Sailing Through the Storms of Life
Have you ever had the opportunity to see the so-called “tall ships,” replicas of a bygone age when commercial sailing ships ruled the seas? On a couple of occasions during my ministry in Duxbury, some of them came to our town, and though I am not a sailor myself, I got a big kick out of seeing them up close. They are very impressive.
Seeing these ships over the years reminds me of the pop song of over thirty years ago by Christopher Cross – “Sailing,” the first line of the chorus which goes, “Sailing, takes me away to where I’ve always heard it could be.” Some of you who are sailors or were sailors earlier in your lives probably would have relished the chance to ditch your “day job” and spend all your time aboard your boat, just sailing wherever the wind would take you. The escapist in many of us longs to just “get away from it all” and sail off into the horizon – “red sails in the sunset.” But serious sailing involves a lot of hard work, expert knowledge of the winds, shoals, and sea, and a fair amount of good luck to catch the most favorable winds. And the ocean is unpredictable; smooth sailing is not always possible. Storms and rough seas can come along any time, sometimes without warning. Waters can be calm and tranquil with blue skies above one minute, and suddenly there are dark thunder clouds, roiling waters, high winds, lightning, and torrential rains the next. True in life also, right?
Our first new testament lesson today from Acts begins with Paul being frustrated in his attempts to travel and “sail off into the sunset” in and about the Asia Minor region. He knows that he needs to get going, but the Holy Spirit seems to have its own plans for him. We pick up the story in the middle of the night, when he has a vision, and is instructed to go to Macedonia. This vision may have been a dream, may have been an inner voice, or may have been God speaking to him through an actual person. God communicates with us in many ways, if we are willing to listen. As we in the United Church of Christ say, “God is still speaking.”
Even when Paul appears to be without direction, he stays in touch with his Divine Navigator.
He remains open to God’s messages and guidance, and is obedient when the direction is set for him. The next day Paul and his companions set sail from Troas, and after following a circuitous route, arrive at last in the city of Philippi in the district of Macedonia.
Regardless the kind of journeys we travel, on land or sea or especially through life, it is wise for us also to stay in touch with our Divine Navigator. Whatever kind of traveler we are, we should never undertake any journey in life without prayer and faith in God. Through prayer God is present with us, directing our way, helping us to navigate the rough seas, as well as being with us in those times when the sailing is smooth. To go off on any journey without first seeking and then listening for God’s directions is to court possible danger or disaster.
The brilliant philosopher and political economist, John Stuart Mill, was raised by a stern father who recognized his son’s potential early in his life, and determined that the boy should be educated extensively in the liberal arts and sciences. But being an unbeliever, the elder Mill thought that religious education was not only unnecessary but distracting. So, young John received no religious instruction. Though he flourished in his academic studies, he later looked back on his youth and realized that he had missed something quite profound. His mind may have been crammed with information, but he felt that his soul was “starved.” Without the direction and guidance of God known through prayer and faith, Mill likened himself to “a well equipped ship, but with no sail.”[i] (Church school is important for children.) Mill knew there was a Power out there, but he didn’t have the tools or the skills to tap into it.
The tools and skills of sailing are needed most when storms arise. When a bad storm looms on the horizon it may be difficult to stay on course. Inexperienced sailors may have trouble keeping their craft afloat, and unexpected gales can be disastrous. Good sailors have to be ready for all types of weather, have to be prepared for whatever lies ahead. This preparation involves learning and honing skills necessary to get through rough waters. When you’re in the middle of a storm, it is no time to learn the basic skills. It’s time to use them.[ii] So also in life. One moment the sky may be blue, but suddenly storm clouds appear, and before long we may find ourselves in the middle of a hurricane. If we don’t have the skills to weather such a storm, we can figuratively get blown away. What are some of these skills?
We’ve mentioned one already, and that is prayer. What’s the expression? – there are no atheists in fox holes? Don’t wait until you’re up to your eyebrows in whatever before you learn how to pray. Not that God won’t hear your prayer. That’s not the point; God hears all our prayers. But prayer is as beneficial for the one praying as it is for God to hear the prayer.
Practice prayer when the seas are calm, and when the storms arrive, it will be second nature.
“Centering prayer” is a good place to start. Meditation not only is good for your health, but praying while meditating draws you closer to God and to the source of power that John Stuart Mill longed to have. Let me offer two centering prayer suggestions. A meditation prayer I have often used is prayed while slowly breathing in and out, and is said quietly or silently to oneself: “Breathe on me, breath of God, Fill me with life anew, That I may love the way you love, And do what you would do.” – modern words to an old hymn. The other one I’ve sometimes prayed, again while inhaling and exhaling is this: “Lord Jesus Christ, You are the light of the world. Fill my mind with your peace, And my heart with your love.”
Another skill in weathering the storms of life is knowing that God is in control of life, and that God is good. This may not seem like a skill, but knowledge has to be attained and used to be beneficial. Too many folks give a passing nod to God, but don’t really believe that God can make any difference in their lives or in the world. We need to know deep in our hearts that God is with us always, and is especially present in those darkest of times. We need to know deep in our hearts that God never abandons us, that God loves us, and wants the very best for us. We need to know deep in our hearts that Jesus is our friend, someone we can talk to any time, someone we can lean on when we’re unable to stand on our own.
Another skill in weathering the storms of life is, ahead of time, building friendships and relationships that can be relied upon when the going gets rough. Knowing that there are others supporting us as we travel uncharted waters, knowing that there are others with us who will not let our boat capsize, who will not let us drown, can make all the difference in the world.
And better to establish and nurture these friendships and relationships before the storms come, than in the middle of them. Here is where the care of the Christian community and the fellowship of the family of faith, are so very important. Develop and nurture these relationships. They are critical to survival in the midst of storms.
Another important set of skills is for us to learn to be open, to be vulnerable, and to be ready for God’s intrusion into our lives. When Paul and his companions arrive in Philippi, they find Lydia and some other women gathered by the river in prayer. They are not believers in Christ, but Lydia is open to Paul’s message. And because of this receptivity, the Lord opens her heart even more, and she becomes the first Christian convert in Europe, the beginning of a missionary expansion that eventually spreads around the world, enabling the early church to bloom forth.
Today God still opens hearts that are willing to receive the good news of Christ’s love. And when our hearts are filled with that love the storms are easier to navigate.
Henry Jowett, a 19th century British preacher, was talking to an old salt about sailing, and he asked him, “Will you explain to me the phenomenon of the wind?” The old sailor was perplexed by the question, so Jowett tried again, “Well, how do you explain the wind that propels a great ship?” The sailor replied, “I don’t know [how to explain] the wind, but I can hoist a sail.” Maybe we can’t explain how the Holy Spirit works, but we can experience the Spirit’s power in our lives,[iii] if we are open to that Spirit.
The storms of life are real. Most of us know this all too well. Debilitating illnesses can come out of nowhere. Devastating unemployment can ruin the best of plans. Death of a loved one can turn our world upside down. Divorce is incredibly painful. Disasters or accidents can wreak terrible havoc. Destructive terrorist acts can shock us as they did on 9/11 and again at the Boston Marathon just a couple of years ago. When any of these happen, our journeys can be upset in an instant. And, unfortunately, they do happen. There are few lives lived without clouds of darkness or despair at some point. Not that we would ever wish such storms, of course not; and not that God causes them, for I do not believe that God does cause them. But paradoxically through the storms we often can grow and become better people. In some ways we’re like those ships we’ve been talking about.
James Michener in his novel, Chesapeake, put it this way: “A ship, like a human being, moves best when it is slightly athwart the wind, when it has to keep its sails tight and attend to its course. Ships, like [people], do poorly when the wind is directly behind, pushing them sloppily on their way so that no care is required in steering or in the management of the sails.
The wind seems favorable, for it blows in the direction one is heading, but actually, it is destructive, because it induces a relaxation of tension and skill. What is needed is a wind slightly opposed to the ship, for then tension can be maintained, and juices can flow and ideas can germinate; for ships, like [people], respond to challenge.”[iv] And the storms of life surely can be challenging, can’t they?!
In a gospel story that we didn’t hear today, Jesus and his disciples get caught in a terrible storm out on the Sea of Galilee. While the boat tosses and turns, and the disciples fear for their own survival, Jesus is below deck, fast asleep. When the desperate disciples finally awaken him, he commands the storm to cease, and it does. This story is important for us to remember
when we’re in one of the storms of life. For even when we have lost confidence in our own navigational skills, we can take comfort that Jesus still is the captain of our craft, still is with us in our boat. The hymn we sang a few minutes ago can be our prayer: “Jesus, Savior, pilot me over life’s tempestuous sea…”
A sea captain is accompanied on one of his journeys by his wife and little daughter. During the voyage a severe storm comes up, and he commands that life boats be readied, just in case they are needed. The last thing to be done is to awaken the little girl, still in the cabin fast asleep. “Get up quickly,” says her mother. “There is a storm and the boat is in danger of sinking.” The little girl sleepily looks up and asks her mother, “Is Daddy at the helm?” “Yes, he is,” her mother replies. “Then everything will be all right,” she answers, and with that, she turns over and falls back to sleep.[v] Such trust is the stuff of faith. When we know that God in Christ is the Captain of our vessel, then we can be confident that our boat will never capsize, and that we will get through the storm.
Storms pass. They don’t last forever. Sailing through them can be rough, but not impossible.
And once we’re through, we can get back on course, and the sun will shine. We also have the promise of heaven, where there is no need for sun or moon, because the glory of God will be its light. And there will be no darkness, no night, no storms. So, whether then or now, these words of Jesus we heard in the Gospel of John, ring true, for they bring hope whatever our circumstance: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Amen.
Rev. Kenneth C. Landall
[i] Homiletics, Vol. 10, No. 3, 5/17/98.
[ii] Rich Ferris, ibid.
[iii] The Autoillustrator, #873.