A power boat, with either an inboard or an outboard motor, is able to be steered from a dead stop. The thrust from the propeller can push the stern of the vessel forward, backward, or to either side. Thus, when weighing anchor or leaving a mooring, the boat can be immediately and fairly easily moved in whatever direction is desired. The propeller moves whatever water is necessary for both motion and steering.
A sailboat without auxiliary power, on the other hand, needs to be moving through the water, having water flow along the keel and past the rudder, in order to be maneuvered in a specific direction. One needs to be underway in order for the rudder to draw the stern from side to side and point the bow one way or the other. As well, a sailboat at rest, when anchored or moored from the bow, will face directly into the wind. Even with the sails up, she will come head-to-wind and sit “in irons,” imprisoned by air running along both sides of the sails, rendering them unable to fill and draw the boat through the water.
Therefore, when dropping a mooring or hauling up the anchor solely under sail, there is a moment when the sailor is quite helpless. Whatever current or breeze there is may pull the boat downstream or downwind, but with no headway, the helm is useless and the sailor is at the mercy of the elements. In a busy anchorage, this transition from being secure to being underway can be uncertain. As the bow falls off the wind, however, and the sails begin to fill, the vessel eventually starts to inch her way forward through the water, and the helm responds. Subtle at first, it is gently and progressively exhilarating as the sailor’s ability to engage with wind, water, and vessel increases.
Letting go. That is always the unsettling part. After a lifetime of sailing, I have confidence that the initial helplessness of casting off will lead to safe forward motion. I have confidence in the breath of wind that will fill the sail and bring the boat to life. I have confidence that water, wind, and vessel will conspire to find a new course. But letting go of emotional and religious securities, things that have me spiritually fixed in place, that is another story. And yet, that is precisely the trust that God asks of us.
The life of faith requires letting go, over and over again. “Let go and let God,” recovery programs teach us. "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” Jesus proclaims, along with “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.” Letting go is a prerequisite for receiving the new life in Christ.
Regardless of how disquieting and unnerving it is to let go, we cannot get on with the life of mercy and grace that constitutes our vocation to be Christian while resting in the safe anchorage of our self-made security. The way of love to which God ceaselessly calls us demands that we cast off ourlines in order to get underway. And Jesus knows just how hard that is. He knows the surrender it requires, because of his own surrender to God. He knows the sacrifice it entails, because it is his sacrifice. He knows the trust and courage it takes to let go, to chart a course toward justice and truth, and he leaves us neither comfortless nor rudderless.
In that moment of helpless surrender that happens every day, Jesus stirs up the saving winds of Pentecost, filling the sails of our souls with God’s own spirit of holiness and truth, and gets us underway.
Grant us, O God, in this season after Pentecost, an increasing awareness of and trust in your Spirit, that, trimming our sails, we might navigate with humble confidence the new and courageous course you set for us. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio