Paula Northwood February 23, 2020
Scripture: Acts 27:13–22
Years ago, Andrea and I were just finishing a weeklong backpacking trip on Isle Royale and setting up camp in Windigo when a ranger stopped by and asked for me by name. The ranger informed us that a storm was coming, and, because of the lateness of the season, we needed to leave now or we would be stranded on the island for who knew how long. We hurriedly got our gear together and boarded a boat named Wenonah. There were only two other passengers beside the crew. I tend to get seasick, so I popped some Dramamine and we were off. The harbor was beautiful and calm, but once we turned the corner away from the shoreline into the open water the waves began to build . . . and build . . . and build . . . until sometimes when you looked out the window all you could see was water. I had never seen waves this big. We were being tossed and turned. I have never been so afraid in my life. I lay down on the bench, closed my eyes, put my trust in God and held on for dear life. A two-hour trip turned into three hours and—eventually—we made it to Grand Portage. On wobbly knees we disembarked, and I kissed the earth and thanked God for the opportunity to live another day!
One thing we can count on in life is that storms will come . . . if not literally then figuratively. Like a flash of lightning you lose a loved one. A thunderclap of illness brings you to your knees. Your friends jump ship. Torrential rains wash away everything you held dear. An earthquake shakes your foundation. Floods, fires, locusts, coronavirus, the climate crisis and political confusion all can feel like an unending storm. How do we keep our heads above water when unexpected waves of doubt pull us under?
We are in the final chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, and it is a masterful piece of storytelling, full of drama and suspense. Paul is being sent to Rome to stand trial because no one could find that he committed a crime, and yet they do not like what he is saying. Paul and a few followers were loaded onto a ship under the guard of a centurion named Julius. All told there were 276 people on board. They sailed uneventfully from Caesarea up around the island of Cyprus to Myra, where they changed ships and boarded a cargo ship transporting grain from Egypt to Rome.
This was no luxury ship but more like a big barge that was not be easily maneuvered in high wind and water. And the winds did indeed begin to turn against them. In our text we read, “We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty arriving off Cnidus. When the wind did not allow us to hold our course, we sailed to the lee of Crete opposite Salmone. We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens.”
They spend about three months Fair Havens because, well, it wasn’t so fair. The remaining leg of this journey would be in hurricane season and take them into winter. So they had a decision to make: Should they stay put or risk a voyage to the more secure harbor of Phoenix on the western tip? Though Paul was a prisoner, he voices his opinion and warns the crew that the voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo.
We read earlier that Julius the Centurion had shown kindness to Paul, but no one likes a know-it all. Since the pilot and ship owner were anxious to find a safer dock, they agreed to strike out for Phoenix. But soon enough, a wind of hurricane force—what we call a Nor’easter—swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind, so, they gave way to it and were driven along. Those gale force winds pushed them far out to sea. The storm enveloped them in total darkness for two weeks: no sun to light the way; no stars to steer by at night. The writer gives us such detail: “We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day they threw the ships tackle overboard. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, they finally gave up all hope of being saved.”
Have you ever been there, feeling your situation is about as impossible as it can get? Like the sailors on this ill-fated ship you may be feeling like giving up hope. You may question whether we can make the change that is needed to save us and the earth. What can we do?
There’s a little line in our story about what the crew did. They threw out an anchor—in fact, four of them. “Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, the crew dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight.” If we were to understand the story in a metaphorical way, what would be the four anchors symbolize?
We get some clues from Paul. Paul stays steady in the violent tossing of the seas. He is the eye of the storm.; he remains calm. One of the worst things you can do in a disaster situation, even though you are afraid, is panic, which is acting out of fear and trying desperately to gain control that you do not have. For example, panic is one of the lead causes of drowning. And it makes it extremely difficult for others to help you because you may pull them down with you. Panic also can cause us to develop an “abandon-ship—every person for themselves” mentality. This first anchor is to stay calm, don’t panic. Tap into your spiritual practice, your breathing when you begin to feel anxious.
The second thing Paul does is offer encouragement. He does a little bit of “I told you so” (Paul is not perfect) but then quickly moves to encouragement. He says, “But I also encourage you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship.” The storms of life aren’t meant to be weathered alone. God will put people in our lives at the right time and at the right place who will be with us through the storm. Think of the challenging times in your life: Were there people you could count on for support? Did God put people in your life to encourage you? Can you be an encourager to others when they’re in a stormy situation? Paul could offer encouragement because he trusted God’s promises completely. He trusted God even when the situation seemed hopeless.
The next anchor is food! Paul offered nourishment. He urged everyone on the ship to eat. They needed strength. Soon, they would have to swim to the shore. For the last fourteen days they have been in constant suspense and haven’t eaten much of anything. Paul urged them to take some food. He reminded them that they needed it to survive. After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. If we understand this symbolically, it could also be thinking about the ways we help strengthen each other’s spiritual lives. How do we nourish each other?
And then, finally, the last symbolic anchor is not intuitive: It is to lighten the load. When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea. In other words, once they had what they needed, they got rid of all the extra stuff. During these days of confusion, chaos and climate change, how can pare down what we desire to what we really need? Or as Gandhi said, “Live simply so that others may simply live.” What do we need to throw overboard because it is weighing us down?
Back to our story. On the fifteenth day, the storm gave way to a glimmer of dawn. A tiny spit of land appeared on the horizon. By now, the creaking, battered hull was held together with rapidly fraying ropes. Letting go of the literal anchors, the sailors hoisted the sail and tried to run the boat aground. Miraculously, they avoided the rocks and stuck fast in a sandbar. They could see land. The possibility of being saved was in sight!
Suddenly, the soldiers aboard unsheathed their knives. It was standard procedure, in such a crisis, to kill all the prisoners. If a soldier failed to prevent an escape, he forfeited his own life. But just as the knife reached Paul’s neck, Julius the commander cried, “Stop!” He couldn’t murder the man who had calmed, encouraged and fed them. Julius went on to tell them to unlock their shackles. He shouted, “If you can swim, jump overboard and swim to land. The rest grab a plank and float to shore.” And everyone reached land in safety just as Paul promised, just as God said, all 276 survived.
We will never understand why storms come. Some people seem to have more than others, but no one deserves them. We will not be able to control the storms. We may not be able to escape them. But when those storms come, find your anchors (they may be different for each of us), and, as Paul did, can we put our trust in God’s love and care?
This is a difficult time of year. Many of us are anxious, tired, afraid and depressed. We haven’t seen the sun in a while. What are your anchors? What holds you fast and gives you hope?
I offer you this Blessing in the Storm from Jan Richardson: “I cannot claim to still the storm that has seized you, cannot calm the waves that wash through your soul, that break against your fierce and aching heart. But I will wade into these waters, will stand with you in this storm, will say peace to you in the waves, peace to you in the winds, peace to you in every moment that finds you still within the storm.” God is that presence for us and we can be that for each other.
Let us truly be present to each other during the storms of life. Let us encourage, feed and help each other weather the storm. May it be so. Amen.