The spiritual discipline of sailing in circles

An inter­est­ing image in meet­ing yes­ter­day. “CS” rose after the break of wor­ship to share a sto­ry from a old Quak­er jour­nal he’s been read­ing. The min­is­ter in ques­tion was in Eng­land at the time and felt a strong lead­ing to vis­it Friends in Ire­land. Being duti­ful he arranged pas­sage in a ship head­ing west and board­ed it think­ing he would soon reach his des­ti­na­tion. But the winds didn’t coöper­ate. The cur­rents didn’t coöper­ate. In an era before diesel engines and jet fuel the ful­fill­ment of trav­el­ing inten­tions were depen­dent upon out­side forces: wind, cur­rent, trails, weath­er. The poor Quaker’s ship went around in cir­cles for a week and final­ly end­ed up in the port it had departed.

We expect today that when we set out to accom­plish some­thing it will get done. But there are always unex­pect­ed cur­rents to con­tend with, unco­op­er­a­tive winds, sand­bars and shoals and God may well be involved in these blocks. Our duty as peo­ple of faith is to get on the boat. We might not get to our Ire­land and that may not be the real pur­pose of our lead­ing. Maybe our job is to learn to catch fish from the boat. Per­haps our faith­ful­ness in appar­ent fail­ure is a les­son for the dis­be­liev­ing sailors on board. And maybe the les­son is for us, to remain faith­ful in the mys­tery and con­fu­sion of God’s roadblocks.

The mod­ern impulse is to win, to accom­plish, to neu­tral­ize dis­sent, problem-solve and suc­ceed. As Friends, we’ve inher­it­ed some of this atti­tudes and often want to take our spir­i­tu­al lead­ings and run with them as if
God’s part is over. We set up com­mit­tees, write mis­sion statements,
hire staff: we lock our ship’s course in a par­tic­u­lar direc­tion, crank
up the engines and plow ahead. These can be use­ful tools, cer­tain­ly, but some­how there’s a les­son for us in that lit­tle boat going around in circles.

  • I love this post, Martin.
    So often I find myself remind­ing Friends that our task is to dis­cern what the very next step is that is right in front of us. We don’t have to fig­ure out the entire path from Point A to Point Z and all points in-between!
    And if God spins our vehi­cle in cir­cles, then that may well be God’s way of say­ing that Way is in fact not open for us, no mat­ter how well we dis­cerned; or per­haps those who were expect­ing to see us have their own Lessons to learn, or who knows?
    When Jeanne and I had to can­cel the last two-thirds of our recent road trip because one of us devel­oped pneu­mo­nia (I ain’t sayin’ who!), we didn’t force our­selves onward: we accept­ed that Way wasn’t open; we griev­ed the loss of those we wouldn’t get to see; and we were grate­ful that we arrived home safe­ly… and with a filled pre­scrip­tion of antibiotics!
    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up