Sailing Life’s Storms

The bible promises us peace in the midst of life's storms if we take hold of God's promises. Learn more in this article by Rev. Matt W. Leach

Have you ever been on a ship at sea? I have. When you stand on the deck and look around you all you can see is the ocean. Ocean to the left of you. Ocean to the right of you. Ocean in front of you. Ocean behind you. Your ship is hardly more than a speck of dust in the midst of a vast ocean.  

Have you ever been on a ship at sea during a storm? I have. Have you watched the waves soar up ten, twenty, thirty, forty feet above the bow of your ship? I have. Have you grabbed onto the railing holding on for dear life as the waves crash against the side, sending salt spray up over the deck? I have. You realize how small and flimsy your ship is against the force of those mighty waves.

Sailing Where You Want To Go

The ship I was on, a troop ship, was powered by engines. In spite of the storm those engines kept us going in the direction we wanted to go. Long before there were engines ships were driven by the wind. Sailors had discovered that even the wind blowing against them could be used to move them forward. By learning to sail the contrary winds they could cross oceans, discover new lands, open trade routes. When the winds are against him the sailor still decides the direction of his course, and the port to which he is sailing.

In many ways our lives are often compared to a ship. We set sail on life’s journey. We embark on the sea of matrimony. These comparisons all have one thing in common. Sooner or later, like a ship on the ocean, we will be beset by contrary winds. We can let those winds blow and buffet us and take us where they will, against our will.  Or we can learn to sail the contrary winds and use them to go where we want to go.  How do we learn to sail the contrary winds? How do we learn how to use the contrary winds of adversity to go where you want to go? 

Paul Overcomes Adversity

Paul's First Secret: Avoid Contrary Winds

Paul was constantly faced with contrary winds. He met each wind with three secrets. We pick up Paul’s story when some Jews from Turkey started a riot in the Temple in Jerusalem. They claimed Paul was teaching the Jews, who lived among the Gentiles, that they didn’t have to obey the law of Moses. That was a lie. The disciples thought that if Paul went through the ritual of purification, and all the Jews saw it, they would know that there was no truth in the rumors.  

That idea backfired when the Turkey Jews spotted Paul in the Temple area. They shouted, “Men of Israel, help!  This is the man who is teaching everybody everywhere to despise our people, our Law, and this place. Why he has even brought Greeks into the Temple and he has defiled this holy place!” This speech stirred the whole city.  Soon a mob collected and seized Paul and dragged him outside the Temple. The doors were slammed behind him.

While the mob was trying to kill Paul word was relayed to the commander of the Roman troops that Jerusalem was in an uproar. Without a moment’s delay he took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. The mob stopped beating Paul when they saw the soldiers. The commander arrested Paul and ordered him to be bound in chains.

The mob kept yelling, “Kill him.” When Paul explained that he was both a Jew and a Roman citizen, the commander gave Paul permission to speak to the crowd. So much power emanated from Paul that the mob grew quiet. Paul preached Jesus. But at the end of his sermon, when he told them to repent and be baptized, the mob went wild again.

That night, the Lord stood by Paul, and said, “Take heart! For as you have witnessed boldly for me in Jerusalem so you must give your witness for me in Rome.” That did not seem a likely possibility the way the contrary winds were swirling around Paul at the moment. But as you follow the story we see how Paul used those contrary winds to take him to Rome

When Paul finally reached Rome a great Christian welcome greeted him. Paul, who had been mastered by the Master, was the master of the contrary winds. It was the contrary winds that brought Paul to Rome. What enabled Paul to be a tower of strength and encouragement? What was his secret of sailing the contrary winds? 

The first secret was he did everything he could to avoid the contrary winds. That is why he had gone to the Temple to purify himself. But the contrary wind blew, and his life was threatened. Paul used the fact that he was a Roman citizen by birth to secure his safety. 

Paul's Second Secret: Have a Heroic Spirit & Courage

Paul’s second secret to sailing the contrary winds was to have a heroic spirit and courage that came from Jesus. The only way you can have it is to know Jesus. Paul had been mastered by the Master. His courage came from his confidence and trust in Jesus. He had surrendered his life to God. He believed that God was using it for a purpose. He believed God would not let his life go until that purpose had been accomplished.

