My favorite children’s book growing up was called Fortunately, Unfortunately. Its rather simple plot involved a boy named Ned who was invited to a party.
Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party. Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away. Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane. Unfortunately, the motor exploded in mid-air. Fortunately, there was a parachute in the plane. Unfortunately, there was a hole in the parachute.
The book goes on and on like this, until Ned finally gets to the party. I think the book always stayed with me because life seems like this sometimes—as if there are two competing stories going on all the time, constantly vying with one another in an almost binary fashion for ascendency.
The book of Acts in our Bible can seem like this too, especially as it nears its strange conclusion.
Leaving Athens, fortunately, Paul started several churches.
Unfortunately, in Troas one night, he went long preaching and a man named Eutychus, fell asleep, fell out of a window, and died.
Fortunately, Paul restored him to life.
Paul then went next to Jerusalem, where unfortunately, he was jailed.
Fortunately though, this provided the chance to speak to some Roman leaders.
Unfortunately, the Roman leaders ordered him to stand trial before Caesar.
Fortunately, he got to leave jail by ship.
Unfortunately, the ship wrecked.
Fortunately, he survived and was washed ashore.
Unfortunately, on shore he was bitten by a snake.
Fortunately, it didn’t affect him.
Unfortunately, upon arriving in Rome, he was put under house arrest.
Then, guess what? The book just ends like this:
Now Paul stayed two full years in his own rented lodging and welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching things about the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered! (Acts 28:31-32, NASB)
For such a momentous book, this curtain drop feels just a little light as a climactic scene. Also, Paul is under house arrest in Rome. Why does Luke’s last word say that Paul is unhindered?
A few years ago, my wife Kelly and I visited a town outside of Dublin called Kilmainham where there’s a museum that tells the story of the adjacent prison where the Irish revolutionaries of the country’s 1916 uprising were jailed. Walking through the museum, I happened upon a room on the third floor blocked only by two slender poles. I peered in and saw several interesting photographs and a video running on the wall. I thought to myself that if the curators wanted to keep curious tourists out of what seemed like a compelling corner of their museum, they ought to apply a more robust effort than merely setting out a couple of skinny poles. I went in and found myself in the middle of a special exhibit about the life of Nelson Mandela.
It turned out the exhibit wasn’t actually open to the public yet, but before I was kicked out for breaking into the Mandela exhibit, I was reminded that you can’t imprison Truth. Mandela was incarcerated in 1963 in South Africa, but during his 27 years in jail, his moral capital was building until it was unleashed upon his release in 1990. Mandela was soon elected president of his country to oversee the dismantling of the apartheid system that had jailed him. He then offered grace to his captors.
Luke’s ending to the book of Acts acknowledges that yes, for all the world, it may have looked as if Paul’s chains hindered him until you realize the reason we know Paul was wearing chains during this time was that he wrote a letter to Timothy that said so. And of course Paul didn’t just write to Timothy. He wrote to everyone. To the Ephesians: For it is by grace you have been saved through faith. To the Colossians: Christ in you, the hope of glory. To the Philippians: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. To the Galatians: Let us not lose heart in doing good. And he wrote not just to them unhindered by distance but to us across the ages, unhindered by time. What looked to human eyes like a hindrance was really God unleashing the Gospel across both space and time.
What Luke is telling us is that when we nest our story inside of God’s, our story—which sometimes seems like one of fortune and misfortune forever vying back and forth for ascendency—instead becomes a part of God’s larger epic story in which good always arises from bad, in which hope always emerges from despair, in which life always arises from death, and in which love eventually rolls over everything in its way.
God—May I nest my story inside of Yours. Always. Amen.
— Greg Funderburk