Don’t Give Up the Ship (and Other Lessons from a Soggy Sailor)

“Ready to tack?”

The skipper’s voice cut through the roar of the wind as the prow clunked into yet another wave. For what seemed the hundredth time that day, saltwater washed up over the deck, filling my boots and trickling down the back of my raincoat under my hood. I wasn’t “ready to tack,” not at all. “Ready to tack” would mean prying my stiff fingers off the lifelines and unwinding my aching legs from around the stanchion by which I clung desperately to the side of the sailboat. “Ready to tack” would mean scrambling up slick fiberglass to the other side of the deck, which was then tilted at a precarious angle. “Ready to tack” would mean wrestling with sore back and sodden lines to quickly trim the jib sail as we executed our turn into the wind. In that moment, “ready to tack” was the last thing I wanted to be.

With a muffled groan, I fought back dread and nausea and began to climb over to the jib winch. As I lurched across, my hamstring spasmed, sending shocks of pain through my left leg. Perfect, I thought.

“Ready!” I replied.

A change in the winds

When my son and I first signed up to help crew our friend’s racing sloop in a daylight endurance race, we were expecting calm seas all the way. The forecast called for winds of five knots — a long and gentle day of sailing, perfect for the still-relatively-inexperienced sailors we were.

Then came Hurricane Ian, throwing all the weather forecasts into uncertain chaos. Even though the storm had weakened to a tropical depression before race day, we still sailed under a small craft advisory, with winds gusting to 25 knots and regular bouts of drenching rain. Powerboats rarely go out on a day like that. Sailboats often do. With their sturdy keels offering almost uncanny stability, it’s not uncommon for adventurous sailors to don rain gear and life jackets, strap on jack lines to tether themselves to the boat, and go on.

So that day, on we went, soaked, shivering and queasy, as the sailboat smacked into whitecap after whitecap for eight October hours. Some of us were sick over the side. Some who weren’t sick wished they could be. During one hair-raising maneuver, our helmsman lost his footing and came within inches of falling into the Long Island Sound. We lost control of a sail in a whipping wind at the finish line, and after we crossed over, our drenched and pummeled engine refused to start. We were forced to flag down a competitor to tow us in. It was a miserable day, start to finish.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Hard as it was, I almost can’t remember when I’ve had more fun. A day of high adventure was like fresh air to my sedentary, suburban soul. The untamed beauty of the rough seas and the thrill of our small vessel cutting through them at speed are memories I will carry with me forever. What’s more, sailing through the remnants of a hurricane provided me a wealth of visceral new insights into how the people of God survive stormy weather together.

The “Holy Ark” in stormy weather

From ancient times, the church has often been compared to a ship. Luther’s Flood Prayer famously references “the holy ark of the Christian church.” The worship space in traditional church architectural designs is called a “nave” (think “navy” and “naval”), and many old sanctuaries are even built in the shape of an upside-down sailing vessel, its ribs visible in the rooflines. It’s an apt metaphor. Jesus and His disciples shared many boating adventures together on the Sea of Galilee, and some of His most memorable miracles — calming the storm, walking on water — were performed in or around a boat at sea. Likewise, some of Paul’s greatest miracles took place during and after his shipwreck as a prisoner bound for Rome.

The metaphor of church as ship is even more powerful when we compare the world around us to a capricious sea. And isn’t it? Smooth and calm one moment; small craft advisory the next? We sign up expecting fair sailing, only to find the water rougher, windier and very much wetter than anticipated?

Such musings aren’t, of course, idle fancies — not in the world we live in today. Some folks still living may remember a time when the waters of American culture were relatively warm and smooth — when Christianity was in vogue and churches were regarded with favor by those in power. Increasingly, I cannot. The winds and the waves have risen against us even within my lifetime, and the gale shows every sign of only strengthening as we go forward. So what do we do? How do we sail this poor “ship of fools” through the raging storm?

Here are a few thoughts from one soggy sailor:

Don’t give up the ship!

When the weather is fine and the sea becalmed, the water around us may not seem very scary. We might even be tempted to jump overboard for a refreshing swim. Yet when the weather is stormy, all such temptation vanishes completely. To leave the ship is to embrace death. Only by clinging — or even lashing ourselves — to the boat can we make it safely to shore.

So it is with the church. In seasons when Christianity is respectable and the world seems gently disposed toward us — when the water is calm and the sailing is smooth — we may hold to the church only lightly, dabbling our toes in the worldly waters around us or even jumping in for a quick dip. Yet when the culture is hostile and persecutions loom — when the rains come down and the floods come up — our attitude changes. We see that those who jump ship are quickly swept away by powerful currents, and we find ourselves gripping the lifelines of Word and Sacrament, prayer and fellowship with white-knuckled fervor. We cling to the church with every fiber of our being. Like Noah, we find a berth within God’s holy ark and stay there until the floods recede and the Holy Spirit calls us to new life.

All hands on deck!

When the weather is fair, salty sailors may second-guess the decisions of the skipper or the actions of their fellow crewmates. When the weather is foul, they do not have that luxury. They must overcome differences of opinion, listen attentively, obey orders without question, and work in ship-shape coordination, each doing his or her part and standing ready to pick up the slack for others who may falter.

So it is with the church. Petty conflicts fade away when the storms come. Personal differences are drowned out by the roar of the wind. Christians quickly learn how much they need each other — and that they must work together, obedient to the Word of God, each pitching in and ready to help others. Like sailors in a gale, we find that our mutual survival depends on our ability to serve as a united crew, each following the voice of our Skipper as we do the work assigned to us.

Send out an SOS!

A sailing crew’s survival in the storm depends partly on the crew and totally on the grace of God. I’ll confess: Sailing isn’t normally a time when I do a lot of praying. On that day, however, the Kyrie was constantly on my lips. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. I whispered the words compulsively into the wind, praying God’s protection for myself, my teenage son and everyone on board.

So it is with the church. When things seem easy for us, our devotion may falter, our prayers grow feeble. But when things get hard, prayer gets easy. We scribble a desperate SOS (“Save our souls!”) on every scrap of paper we can find and throw every bottle overboard, trusting that the Captain who once calmed the storm in Galilee will fish them all out of the water and hear our every cry. As the old saying goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” The same could be said of a sailboat — or a holy ark — in a gale.

My prayers that day on the Long Island Sound were heard, thank the Lord. Every boat finished the race; every crew member made it back to the docks, soaked and sore but safe.

God is good. He will fulfill His promises and see the ship of His church into harbor. And though her crew may emerge wet and tired, with empty bellies and a pulled hamstring or two, they will, by His grace, be kept “safe and secure in the holy ark of the Christian church” until the very end of their race.

Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

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