Discerning Discipleship

Lincoln City, Oregon near God’s thumb.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:14‭-‬16

Well 2 Corinthians was a one and out book, and I floated right through the book of Galatians without a single water-related passage.  Pragmatic Paul strikes again.  I wonder whether his writings would have been different, and perhaps more metaphorical, had he spent time on the beach with Jesus.

Paul in his letter to the Ephesians is addressing a common theme for his letters.  Apparently there are leaders in Ephesus who are failing the “Meribah test“.  They are ultimately leading people away from God rather than towards Him by their teachings and actions.  I think Paul’s patience for  these leaders is growing thin as he refers to their actions as “deceitful scheming”.

The passage begins with a familiar simile comparing the new converts in Ephesus to “infants”.  This is similar to language used in his first letter to the (1 Corinthians 3:1‭-‬9).  In Corinthians Paul used this idea to talk about how infants have to work their way up to eating solid food (deeper spiritual truths).  Here the analogy is a bit different with “the infants” being tossed back and forth by waves and winds of false teaching.  In some ways this seems like a logical profession.  Very young believers are focused on basic beliefs and doctrine (solid food), while older more mature believers have the luxury, and perhaps liability, of debating the finer points of beliefs and behavior.

I think Jesus’ clear command that we are to become like little children applies here.  Children have the admirable ability to become immersed in whatever activity they are doing at the moment.  Jesus wants followers who are equally immersed in Him, ultimately taking their lead from Him and the Holy Spirit rather other followers. This does not mean we should operate as lone wolves, shunning community with other believers, but our first priority should discipleship at the feet of Jesus.

When I was about 8 years we lived next to a pond and large forest behind.  My best friends Mary, Kit, and I would spend hours playing and exploring what seemed to us like a world of wonder.  We were immersed, we had fun together, and we learned many important life lessons along the way. We explored with confidence and freedom because we always knew the way home, where clean clothes, a yummy lunch, and a loving family were awaiting.

My sense is that Jesus wants us to approach our relationship with Him like we approached a day in the woods – full of wandering and wondering, but with a clear understanding of where our home really is and how we get there. We currently have only the bible, the Holy Spirit, and other faithful followers to help us along the way. Paul’s point is that we need to be careful about choosing those that we follow that are not Jesus.

This is best accomplished by understanding and uniting all of our strengths to more effectively navigate this land of oblivion together. The tricky part, that Paul is alluding to here, is discerning which contributors are helpful for our journey and which are harmful. The only sure way to do this is to understand that our destination is a “who” (Jesus) not a “where”.

Prayer: God help us to find our way to You by pursuing Your Son Jesus, with the help of fellow followers.

Posted in Christian Community, Christian Leadership, Christianity, Discernment, Discipleship, Ephesians, Following God, Jesus | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Bombastic Boasting

St. Paul by Masaccio

I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that! Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. – 2 Corinthians 11:16-‬27

Welcome to the second letter to the Corinthians. This appears to be the only water-related verse in 2 Corinthians and there were only two in 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 3:1‭-‬9 and 1 Corinthians 10:1‭-‬5). So far Paul definitely uses less water imagery and metaphors than much of the old testament and the gospels. His prose is generally pragmatic and to the point.

Paul is letting his ego run wild a bit here to engage in some bombastic boasting. In his defense he does admit that he is indulging in a bit of foolishness, and he makes it clear that this is the way he would talk as a fool, and not the way the Lord would talk. So why the boasting? It seems Paul is trying to make a point about what we should be boasting about should we feel the foolish need to do so.

Apparently the people of Corinth are hearing from other boasters about their credentials and curriculum vitae. It sounds like there are people trying to use their accomplishments and accolades to garner followers, without proper boasting about the One they follow. Paul apparently feels like he is being seen as a fool for his choices and some of the consequences of his actions.

Reading between the lines, it sounds like there are people who think Paul’s approach to sharing the Good News is simply too costly and hard. It also sounds like there are other “boasters” that might be leaving out important details about the sacrifices that will be required to follow the Messiah. Paul wants to make it clear that their will be difficult roads on the journey home.