Paul's Third Secret: Speak With Wisdom

Paul’s third secret of sailing the contrary winds was to speak with wisdom. Psalm 119 tells us that God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Paul was guided by God’s wisdom. To sail the contrary winds one must act and speak from wisdom, not fear, not expediency, not self-interest, not with ulterior motives. If you would be wise, first be mastered by the Master, and then seek His wisdom.

The Story of Lieut. James C. Whittaker

Lieut. James C. Whittaker* of the United States Army Air Force came to our school and told the most dramatic true story I’ve ever heard. Lieut. Whittaker was not a Christian. He wasn’t even sure God existed. If God did exist, he didn’t know if God actually cared about people. The idea that God would actually hear, and answer prayer never crossed his mind. He was, as he liked to say, a “hard reality” man. 

The story began at 1:29 A.M., October 21, 1942. Lieut. Whittaker was co-pilot on a four-engine bomber, a B-17 Flying Fortress. The crew included the pilot Capt. Bill Cherry; John Bartek the engineer; Second Lieut. John DeAngelis, the navigator; Staff Sergeant James Reynolds, the radio operator; and a second engineer assigned to the crew, Sergeant Alex Kaczmarczyk, just released from 45 days in the hospital suffering from yellow jaundice.  

 They were taking the Flying Fortress back to the US. Just before take-off, plans were changed. They were to carry world famous Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker on a secret mission. They set their course for Island X, about 1,700 miles southwest of Hawaii. Their estimated time of arrival came. Cherry took the controls and started nosing the plane down. Island X was nowhere to be seen. They were lost. They radioed Island X and asked them to send up bursts of anti-aircraft shells timed to explode at 8,000 feet. They hoped to see the black bursts of smoke, and the search planes sent up by Island X.

Lost at Sea

They saw nothing. They sent out an S.O.S. on the emergency frequency. Finally, there was nothing left to do but ditch the plane in the ocean. Working fast, all 8 men scrambled out of the plane and into their life rafts in two minutes, just as the plane began to sink beneath the waves. Two of the three rafts measured 4 by 7 feet on the outside, and 2 ½ by 5 ½ on the inside.  Three men were squeezed into each of these. The third raft was infinitely smaller, a little doughnut. It was too small for one man. Yet DeAngelis and Kaczmarczyk had to squeeze inside it.

It was 4:30 p.m. They fastened the three rafts together with some line and took stock of what they had. There were air pumps for the rafts, two sheath knives, three flare guns with 18 flares – half of which were duds, two .45 caliber pistols belonging to Adamson and Cherry, three sets of aluminum oars, and some fishhooks and lines. No food. No water. Then they noticed something else. The water about their rafts was alive with the triangular, dorsal fins of sharks. Some were longer than their rafts. Any one of them could have easily upset a raft.

They hoped for a quick rescue. None came. Sleep was almost impossible. The cold spray of salt water splashed incessantly on their backs. They had to hold on to keep from falling out of the rafts into the sharks mouths. In the daytime Rick advised them to cover their heads to protect them from the sun, and to move as little as possible and talk as little as possible to avoid drying out their mouths. The rays of the sun felt like molten metal. In daytime the wind, the sea, and the spray were too hot. In the evening it was too cold, and they huddled together. The wind blew hard and there was danger of upsetting among the sharks.

By the time the fourth day came their hunger and thirst were agonizing. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a sea swallow landed on Rick’s head. He carefully snatched the bird, and they all had a little meat to eat. But their thirst grew and grew.

On the night of the fifth day they drew their boats together and read from the Testament Bartek carried with him. Col. Adamson read from Matthew chapter 6, verses 31 to 34. Jesus said take no thought about what you will eat or drink or wear. Your Father knows you need these things. Seek first His kingdom and He will give you these things.

Day six. The salt water stung and burned. Strength had left them. Thirst and hunger consumed their thoughts. Whittaker, the one who cared little for religion – he was a “hard reality” man, was beginning to soften and to join in the praying.

A Simple Prayer

Open bible with hands folded in prayer on top of it

Cherry repeated his favorite passage about not needing to worry about food and drink, and then prayed: “Old Master, we know this isn’t a guarantee we’ll eat in the morning. But we’re in an awful fix, as You know. We sure are counting on a little something by day after tomorrow, at least. See what You can do for us, Old Master.”

Then a strange miracle happened. Cherry finished praying and set off the evening flare. But the flare’s propulsion charge was faulty. It rose in the air 50 feet and then fell back among the rafts. It hissed and zigzagged around the water, blazing a brilliant red. The dazzling red light illuminated the ocean for hundreds of yards and in the depths they saw barracuda playing havoc with a school of fish attracted by the glare.

Two fair-sized fish broke water and jumped into the rafts. They had just time to grab them when the flare sputtered and died. The fish were for breakfast. Whittaker was too puzzled by this strange answer to prayer to sleep.

The eighth morning came. More of the same – the heat, the thirst, the stinging salt spray. In late afternoon they began to revive. They drew together for their prayer meeting. This time Whittaker joined more wholeheartedly than before in the prayers.

After all had prayed the Lord’s prayer together, Cherry again addressed the Lord: “Old Master, we called on You for food and You delivered. We ask You now for water. We’ve done the best we could. If you don’t make up Your mind to help us pretty soon, I guess that’s all there’ll be to it. It looks like the next move is up to You, Old Master.”

Whittaker began thinking. This was God’s chance to make a believer out of him. If there was indeed a God, and if He could ignore a prayer like that, then He must be a pretty heartless being. While these thoughts were going through his mind, Whittaker became aware of something tugging at his consciousness. He looked to the left. A cloud that had been fleecy and white a while ago now was darkening by the second.

While he watched a bluish curtain unrolled from the cloud to sea. It was rain – and moving towards them. “Here she is!” Cherry shouted. “Thanks Old Master!” They caught the water in their hands and drank and drank. They let it wash the salt off their bodies. Finally, they used their life jackets as storage bags for the life-giving water. The rain lasted nearly an hour.

On day nine hopelessness settled on them. It was a scalding day. That night Whittaker joined more enthusiastically in the prayers. He wanted to believe. But doubts remained. The tenth day dawned. All but Whittaker had fallen victim to saltwater ulcers. To touch one of the sores was like touching a boil. The pain and the heat made tempers flare. That night they drank the last of the water.

That night Cherry prayed, “Old Master. You wouldn’t have let us live this long if You didn’t intend to save us after a while, would You, Old Master? We need some more of that rain, and we need it in the worst way. How’s about it, Old Master?”

Waiting In Faith

Whittaker writes, “I was finding my God in those watery wastes, and we were meeting as strangers…We might have remained strangers, had it not been for Him. He soon was to send two divine miracles that twice more were to save my life and change the way of it about as completely as a life can be changed.”

During the night Whittaker found himself praying. The thing he felt he must have before another day passed was water – and lots of it. He prayed. He began to believe they would have the water. God would send it.

Day eleven. They saw rain squalls dotting the ocean. One heavy black cloud floated over them, and the bottom seemed to drop out of it. Once again they were refreshed.

Day twelve. Alex Kaczmarczyk died and was buried at sea.

Day thirteen. Jim Whittaker became a believer. The day burst on them as a scorcher. Just after 10 o’clock a rain squall blotted out the sun. Whittaker writes: “Our hopes rose. The familiar blue curtain of rain moved toward us across the sea. We prayed aloud for it to reach us. It was less than a quarter of a mile off when a perverse wind shunted it away.

“Somehow, my faith did not die. For the first time I found myself leading the rest in prayer. I didn’t know how to address God properly. I talked to him, therefore, as I would have to a parent or a friend..

“’God,’ I prayed, ‘You know what that water means to us. The wind has blown it away. It is in Your power, God, to send back that rain. It’s nothing to You, but it means life to us.’

“Some of the others had given up. Someone said in disgust that the bloody wind would blow in that direction another 40 years. I took my cue from this and continued:

“’God, the wind is Yours. You own it. Order it to blow back that rain to us who will die without it.’

