Through January and February, our sermon series was Worst-Case Scenarios. Who would have believed that a month later the world would be living through a worst-case scenario? We could write a new chapter to the book: What to do if you are living in a pandemic. 1. Wash your hands 2. Don’t touch your face 3. Avoid crowds 4. Self-isolate. 5.Wash your hands again
Of course, our theme came from a chance encounter I had with this book. The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. It contains helpful hints for what to do if you are attacked by an alligator, bear or shark, how to escape from a sinking car or how to run along the top of a moving train. All things that you might need in your daily life.
This week’s helpful hint is: How to survive adrift at sea. 1. Stay aboard your boat as long as possible before getting into your life raft 2. Get in the life raft and take whatever supplies you can carry. 3. If you are in cold water/weather get warm 4. Find food if you can 5. Try to get to land 6. If you see a plane or boat nearby try to signal it.
And again, there are pictures.
Through the series, we’ve looked at various Worst-Case Scenarios from the bible, what to do if you are swallowed by a really big fish, what to do if you are thrown into a den of lions, what to do if you have to fight a giant as well as sundry other topics.
This week we are going back to a story we’ve visited before and our topic is: What to do when you’ve lost hope. Euan read a part of the story earlier. But only a part of it because the entire story encompasses the best part of two chapters of the book of Acts.
And really that is so typical. In life we tend to remember the storms with much more clarity than we do the sunny days.
As I mentioned earlier, this Sunday we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of our first service, which was actually held on April 9, 1995.
And six years after we launched we experienced a shipwreck, and much like Paul and his companions, we survived. So, this morning I’m going to try to tie those two events together and come up with some life application by the end of my message, and then I’m going to eat my donut and drink my coffee.
So let’s start at the beginning of the journey, which seems like a pretty good place to start.
Acts 27:1 When the time came, we set sail for Italy.
The story began with a plan. If you are familiar with the book of Acts you know that Paul has mentioned several times his desire to go to Rome, which was politically the centre of the known world.
Nobody actually knows who started the Christian work in Rome, although it has been suggested that it was started by folks who had heard the message on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem.
What we do know is that the church had become a major presence in the city within 10 years of Christ’s death and resurrection. And visiting the church in Rome was apparently on Paul’s bucket list.
But it wasn’t as easy as jumping on a plane or boarding a cruise ship. But it’s funny how things have a way of working out.
After Paul had returned to Jerusalem from his third missionary journey he had been arrested and ended up facing charges before the Roman authorities. To make a long story short, Paul invokes his right as a Roman citizen and demanded to be tried in front of Caesar.
The local authorities saw this as a chance to rid themselves of a problem and arranged for Paul to be shipped off to Rome. I’m sure that Paul was thinking: Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?
The plan was for Paul to be put on a ship and sail to Rome. Simple plan.
In the Spring of 1994 we began discussions with the Atlantic District about the possibility of Angela and I and our kids, returning home from Australia to plant a new church on the district. We were offered our choice of a number of locations around the Maritimes and after praying about it we decided that Bedford would be the home of our new church.
And we had great plans. Over the previous nine years Angela and I had pastored two growing churches. We were young and full of dreams. I had been through church planters boot camp, we had a plan.
And you have to have a plan. The old adage is true, fail to plan and you plan to fail.
And we thought we had considered all the things that we would be up against as a church planter. Our district superintendent at the time, Ray Barnwell told me that starting a church from scratch would be the toughest thing we’d ever done. But I assured him that I had a plan.
After all it’s good to have a plan, it was J.R.R. Tolkien who cautioned us “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
Of course, just because you have a plan, doesn’t mean everything is going to come together the way you planned.
It was Dwight D. Eisenhower who wrote “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” They forgot to teach us that in Church planters’ school.
For Paul and his companions, their plan worked perfectly, until they set sail. They should have paid heed to Allen Saunders who wrote, “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”
Listen to how the early part of their trip was described.