Paul certainly pulls no punches with describing in detail what he has endured to share the Good News of Christ including floggings, stonings, shipwrecks, and imprisonment. This litany of what could only be described as torture by today’s standards is meant to help those reading this letter to understand to true cost of discipleship and faithfully following Jesus.

The water references come up towards the end of the passage when Paul is describing “shipwrecks”, “danger from rivers”, and “danger at sea” among a long list of other challenges that he has had to face and overcome in sharing the Good News of Christ. His trials and travels, some voluntary and some as a prisoner of Rome, have taught Paul many important lessons. He wants the believers in Corinth to know that this is a feature not a flaw for followers of Christ. It is part of God’s plan for sculpting us into the vessels that he needs us to be.

Some followers have taken this idea to unwise and unhealthy extremes through practices like self flagellation, the practice of flogging oneself with whips or other instruments that inflict pain. This practice, aside from being wrong and misguided in my opinion, completely misses Paul’s point. Pain, suffering, and trials that result from following God and sharing the Good News with others is not something to seek out or avoid. It is simply part of the new wine that Jesus is offering.

Paul has faced many dangers since his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul’s “boasting” about them is really just accurate reporting of events similar to trials that most followers can expect. We may not be flogged or imprisoned for our faith, but it may cost us financially, in our professional lives, or with our families. I think Paul’s main point for his “boasting” is that the reward far outweighs the costs.

Prayer: God help us to accept hardships that may come as a result of our following You.

Posted in 2 Corinthians, Christian Community, Christian Leadership, Christianity, Discipleship, Following God, Life Together, Obedience, Paul, Sharing the Gospel | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Canals of Connection

Canal for water released from Lake Kachess Dam, Washington

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. – 1 Corinthians 10:1‭-‬5

Paul lays all his cards on the table in today’s passage making it clear to the confused Corinthian jews that the God of the old testament and Christ are One. Those following “the cloud” and “passing through the sea” were, in a time bending sense, following Christ.

Paul connects the new practice of water baptism with the old testament ideas of being enveloped by God in a cloud and passing through the sea: “They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” These conceptual “canals” were intended to span the confluence of the old and new testaments for the Corinthians stuck in the twilight time between Moses and the Messiah.

Canals are an interesting human invention that have been around for thousands of years. They serve many purposes such as water conveyance, transportation, and passage around natural barriers like rapids and waterfalls. Following this metaphorical meaning, Paul’s use of these conceptual “canals” is to overcome the barrier or obstruction that Jesus represents for some of the Jewish people in Corinth.

for The “canal” of connection between the cloud and Jesus is pretty straightforward – God was in the cloud and God was incarnate in Jesus. Those following the cloud in the wilderness were in fact following Christ. Paul is trying to convince these “cloud followers” to become Christ followers. The “Cloud” led them and provided for them in the wilderness, but they have missed the Messiah and the Holy Spirit that can do the same thing for them now.

The second “canal” connects God providing an escape from Egypt for the Israelites via Moses’ red sea parting and Christ providing a way to cross a river that no one can cross from the land of oblivion and the undiscovered country. This conceptual canal was probably the more difficult of the two for the people to understand. They were used to trying to reach God through works rather than faith and certainly wading into a river that no one can cross would, and does, require a fecundity of faith.

Paul then moves from the metaphysical to the material: “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. It is interesting that Jesus equated himself with a Well of Living Water just like the water that emerged from the rock for Moses and Aaron.

Paul’s main point here for the Corinthians, and us, is that the same God who led, loved, and cared for the Israelites in the desert, helped them escape bondage in Egypt, and provided for their hunger and thirst is present in the person of Jesus Christ for all those who choose to follow Him.

Prayer: God you created a great canal between the spiritual realm and the earthly realm in the form of Jesus. Help us to accept this gracious gift.

Posted in 1 Corinthians, baptism, Christianity, Covenant, Discipleship, Following God, Jesus, Love for the Lost, reconciliation, Redemption, The Nature of God, The Spiritual Realm | Tagged | 1 Comment

The Master Gardener

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. – 1 Corinthians 3:1‭-‬9

Well the book of Romans may be packed full of theological deep water, but as far as I can tell there was only one water reference. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth looks to be equally “dry” in terms of water references, only one. Do let’s run this reach and see what it has to offer.

