The voyage of Paul from Judea to Rome, described in Acts 27, started out late in the sailing season, but initially progressed pretty well. The ships carrying Paul and his centurion to meet justice at the hands of the authorities in Rome faced headwinds, but, in the beginning, they made progress. They departed the coast of Judea and sailed on to Sidon, a port town in what is today Lebanon. Then, sailing under the lee of Cyprus, they found their way to Lycia, in what is today Southern Turkey. There, the centurion guarding Paul and the other prisoners found a ship of Alexandria sailing for Italy and they all got on board. Progress slowed. Facing unfavorable winds and choppy seas, they slowly made their way to a place called Fair Havens on the southern side of Crete. The problem with Fair Havens, however, was that it is exposed to winter weather, and winter
was fast approaching.
Back in those days, a long voyage in the Mediterranean was dangerous in winter. Vegetius, a writer of the late Roman empire, noted that sailing in the Mediterranean after September 15th was not advised, and after November 11th was impossible. Sailing after the Jewish Day of Atonement – this year it’s on October 8 – was definitely risky. Let’s jump into the story as told in Acts 27, beginning with verse 9:
As much time had been lost, and the voyage was already dangerous, because the fast had already gone by, Paul advised them, saying, ‘Sirs, I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.’ But the centurion paid more attention to the captain and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said. And because the harbor (that’s Fair Haven) was not suitable to winter in, the majority advised to put to sea from there, on the chance that, somehow, they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete, looking northeast and southeast, and winter there.
Continuing at verse 13 and all the way to the end of the chapter:
And when the south wind blew gently, supposing that they had obtained their purpose, they weighed anchor and sailed along Crete, close inshore. But soon a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster, struck down from the land; and when the ship was caught and could not face the wind, we gave way to it and were driven. And running under the lee of a small island called Cauda, we managed with difficulty to secure the boat; after hoisting it up, they took measures to undergird the ship; then, fearing that they should run on the Syr′tis, they lowered the gear, and so were driven. As we were violently storm-tossed, they began next day to throw the cargo overboard; and the third day they cast out with their own hands the tackle of the ship.
And when neither sun nor stars appeared for many a day, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned. As they had been long without food, Paul then came forward among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me, and should not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. I now bid you take heart; for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and lo, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we shall have to run on some island.”
When the fourteenth night had come, as we were drifting across the sea of A′dria, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. So they sounded and found twenty fathoms; a little farther on they sounded again and found fifteen fathoms. And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let out four anchors from the stern, and prayed for day to come. And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the boat into the sea, under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the boat, and let it go.
As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food; it will give you strength, since not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” And when he had said this, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. (We were in all two hundred and seventy-six persons in the ship.) And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea.
Now when it was day, they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned if possible to bring the ship ashore. So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea, at the same time loosening the ropes that tied the rudders; then hoisting the foresail to the wind they made for the beach. But striking a shoal they ran the vessel aground; the bow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was broken up by the surf. The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape; but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their purpose. He ordered those who could swim to throw themselves overboard first and make for the land, and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all escaped to land.
What a story! For starters, what an extraordinary model of ministry. Paul, a prisoner, begins by speaking truth to power: the centurion, the ship’s owner, and the captain. We’d best not do this, he says, or we will be lost. Then, when the powers that be ignore his advice and decide to forge ahead, and the wind drives them back, Paul does not find a shipboard soapbox to stand on and yell “I told you so.” At least that’s not all he does! No, instead he intercedes holistically. “I now bid you take heart; for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship, he tells them. So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we shall have to run on some island.” I love the practicality of this last sentence: “But we shall have to run on some island!”
Paul is not done. “For two weeks, the storm rages and they have not eaten. Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food; it will give you strength, since not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you,” he exhorts. In addition to witnessing clearly, Paul is fostering the physical well-being of all 276 people on the ship. All of them, not just the very few who were following the radical Jew Jesus. Still, Paul was not done. After the fourteenth night, as the ship was drifting across the sea of Adria, the sailors, focused on saving their own hides, tried to escape the ship. Paul interceded, telling the centurion and the soldiers, “unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” The soldiers prevented the crew from escaping and thus Paul saves the ship, again.
Paul’s is a holistic vision of ministry, says the British Theologian Mark Greene. He witnesses clearly, encourages emotionally, strengthens physically, and protects practically. Through both prayer and work, he strives to meet every type of need he sees in the moment.
