Our Bible story today is one of the stranger ones in the book of Acts. (Acts is a pretty strange book, practically speaking, so that’s saying something.)
We’re in the third week of our sermon series, where we’re asking, “Am I experiencing my theology?” In other words, Am I experiencing the God I believe in?
Two weeks ago, we looked at the question, What is my theology of prayer? Does it work, if so how does that influence if & how I pray?
Then last week we asked, What is the life I’m imagining? We need HOPE: a mental picture of some good future to move towards, and God helps us with that – sometimes through the Bible, sometimes through encouraging friends, other times by speaking to us Himself. Somehow, God hands us the outline of a picture that seems impossible, and invites us to move toward that with our hearts and our lives.
This week & next, we’ll turn our attention to a counterpart to that hopeful question: Will God come through when things fall apart?
Take a look at Acts 27, Luke’s account of the Apostle Paul being shipwrecked on the island of Malta after being caught in a storm at sea for two weeks.
Now imagine that for a moment. Today is June 12. What if this room suddenly washed out to sea, and we were left clinging to the chairs and tables…until June 26. At which point we’d crash into a sandbar, the room would start to fall apart, and anyone who wasn’t a REALLY strong swimmer (or was weak from two weeks without much food or sleep) would be left to grab whatever debris the found to keep them afloat. Good times.
Here’s a confession about me and the water: I love it…so long as I can stay in the harbor. I like to be able to see land.
I realize the irony that the church we’re shaped after – Bluewater Mission in Hawaii – is named after the way God calls to us out into deep places where we’re over our head. In contrast, our church name suggests a completely different approach: We’re on the ground. It might be hard ground, tough to plant, filled with weeds. Spiritually speaking, we might die of starvation or heat stroke. But we won’t drown.
I guess at some level, I’ve always known that boats are dangerous. Boats take you places you can’t get to any other way. But boats can also fail you.
Think about your “boat” as a metaphor for what holds your current life together. It’s loaded with all the things that matter to you:
- Job or education
- Dreams & goals
It’s obvious that the boat is pretty important. Indeed, in Paul’s story here, he depends on the boat for his life.
And yet our boats aren’t invincible. We can run them aground with poor decisions. We can hit a storm that’s much bigger than us. Someone else can decide to shoot cannons at us and sink our ship. (Because that’s what happens in war)
And when our boat gets wrecked, a couple of different things can happen: Number one, that’s when we figure out how well we can swim. We also learn that some parts of our broken boat can be repurposed to help us float, while other things sink like rocks, threatening to pull us down if we don’t let go. And we learn which relationships have enough strength to them that we’ll continue to care for & help one another, rather than resorting to “every man for himself.”
We also get to see how God comes through.
I’ve been thinking about this in the context of this book, How to Survive a Shipwreck by Jonathan Martin. It’s possibly the best description of “God in the aftermath of catastrophe” that I’ve ever seen.
Here’s how Martin describes a situation he’d just come through, circumstances that prompted him to write this book:
“I used to be the pastor of a thriving church my wife and I planted—a church for liars, dreamers, and misfits. I used to lead this community that was all about love and beauty and justice. I used to have a strong marriage to a wife I both admired and adored. I used to be a rising star in my native denomination where my father and grandfather had been pastors….I loved people the best I knew how. For whatever other shortcomings I had, I had sincerity for days.
But then I failed in my marriage. I had failed my church. I had failed my friends. I sailed my own ship into the rocks—and both the relationships that mattered most to me and my calling to the church I loved were the casualties. Now I was 36 years old, living at my parents’ house, ghostwriting for other Christian leaders on my laptop on a folding card table in the utility building where my dad kept his train set.”
Martin draws on this shipwreck image, showing us life AFTER his boat has fallen apart:
- He was still alive (even though he didn’t necessarily think this was good news)
- Whatever he still had must have been keeping him afloat, because otherwise he’d have been pulled under.
- He had nothing but God.
- He had to find a way to keep living, to build some sort of a new life.
I think that if it hasn’t already, your ship will be wrecked, at least once in your lifetime. It might be your bad steering; it might be that you’re in the wrong boat; it might just be other people steering their boats into yours and crashing. The reason so many “unexpected diversion” journeys are in the Bible, might be to keep us from freaking out when it happens to us, and believing the lie that all hope is lost, or that God can no longer use us because we’ve blown it so badly.
Reading this, three things jumped out at me from Martin’s reflections that resonated with my own experiences with shipwrecks; helpful ideas to grab ahold of to move forward when life veers off course and crashes.