This passage in the beginning of 1 Corinthians is about allegiances and appropriate following. Apparently the Church in Corinth has become factionalized with some following Paul and others following Apollos (and others). Of course all leaders are meant to lead while following Jesus, but in practice this can get hard, even after Paul’s lessons for leaders.

Paul equates the spiritual maturity of the followers in Corinth with children, calling them “infants in Christ”. Now on one level this is a compliment as Jesus directed all of us to be like children in our pursuit of Him. The difference here is that these spiritual “children” are pursuing the wrong person. Placing their trust in worldly leaders rather than the Holy Spirit that has been poured into them.

Paul uses an analogy to get his point across, a rare practice for Paul in my float so far through his writings. Paul uses a gardening analogy which I can relate to as a lifelong gardener. Paul says “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” God is really the gardener, we merely get to play cameo roles as the Holy Spirit leads us.

Paul’s point here is that the journey home for followers of Christ is about faithfully following God rather than any fallible follower. We all have roles to play in one another’s journeys, but we cannot lose sight of the real end goal, crossing the uncrossable river with the help of Christ.

We must allow ourselves to be “watered” by other followers without losing sight of our true water source. This can be tricky as the earthly irrigators sometimes seem more real and responsive. It is up to these leaders to be constantly pointing people toward the real water source even when they are helping to provide water for our thirst.

The take home message for me is that the Christian ecosystem is intended to be full of “gardeners”. Some plant, while others water, weed, and harvest. We must never lose sight of the “Master Gardener” who makes us all grow.

Prayer: God help us to help one another while remembering it is You that really makes us grow.

Posted in 1 Corinthians, Christian Leadership, Christianity, Discernment, Following God, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Parable, religion | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Stumbling Stone

Blue Pool where the McKenzie River emerges from underground to become a river.

Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved. For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality.” It is just as Isaiah said previously: “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.” What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.” – Romans 9:27‭-‬33

Wow, I just read through the entire book of Romans and I think this is the sole water reference in the book.  Paul’s main focus in writing this letter is to provide theological and historical underpinnings for many of the practices of the early church and its members.  He also shares about his own journey and expresses a longing to return to Rome.

I suppose part of the reason for the dearth of water references is that Paul is speaking with a pragmatic purpose. I feel like Paul could have used a few more metaphors to connect with his audience at a soul to soul level. Perhaps his scholarly background, and lack of lessons by the lake with Jesus, left him with limited literary skills outside of legal matters. I do not know.

I reflected on the Isaiah reference (Isaiah 10:20-27) in this passage way back on September 5, 2015.  The post was called “Sands by the sea” and the main point was that Isaiah was predicting the very thing that Paul is describing.  A remnant of Jewish people will follow God faithfully and others will have this opportunity too. The part that Paul is adding here, after the great conjunction of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, is that those that are successful at this faithful following embrace a new internal relationship with God provided by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.  This opportunity is open to Jew and gentile alike.

Paul goes on to explain why the remnant does not contain more followers from the Jewish tradition.    Paul says “Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.” Something about the way they were relating to God was blocking a more intimate relationship.

The “Rock in the road” on the Jewish journey home was of course Jesus the God-man who walked on water, calmed storms, and ultimately promised to help us cross the uncrossable river.  Many of the Jews Paul was addressing, and those like myself reading it now, are caught up in a spiritual tug of war for our souls.  Earthly endeavors (works) on one side and eternal events inspired and orchestrated by the Holy Spirit on the other.

We have to choose which “team” we are pulling for in this spiritual struggle and apparently many Jews are pulling for the works side.  So why are the Jews more comfortable as  “humans doing” than “humans being”.  They have allowed their searching on the great spiritual sea to be more about the boat and tackle and less about the destination in the undiscovered country.  They are not alone in this.

So how does one keep from stumbling over the “stone” that is the savior Jesus? Paul provides an answer “and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.” So it is as simple, and as complex, as believing – allow the “stumbling stone” to be your savior and Lord.  It need not be more complicated than that.

Prayer; God help us to build You into our soul and spirit.

Posted in Christianity, Discipleship, Following God, Free Will, God's Love for Us, Jesus, Paul, Redemption, Romans, Sharing the Gospel, The Spiritual Realm | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Eddying out after Acts

Well it took me way too long to float this reach of river, but I finally finished the book of acts. It was a much harder reach of river than I anticipated. I am not sure why it was so difficult to stay on the water, but I started this book back on April 4 with a post called “Easter Gift“. If I were to summarize the entire book into a few sentences I would say it was about: 1) Peter and other early followers realizing that the Good News of the gospel is for everyone; 2) Paul weathering many trials and spiritual squalls in order to “catch up” with the disciples who spent more time with Jesus; and 3) Faithful following is much more effective with the guidance and help of the Holy Spirit.

Acts begins with an assurance that the opportunity to follow the way of Jesus is open to all God-lovers (theophilus). Our baptism with the Holy Spirit is not a single act of commemoration like water baptism, but rather an immersion in a new way of being and seeing the world.  It is a partial cure for the spiritual blindness that seems to afflict us here in the land of oblivion.  It is also the fulfillment of a promise that Jesus made to give sight to the blind, in this case the spiritually blind.  All those wandering and wondering about God are invited to use this set of night vision goggles to navigate the spiritual darkness that can threaten to envelope us if we let it.  It is really a matter of making room in our hearts.

This early guidance is followed by a reality check when we learn that we are all free to follow our own path both as people and nations. Stephen and followers like Philippe learn that following Jesus can be both hard and dangerous. Peter receives some important lessons by the sea about who can follow God and then the Holy Spirit is poured out to help them find the way.

Acts moves on from Peter and the early followers instructions about inclusion to Paul and Barnabas learning that being a leader requires ongoing lessons in humility. Their efforts to heal and care for people in Jesus’ name created confusion for some followers about who they should follow and how they should lead while following.

Paul and others learn that reaching people with the Good News requires that we practice our faith in public, not in a street corner evangelist sort of way but in an open conversational way so that curious God seekers have something to be curious about. Being in places where the lost are to be found includes some pretty hard places, and sometimes Staying in Jail to Set People Free.

Ongoing conflict with the religious leaders in Jerusalem leads to much humility and tears and eventually to an extended sabbatical at sea for Paul. The trip will require much of the sailors, soldiers, and Paul as they lose their cargo and almost their lives. Paul’s faith in God and public proclamation of that faith leads to the building of some serious metaphysical muscles for Paul and eventually chains of freedom in Rome.

The take home from the book of acts for me is that God following is open to all God lovers and we need to be willing to practice our faith in public with the help and leading of the Holy Spirit. We may be called to do this in places that may seem very inconvenient or hard like a ship in the process of wrecking or in prison. Jesus certainly warned his followers that following Him would be hard and I think the book of Acts provides some excellent examples.

Prayer: God help us to be willing to go into the places that you need us to be regardless of how hard or uncomfortable they might be.

Posted in Acts, Christian Leadership, Christianity, Eddying Out, Following God, Holy Spirit, Jesus | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Chains of Freedom

After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome. The brothers and sisters there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged. When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him.  Three days later he called together the local Jewish leaders. When they had assembled, Paul said to them: “My brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans.  They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death.  The Jews objected, so I was compelled to make an appeal to Caesar. I certainly did not intend to bring any charge against my own people.  For this reason I have asked to see you and talk with you. It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.” – Acts 28:11‭-‬16

After his sojourn on Malta Paul is again on his way to Rome to resolve his appeal to Caesar. The mystery of the boat replacement is solved in this passage as they are described as finding passage on an “Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux”. This is an interesting detail as these two Greek gods were considered the patrons of travelers, and of sailors in particular. Paul has clearly demonstrated to those with him that his God is bigger than storms and snakebites. God is the true patron of travelers in this land of oblivion on our journey home to the undiscovered country.

The Roman veneration and worship of Castor and Pollux may have lent new meaning to Paul’s triumphant arrival in Rome on a ship bearing their names. It was certainly not lost on the roman soldiers that were with Paul and I am sure word spread among the Roman soldiers that the God that Paul was speaking about had great power and protected those who faithfully follow Him.

Apparently word of Paul’s journey preceded him among believers. After landing and disembarking to walk along the Appian way to Rome Paul is met by believers who have traveled to meet him. They are about a day’s journey from Rome at a place called “the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns”. Apparently the Forum of Appius was a well-known landmark along the Appian way that led from Rome to Brindisi in southern Italy.

My family lived in Italy for a year when I was in fifth grade and we visited Rome and many of the places described in this passage. I do not remember being aware of the Appian way and the history it held. Looking back I wish I would have spent more time being interested in history and less time eating pepperoni pizza and catching lizards. I did return to Italy just out of high school on a trip through Europe with my sister. We actually visited Brindisi, Italy on our way to the Greek island of Corfu. I am sure we visited historic places on that trip, but what I mainly remember was the beaches and riding scooters. But I digress, back to this interesting stretch of water.

It sounds like the believers actually travel with Paul for last part of his journey to Rome. This was probably to serve as advocates to the Roman government to help Paul get situated in Rome. Apparently their advocacy was effective as Paul is placed under what sounds like house arrest but he is free to receive many guests who are anxious to hear about the Good News he has brought.

After getting settled in Paul reaches out to the local Jewish leaders. Clearly Paul still identifies with his Jewish roots. Paul wants to explain why he has brought charges against his own people with regard to his treatment in Jerusalem by the Jewish leaders there. I sense that Paul wants to reset hi relationship with these Jewish leaders before they take the same attitudes and approach as the leaders in Jerusalem. Paul makes it clear that “It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”

I do not know whether the chain that Paul was bound by was a physical one, but there was certainly a metaphysical one binding him to God. He bound himself to the Messiah Jesus, and all that He stands for, no matter where he is and what is happening – storms, shipwrecks, snakebites, and prisons included.

We are called to bind ourselves to God and Jesus in a similar manner. The self-imposed chains that Paul, and all God followers, choose to wear are very different than the worldly coils that tend to ensnare us. These chains are actually a sign of freedom and they keep us close to God, and one another, when the road ahead gets difficult.

Prayer: God thank You for allowing us to bind ourselves to you. Keep us close and lead us where You need us to go.

Posted in Acts, Christian Community, Christianity, Faith, Following God, Free Will, God's Love for Us, Gospel, Jesus, Paul | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Snakebites and Metaphysical Muscles

Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.  There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days.  His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him.   When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured.  They honored us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.  Acts 28: 1‭-‬10

Paul, our “passionate prisoner with a purpose“, the other sailors, and roman soldiers have arrived on the island of Malta after their harrowing crossing in the storm. The weather sounds miserable with rain and cold. Fortunately the people of Malta seem to be very welcoming and caring as they provide the castaways with food and a fire to warm them. Everything seems to be moving in a positive direction when something unexpected happens – Paul is bitten by a snake.

I have never been bitten by a snake, but I have had my share of snake encounters. I have encountered a den of vipers emerging from their winter slumber in Idaho, jumped over a timber rattler in Nevada, and I have seen plenty of water snakes here in Michigan where I now live. I am not sure why, but I confess I have an illogical aversion to snakes. I did not have any traumatic childhood experience involving snakes that I can remember. I just don’t like snakes.

My work as an exploration geologist took me to many western states that are home to rattlesnakes and I was born in eastern Washington state where certain areas have many rattlesnakes. As venomous snakes go rattlesnakes are not the most deadly or dangerous, and they at least try to warn you to keep away with their raspy rattling. The snake that affixed itself to Paul’s hand apparently did not provide any warning. It was probably really cold and wet too and had come near the fire to get warm.

As soon as the people saw the viper hanging from Paul’s hand they attached spiritual/moral meaning to the event “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” They placed the event into their own religious context. The men with Paul knew that it was not the goddess of justice but the God of the universe that saved both their lives and Paul from the storm and this snakebite.