Acts 27:4 Putting out to sea from there, we encountered strong headwinds that made it difficult to keep the ship on course, . . .
Acts 27:7 We had several days of slow sailing, and after great difficulty we finally neared Cnidus. But the wind was against us, . . .
Acts 27:9 We had lost a lot of time. The weather was becoming dangerous for sea travel because it was so late in the fall, . . .
But things seemed to be getting better.
Let’s pick up from the scripture that was read for us earlier, Acts 27:13 When a light wind began blowing from the south, the sailors thought they could make it. So they pulled up anchor and sailed close to the shore of Crete.
One storm after another, but through it all they weathered the storms. So, the plans had changed, they weren’t going to get to Rome when they thought they would, but they were still going to get to Rome.
There were some storms, but things weren’t horrible.
The first six years as a church, things didn’t go as planned. We had some storms, ask me about the Spring of Tuesdays sometime. But there were neat things happening, people were being introduced to Jesus and we were continuing to be innovative.
We were the first church in the Maritimes to worship in a movie theatre, and the first church in the Maritimes singing Hillsong Music. We were the first church on the district and in the city to have a website, we were the first church on the district to begin using PowerPoint and a video projector on a weekly basis.
There were some storms, but things weren’t horrible.
But if we go back to the story we discover that the good weather doesn’t last. Kind of one of those situations, you know. Someone said cheer up things could be worse, and I cheered up and sure enough, things did get worse. Kind of like 2020 so far.
In 2016 Jazz artist Charlie Hunter released an album entitled “Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth.” Which of course was a nod to a statement attributed to boxer Mike Tyson.
What Tyson actually said was “Everybody has a plan until they get hit. Then, like a rat, they stop in fear and freeze.”
If a quote by Mike Tyson doesn’t seem to carry much weight with you, The Duke of Wellington said, “Strategy ends when combat begins.”
So, here’s what happened. Acts 27:14-20 But the weather changed abruptly, and a wind of typhoon strength (called a “northeaster”) caught the ship and blew it out to sea. They couldn’t turn the ship into the wind, so they gave up and let it run before the gale. We sailed along the sheltered side of a small island named Cauda, where with great difficulty we hoisted aboard the lifeboat being towed behind us. Then the sailors bound ropes around the hull of the ship to strengthen it. They were afraid of being driven across to the sandbars of Syrtis off the African coast, so they lowered the sea anchor to slow the ship and were driven before the wind. The next day, as gale-force winds continued to batter the ship, the crew began throwing the cargo overboard. The following day they even took some of the ship’s gear and threw it overboard. The terrible storm raged for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone.
Of all the events, that are described here, I do believe that the scariest is the last verse. Acts 27:20 The terrible storm raged for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone.
At last all hope was gone. They had tried everything they could think of, and it wasn’t enough, and now all hope was gone. They were ready to give up.
For me, and Cornerstone that was 2001.
At a leadership meeting in January we were discussing our25th anniversary Sunday, and someone mentioned that we could keep going with the Worst-Case Scenario and talk about what if Cornerstone had never existed? And when they said that I immediately thought to myself, “They don’t know how close that was to being a reality.”
And even if you were here in 2001, there are only two people who know how close Cornerstone was to closing and that would be me and Angela. And it wasn’t because we had lost people. And we had, that year our attendance dropped by over a third.
And it wasn’t because we had lost finances, and we had.
That year we had to move out of our worship location, which was the Empire Cinema in Bedford. And if you are new to the community there was an 8 cinema Empire where the Lawton’s now is in Mill Cove. We had to move because we couldn’t afford the rent.
I had to move from being a full-time pastor to being a part-time pastor. With cap in hand I had to go to our district leadership and ask for a loan just so we could pay our bills.
But while those things were critical, the thing that we had lost that brought us to the point of giving up was hope.
Recently I discovered a website called despair.com and they are an un-motivational site. When I went on it for the first time, it brought back memories of 2001. How about some of these gems?