Idea #1: Let God show you how big His world is.
A few years ago, as the church we’d attended for almost a decade began to fall apart, Steve & I were boating with my Dad up in Maine. My Dad is a genius at finding old, slightly beat up little boats out by the side of the road, taking them home and rehabbing them. So we were puttering along through the harbor, enjoying the gorgeous day. As I looked around, I sensed God showing me all the people there: lobstermen and kayakers and people standing on the pier waiting for lobster rolls. Then He said, Not a single person here has ever heard of [that particular] church, or any of the people or circumstances you’re so upset about. It was such a clear picture that even though something central to MY life was falling apart, I could drive an hour or so north and see that in the big picture, it wasn’t even making a ripple.
This helped me begin to imagine that God might have a future for me: that someday there might be a church I loved just as much, and friends with whom I could live out my faith. I might have lost THAT particular boat in the crash (and much of my fellow “crew,”) But land was near, and I had people to help me build another boat.
Idea #2: Take Communion
When Steve & I moved to our town, a friend told us about a Charismatic Catholic church. We visited, liked it there, and for about six months, I went to Mass every day.
What’s interesting about Mass is that it’s not set up around the songs or the sermon. At the morning Mass I attended, there wasn’t even any music. A typical homily lasted 3-5 minutes. The point of being there was to receive the body & blood of Jesus Christ in communion. I was surprised by how powerful this was.
Prior to that summer, I’d thought of Communion as a shared ritual of faith. But that summer, in the midst of people I didn’t know, worshiping in a style that asked nothing of me aside from paying a little bit of attention, I had the quiet and space to recognize how much taking communion every day was changing and shaping me. I felt better, clearer, happier. I trusted God again. It sounds ridiculous, but I felt closer to Jesus, sensing His presence, understanding in a new way how he was both in this world and yet of another world entirely.
When you hit a rough patch in life, believing friends will often remind you, Stay close to Jesus, looking to him for answers & help. This is a tangible way to do that. This is why we take communion every week at Greenhouse Mission. We don’t understand how it matters. But we believe that it does.
So when life crashes, look for opportunities to take communion.
Idea #3: Let your life be shaken
Martin shares an interesting comment a friend made to him: Until something is shaken, you don’t know if it’s sturdy. Life will shake things. Some will endure, others won’t.
This is one of the most painful aspects of life. And yet I see now how ABUNDANT life feels when I’m living with things that have proven sturdy. It frees up so much energy to not have to tiptoe around fragile things, trying to keep them whole.
What is in your life right now that feels fragile, like if you make one wrong move, the whole thing will break apart?
STOP TIPTOEING. LIVE. SEE WHAT HAPPENS.
What’s left in the aftermath usually has some serious substance.
This is painful, and sometimes heartbreaking. But what’s left in the end is gold. Gold is precious because it’s rare. It’s been through a refining process.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:19 not to treasure things here on earth, because thieves can take them, moths and rust can destroy them. We’re to “store up Treasures in Heaven.” I believe that part of how we do that is by letting our lives be shaken, letting God remove things that aren’t sturdy so we don’t have to live our entire lives feeling adrift at sea in a ship we suspect might not hold water.
Interesting note: Three months after crashing into Malta, we’re told that Paul and his captors resumed their journey, ultimately landing in Rome. He had to get on another boat and head back into the sea, because life goes on. There’s no indication he had any trepidation about doing this, which seems to me a bit of a miracle.
I wonder if the message for us is something along the lines of accepting second chances.I’ve had a number of shipwrecks in my life – some I participated in, others where, like Paul, I was merely along for the ride. What I see is this: the incredible power when, after some recovery time, I board the next boat heading out into that same oceans.
God’s world is big.
We have the body and blood of Jesus to unite us with him and sustain us until he returns.
God will remove the shaky things from our lives so we can move forward with what is real and true and solid.
There will be storms, and extreme detours, and shipwrecks where we’re either clinging to broken planks or learning how well we can swim. But if we survive the shipwreck, that means there’s more to the story.
Let me pray for us:
Lord, thank You that You are God over all the storms in our lives. Help us to see, listen, sense what You’re doing, trust You fully with our lives. Let us feel You near in the storm, and trust you in the crash. Give us safe harbor, and wisdom as we build again. May Your Kingdom come, and Your will be done, here on earth,as it is in Heaven.
We are grateful. Make us strong.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.