Paul showed great poise with this viper hanging from his hand as he simply shook it off into the fire. Now that was certainly hard luck for the viper, but God has a plan for this event that apparently required sacrifice of the snake. The people of Malta, upon seeing this seemingly miraculous response to being bitten by a poisonous snake, proceed to place Paul in their own religious framework by making him a god, for only a god could survive such an event. Paul will redirect this wayward worship toward the God who saved him from the storm, the snakebite, and his own sins which included directing people to stone early God-followers to death.

Paul achieves this religious redirection by praying and healing in God’s name so that the people of the island can know the God who wants to carry each of them like a son or daughter through all of life’s storms and snakebites. The result of the snakebite miracle and healing is that many others on Malta brought their sick to be healed and the men were provided with the supplies they needed to complete their voyage. The passage does not mention where they got a new ship, but perhaps that is not the most important part of the story.

So what is the most important part of this story? I think the main point here is that Paul is getting into spiritual shape, God is preparing Paul to take the Gospel of Christ to Rome. Apparently part of the “training” required is for Paul to allow the Holy Spirit to fill him during numerous spiritual squalls. God knows that Paul’s future will involve many hardships and challenges as he shares the Gospel of Christ to Rome and beyond. These events, which seem rather challenging from an earthly perspective, are to develop metaphysical muscles. Paul will have to endure imprisonment, beatings, debates, and many other challenges to carry Christ to those who do not believe.

Many of the people he will be reaching out to will have very different religious backgrounds, just like the people of Malta. Paul’s training will make him nimble and resilient in the midst of confusing and contentious interactions, similar to those on the ship when the sailors and soldiers had lost hope and were ready to sacrifice all the prisoners. He needed to learn how to give hope to the hopeless. The leader lessons came in the form of seemingly hopeless situations that God helped Paul successfully navigate and survive with the help of the Holy Spirit.

The take home for me is that sometimes our “training” as followers of Christ will require navigating seemingly hopeless situations. It is in these situations that we are challenged to place all of our hope not in a resolution to our liking, but in God. That is what Paul is learning here. God’s will be done – regardless of the outcome from an earthly perspective.

Prayer: God help us to place our trust in You regardless of how hopeless or challenging earthly events may seem.

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Passionate Prisoner with a Purpose

On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away. Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 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. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Altogether there were 276 of us on board. When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea. When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf. The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely. – Acts 27:27‭-‬44

Wow fourteen days at sea being driven by a storm. I can see why some of the sailors were ready to abandon ship and take their chances. I can only imagine the seasickness, cold, and discomfort that these sailors must have experienced over this two-week period. Losing their cargo was the least of their worries. Paul is taking on the role of being a comforter to these men who were technically his prison guards en route to Rome.

Paul must have impressed the Roman soldiers with his peace and passion amidst the storm. When some of the sailors wanted to take the lifeboat and leave the Roman soldiers did something that would seem to be either unwise or at least risky. They cut the lifeboat free and let it drift away. This was in response to Paul saying “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” Paul the prisoner had gained stature and respect among these Romans. Perhaps this was in preparation for his many conversations and conversions with other Romans to come.

Paul sets a good example by caring for the sailors and the soldiers by telling them to eat. He leads them in giving thanks to God, before they eat the food. Importantly, Paul was also giving thanks before they were saved or out of danger. He was faithfully following, trusting God, and leading others to do the same.

Paul was caring for the 276 souls on board that ship in a way that many of these men had probably never seen. I imagine that many had led hard lives of labor and loneliness. The combination of the storm, and Paul’s quiet example in the midst of it, seems to have enabled them to follow this passionate prisoner with a purpose. They are about to go all in by tossing the rest of their cargo and cutting lose the anchors that had been keeping them from crashing into land.

Their landing on the island did not go well and the end result was a ship run aground still some distance off shore in pounding surf that was tearing the ship apart. At this point the Roman soldiers want to simply kill the prisoners, but their respect for Paul, and perhaps the God he served, led them to allow all aboard to swim for it to the island. In the end everyone reached the shore safely, just as Paul had prophesied. I suspect there was some kissing of the ground and sailors very happy to become landsman once again.

