Sailing: Learning to Tack

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

One rare pleasure that I had as camp counselor in high school was learning to sail. Sailboat differ from other boats in being powered by wind rather than someone rowing or by an engine. Winds change. Sailor need to prepare themselves for every eventually. Television ads always picture sailboats speeding along with a good tailwind, but experienced sailors know that tailwinds are an exception, not the rule.

When the wind changes, the sail must adjust to make maximum use of the wind’s force. The hardest maneuver is to sail into the wind because the boat must wind back and forth into the wind—tack—with little, if any, efficiency in moving forward. The only thing worse than headwinds are the doldrums, when the wind simply disappears.

Postmodern Sailing

Being stuck between the headwinds and the doldrums aptly describes postmodern life, especially if you are young. The American dream of a college education followed by a good paying job, which your parents and grandparent enjoyed, now seems illusive and out of reach. For many students, years of hard labor in school are more likely followed by a minimum wage job and crushing student debt.

Headwinds followed but the doldrums is not just a problem for the young. Even well-educated and experienced seniors must frequently reinvent their careers late in life as companies restructure and offer little prospect for a pension or a health plan for most employees laid off. Suicide rates in the U.S. are at record high levels with suicide among older men showing the largest increases. For years, bankruptcy rates in the U.S. were closely tied to a family medical emergency—what do you do if you are disabled and your health plan was tied to your employment?

Storm on the Galilee

The New Testament contains several sailing analogies, as we read:

“And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, Peace! Be still! And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.” (Mark 4:36-39)

What is most striking about this story is that many of Jesus’ disciples were professional fishermen and expert sailors. When an expert comes to you for advice in their area of expertise, you know that you are in serious trouble. Yet, instinctively the disciples turn to Jesus in their well-founded fears and Jesus calms the wind and the sea.

Summing Up

Two points come to mind in reading this account of the near drowning experience of the disciples and Jesus. 

The first point is that this story occurs early in Jesus’ ministry and the storm on the Galilee is a kind of communal baptism for the disciples. Ministry is not going to be a walk in the park—early in my seminary journey I framed a copy of Rembrandt’s painting, the Storm on the Galilee, and hung it in my kitchen. This same painting appears on the cover on my book, Simple Faith.

The second point is reinforced by the context in Mark—the next story is the healing of the demonaic, a kind of resurrection story. Immersion baptism is a symbolic death and resurrection; sprinkling baptism is more of a symbolic cleansing. The near drowning of the disciples in the Sea of Galilee is more of an immersion experience!

Jesus’ admonition to the disciples remains valid today: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40) When the headwinds blow, the water rises, ,and our expertise fails, we need to turn to Jesus in faith rather than in fear.

Sailing: Learning to Tack

Also See:

Value Of Life

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