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Sermon illustrations

Disorientation

The Cross at the Heart of the City

At the heart of the city of London is Charing Cross. All distances across the city are measured from its central point. Locals refer to it simply as “the cross.” One day a child became lost in the bustling metropolis.  A city police officer (A “bobby,” as they are referred to in London) came to the child’s aid to try and help him return to his family.

The bobby asked the child a variety of questions in an attempt to discover where the boy lived, to no avail. Finally, with tears streaming down the boy’s face, he said, “If you will take me to the cross I think I can find my way from there.” What an apt description of the Christian life. The cross is both the starting place of our new life in Christ, but also the place we must return to, time and again, to keep our bearings in life.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Follow the Bubbles

When I graduated from college I was given one of the greatest opportunities of my young life. A group of my friends were told that if we were able to purchase a flight to the Cayman Islands, we would essentially be given free room and board in one of a couple different oceanfront properties owned by one of our friends’ family.

Needless to say I found a way to purchase the plane ticket. A few of us decided during the trip that we ought to get scuba certified while we were down there. The Cayman Islands have some of the best scuba diving in the world. After completing our classes, we were invited by our teacher to go on a night dive.

Now, when we were told about this, to me it sounded like a great adventure. The instructor told us we would use underwater flashlights, and I was sure with all the great modern technology that we would be able to see just fine.

So, it turns out, not so much. Right as we entered the water I was alarmed to find out that I could see barely anything at all, and what I could see was only a foot or so directly where the flashlight was shining.

My discomfort only intensified as we descended along a coral shelf, and I found myself disoriented, and unsure exactly which way was up. Now I want you to picture being essentially blind underwater with a relatively limited amount of air for you to breathe.

You have begun to question which way is up, and you are swimming along a coral shelf that makes it such that you cannot just swim in what you assume is up, though again, you’re not quite sure, because, after all, your disoriented by the darkness.

At this point I was in complete freak-out mode. While we were part of a group, there were multiple groups diving, so I was unsure if I was even in the right group.

Now, eventually, we made it back to shore, I didn’t die as I was fairly sure was going to be the case…and we even saw an octopus.

But recently I learned something about night diving.

That is, there is always a way to know which way is up. And the way to do that is to feel your bubbles…that may sound strange…but when you are diving your breaths produce bubbles, and so long as you can feel which direction they are going, you will know which way is up. And I think there is a lesson in that…

When you can’t trust your senses, when you can’t even trust your judgment, you can always trust the bubbles to get you back to the top.

And isn’t life like that some times. We get disoriented. We end up on a path that we didn’t anticipate and at times we can even feel lost. But just as a night diver can trust in the bubbles, we too can trust that God will take care of us when everything seems dark and uncertain.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Perfect Storm 

To understand why the Andrea Gail never had a chance, one needs only to search the clues along the shoreline of the Eastern Seaboard.

At first, it went by the name of the “Halloween Storm,” given its late-October fury. As far south as the North Carolina coastline, winds of 35 to 45 mph lashed the area for five consecutive days, and waves of 10 to 30 feet pounded the beach. In Rhode Island, a fisherman was swept off the rocks by heavy surf and killed. In New York, another man fishing from a bridge lost his life when he was either blown off the bridge, or swept off by high waves.

The New England coastline hammered so soundly, even a few lighthouses – buildings designed to survive the very worst weather – were damaged. With winds hovering around 65 to 75 mph, utility poles, trees, piers, sea walls and boardwalks simply disappeared. Thousands of lobster traps were destroyed. Flooding was extensive, invading homes, and closing roads and airports.

At sea, it was far worse.

At 80 degrees, the water of the Atlantic that fall week in 1991 was still very warm, almost tropical. But the seasons had changed in New England, and a cold front from Canada was racing across the northeastern corner of the country. At the same time, a hurricane was forming in the warm ocean water, moving toward a collision with the cold front in what soon became known as “The Perfect Storm.”

The Andrea Gail had a crew of six, and the small fishing vessel was caught square in the crosshairs of the colliding storms. Sustained winds of 60 knots and sea swells of 39 feet were recorded, and unconfirmed reports told of even stronger winds and higher waves. The movie that told her story, and coined the phrase “the perfect storm,” painted a graphic picture of a crew caught in the middle of overwhelming difficulty, pressed in on every side by the colliding weather patterns.

The fishing vessel went down sometime after midnight on Oct. 28, and ironically, its search and rescue, satellite-aided tracking system washed ashore a week later on Sable Island. Strangely enough, the tracking device was found with its power switched off. Could it have been an accident . . . or was it a case of a storm so overwhelming, so devastating, that the captain of the ship simply turned the device off as a symbolic gesture of giving in to the worst storm he’d ever seen? (Source: “The Perfect Storm, October 1991,” NOAA Satellite and Information Service, National Climatic Data Center.)

