1. Nothing ever seems to be easy in Paul’s life. Every journey is punctuated by hardship, opposition, riots, persecution, and obstacles of all kinds. I have a friend who reminds me of Paul. None of us will travel with her because the unimaginable always happens. One year she planned a trip to China to attend a conference and somehow instead of taking a plane that was going in that direction she boarded a plane going in the opposite direction. You know how these things tend to cascade with one mistake leading to another. She ended up spending five days on planes and only made the final day of her conference before heading home. We don’t count on these things when we leave home.
Such is the case with Paul’s putting out to sea on his way to Rome as a prisoner. By now, I am sure there are people who have reminded him countless times about the needless trouble he has caused himself by being determined to bring the offering personally to the Church in Jerusalem. I am sure he has heard “if only you had not done this” more than a few times and maybe he has even second guessed himself more than once. But for Paul, he had never expected the Gospel to lead to a charmed life. In fact, he was more accustomed to hardship than he was to success and more hardship was never a surprise. So, it should not have been a surprise for those traveling with him that they were likely to have trouble one way or the other.
But along the way to Rome we read in Chapter 27 about three harbors. The first is in verse 8 – Fair Havens. The second is Phoenix in verse 12 and the third is Malta in verse 39.
Each of them serve a different purpose.
The first, Fair Havens, is a harbor from headwinds and weariness. A place to stop when you are making little progress. We are going to look at that one in more detail later.
The second, Phoenix, is a haven for an extended period of time – an entire season to pass by in our lives. It’s more than weariness or slow progress. It is a time in our lives when we are forced to be out of the expected journey for longer than we had planned. Paul and his companions were hoping to spend the entire winter there until conditions improved and allowed them to continue. It’s not always the place you want to be since all of us would rather be on our way and not delayed. Phoenix is not like missing a flight or hitting traffic. It is a harbor for the times when life is interrupted for whole seasons or even years until our lives resume.
The third, Malta, is a harbor for recovering from catastrophe. It is shelter for the times we lose everything in life and need a fresh start.
As you can imagine, every harbor has different equipment. Fair Havens is full of encouragement. Phoenix is an easy place to get a room for an extended stay. Malta has a full blown shipyard.
We are all at different places this morning and in search of different harbors but I want to focus on the first – Fair Havens.
2. You cannot help but notice the way Luke repeats the description of the difficulty they encounter. In verse 7 he says, “the winds were against us – they denied us permission to move.” Again in verse 7 he says “we sailed hardly at all and only with great difficulty.” In verse 8, it is “with great difficulty we came to Fair Havens.”
All of us experience headwinds in our lives, times when we seem to be making little progress or headway in our lives. It’s not catastrophic or life threatening but a daily weariness of working just to keep up. It’s what some have called “pushing string.” It’s when everything is hard. Everything is slow. Everything is tentative. Everything is unresolved. It’s not a whole life or even a whole season but just a period of time when we cannot make progress in areas of our life. It’s like being on hold.
Look at the other description in verse 8. “We moved along the coast.” They sailed close to the shore. They are not even really sailing – just creeping along the coastline and not getting anywhere. Do either of these images – held back by a contrary wind or sailing close to the shore – describe times in your life? Let’s look at both.
3. What are some of the headwinds in life? Those things that deny our making progress?
Work and career are full of headwinds. We have probably all spent time either in a situation seemed like a dead end or had friends who are. I had lunch recently with an attorney friend who described his life as a nice home on a cul de sac. He was comfortable and there was no outlet. All he could do was make his dead end more enjoyable but there was probably a limit to what he could do. He wasn’t going anywhere. He was bored and stuck.
Others, like my friend are stuck but they don’t want to take the risk involved in doing something different so they wait for the opportunity for something better or more exciting and fulfilling without giving up the security of the job in which they have little or no interest. They wait to be recruited because they don’t want to risk what they have.
Then there are the workaholics who are frustrated that they cannot get everything done. Sadly, the longer they work the less productive they become. All sorts of studies have shown that. The more time they spend at the office the less they accomplish and it’s a descending spiral.
Finally, if you work in a large organization you are at the mercy of the headwinds of paperwork, multiple decision makers passing everything along and constant delays waiting for approvals and permission.
It’s hard to know which of these is the worst, isn’t it? It’s not gale winds or shipwreck. Just a constant swimming upstream that has enough pressure to keep you neutralized and immobile. It’s not enough storm to abandon ship but a steady opposition that eventually wears you out.