But, the reality is that Paul’s story didn’t end with verse 20 and Cornerstone’s story didn’t end with Denn wallowing in self-pity and doubt.
If you keep on reading in Paul’s story then you discover these words in Acts 28:14 . . . And so we came to Rome. They arrived at their destination. Paul’s dream had been achieved, and what had seemed impossible just months before was now a reality.
And in Cornerstone’s story, 36 months after I went from full time to part-time. 36 months after we had to borrow $10,000.00 from the district to pay our bills and just 36 months after I had lost all hope, we were in the middle of a building project.
We had raised over $358,000.00 in cash and commitments from our church family and we had obtained a million-dollar mortgage from Wesleyan Investment Fund. The property was cleared and we were starting construction on what is now our church home.
It didn’t happen magically or immediately, but it happened.
Two weeks ago we looked at Jesus calming the storm and how it happened instantly.
That’s not the way it happened with Paul. The storm lasted for fourteen days, that must have been the longest fourteen days of their lives. I know 2001 was the longest four years I spent leading Cornerstone.
So, what do we learn from the story? It is so easy to look around today and lose faith. More and more cases of COVID-19 are being reported. More people are dying, businesses are closing, we are cooped up in our homes, and our kids are missing school. What should we do when we feel like hope has left the room?
Paul Realized that Hope Had Been Lost.
It was only when Paul realized that all hope was lost that he stepped up to the plate.
Paul didn’t say everybody else had lost all hope, he said “All Hope was Lost”, he had lost hope as well.
But, that was the turning point. Paul knew that if they were going to survive that the hope that had been lost would have to be found.
Shortly after that we discover Paul calling the crew together for a pep talk. He gave them practical advice and spiritual advice. And I suspect that Paul was talking to Paul as much as he was talking to the others.
It’s only when we discover that we’ve lost hope that we can begin the quest to finding hope again.
Roy Williams is an Advertising guru out of Austin Texas, you’ve heard me quote him before.
Williams wrote these words, “Every dream of the future is a seed. But until your dream falls into the ground and dies, it cannot burst from the ground and deliver the harvest you seek.
Is your commitment strong enough to survive the death of your dream? Will you be found still hanging on when hope has fled, the room is dark and everyone believes you a fool?”
I wish I could pinpoint the day that I realized that the dream had died, hope had fled, the room was dark and everyone believed me a fool. I wish I could point to the day that I realized that we needed a new dream. The day that I stopped feeling sorry for myself and stopped mourning all that we had lost. It would be great to be able to say, on September 4, 2002, it all came together.
But I can’t. I do remember having a conversation with Angela about my preaching and saying that I had to turn it around, I told her something to the effect of “If I had to listen to me right now I’d leave too.”
And at some point, I decided, wait for this it is deep and spiritually impacting, . . . I decided I would have to fake it. Not lie, I simply began preaching the message I knew I needed to preach, not the one I wanted to preach. To preach: God is good, there is a better future, every night has a morning, every storm has an end.
I like what John Wesley wrote, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
I started to preach about a dream, about what the future could look like for our church. I embraced the words of Hebrews 11:1 Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.
That may be a little too optimistic, I think it was Ecclesiastes 9:4 that I actually embraced. Ecclesiastes 9:4 There is hope only for the living. As they say, “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!”
Let’s go back to Paul’s story: Acts 27:42-43 The soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners to make sure they didn’t swim ashore and escape. But the commanding officer wanted to spare Paul, so he didn’t let them carry out their plan.
This was the second time that the commanding officer was there for Paul.
The first time was when the sailors tried to abandon ship and leave the rest of them behind.
Paul Realized that He Wasn’t Alone Paul was in a bad situation, but he wasn’t alone and he discovered that he had allies. Sometimes it easy to get in the mindset of: “nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I’m going to eat some worms.”
Without the commanding officer, Paul and those with him would have died. Paul knew that God was with him, but God did his work through a Roman soldier.
