“Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along” (Acts 27:14-15).
We’re exploring stormy waters and shipwreck stories in the Bible, looking for wisdom to help navigate our own stormy moment. Our motto has been: Sometimes God calms the storm, while other times He allows the ship to go down. Christians are called to follow and represent Christ well in both scenarios.
In this final two-part post, we look at my favorite shipwreck story in the Scriptures found in Acts 27. Even as a prisoner in chains, Paul models sterling leadership and offers wise counsel to the crew as his own ship crashes upon the rocks. As our American ship continues to be tossed back and forth by gale force winds of political divisiveness, what leadership wisdom can we glean from Paul and this gripping shipwreck story? (Before reading on, I encourage you to go read the entire account from Acts 27:1-44.)
First, wise leaders and people of faith are careful about who’s voice they listen to and whose advice they follow. In 27:9-11 we read:
9 Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous… So Paul warned them, 10 “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 11 But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship.
Paul was tuned into God’s voice and giving God’s sober assessment of their ship’s dangerous course. Like the experience of so many of Israel’s prophets, his words fell on rocky soil and deaf ears. The people in charge of the ship instead chose to listen to voices that told them what they wanted to hear. The danger of our present national moment is that people on both sides of the political spectrum are listening only to their own self-selected “experts;” few are open to the strange and uncomfortable voices of kingdom prophets warning of impending doom and calling both sides to repent.
Elsewhere Captain Paul warns people of faith of a day when Christians “will no longer put up with sound thinking and truth, but will instead surround themselves with talking heads who tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim 4:3 my paraphrase). This is that moment, ya’ll, so let all who have ears to hear, break out of our echo chambers, broaden our sources of news media consumption, and let us immerse ourselves in the teachings of Jesus and test all ideologies against His Kingdom values.
Second, when a “ship” (or society) begins to come apart at the seams, you reinforce it with what has hitherto bound it together, and toss overboard the things that endanger it. As the storm worsens, watch the men go to work with some desperate but wise measures:
14 Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. 15 The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, 17 so the men hoisted it aboard. Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together…. 18 We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. 19 On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.
As the ship begins to split apart, the crew literally passed ropes under and around the ship to try to reinforce it and hold it together. What a powerful image to ponder as our republic and democracy seems to be splitting apart at the moment. What core values and commitments have been the ties that have bound our nation together? Are some of them being cut off, leaving the integrity of our ship compromised?
In my opinion, our nation cannot avoid a disastrous shipwreck if we put up with leaders who lie continuously and push away all voices that challenge them, if we allow and reward divisive rhetoric in the highest office, if we relish in schoolyard bullying and name-calling, and trample on our most basic constitutional right to vote (and have all votes counted).
The word “religion” is derived from the Latin root “ligio” meaning to tie together or to connect (as in “ligament”). Being religious, therefore, includes a sense of being a “connector”—one who helps heal divisions and unite hostile parties, not one who continuously divides and pulls things apart. Are people of faith in America right now tossing ropes around this fractured ship and trying to bring about healing and unity? Or, are Christians aligning themselves with those who are sowing discord and ripping its fabric even further apart?
Our captain’s words are clear: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus says, “For they are the true children of God” (Matt 5:9). Elsewhere, Captain Paul sends Christians out on a voyage as ambassadors of Christ with a message and “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:11-21) and to “pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Rom 14:19).
We need to not only bind ourselves together by our basic constitutional rights and foundational values; but also get busy tossing (or voting) overboard those toxic habits, traits or people that are now beginning to sink our society and drown out all decency and civility. As the crew tossed over cargo and tackle in this story, so we need to throw overboard our growing acceptance of all that God clearly condemns in Galatians 5:19-21: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.“
Let me be clear: I’m not expecting unbelieving politicians to heed this call; I am calling on people of faith of all political persuasions to publicly stand against and condemn such behavior and rhetoric—no matter what “good” we may think a politician is doing. To paraphrase Jesus, “What does it profit a man to gain a world of political victories, if we forfeit the soul of our Christian witness in the process” (cf. Mark 8:36)?
Christians aboard this teetering American ship are to be known for and characterized by “the fruit of the Spirit” which is “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). These are the sacred ties that can bind up our battered vessel IF people of faith would only heed our non-partisan call to a higher Kingdom and purpose in society.
We’ve just scratched the surface on Paul’s bold and courageous leadership in the storm in part one of this piece. In part two, we’ll see Paul take on a more pastoral role with the ship’s panicked crew as things grow more dire, and watch Paul offer the greatest spiritual gift a man can give to a people being tossed about and scared on the stormy seas of an uncertain moment. In the meantime, let’s continue to be in prayer on behalf of our country and to pray for a fair and peaceful conclusion to this election.