By Pastor Glenn Pease
The more I study the history of man and the sea, the more grateful I become that I am a landlubber. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost in ship wrecks in my lifetime. But some sailors have much to be thankful for in spite of ship wrecks. John O'Brian, for example, was off the coast of India when his ship was wrecked, and all hands were lost, but he and four other sailors. The next ship he was on floundered off the Cape of Good Hope, and he alone of all the crew got to shore safely. Then in July of 1747 he was on the Dartmouth, a ship of 50 guns, which was engaged in battle with a Spanish Man Of War with 70 guns. His ships magazine blew up, and he was blown off the ship. Only 14 of the 300 man crew were rescued. He was one of them. He was found flowing on top of a gun carriage that had been blown off the ship with him.
There are few men in history who have as much to be thankful for, for protection on the sea. There is one in the Bible however who beats this amazing record. The Apostle Paul says in II Cor. 11:25, "Three times I was ship wrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea." Paul not only ties John O'Brian in ship wrecks he survived, but he spent more time in the water, and above all, Paul is the only man we know of who was the key to the survival of every man on board a ship that was totally lost. 276 men survived this terrible ship wreck. Charles Hocking in his Dictionary Of Disasters At Sea, reveals that many ships have gone down in storms, and some had survivors, but more were lost than saved. Just a few examples gives you the picture.
In 1857 in the gulf of Finland-826 lost, none saved.
In 1863 off Japan-584 lost, only 69 saved.
In 1854 Australian ship-459 lost, only 39 saved.
In 1914 off Brazil-445 lost, only 143 saved.
In our text we are looking at one of the greatest ship wreck stories of history, for not only was it a spectacular ordeal for all involved, it stands alone as a story where the ship and all its contents were lost, but where every life on board was saved. We would expect to see a Thanksgiving service after such a dramatic story. We would not expect to see it during the ordeal itself, and before anyone has yet made it to safety on land, but that is what we see in our text. Paul has a mini-Thanksgiving service while all of their lives were still hanging by a thread. It would seem that the only value of this scene for us is to make us grateful that we were not a part of it. It was a horrible experience, but nevertheless, it is loaded with food for thought as we approach another Thanksgiving. Paul's thankful spirit here is of value for all of us for three reasons. First because of-
II. THE CONTEXT OF HIS THANKFULNESS.
We have already referred to the fact that these 276 men were riding out a hurricane. Some of us know how frightening it can be out on a lake for even a few minutes when the wind and waves are high and threatening. These men had been helpless for 14 days as they were driven across the Adriatic Sea. 14 days of hanging on for life. It was not exactly party time. Bill Robinson in A Sailor's Tales tells of a 24 hour storm he had to ride out in the Gulf Stream in 1976. He said all of your energy is concentrated on just staying on board the ship. He said that nobody eats, for the same reason you don't see people eating while running from a charging bull, or while escaping from a burning house. Your life depends on not being distracted by anything but the need to hold on for dear life.
This contemporary testing confirms the account of this ancient story of riding out a hurricane. Paul said that for 14 days they lived in constant suspense, and did not eat any food. Here were over 270 men in extremely weakened condition, with minds as worn out as their bodies, with fear and despair, and their ship ready to be dashed against the rocks at any moment, and yet, in this context, Paul does not curse the darkness, but lights a candle. He gives a little pep talk; says a prayer of thanks to God, and they all eat some bread. It was the first positive thing they had done in 2 weeks, and it gave them the shot in the arm they needed to press on.
The context of Paul's thankfulness is a key lesson for all of us. Anybody can be thankful lying on a beach in the sun while sipping cool drinks. But Paul was thankful in the worst storm we have on record, next to the one Noah had to ride out. Thankfulness is only a real virtue when it functions in the context of stress, strain, and storm. It is still pleasant in the sunshine, but there it is a mere natural virtue of which all men are capable. The reason we honor the Pilgrims for their role in giving us Thanksgiving is because they were thankful in a context of great suffering. 47 of them died their first winter in this land. They braved the stormy sea, and risked their all to be free. Mrs. Felicia Hermons wrote of them-
The breaking waves dashed high
On a stern and rock-bound coast,
And the woods, against a stormy sky
Their giant branches toss'd;
And the heavy night hung dark
The hills and waters o'er,
When a band of exiles moor'd their bark
On the wild New England shore.