Of course, Acts 27 is also an extraordinary story of human encounter with nature. They were in a bit of a dilemma, those 276 souls. They had taken a risk to begin the journey toward Rome so late in the season. They found themselves in a harbor, but not much of one, so they elected to continue to try to get to safety. “But soon a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster, struck down from the land; and when the ship was caught and could not face the wind, we gave way to it and were driven.”
And here I would like to draw the analogy that you have no doubt been waiting for. We too, 20 centuries later, are also tempting fate, “sailing too late in the season,” so to speak, pumping out greenhouse gases at a prodigious rate long beyond the point that scientists warned we should stop. Today, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is about 410 parts per million. The last time the atmosphere held this much CO2 was at least 800,000 years ago, when mega-toothed sharks prowled the oceans and modern humans did not yet exist. The world’s seas were up to 100 feet higher than they are today, and the global average surface temperature was up to 11°F warmer. Indeed, we are soon to face our tempestuous seas.
Nobody knows what is going to happen in the future, just like nobody could be sure exactly what was going to happen to Paul’s ship as it set sail from Lycea 2,000 years ago. But, based on the best knowledge we have about climate science, biology, and political science, something like this is likely to happen:
For starters, more of the same, only worse. More wildfires in California, more “500 year” floods in Mississippi Valley, more hurricanes like Katrina, Harvey, and Sandy on the Eastern and Gulf coasts. In Europe, the heat waves will only get worse. This summer, France experienced temperatures in excess of 113°F for the first time in recorded history. Give it a few decades and France will see temperatures of 120°F.
Two years ago, Jerry Brown, then governor of California, described the wildfire situation up in Napa and Sonoma Valley “the new normal.” Over time, those words will be seen as way too optimistic. Five percent of the California has burned in the past 5 years. In 10, 20, 50 years – nobody knows – how much more of California will burn? It’s likely we will wish for the “normal” we knew back in 2017.
It gets worse, though. As global temperatures rise, wide swaths of equatorial regions will become agriculturally unproductive, and too hot for humans to live. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of migrants have been leaving Central America each year seeking access to the United States. As more of the lands to our south become virtually uninhabitable, that number will climb into the millions.
Here in the US, we will face a stark choice between denying entry to large numbers of desperate refugees fleeing chaos and death, or overwhelming our own increasingly stressed systems for coping with natural disasters. The situation will be at least as bad in Asia where, millions of people will need to relocate as sea levels rise and storms become more intense.
Projecting to the end of this century, all sorts of terrible outcomes are
entirely within the realm of possibility:
- Around the world, hundreds of thousands of people could die annually from direct exposure to heat,
- Sea levels could rise 4 to 8 feet
- Major regions may have to be abandoned because of widespread crop failure or the unavailability of fresh water
- Half of species that existed in 2000 could be extinct by 2100
- New diseases could kill millions or hundreds of millions of people
- We could see much more war as countries and regions fight for access to the diminishing parts of earth that can sustain human civilization as we know it.
I’m not saying all these things will happen – nobody knows for sure. But what I am saying is that many things like this will happen if we continue on our current course.
As David Wallace-Wells wrote in his recent book, The Uninhabitable Earth, “These assaults will not be discrete – this is another climate delusion. Instead, they will produce a new kind of cascading violence, waterfalls and avalanches of devastation, the planet pummeled again and again, with increasing intensity and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond, uprooting much of the landscape we have taken for granted, for centuries, as the stable foundation on which we walk, build homes and highways, shepherd our children through schools and into adulthood under the premise of safety – and subverting the promise that the world we have engineered and build for ourselves, out of nature, will also protect us against it, rather than conspiring with disaster against its makers.”
So how should we as human beings respond to this situation? And what’s a Christian to do?
Well, for starters, I don’t know. This is a different kind of problem than we have ever faced before. In the history of human civilization, we have never had to face such a deeply existential threat of our own making. We have never had to deal with such a large-scale problem that is so slow in developing, but also so ultimately devastating in its impact. But let me do my best to throw out a few ideas, and then let’s all get into small groups to talk about it.
First, we need to learn how to look at the reality we are facing squarely and unflinchingly.
We are in a mess. This is not a pretty situation. But, as humans, we’ve faced down some pretty terrible situations before, and we’ve come through. In the 14th century, when the world’s population was an estimated 450 million, at least 75 million, and up to 200 million, are believed to have perished from the Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague. As much as half of Europe may have died in a span of only four years. That was bad. When it comes to climate change, we need to read, think, meditate and ultimately learn how not to be overwhelmed by the scale of the problem or paralyzed by fear.
