By LeDayne McLeese Polaski
It was hot in the church that steamy New Orleans night, but the members of the congregation were far more focused on the fact that this was their first revival since Hurricane Katrina — a significant step in a long, sacrificial process of rebuilding. The guest preacher for the evening was my friend Joe Howard. To say that Joe lost everything in the storm would be understated. Like many, he’d lost his possessions and his home. More painfully, he’d lost the church of which he’d been pastor. The building lay in ruins, the insurance company offering about 10 percent of what it would take to rebuild. His mostly elderly congregation had been scattered by the wind, most never to return. Unable to a piece life as a minister back together in the Big Easy, Joe had taken a secular job in Texas. So, in addition to everything he owned, Joe had also lost his calling and his city.
It was poignant to say the least when this man who’d lost it all to the waters stood before a congregation with their own aching losses and took as his text the story of the shipwreck in Acts 27.
Sweat pouring down his face, Joe began to bring the story to life:
The apostle Paul is on his way to Rome as a prisoner. This journey by sea was treacherous at any time of year, but this trip has been delayed to the most dangerous season of the year. Paul encourages the crew not to set sail at all, predicting that they will not complete the trip. But they ignore him and set out for the dangerous trip to Italy. Soon enough, a violent storm proves Paul right — the author writes, “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned” (v. 20).
Paul indulges in a little “I told you so” in a speech before reassuring those on board that God has given him a vision that they will all be saved. The storm continues, the ship adrift on a roiling sea, until they draw close to an unknown island. If approached correctly, this may be their salvation — if not, they will destroy the boat, stranding themselves too far into the sea to survive. In the middle of this tense atmosphere, Paul, more or less, serves communion.
“Just before daybreak, Paul urged all of us to take some food, saying, ‘Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and remaining without food … . Therefore, I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive, for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.’ … He took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Then all of us were encouraged and took food for ourselves. (We were 276 persons in the ship.)”
The next day, in the first-hand words of the author:
“In the morning [the crew] noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned to run the ship ashore. … But striking a reef, they ran the ship aground so that the stern was being broken up by the force of the waves. The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none might swim away and escape, but the centurion, wishing to save Paul … ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, and [those who could not swim] to follow, some on planks and others on pieces of the ship. And so it was that [we] all were brought safely to land.”
Did you catch that, Joe said? After two harrowing weeks at sea — 276 prisoners and captors — those who could swim and those who could not, some on their own power and some clinging to pieces of the destroyed ship — all came to safety.
When Joe came to this dramatic end, he looked out at the congregation and this suffering man declared to that struggling people, confidently, triumphantly:
“We can make it on the broken pieces!”
Acts 27 strikes me as an apt image of where we find ourselves as Church right now — that’s Church with a capital C. I don’t need to tell anyone what has happened and is happening — attendance is down, budgets are strapped, cultural influence is waning. Anyone who tells you with certainty what is coming for the Church is delusional. And most people have no idea of what to do in response. We’re in a time in which it seems that everything that has held us together and protected us from the stormy sea has run aground and fallen totally apart. All around us we see the wreckage of what had seemed so sure, so steady, so seaworthy.
What can we say about Church in a time like this? What can we do now that all hope of Church as is has been being saved has been abandoned? If sure answers are delusional, can we at least ask better questions?
Paul knew something about sacrificing the religious reality that had defined his life. So what might it look like to follow him, standing on the brink of destruction and instead of panicking feeding ourselves and each other? What cargo needs to be thrown overboard? What would it take to make sure that everyone makes it? How might we need to redefine what it means to make it?
Like Paul on the boat before the shipwreck, Jesus once took bread, offered thanks, broke it and gave it to his friends. It was an act that ever and always reminds us that in what is broken and shared, we find God. When whatever is to come comes, I hope we will remember that we can make it on the broken pieces.