Sailing, Part Two: Tacking

21 Jun

a stormy day “on the pond”

As was made abundantly clear in an earlier blogpost, sailing has long been one of my favorite things to do, and has always served as something of a spiritual endeavor as well. For me, a summer afternoon in a sailboat, with sun and blue sky above me and clear, cool water beneath me, is not only time well spent but also a means of greater closeness with God, and I never tire of the experience.

I hasten to add here that I am no expert at sailing; as I’ve said before, my skill is pretty much limited to that required for crisscrossing the lake in our family’s little 13-foot runabout with a mainsail and jib to do the job.  That having been said, however, I can also tell you that I’ve learned a lot from sailing over the years!  I’ve learned, for instance, to read the skies and to pay attention to the direction of the wind and the size of the waves on the water.  I’ve learned to be patient when it gets so calm that you’re hardly moving; but not to get too complacent because the wind can come up quickly, so you have to pay attention!

And I’ve learned that the very nature of sailing is that try as you might, you can’t always get to the place you want in the way that you’re planning and in the time frame that you expect. The thing about wind is that you and I cannot control it, neither its strength nor direction.  Oh, we might be able to manage it somewhat, but ultimately, we follow the wind  and not the other way around; the trick (and, might I add, the joy and the fun) of sailing is how you do the following.

In fact, there’s a term in sailing called “tacking;” tacking is the alignment of your sailboat in respect to the direction of the wind.  You see, you can never sail directly into the wind: your sails just flap and “luff” all over the place and you get nowhere.  Also, while you technically can sail directly downwind, it can be tricky, especially in smaller boats: the slightest change in wind direction and you’re off course; moreover, the boom swings across the stern and right “up side” of your head (and I’ve got the lumps to prove it)!

So what you do is “tack,” which basically means that you zigzag at an angle back and forth relative to the wind, adjusting your course on the basis of how you can best harness the wind in your sails for good speed and “smooth sailing.”  You might be able to make a fairly direct passage to the end of the lake, say; but it’ll take you a while to get back, because you have to be tacking back and forth, back and forth, following the wind so it can take you to the place where you want and need to go.

Which, as far as this particular sailor is concerned, is pretty much what a life of faith is all about.

Scripture, of course, is full of stories of “sailing ships upon the sea” with the sea depicted as a place of utter chaos and terror.  From the Psalms that speak of God stirring up “a tempest that lifted high the waves” (107:25) to the gospel stories of Jesus calming storms on the Galilean Sea, the biblical image of going “down to the sea in ships” often ends serves as an allegory for fear and faithfulness, with the nature true faith revealed in the midst of stormy seas.

It’s still an apt comparison.  I think most of us understand that life isn’t always about calm seas and smooth sailing; indeed, our days are filled with storms, many that seemingly come out of nowhere, that are both intense and devastating.  Those who have sailed for any length of time, or lived the same, know that there will always be the random gusts of wind that threaten to blow us off course. The trick is, in faith, to know how to navigate in the midst of them; how to follow the wind when it seems to be blowing out of our control!  In truth, faithful living is in large part the life-long process of learning the art of tacking!

And, trust me, it is a life-long process. Too many of us, myself included, will seek to handle the storms of life and living by trying to run directly and headlong into them. And to some extent that’s understandable: after all, as we’ve said, there are always going be storms, and we figure we’re strong and resilient enough to face them.  We reason that however we’re battered, it can’t last forever and if we “keep on keeping on” the storm will pass.  The trouble is, a lot of times in “keeping on” we get nowhere and emerge all the more battered and broken; or else the fatigue of continually facing down the tempest takes its toll, and in the end we’re left shipwrecked and scarred on the rocks.

The truth is that none of us can control the storms that come, but the good news is that those storms do not have to control us.  The harsh winds and driving rain of human life might batter us and perhaps even injure us at times; but they do not have to define us.  By faith, we can in fact navigate the storms and be made strong in the sailing, finding our way tacking back and forth – calmly, patiently, determinedly – until we’re led safely home.  And we can be assured of this because all along the journey, we’re never sailing alone, but with the Lord himself at our side and at the wheel.

Emerson Andrews was a well-known Baptist revival preacher from New England during the 19th century; he was renowned for his fiery sermons, and he beautifully addressed this whole matter of sailing faithfully through stormy seas:  “Remember, dear friends,” he said, “you are on the rolling sea of time, sailing on to the eternal world… do you follow the gospel chart, the cognitions of conscience, [and] the guidance of the Spirit?  Is religion your compass, Christ your polar star, and your Sun of Righteousness? …is he your Pilot and Captain of salvation, your physician, friend and Savior.  If so, your life-voyage is prosperous, your soul insured, your haven of rest and glory contain[ed].”

I love that.  Granted, tacking up and down Pleasant Lake on a summer afternoon as storm clouds gather in the western sky is not the same as navigating a three-masted schooner on treacherous seas; but those storms you and I face are no less tumultuous, and the tools we require for a prosperous “life-voyage” are just the same.

It’s true: when the course of our lives brings smooth sailing, it is a glorious thing indeed, and a time and journey to be cherished and greatly enjoyed; but even when the inevitable storms do come to pass, we can still set out from harbor into the open seas with confidence and in joy, knowing that while we can’t stop the storms from coming, we know how to respond to them.  We can continue the voyage, assuredly tacking our way in faith even as the wind rages and the rain pelts down…

…and just maybe, after the storm passes, be able to say, “Whoa. What a sail that was!”

c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on June 21, 2013 in Faith, Life, Maine, Reflections


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