Not as the conqueror comes,
They, the true-hearted, came,
Not with the role of the stirring drums,
And the trumpet that sings of fame;
Not at the flying come,
In silence and in fear,--
They shook the depths of the desert's gloom
With their hymns of lofty cheer.
Amidst the storm they sang,
And the stars heard and the sea!
And the sounding aisles of the dim woods rang
To the anthem of the free!
America was not a paradise then. It has become what it is for us, because of thankful people who did not give up because of misery and hardship. Like Paul, they paused in the struggle for survival, and said, thank you Lord, and then pressed on. All though history the truly great stories of thankfulness are those that come out of a context that none would choose, but which have to be endured with either bitterness or thankfulness.
Many Christians get themselves into messes, like Paul was in, by no mistakes of their own, but due to circumstances they cannot control. If Paul would have had control, they would be safely harbored through this whole storm. He warned them not to go, but the decision was not his. He was at the mercy of other people's choices. All Paul could do was to be faithful and thankful for each day he was alive, and to make some difference in the world for Christ.
Henry Muhlenberg was a young German pastor who set sail for England to minister in America in 1742. Pirates threatened the seas, and so there was a 3 week delay. When the ship did get going, the water on board was foul, and the sailors were a quarrelsome and
drunken crew. The rats were so numerous he counted several thousand, and on top of all this, he was dreadfully seasick. It was a 75 day journey of misery. When he landed the trip to Philadelphia was just as miserable, with rainy weather, mud, and washed out roads. He finally made it, and for years was a faithful pastor, even though, when the Revolutionary War broke out, he was constantly being sought by British officers to be arrested. People urged him to flee with his wife, but year after year he avoided them, and kept preaching until the peace treaty was signed. His was a life of suffering and service under fire, yet, he was a man of faithfulness because he was a man of thankfulness. A thankful spirit will keep you going when no other fuel can. It is one of life's greatest life-savers, and career savers. People who are thankful do not give up, but, like Paul, keep pressing on, for they are able in all settings to see something for which to be grateful.
Dietrich Bonhoffer, in prison for resistance to Hitler, wrote this letter to his parents just before his execution. "Dear mother, I want you to know that I am constantly thinking of your and father everyday, and I thank God for all that you are to me.....Thank you for all the love that come to me in my cell from you during the past year, and has made everyday easier for me. I think these hard years has brought us closer together." Great thanksgivers are not Pollyanas who pretend nothing bad every happens. They are people who suffer the bad to the depth, and yet they never lose their optimistic thankful spirit, because they believe that above every storm the sun shines, and that light will overcome all darkness in Christ's good time.
Note how Paul not only gave thanks to God in the context of the roughest ride of his life, but in verse 35 it says he gave thanks to God in front of them all. In other words, in a context where he was a minority, with a couple of Christian friends, and all the rest were pagans. Paul was bold and unashamed of his faith in God. He thanked God openly before all these men who had probably been cursing their gods for what they were enduring. Paul was a fanatic for seeking every opportunity to witness.
In a cartoon sequence from Peanuts, Linus says to Charlie Brown, "When I get big, I'm going to be a real fanatic." Charlie asked, "What are you going to be fanatical about Linus?" With a quizzical look on his face Linus reflects, "Oh, I don't know, it doesn't really matter, I'll be sort of a wishy-washy fanatic." Paul may have felt wishy-washy as he had just spent 14 days being splashed and soaked like a load of clothes in a washer, but he was a fanatic who knew what he was a fanatic about. He was a fanatic for being thankful in all situations. Paul did not just write the words, "In everything give thanks," for he lived it, because he really believed there is no context of life you can be in that does not have something for which to give thanks.
Mark Twain was just the opposite of Paul. He wrote to a friend once, "I 've been reading the morning paper. I do it every morning, well knowing that I shall find in it the usual depravities and baseness and hypocrisies and cruelties that make up civilization and cause me to put in the rest of the day pleading for the damnation of the human race." Paul knew everything Mark Twain did, and then some. Paul knew the depth of human depravity. He was a part of it himself, as he imprisoned and killed innocent and righteous people. Nevertheless, with all his knowledge of the darkness, Paul loves life, and he loves people, even those scummy pagan sailors, and Paul is thankful.