Andy Cook

Struggling with Vision

Right around six years into what would become a thirty-three-year ministry at Bethlehem Baptist Church, John Piper was stuck. His board wanted to enact some significant changes and he felt like he had no direction whatsoever. Here is a journal entry from that time:

November 6, 1986: The church is looking for a vision for the future—and I do not have it. The one vision that the staff zeroed in on during our retreat Monday and Tuesday of this week (namely, building a sanctuary) is so unattractive to me today that I do not see how I could provide the leadership and inspiration for it. Does this mean that my time at Bethlehem is over?

Does it mean that there is a radical alternative unforeseen? Does it mean that I am simply in the pits today and unable to feel the beauty and power and joy and fruitfulness of an expanded facility and ministry? O Lord, have mercy on me. I am so discouraged. I am so blank. I feel like there are opponents on every hand, even when I know that most of my people are for me. I am so blind to the future of the church…I must preach on Sunday, and I can scarcely lift my head.

Eventually, Piper and his team would develop a renewed vision for their church. This vision gave them the clarity they needed to pursue not only continue, but to flourish as a church. But it was not something that came immediately, or without struggle. It required the long, disciplined work of discerning, in community, the vision that God had for their church.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from John Piper, “How I Almost Quit,” desiringGod.

Surviving Navy Seals Training

And as difficult as most of their training is, nothing can compare to BUDS, which stands for Basic Underwater Demolition Seal Training. If it sounds intense, it’s actually worse. During BUDS, you have to survive “one-hundred-ten hours without sleep.” You have to carry a log over your head for hours. Countless swims, endless runs, jumping out of planes, and then there’s perhaps the hardest part of all, called “pool comp.”

In “pool comp” you are put underwater with all your scuba gear on, the instructor yanks your regulator out of your mouth, he ties your air hose in knots, he mocks you constantly as you struggle for air. What your mind is naturally telling you at this point is simple: You are going to die, but if you want to pass “pool comp,” you have to calmly follow all protocol to pass.

It’s not hard to see why there’s a 94 percent attrition rate. Now the question is, why do some pass, while most fail? This is the exact same question the Navy wanted to find out, because after 9/11 they were in desperate need for more Seals, but didn’t want to water down the quality either by simply changing their standards. So they began studying the data. And the results were quite surprising. The Navy didn’t need more macho guys or strong guys, they often were the first to ring the bell and give up. Nope, but they could use more used Car Salesman.

Why? Because Used Car Salesman have learned how to survive the seemingly never-ending amount of rejection they receive by changing their self-talk. That is, by changing the stories inside their heads.

The truth is, we aren’t like computers, going from place to place with mathematical computations inside our heads to make each decision. No, we are story-tellers. We tell stories because stories are how we make sense of the world around us. Scientists know this, Jesus knows this, and now even the Navy knows just how important stories are for our lives.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

What Are We Grasping For?

Our culture is afraid of grief, but not just because it is afraid of death. That is natural and normal, a proper reaction to the Last Enemy. Our culture is afraid because it seems to be afraid of the fear itself, frightened that even to name grief will be to collapse for ever. We have to keep going, we tell ourselves, we have to be strong.

Well, yes. Strong like Jesus who wept at the tomb of his friend. Strong like the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and will give life to our mortal bodies too – but who, right now, is pleading for us with groanings too deep for words. Strong like the person who learns to pray the Psalms. Strong like the person who learns to wait patiently for the Lord, and expects neither easy answers nor easy words to say to the world:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you

Which shall be the darkness of God . . .

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope,

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing

…In order to arrive at what you do not know

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance . . .

So mused T. S. Eliot in East Coker, the second of the Four Quartets, written when the skies over London were dark with German warplanes. Eliot had realized that all the easy comforts for which we reach when things are tough are likely to be delusions. We grab at them – and perhaps we hope that God will quickly give them to us – so that we don’t have to face the darkness.

So that we don’t have to ‘watch and pray’ with Jesus in Gethsemane. There is a time for restraint, for fasting, for a sense of exile, of not-belonging. Of defamiliarization. A time for not rushing to judgments. It is all too easy to grasp at quick-fix solutions, in prayer as in life. It can be hard, bitter anguish to live with the summons to lament. To share in the groaning of the Spirit. But that is where we are conformed to the image of the Son.

N.T. Wright, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath, Zondervan, 2020.

See also Illustrations on Direction, Navigation