.

Pastors sometimes need encouragement. Years ago I heard a story about a poor pastor serving a small rural congregation. There was little money for salary, and even less for maintenance. But the church building needed a coat of paint.

The pastor decided to buy some paint out of his meager wages. All he could afford was one gallon. He divided the white latex paint into two buckets, then thinned it with water. He worked from the bottom up, and as he got about halfway up the sides he realized he would still be short. So he thinned his paint with more water. He had only a quart left when he reached the steeple, but he figured a little paint was better than nothing. So he thinned it again figuring from the ground it wouldn’t make much difference. It looked like rain was on the way, but he just needed to get it done. Read more »

July 16th, 2015

I want to begin by thanking John and Dodie Truesdale for the privilege of being their pastor. In the short time I have come to know them, I have come to love them. At Corinth each fall we give folks a chance to sign up for a small dinner group that rotates among the homes of that group. By God’s providence, the Truesdales and Thompsons ended up in the same group, and that gave us yet another chance to form a bond in Christ.

It was far from my mind that I would preach their daughter’s memorial service in the summer of 2015. People tend to think that this is one of the most unpleasant tasks for a pastor. To be sure, death and grief are deeply unpleasant, but the opportunity to draw closer to people like John and Dodie and to be entrusted with the opportunity to bring meaning into this moment through a distinctively Christian and biblical lens is a humbling privilege. Read more »