The real test of a thankful heart is how it responds to a context of crisis. Dr. Arthur Caliandro tells of the 25 year old woman who was flying in a small plane with her boss when they had to make an emergency landing in Texas. The pilot was killed instantly, and she was knocked unconscious. When she regained consciousness, she saw her boss was dead. She was in great pain, and she cried out, but of course, there was no response. It looked hopeless, but five hours later she was discovered and rescued. It was a wonder she was still alive, for she had severe internal injuries, but she was taken to a hospital and her life was spared. When Dr. Caliandro heard her story he expected to visit a woman who would be grateful to be alive, but he found just the opposite. She did nothing but complain and gripe about her cruel fate. She remained in the hospital for two months, and none of the staff ever heard a positive word out of her. She was totally restored to health, but she was the unhappiest woman he had ever met, for her philosophy was, this is the devil has made, let us complain and be miserable in it.
In contrast was the philosophy of Helen Baker, a woman who had a nerve disorder that affected her body, neck, and speech. She was never healed though she prayed for it often. Yet, with her handicap she was faithful in worship and in her service to others. She was such an encouragement to others in their suffering that she came to a point where she could say, "I can honestly thank God that I am infirm." When you can come to the point where you can be thankful in a negative context, then you have arrived at the level of Christ-like, and Paul-like thankfulness. It is like the man who lost his leg in a train accident who said, "I am just thankful it was the leg with the rheumatism."
If you are only thankful when all is right and wonderful, you are on the level of mere humanistic gratitude. This is universal, and there is nothing uniquely Christian about it. Atheist feel it as well as saints. But when the context is negative, and the emotions are down and pessimistic, that is when the light of Christian thankfulness has a chance to shine. 14 days of sea water soaking could not put out Paul's flame of thankfulness. The thankful spirit may not change the context, but it can radically change the person whatever the context. The most dramatic example of this is seeing in Thomas Gaddis' book, The Birdman Of Alcatraz. Robert Stroud, a two time murderer, had spent most of his 70 years in prison. For the first 20 years he was hard and bitter and withdrawn. But then Stroud found a sparrow that had fallen from its nest in a storm. He took it from the prison courtyard to his cell and nursed it back to life. His interest in birds was aroused, and he read everything he could on birds.
Other prisoners began to bring their sick canary's to him, and he would often cure them. He had not spoken to a guard for 20 years, but he wanted an orange crate to make a bird cage. When he gave it to Stroud, for the first time in 20 years he mumbled, "Thank you." That thank you was his beginning to be restored to the human race to become a normal man again, who would relate to others. A simple thank you did not change his context, but it changed completely how he functioned in a negative context. A thankful spirit will do it every time. What it did for Paul it will do for all. Secondly, look at-
II. THE CONTENT OF HIS THANKFULNESS.
The fact is, we do not have Paul's prayer here. Dr. Luke, who recorded this, had been hanging on for 14 days too, and probably was in no position to take notes on this prayer. Luke just tells us that after he had shared with the men that one man would lose a single hair from his head, he then took bread and gave thanks to God. This means he obviously gave thanks for the bread, but possibly, and even probably, he thanked God for the promises to spare the lives of all these pagan sailors.
My point here is, Paul did not likely have a long prayer, but one that was short and to the point. It was a thanksgiving for life, and bread for one last meal to give them the strength they needed for survival. Paul makes a point of this in verse 34. You need food he said to them. This bread was no luxury, it was a necessity for their lives. Without this meal many of them could have died. God promised to save them all, but God's promises still involve man doing his part. There is no record of anyone ever surviving continuous non-eating. Food is essential for life, even if you are in the hands of God. That is why food is the most universal cause for thanksgiving.
By our standards, or even theirs, it was a lousy meal, for it was apparently merely bread. It was the kind of insignificant snack that we would consider unworthy of grace before eating it, but for them it was a gift of life. A little can mean a lot in the context like this, and Paul was thankful for that little. He was not gripping and complaining, even though he had good reason. The whole ghastly nightmare could have been avoided had they listened to Paul, and stayed safely in port. Paul had plenty to be frustrated and angry about, but these emotions were not allowed to run his life. He demonstrates for all the world to see, it doesn't take much to make a truly thankful man thankful.
