Written a year after the tragedy, Gordon Lightfoote’s song made the SS Edmund Fitzgerald the most famous Great Lakes shipping disaster in history. The Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes at the time. Yet on November 10, 1975, during a Lake Superior gale, it sunk suddenly in 530 feet near Whitefish Bay – without sending any distress signals. All 29 hands in the crew perished. A day earlier it had set out from Superior Wisconsin en route to Detroit on a nice sunny Sunday afternoon. With the volatility of the current recession, hurricane force winds hit and the Fitzgerald, and several other ships were trapped in treacherous seas. Visibility was extremely poor, the radio beacon at Whitefish Bay was knocked out by the storm, and the Fitzgerald lost its own on-board radar. Its only communication was with another ship 10 miles away, which tried to guide it to safe harbor.
In times such as these, it’s easy to feel like you’re on a ship and disaster is just around the bend. Should you let down the life boats and get off or should you ride out the storm? There aren’t a whole lot of options once you’re in the storm. And chances are, it’s not all your fault that you’re in this predicament.
You can begin pounding your breast and saying “Woe is me” – or you can take this as a great opportunity to exercise your trust in God and allow Him to show you how this opportunity can be turned to His glory and to share God’s goodness and love with others.
Refer to chapter 27 of the Book Acts, which describes a portion of the Apostle Paul’s journey to Rome, to stand trial for some false accusations made by religious leaders against him. At one point, the captain of the ship made a bad decision to sail at a dangerous time of year, in spite of Paul’s warnings. The ship was caught in a “northeaster” wind of hurricane force, much like the one that destroyed the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. The crew used all their skill to combat the storm, even throwing the cargo overboard to lighten the load; but after being battered continuously for days, they gave up all hope of being saved. The book says that 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 whose I am 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.”
The story continues that at one point the sailors pretended they were going to lower some anchors from the bow, and instead let the lifeboat down into the sea, planning to escape. 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 fall away. This was an amazing act of faith in Paul’s God for unbelievers, and it paid off. Paul even urged everyone to eat, since they’d need the strength 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. The ship struck a sandbar and ran aground, and 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 his men from carrying out their plan. And all 276 on-board survived as God promised Paul.
This lesson demonstrates that, instead of focusing on the problems all around you, you need to focus on what God wants you to become, and how these circumstances are going to contribute to your maturity in reaching your destiny. It reminds me of a short story I once heard.
A young man once applied for his first job as a navigator for a local shipping route. When the old Captain saw the young fellow come in, he figured there was no way this kid could fill the job. He thought he’d just be polite and ask him a couple questions. That would demonstrate why he wasn’t qualified; then he’d send him on his way and he could interview a more experienced candidate. His first question was simply, “Young man, do you know where the rocks are?” The young man answered, “No sir. I’m not sure I do.” But before the captain could say another word he continued, “But I know where the rocks ain’t.” The old Captain gave him the job on the spot.
Sometimes we feel that we need to search out the rocks: to study the rocks, to understand the rocks. We’re drawn toward the rocks for some odd reason. Our curiosity? Their perceived beauty? Any number of reasons. It’s a strange reality, but a person will always move in the direction that he is focused on. If he is focused on his problems or his sins, that’s the direction he will advance towards. However, if he is focused on God’s forgiveness, His love, the person’s own self-worth – well, the conclusion is obvious. Some pastors, teachers and evangelists need to consider this reality as well when they minister.
Along the coast, lighthouses were specifically built, so ships could avoid the rocks. We are called to be lights to the world as Christ is our light. Jesus constantly reminded his disciples: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
He’ll show us where the rocks ain’t. Sure, we’ll experience persecution and storms or tests and trials in our lives; that’s how God helps us mature and teaches us and hones off the rough edges. These are the things that he uses to reveal to us our weakest areas, so that we can work on them to seek His perfection.
But if a vessel hits the rocks, it’s going down. The rocks represent those things that cause us to fret and worry. That’s what Jesus has promised to steer us away from, toward safety. Can He pull us out if we hit the rocks and begin to sink? Sure He can – just like He did for the apostle Paul; if we let him. But His desire is that we allow Him to steer us clear of the rocks in the first place.
Five Steps to successfully maneuvering through turbulent times
Few of us can honestly say we’ve had trials as extreme as the apostle Paul. In his second letter to the church at Corinth, he recited some of these: “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 thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, 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 own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 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.”
Yet, a little later Paul boasts in Christ: “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
- Turn off bad news. That may mean avoiding certain people and entertainment, including some TV shows. Our spiritual enemy would have you to focus on bad news. Worry will steal your joy and keep you from God’s best for you. Lighten that emotional load you carry and, by all means, stop looking in the rear-view mirror at your past mistakes and failures. Trust that God has your best interests in mind.
- Believe in yourself. God believes in you. Get your mind off your own potential problems by helping others in more difficult circumstances. Reach out to those inside and outside your family or circle of friends – people at work – even strangers.
- Look forward. Let God show you opportunities to be blessed and to bless others. Learn to listen to His voice. And meditate on good things and on the Lord.
- Prepare to engage the storms. The only way to successfully do this is to reflect God in your life. Jesus puts it this way: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things [everything you need in life] shall be added unto you.” The only way you will have the knowledge to reflect God in your life is if you get to really know Him. You get to know God by reading and meditating on His written Word (the Bible), by communicating with the Him (prayer), by living a disciplined life, by exercising your faith (which will increase through use) and by fellowshipping with the people of God (His Church). We need that network of support in our lives.
- Reach safe harbor – Finish strong – Never quit! No matter how bad the situation looks – it’s never over when you have God on your side. An excellent scripture to put on your refrigerator and read often is Micah 7:7-8 But as for me, I will look to the Lord, and be confident in Him. I will keep watch; I will wait with hope and expectancy for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Rejoice not against me, O my enemy! When I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light to me.