- By reading:
- The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells
- Light of the Stars, by Adam Frank
- IPCC reports
- By going to events such as those at Climate One at the Commonwealth Club,
- By meditating, sitting quietly with the facts as we know them, and considering the situation we are in individually and collectively.
It is through this kind of self-education and self-development that we will begin to build the capacity to address this seemingly overwhelming problem.
Second, we need to talk with each other about this problem.
You may be thinking: “the time for talk has long passed!” and you would not be wrong. However, the nature of our situation is so overwhelming that we are never going to begin and sustain the kind of change we need unless we help each other to process and respond to it. We’re in a fundamentally different situation than the Europeans were in right before the Bubonic Plague in that we are the direct cause of the pain we are going to bear over the coming centuries.
Yes, it’s a depressing topic, but we have to talk about it. We are like the frogs in the boiling pot. In the story, they don’t get out of the water while they can because the temperature is increasing so slowly that it’s difficult for them to perceive the danger. We are lucky to have brains and voices. By talking with each other, we can build our capacity to perceive and respond to the danger.
Third, we need to take individual action to reduce our carbon and greenhouse gas footprints.
- Some of you bought a Prius long ago. I have not yet. I need to.
- Some of you don’t take long airplane flights. I sometimes do. I need to do so less often.
- Some of you don’t eat meat. I do, although I have reduced how much I eat. I recognize that I need to reduce my consumption more, or eliminate meat entirely.
These are some of the obvious things we can all do: buy energy efficient cars, reduce air travel, reduce consumption of meat, especially beef and pork.
For more ideas, and a blueprint for how to transform your life toward a zero-carbon footprint, I recommend a book called Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, by Peter Kalmus.
Fourth, we need to take collective actions to save our civilization.
As David Wallace-Wells writes, “The climate calculus is such that individual lifestyle choices do not add up very much, unless they are scaled by politics.” That’s right, each of us in this room could move toward a zero-carbon footprint over the next decade, and millions of us could do so around the world, but for many reasons it is highly unlikely that our actions would spread virally to influence the vast majority of humanity.
So we need politics and science. For a look at some of our options, I recommend a book called Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, which presents 80 specific policy and science-based approaches to reducing carbon emissions, in the realms of energy production, land use, agriculture, and more. It’s liberating to read, in the sense that it offers up many specific ways for humanity to act to limit greenhouse gasses and emissions. We do have many choices we can make!
How to move from ideas to action? My personal priority is a carbon tax in the US right now, I am a member of Citizens Climate Lobby, which advocates for a carbon tax. The great thing about CCL is that we have a specific bi-partisan approach that can be implemented tomorrow, with the will of the Congress. H.R. 763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, would reduce US carbon emissions by about 40% in the first 12 years. All the revenue would be returned to taxpayers in the form of a dividend. Check it out: Google “Citizens Climate Lobby” and let me know if you are interested. I’ll take you to a monthly meeting, where we review progress and plan next month’s action. (It can be fun, too! I’m part of the CCL Brew Team, working to get microbreweries in San Francisco to sign on in support of the bill. Last month I convinced the President of Barebottle Brewery to sign the petition, while enjoying a microbrew with him!).
However you get involved, do get involved now. As David Wallace-Wells writes, “In 2000, when Al Gore narrowly lost election to the American presidency, we would have had to cut emissions by only 3 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming. If we start today, when global emissions are still growing, the necessary rate is 10 percent.”
Finally, as Christians, I believe we need to learn from Paul and approach our mission holistically.
Let me ask you to close your eyes for a moment. Consider us for a moment as not “us” sitting in this room, or even “us” as all the people alive on earth today. Consider “us” as the humans who will be alive in 50, 100, and 500 years, as well as us today. Imagine we’re on a boat together. That “boat” is planet earth. Unfortunately, the owner and captain have already ignored the advice to stay safely in port. Tempestuous seas await us. Through prayer, witness, attention to people’s emotional needs, attention to people’s physical needs, we are called to save this voyage. We are being called to recognize and act on the insight that we are one with the rest of creation. We are being called to recognize that the word “dominion” which we encounter in the Book of Genesis really means “mutual care.” We are being called to learn, reflect, talk, act individually, and act collectively to care for all of creation and all of us. May it be so.