Paul was grateful for bread with a sincerity and intenseness that only a smorgesboard could stimulate in most people. Paul did not need a long list of blessings to get his spirit of thanksgiving reved up. He really meant what he wrote to Timothy in II Tim. 6:3-8, "For we brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that." People who live close to the edge of life, like Paul, tend to be able to be content with far less. Eddie Rickenbacker, famous for his survival after 21 days of drifting on the Pacific, was asked what lesson he learned. He said, "The biggest lesson I learned from that experience was that if you have all the fresh water you can drink and all the food you care to eat, you ought never to complain about anything."
The problem is, most people don't spend 21 days on the Pacific starving and drying of thirst. Most also do not spend 14 days being blown across the Mediterranean by a hurricane starving. One suspects that even God would find it a challenge to arrange for all people to have these types of experience. The rest of us need to learn from their experience how to have a thankful spirit in spite of a small content of things to be thankful for. A good question we need to consider is, how much does it take to make us thankful? If there needs to be a large content to our bag of blessings before we can be grateful to God, then we are not truly thankful people. Thankful people can be thankful even if the table of contents in their book of blessings has only two chapters, says Paul, and they are food and clothing.
We sing, Count Your Many Blessings, and we can do it, for our list is longer than our arm of the things for which we have to be grateful, but Paul says, even if your list consists of just two, and who can't count at least two, that is sufficient content for the truly thankful heart.
So count your blessings one by one.
If two is all you find under the sun,
Then like an incense to the skies,
Let your prayer of thankfulness arise.
As we look at this Thanksgiving in a hurricane, on the high seas, we can first of all be grateful that we do not have such a little to be grateful for, as they did. But we can also be grateful that by God's grace a Christian can be grateful when there is so little to be grateful for. The question is not, just how much do you have to be grateful for, but how little can you have left, and still be grateful? Can you suffer the loss of all things, and yet thank God for life, and the food you need to sustain life? How much content do you need
on your Thanksgiving list to be content?
An old time evangelist past the hat for an offering, and when it came back it was embarrassingly empty. He shook the hat to make clear it was empty, and then lifted his eyes to heaven and said, "I thank thee Lord that I got my hat back from this congregation." One has reason to doubt the sincerity of this expression of thanks for so little, but there is no doubt about the sincerity of Paul's spirit of thanks. When you truly have a thankful spirit, it does not take a lot to make you thankful. It is good for us to measure the content of our thankfulness, and find out if we need plenty to be grateful, or if we can, like Paul, have a thankful spirit even with very little. Thirdly look at-
III. THE CONTAGION OF HIS THANKFULNESS.
Verse 36 says they were all encouraged and ate some food. One positive optimistic thankful person can change the whole atmosphere in a terrible situation. Thankfulness is a contagious spirit. If everybody is complaining and gripping, and one person shares their spirit of thankfulness, the others feel embarrassed to go no complaining, and they too begin to look at something for which they are grateful. But as long as all join in complaining, the negative will prevail. It takes one to go against the mood flow and interject a word of thanks to reverse that flow.
Paul did it here, and 275 other men were encouraged in moments after 14 days of fear and discouragement. Like a virile but virtuous virus, Paul's spirit of thankfulness infected the entire ship, and you get a picture of 276 men enjoying the taste of food together, and then laboring in unity to empty the ship of its final cargo, with a sense of hope that their miserable story might have a happy ending after all. Paul was a thankful person, and thankful people are contagious people. They generate hope in desperate situations. Arthur Rubinstein wrote of his own life, "I'm passionately involved in life: I love its changes, its colors, its movement. To be alive, to be able to see, to walk, to have houses, music, paintings....its all a miracle. I have adopted the technique of living life from miracle to miracle....What people get out of me is this outlook on life which comes out in my music." Such enthusiasm and gratitude for life is contagious, and by means of his music he spreads that spirit.
A thankful spirit encourages others to see the positive in their own lives, and so being thankful is a ministry in a world where the bad news is thrown at us so often we tend to forget the good news. We need people with a thankful spirit to remind us that light is as real as the dark. One 12 year old girl even sought to encourage God. She prayed, "Thank you Lord for all you've done, and keep the good work." God does good work through His faithful servants, like Paul, who, by giving God thanks gave all the frightened and despairing men hope. His spirit was contagious, and they began to feel encouraged about the future. The beauty of thankfulness is that it is not only a fire that warms you, it warms others as well. There is just no question about it, one of the best ways we can make a positive difference in this storm-tossed world is to exhibit and express everyday in some positive way a thankful spirit.