The Maelstrom and the Compass

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:

Sermon for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, August 4, 2018
Psalm 107:23-31

Psalm 46

Psalm 93:3-4
Mark 4:35-41
4a.m. Thursday morning a week ago, I was sitting in the cockpit of a 27-foot sailboat in open water off the British Columbia coast. The captain was below trying to get some sleep while I tended the helm.
Huge rolling swells came from behind. 6 feet? 8 feet? 10 feet? Other waves came at us from about 30 degrees off the stern shoving us sideways. The sailboat leaped and wallowed and porpoised. A nearly full moon stood in the sky, abeam, to the starboard, lighting the maelstrom. Sparkling in the spray that leaped from the crests of the waves.
It was magic.
I began reading sailing stories in the pages of National Geographic when I was in high school. I read Two Years Before the Mast and Dove. Later I read Cruising World and dreamed of epic voyages of my own.
It never happened. I did get to sail a twelve-foot dinghy on a lake at summer camp–Indian Creek Camp in Tennessee. That was pretty much it until July 23 when I left Ketchikan in the Wild Card, a Santa Cruz 27. The small blue sail boat that had been part of the R2AK, the Race to Alaska. Adam Clemons was bringing it back to Seattle and he invited me to come along as crew.
It was the chance of a lifetime.
When I signed on with Adam, I imagined long hours of sailing before the wind. I worried about getting bored. I took a thick book to read and made sure I had a couple more books on my phone. I took shorts for hot afternoons and a broad brimmed hat to protect my face from the sun.
The journey was other than I expected.
The first night out we sailed all night taking turns sleeping and manning the helm. Wind escalated. Waves got higher, ten to twelve feet. Fog closed in on us. I spent my hours on watch assiduously following the compass and being mesmerized by the waves. It was all dark and mysterious and enchanting and a little scary.
Most nights we anchored in quiet bays and coves and woke to perfect stillness, broken only by the call of gulls and crows. We had long downwind passages. For those of you who know the course, I will say that we did the entire Grenville Channel, 70 kilometers, under sail, at times reaching a speed of nine knots over land due to the combination of a twenty-knot following wind and a five knot following current.
But it was the night watches on open water that that were the most glorious. And Thursday morning was the best of those. Hours in the heart of the sea, surrounded by a universe of immense waves–at least they were immense to me, a novice sailor on my first voyage.
In those hours of moonlit and sometimes fog enshrouded sailing, I had plenty of time to think. And my thoughts often ran to the words of two Bible passages.
First, I recalled Psalm 46.
God is our refuge and strength,
An ever present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear
though the Earth shakes
and the mountains are heaved into the heart of the sea
Though the sea roars and foams
and the very mountains tremble with their heaving. Psalm 46
The sea was, indeed, roaring and foaming around me. The waves were like racing mountains around me. I sometimes needed to remind myself that I was safe, because it didn’t look like it. As I worked on my sermon another passage came to my attention. Psalm 93:3-4.
The seas have lifted up, O LORD,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
Mightier than the thunders of many waters,
mightier than the waves of the sea,
the LORD on high is mighty!
Psalm 93:3, 4
Grand words. Grand truth.
Riding our tiny ship in the heart of the maelstrom, another set of words came to me even more frequently than the Psalms. They are the words of an old hymn based on today’s New Testament reading.
No water can swallow the ship where lies
the Master of ocean and earth and skies;
The Gospel story:
At the end of a long day of teaching and healing Jesus directed his disciples to get into a boat and sail across the Sea of Galilee. Other boats followed them. Once they were underway, out on the lake, away from the crowds, away from the pressure of listening and healing and teaching, Jesus was overcome with sleepiness. So he lay down on a seat at the rear of the boat and immediately drifted off into sweet sleep.
There is nothing like it.
On several afternoons, when I ended a shift at the tiller, I would settle myself on the port bench seat, cover my face with a tepee of seat cushions and drift off into sweet sleep. Why not? The captain was at the helm I had not a worry in the world. The rocking of the boat was perfect for sleeping.
Jesus slept.