“There are some things that cannot be explained by natural law. The wind did not change, but the receding curtain of rain stopped where it was. Then, ever so slowly, it started back toward us – against the wind!”

Day fourteen. They entered the doldrums, the place of no wind, no breeze. It lasted four days. It was the worst period of the entire three weeks. Their bodies were covered with ulcers. Their clothing was disintegrating. The violent sun was inflicting serious burns. They had a small amount of water. But they had no food. The salt air had rotted the fishing lines. Everyone was having touches of delirium. But if anyone dared to utter a discouraging word, Rickenbacker would jump right down his throat.  

Day eighteen. The delirium started again as the heat grew. The sun reflected off the still water. No breeze. This time Whittaker’s newfound faith in God was sustaining him. In the prayer time he felt that rescue was coming. It was an eternity of blinding agony until the sun slid toward the horizon and the heat let up. Then, suddenly, they heard the sound of an engine, and saw a plane silhouetted against a low cloud bank. It meant that they were getting into the vicinity of an air base.

The plane passed by about three miles away. So close and yet so far. It was the worst blow they had had. Tomblike gloom settled over the company. At that point Rickenbacker unleashed a volume of cussing that had to be the masterpiece of his career. In about a minute he had the whole group roaring mad. Then he got under their skins individually. The psychological effect was just what he had hoped for. It gave their morale a much-needed kick in the pants. “Good things were coming,” he said. “A MAN would have the courage, the patience, the faith to wait for them.”

Navigating the Contrary Seas

A bible, Keys, and Compass on a map

As if to back up his words there was a puff of wind and then another. A strong steady breeze followed. They were out of the doldrums. Whittaker felt the plane and the wind were signs from God that rescue was not far away.  Whittaker writes: “So it was that I now reviewed mentally the things that God had done for me….I thought of the answers I had received to prayer. But most of all I thought of the more important thing – that I had learned to pray. And that I had found my God and had not turned away from Him a stranger.”

Day nineteen. It rained. The scout plane came over again, missing them by about three miles. It came back in the afternoon, closer to them, but did not see them. Each time Rickenbacker worked everyone into such fury that the ship became a minor matter.

Day twenty. Bill Cheery spoke abruptly: “Listen, you fellows,” he said, “I think it’s time we were giving Providence a little help. I’m taking the small raft and cutting loose by myself. If we all spread over a wider area we’ll have a 3 to 1 better chance of being seen. When one raft is found they’ll start a real search and pick up the others.” He was right. His raft was spotted first, and the search for the others began immediately.

Day twenty-one. When Whittaker opened his eyes he saw what they had been searching for all the other days. Across the horizon stretched a line of palm trees about 10 miles long. It was about 12 miles away. At 6:30 a.m. he broke out the two aluminum oars and began what was to be a 7 ½ hour pull to put dry land under their feet. Only DeAngelis was able to relieve him for a few minutes at a time. Reynolds lay near death.

Just before noon they reached a point less than 250 yards from the shore. Whittaker writes, Suddenly “the boat careened and went out of control. Another second or two and we were racing back out to sea. Nothing I could do with the oars was any help. The wild current held us until we were far out; a mile or so, at least.

“The long narrow island was moving slowly across our bows like a giant ocean liner, crawling out to sea through the Golden Gate. We were drifting, though it seemed the island was leaving us, instead.  

“If ever I have cried out in anguish it was then. I was done, finished, washed up. I called Heaven to witness that I was whipped. I could hardly hold on to the light oars. Yet there within reach was the land – our life. And while I watched that line of majestic palms continued to move away, with terrible deliberation. If we were to reach land at all it would have to be now.

“I looked at Jimmy, lying flat again. I looked at Johnny DeAngelis. He was sick and exhausted; bewildered by the thing that had happened to me. Before very long he would be as badly off as Jimmy. I tried to move my numbed fingers and aching arms.

“It was no use. Only a miracle could set our feet on that island, I thought; only a miracle. A miracle! I remembered the miracle of the rain on the 13th day. I remembered other answers to prayer. I remembered my God!

