On an often cold and stormy week, listened to wind and waves, the cry of gulls and eagles, and those unsettled thoughts that stir within. It has been a rigorous, cleansing and renewing practice that I have loved.
But this year, was different.
This fall I’d taken sailing lessons at the Center for Wooden Boats in downtown Seattle. I’d learned the basics of sailing – how to launch and dock a boat, some simple knots, and how to trim the sails. But I still couldn’t figure out how to actually get the boat to go anywhere – except round and round in circles.
This December, I didn’t want to sit by the water’s edge, but to get out on the water and into the wind and waves. I wanted to learn how to move my little boat across the water.
I can’t begin to describe the joy I felt that first day out in the Gulf, a mile or so offshore. Further out than I’d ever been in a little boat, and exactly where I wanted to be. All week at sailing school we played in the wind and learned about how to get our little boat to go where we wanted it to go.
I learned that you can’t sail a boat directly into the wind, but have to do something called tacking – to move the bow (front end) of your boat back and forth at an angle to the wind. To zigzag your way forward. That’s good advice sometimes, at least good for me. The best way through challenges is not always to muscle my way through, even though I have learned all too well to do that. A better way comes in keeping your eye on your goal, and trusting in the slow and steady process of winding your way back and forth to get there.
But to go this way, you have to learn how to tack.
To tack, you push the tiller (a long stick that controls the rudder on the boat) away from you as the bow (the front of the boat) moves through the wind. Right there in the middle, when the bow is facing directly into the wind, there is a terrible luffing (flapping) of sails. As the bow continues to move through the wind, eventually the wind catches the other side of the sail, and the boom (a huge piece of wood attached to the bottom of the main sail) flies above (and hopefully not into) your head, as the sail fills with wind on the other side.
I hated tacking.
As I have hated most transitions in my life.
I tensed up just thinking about needing to tack, and right in the middle often got scared. Felt out of control and not quite sure I was actually going to make it through. Sometimes tried to turn around and go back, which only leads to more terrible flapping of sails and a very tippy boat.
I have struggled with the transitions in my life.
So, often I have preferred to live my life in one direction.
But sometimes, you need to change directions.
Sometimes there are rocks in front of you and you have to turn or crash. Sometimes someone you love dies or a relationship ends. A child is born, or a child goes away to school. Or that’s you going away to school. You get sick, lose a job or get a new job. Something ends and before something new can begin, you need to change directions in order to keep moving forward in your life.
And sometimes, you just want to go a different way. Maybe despite everything in you that loves stability and security, you have a feeling that there is more out there for you to see and experience. A bigger horizon to explore.
Sometimes the new chooses us.
Sometimes we choose the new.
Either way can be hard.
No, I don’t make those transitions easily. Sometimes, I’ve just closed my eyes, grabbed on tight and held my breath.
Not a very good way to sail.
You can’t move a sailboat or the boat of your life forward well when you are all tensed up. Instead, you need to keep your eyes open. Hold that point ahead, even when you lose it in the fog. Keep your breath quiet, and concentration strong.
It takes some practice to learn to tack well.
I’ve realized, much to my surprise, that what keeps me enlivened in my ministry here is the fact that despite everything in me that doesn’t like change and transitions, I have learned how to tack. Practiced again and again changing directions, re-inventing my ministry, my roles, my place. I’ve grown and changed. Put down work I’d loved doing, found new things I have loved.
I couldn’t have done this without the support of a community of deep love and high expectations. A good combination for growth. A good combination for my growth. For these past twenty years I have yet to learn how to “coast” here and have constantly been challenged and stretched, encouraged to grow, change, mature – to learn how to tack.
It is a gift beyond words to be a leader in a community that has met and encouraged my changing self. Yes, stumbling and falling at times along the way, but holding a trust that forward is not always to get it exactly right. To be supported in the trying and failing, to be met time and again with forgiveness and grace. To learn that the trying is the learning. And I have been learning.
It is huge thing to trust ourselves and to trust each other in our growing, changing selves. To not limit or define our lives by the familiar “tacks” we have taken, but by the far horizon that we are headed towards. The very heart of faith, I believe, to trust in our own and each others becoming. To dare to believe that the Creating One is at work in us, bringing new life out of endings and changes.
This spring, I look forward to a sabbatical and the privilege of getting to tack in a different direction for a few months. To write, paint, and yes, sail. To see where it all might lead.
In it all, at sea and in ministry, I am learning how to sail. Maybe this really is me, growing a bit more comfortable in the tacking. Trusting a bit more that I am going to be alright in the twists and turns, challenges and changes in life. That we all are.
Could it be true? Of course I doubt sometimes. But I want to find out. I want to keep going out and forward, to that edge beyond the edge of the horizon. To find the way out deeper still across this sea of wonder, depth and grace that carries us all. And through which, practice after practice, I am indeed, learning to sail.