Then a storm swept in. Wind howled. Waves built. The disciples feared the ship would swamp. At some point in their terror they woke Jesus. “Don’t you care that we are going to sink? We’re going to die!” they exclaimed.
Jesus sat up. Shook the sleep from his head, then spoke. “Peace. Be still.”
The waves and wind obeyed. The air and water calmed. The maelstrom was replaced by a great calm.
For two thousand years we who call ourselves Christian have gone back to this story as a metaphor for presence and action of God in our own personal storms. We are the disciples, naturally terrified the threatening chaos that engulfs us. Then we remind one another of this story, this picture of Jesus, asleep in the stern of the boat. Asleep because he had no worries.
We assure ourselves that we, too, can sleep. We can rest because we are sailing with the Master. The storms are real. Yes. But the Master is capable. He and we will prevail. And we rehearse the words of the old hymn,
No water can swallow the ship where lies
the Master of ocean and earth and skies;
Jesus is unsinkable, and since we are with him, so are we.
The song writer explicitly expanded his story-telling to include metaphorical storms:
Whether the wrath of the storm-tossed sea,
Or demons, or men, or whatever it be,
No water can swallow the ship where lies
the Master of ocean and earth and skies;
If I had been out there on the water by myself, I would have been terrified. My only sailing experience was fifty years ago in a twelve foot dinghy that I got to sail on the lake occasionally while at summer camp. I did not know how to manage this sailboat we were in. I knew nothing about sailing in open water surrounded by waves higher than my head. I knew nothing about sailing in twenty-knot winds. I knew nothing about navigating rock-and island-strewn coastal waters.
So, if I had been out there by myself I would have been terrified. With good reason. But I was not out there by myself. So I was not terrified.
I figured if Adam Clemons, the captain, could sleep, we were okay. So instead of worries, I gloried in this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I reveled in the power and grandeur of the waves. Especially at 4 in the morning when I was at the helm all by myself.
This is the first lesson I brought home.
The second lesson:
My job was to hold our course, consulting the compass every minute or so. I was also supposed to pay attention to the wind so I could alert the captain if it changed direction.
I did pretty well. I held our course true. Proof of this was the GPS track we recorded. I held course except for the one time I had to fiddle with one of our devices and was distracted for two or three minutes. More on that later. But for the most part I held our course, and I enjoyed the wild beauty of the night.
A little before dawn fog enveloped us, completely obliterating the moon. The compass remained my only fixed point of reference.
When we are in a storm, we cannot steer merely by fighting the waves. We steer by paying constant attention to the compass.
On both of my long night watches, we had moonlight for a while and I could take some sense of direction from the moon. But then fog closed in and the compass was the only reference point. On the Thursday night, we had our sail up but the wind had died. We were still being tossed and heaved by somewhat chaotic 8-foot seas. I had to do something with one of our steering devices. I could feel the waves shoving us around, so I frantically finished what I was doing and settled back on course–I thought. I double-checked the compass. In the minute or two I had been distracted we had turned exactly 180 degrees.
I managed to get us turned back around without getting a wave in over the side. And settled down again to keep our bow pointed due east at 90 degrees.
It is easy to become fully occupied by the waves and winds that threaten us. Beware. We cannot steer by fighting the waves. We cannot aim our lives wisely by fighting evil. We must steer by the two great commandments: Love God with our entire being, and love our neighbors as ourselves. This is our compass.
When news makes us angry or irritable, let’s give our attention to the commandment:
The only time I lost control of the boat, it was because I was trying to do something to counter the waves that were shouldering our boat sideways. I was fighting the waves. And in the process, I ended up headed the wrong direction.
So we can get so engaged with fighting evil that we lose sight of our course. Let’s bring our attention again and again to the compass direction give by Jesus.
Let us remember again and again and again,
To love God with our whole being
And to love our neighbors as ourselves.