“I cried out to Him to give me strength. I shouted it above the rising wind in the fear He might not hear. I caught a glimpse of DeAngelis’s startled face. Still shouting, I lifted the oars. I rowed.

“Half an hour later I was still rowing – and making progress. When the treacherous current had shot us out to sea I had been powerless to hold the boat against it. Now I was overcoming that current.

“I was overcoming it in the face of obstacles and hazards that hadn’t beset me before. I have spoken of the rising wind. It brought a deluge of rain that all but blotted out the island. I turned about in the raft and adopted the fisherman’s stroke that I might see ahead and better direct our course.

“An oar jerked and turned in my hand. I glanced that way in time to see a dirty gray form, 12 feet long, disappearing beneath the waves. As I watched, another shark surfaced, slashed at the oar, and slid under. These sharks were not the droll dullards that had plagued us earlier. These were man eaters. If they should attack the raft, we were gone.

“The rain slackened, and I could see the island, still moving away in the mist. I cried out my final prayer: ‘God! Don’t quit me now!’

“I have described the miracle of the rain. I have told of the flare that went faulty and became the means of providing fish for us to eat after our desperate prayer for food.

The prayer I uttered that afternoon was more than desperate. It was an anguished supplication, shouted above the wind and the rain. It came from the depths of my soul. And there were no mental reservations this time. I was calling to my God, who alone could save us. The answer was immediate and miraculous; it was the second of the two divine miracles.

“Strength surged back into my shoulders and arms. I slashed at the man-eating sharks with the oars. They wheeled as though about to attack. But I didn’t care. I was rowing again. I was rowing and bending those aluminum oars against the white caps. I say it was I who was bending them. That isn’t true. Of himself, Jim Whittaker couldn’t have bent a pin.

“As the raft rolled steadily through the foam I was not conscious of exerting any strength. Indeed, it was as though the oars were working automatically and my hands merely following their motions. There were other hands than mine on those oars….

“The rain was coming down in torrents. The sharks had doubled in number and appeared to be massing for the attack, whizzing past us and slashing at the oars.

“Yet as steadily as though drawn by a cable attached to a steam winch on shore we moved through the treacherous surface, amid the sharks, and in the face of a buffeting rain squall. It was the second miracle and I recognized it for what it was.”

The miraculous strength that had come to Whittaker sustained him until the bow of the raft grounded soundlessly. They were on solid land.

Following God Through the Contrary Seas of Life

Nowhere in the Bible will you find a promise that says when you make Jesus the Lord of your life, life will be hunky-dory, peachy-creamy, blissful, problem-free. But it is full of stories of how God helps us in the midst of storms. He doesn’t make the adversity go away. Instead He gives us help to overcome the adversity. Lieut. Whittaker did not become a Christian because God suddenly transported them out of their storm. He became a Christian because he saw firsthand how God supplies help when needed when we ask Him. God was real and His help, when they asked for it, enabled them to survive.  

Jesus said, “in the world you have tribulation and trials and distress and frustration; but be of good cheer – take courage, be confident, certain, undaunted – for I have I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Paul writes in Hebrews 4:16: “Let us then fearlessly and confidently and boldly draw near to the throne of grace – the throne of God’s unmerited favor; that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in good time for every need – appropriate help and well-timed help, coming just when we need it.”    

Lieut. Whittaker and the others followed Paul’s rules for sailing the contrary winds. First, they were constantly doing all they could do, acting in wisdom. Second, having done all he could do, Whittaker let himself be mastered by the Master, and thus became masterful. Third, they didn’t sit back and do nothing or ask God to do what they could do. They acted, and experienced God’s help in the midst of acting.

Contrary winds come to all of us. Are you ready to sail them? Have you let yourself be mastered by the Master? If not all you have to do is invite Him in by saying, “Jesus, come in and be master of my life. I give You permission to do whatever You need to do. Take my life and make something of it.” Ask Him now.   

*This account is summarized from the now out-of-print book “We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing” by Lieutenant James C. Whittaker and by the Rev. Matt W. Leach’s own recollection of hearing it firsthand.

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