I love the story of the little boy who was having a nightmare and wanted his mother to sleep with him. She was trying to escape back to her own room, and you parents know what I mean. And she told her son, “It’s ok, God loves you he is with you.”
Clinging to her, he protested “Yes I know God loves me, but right now I need someone who has skin on them.”
For Paul, it was the Roman Commander. For me, it was Angela, who put up with my entire Eeyore act, and encouraged me and believed in me.
And it was the people of our church. I had been so obsessed with those who left, I forgot those who stayed.
Remember I said we lost a third of our church family. We still had two thirds.
These were people who in many ways were a lot more committed to the vision than I was. People who called me and sent me notes, and who sacrificially supported the church week after week.
There was the editor who offered me a position as a freelance writer. John Symonds who offered me a spot teaching part-time at Kingswood University.
And there was our DS H.C. Wilson who would tell me, “If you need me to rescue you just let me know.” He also said, “I don’t know if I need to rescue Denn from Bedford, or Bedford from Denn.” But I didn’t know that until later.
There are those here today, who believed in the dream, who encouraged me and who helped give me back the hope I had lost.
When it seems like hope is gone, look around to see who is left. We might feel all alone during this time of self-isolation and social distancing, but we aren’t. We are all in this together.
You may need to reach out to those around you for yourself or for them, but realize that we aren’t alone and we all need someone with skin on them from time to time. I’ve discovered this neat app on my iPhone, yours might have it as well. You can enter the number you usually text with, and you can actually talk to someone.
Don’t underestimate the power of your voice in someone’s life today.
Let’s go back to the story. When Paul called the crew and passengers together this was part of his message. Acts 27:23-26 For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me, and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before Caesar! What’s more, God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you.’ So take courage! For I believe God. It will be just as he said. But we will be shipwrecked on an island.”
Paul Realized That Rome was God’s Plan
More than anything else, that is what gave Paul that hope that he had lost. He realized that he wasn’t in control, that God was and if God wanted him in Rome than he wasn’t going to die in a shipwreck.
When I lost hope, I wasn’t going to quit, but I was desperate for God to quit me. To quit would be to admit that I had made a mistake, but if somehow another church called me to be their pastor, then I could blame it on God.
In the Atlantic district, Spring is pastoral call time, and the Spring of 2001 my prayer was “God if you want me someplace else, then please have another church call me.” Maybe it was just, “Please let another church call me.” And the silence was deafening.
At first, it just pushed me deeper into despair, I saw myself as damaged good, “nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I’m going to eat some worms.”
But, then I realized that if God hadn’t wanted me in Bedford, then he wouldn’t have called me to Bedford. If I had decided to quit, I don’t think God would have struck me with lightning. But he wasn’t going to give me an out.
Solomon wrote in Proverbs 16:1 We can make our own plans, but the Lord gives the right answer.
And at some point, I put on my big boy pants and decided to stay. Am I saying that decision was vital to Cornerstone staying open? Nope, God is bigger than Denn Guptill. But, it was vital to me being obedient to my call.
Because Cornerstone exists, there will be people in heaven who wouldn’t have been in heaven. There are marriages that have been saved and children who have followed the right path through their teen years. There has been a multitude of wells drilled across West Africa, saving countless hundreds of lives.
There is a small village in Sierra Leone that will be lifted beyond subsistence with clean water, fresh seed for their crops, livestock and updated sanitation. All because there is a Cornerstone in Hammonds Plains.
When it seems like all hope is gone, understand that God has a plan. When it seemed like all hope was gone for the people of Israel, they had been conquered by Babylon and taken captive, and this was God’s message for the nation Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” And while I realize that it was written to the nation of Israel in a very different context, I think that God is still reminding us that he has a future and a hope for us today. Even in the midst of a pandemic.
And on this, the 25th anniversary of our first worship service and the third week of our self-isolation and social distancing here is your promise from God’s word. Romans 12:11-12 Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.