This may be a stretch but it strikes me that this storm is a bit like the last days of Jesus before He was crucified on the cross. The time when He was being beaten and whipped must have felt like a horrendous storm to His disciples and all those who were following Him. Through it all Jesus demonstrated radical faith and following, even to the end when He stated that God’s will should be done rather than His own. Jesus was also a prisoner with a purpose. He needed to provide a means for us to be with God and to help us cross the river that no one could cross.

Jesus found Paul on the road to Damascus and Paul helped these 276 souls find God and a safe landing. It was Paul’s spiritual squall, born of blindness and recovered sight, that gave him the faith he needed to lead these sailors to their savior.

Prayer: God thank you for leading us amidst storms and squalls. Help us to use what we learn to lead others to You.

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Losing our Cargo

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Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest. When a gentle south wind began to blow, they saw their opportunity; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. 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. As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, so the men hoisted it aboard. Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Because they were afraid they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. 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 ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved. After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me 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.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.” – Acts 27:12‭-‬26

Today’s passage is about storms and casting off cargo that we do not need in exchange for something far more valuable than any cargo. Apparently the ship captain in this passage was pushing the envelope trying to get a load of grain from Alexandria to Rome. Apparently after September 15 sailing on the Mediterranean was considered dangerous and after November 11 it was considered impossible. I am not sure what was driving this captain to make the dangerous crossing, perhaps the grain would be ruined if he waited or maybe he was motivated by the money he would make if he could make the crossing. Either way it was a poor choice and the ship and cargo will be lost, but it turns out something much more valuable will be gained.

Paul and other prisoners had been transferred to this cargo ship because the other ship they were traveling on decided to stop for the winter because travel was too dangerous. They apparently succeeded in making part of the Mediterranean crossing as far as Crete, the first and last large island between this part of the Mediterranean and Malta to the west. Their goal was a harbor on Crete near a town called Phoenix. Unfortunately, their initial landing fell short of their intended destination. The bay did not afford good winter protection and the crew decided to push on to Phoenix to find a better harbor to spend the winter. Paul had recommended that they remain and take their chances rather than going on to Phoenix.

The crew thought they saw their opportunity when a gentle south wind came up which could push them along the relatively short distance west along the coast to Phoenix. Unfortunately what started out as a gentle wind became a raging storm and essentially blew them right by their intended destination on Crete and out into the Mediterranean. For many days they battled the storm trying to keep the ship from sinking. They deployed a sea anchor which as I understand it is really just a sail or some other object attached to a rope which is driven in the water to pull the boat along to provide steerage without the danger of using the wind and the sails. They also began to jettison the cargo and eventually the ship’s tackle overboard in an effort to prevent the ship from sinking.

“When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved. After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss.” So in essence Paul was saying “I told you so”. While true this was probably not the most sensitive time or manner to share this rebuke. Paul still has much to learn about leading while following.

I think in many ways this event was Paul’s “Meribah test“. Just as Moses and Aaron were tested at Meribah, Paul is tested to see if he will follow and trust God even in the midst of this scary storm, and perhaps more importantly will he lead others to do the same. This is Paul’s opportunity to learn some the same lessons that Peter learned when Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Paul passed the test by faithfully following God through his prayers and listening when the angel came to him. Ultimately many on the ship, and in Rome, will believe and become followers of God because of his actions and choices.

Paul is reassured by an angel from God that although the ship will be lost all those on the ship will be saved. I think there’s an important spiritual metaphor here. Sometimes we may have to jettison our cargo and be ready to lose our lives to find our real purpose on the journey. Jesus said all those who lose their lives will save them and gain eternal life. The men on this voyage with Paul lost every earthly thing but escaped with their lives and something infinitely more important their eternal souls.

The take home lesson for me here is that even if we lose all earthly things in pursuit of God we can still have the most important thing – God Himself. He believes in us and our ability to find Him even in the midst of storms. If we place our lives in the hollow of His hand He will carry us like a son or daughter to exactly where we need to go. The loss of our souls is far more important than a load of Alexandrian grain or any other “cargo” we are hauling around with us.

Prayer: God help us to trust in You and the life that You promise all those who faithfully follow You.

Posted in Acts, Christian Leadership, Christianity, Death and Dying, Faith, Following God, Love for the Lost | Tagged | 6 Comments