Circumstances create headwinds all the time.
There are always the unexpected expenses just about the time you get out of the hole or think you have even managed to save a little. A child gets sick, a car won’t start, the roof begins to leak.
The last flight from Dallas to Tyler is cancelled or delayed from Tyler and we miss our connections in Dallas.
We have plans and the sitter cancels.
We lose two pounds in three months and gain three over the week-end.
We hear “What’s this from the IRS?’ “The car is making a funny sound.” “I meant to take care of that but forgot.”
Relationships are full of headwinds.
Marriage. How often have we wondered when the other person is going to change and make life so much easier?
Children. How many of us thought we were never going to make it through adolescence?
Family. Many are in the “sandwich” generation where the kids still need help and parents are increasingly dependent on them. Family dynamics don’t always get easier as you get older.
Friends. We lose them or they grow cold and distant. They move away or have other interests.
All of us face personal headwinds.
Depression and moodiness are more prevalent.
Our health becomes more of a concern and even limiting.
We are anxious about the future and our ability to live with the volatility. A steady diet of the news is bound to have an effect on us.
We battle stress and anger and often a feeling of “am I ever going to overcome this?” We have a new understanding of Paul’s struggle in Romans 7. “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.”
And then there are spiritual headwinds.
Our disciplines become lax and there is little wind in the sails.
The easy answers don’t seem to work any more but we don’t know why.
Spiritual maturity seems as far off as it did many years ago.
We feel we should be further along than we are compared to others we read about or imagine.
So, we find ourselves sailing close to shore and afraid to lose sight of the familiar and safe.
It happens sometimes after a failure or when we are afraid of failure.
It happens when we don’t know our direction and our “instruments” are not working.
It happens when we’ve lost our confidence and our momentum.
4. What are the harbors in our lives?
The word “fair” or “beautiful” (in Greek that is kalos) does not really mean safe and the beauty it describes is not just photogenic beauty of sandy beaches, blue water and sunlight. The word “kalos” means fit perfectly for the task. It’s the same word you use when asking for the right tool in doing a job. You are not asking for a good looking tool – but for the right tool.
Fair Harbor is the right place to tie up at times. Harbors are not just quiet places but they have a purpose in our lives. God has created havens and shelters for us all along the way for the times the headwinds make us weary – and the headwinds are inevitable. As we said at the outset, different harbors have different equipment. Fair Harbor is not for rebuilding our lives after a shipwreck. It is not suitable for an extended season or a long time out. It is for the times we feel we need to sail close to shore.
5. I can think of at least four Fair Havens for us.
First, there are places that are havens. The most obvious is (or should be) the church. This is where we come to be encouraged and to know we are not in this all by ourselves. It is a place to see friends and to encourage them as well. I suspect all of us have a particular place – the beach or the mountains or the desert – that give rest to our souls. I’ve read that introverts like the mountains and extroverts like the beach. We like both. For some, a haven may be a museum, an art gallery, a park, even a back yard. All of these are places that give us momentary rest from headwinds.
Second, there are times of rest and we should take them. It is what Scripture calls Sabbath. I hope someday to be able to describe it from personal experience but for now it is just something I can describe from having read others who have it as a discipline in their lives – like Eugene Peterson. But there are other times – like vacation or walking or short breaks in the routine that allow us to tie up from battling the current and the winds.
Third, there are people in our lives who are harbors. At least, I hope you have someone like that. Someone who does not feel the need to fix your life or hold up flash cards of cheap encouragement, pat you on the back and send you on your way. No, I mean people like Henri Nouwen describes here in what he called the ministry of presence:
“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them. quote
Finally, I think there are particular passages of Scripture that are harbors we can carry around with us. We don’t need commercials with unrealistic promises but we don’t need heart surgery either. We need encouragement.
Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Psalm 62:1: “My soul will find rest in God alone.”
Isaiah 43:1: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name. You are mine.”
2 Corinthians 6:4-10: “But as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”
Hebrews 12:7: “Endure hardship as a discipline.”
1 Peter 5:7: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
All of us need harbors where the weariness is lifted and we bear each other’s burdens, build each other up and help us to look forward to sailing in the deep water, far from the shore and the winds behind us.
I often think about a poem by Wendell Berry when I am baffled and wondering which way to go. Maybe it will be helpful to you this morning.
The Real Work
by Wendell Berry
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
We all have impediments, things that block the easy flow of life. But without them our lives would speak to no one.