The following speech was prepared (with some more recent additions) to be given at St. Luke’s Church in London on 20 April 2020. That would have been the eve of my flight to New York to begin preparations for a solo Atlantic crossing to Gibraltar aboard the 32-foot, 1967 Camper Nicholson sloop, Nevermore, while raising money for charity along the way. However, the church was closed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, my flight was cancelled by the airline, and the trip was postponed due to the lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic. The crossing has been rescheduled to begin in July 2020 and will be redirected to Plymouth, England, with a planned landfall sometime in August. More information about the Across Alone charitable campaign created for this voyage is available here for the UK and here for the USA.
Being alone on a small boat for weeks at a time in a vast ocean, far from shore, far from loved ones, far from every visible reminder of your own past, is a transformative experience. It changes you. It has changed me. I’m convinced it rewires your brain.
It forces you to do things that most of us rarely do anymore in our busy lives. It means being still and quiet for hours upon hours and days upon days. It means conforming the rhythm of your life to nature in a way that we have forgotten how to do in our world of electric lights and television and the internet. It means getting wet when it rains, getting tanned when the sun shines, making headway when the wind blows, and sitting perfectly still when the wind stops. It means sleeping when the sun goes down and rising when the sun comes up, all the while surrounded by something so beautiful and vast that, like outer space, although you are right in the middle of it, it is beyond your ability to comprehend fully. And also like outer space, the sea is an environment so inhospitable to human life that to fall into it accidentally, far from shore, with no one to pull you to safety and nothing to buoy you up, would mean a slow wait for certain death.
For that reason, on my boat there is an emergency life raft. It sits on deck, strapped down and tied to the strongest and most central thing on the boat, which is the mast. An emergency life raft is a marvel of engineering. Inside this case, which weighs about six stone or eighty pounds, is an automatically inflatable platform fully enclosed by an inflatable dome. There is a long nylon strap attached to the pin on a CO2 cartridge inside the life raft, and the theory goes that when I pull that strap in my moment of greatest need, the life raft will automatically blow itself up into something resembling a small bouncy castle. While this raft floats and rolls with the roughest of seas, the theory is that anyone inside will roll and bob safely with it, until help arrives.
But the truth is, I have never tested the theory. I don’t really think about my emergency life raft and never have, and most sailors are the same. I know it’s there in case I need it, and if and when I should ever need it I know I’m really, really, really going to need it, but most of the time I don’t think about it. Most of the time I’m busy with things that have nothing to do with saving my life in an emergency, like making sure I am getting where I want to go and feeding myself, entertaining myself, and enjoying myself as much as I can along the way. The life raft is the most important piece of equipment on the boat, but I don’t consider it essential to my day-to-day life. It’s there for emergencies, only, not to help me sail.
That’s a pretty good metaphor for how I have regarded my relationship with God for most of my life. He is the most important thing in all our lives, but we tend to keep him stowed away for emergencies. Tonight, however, I’m going to pull the pin on the emergency life raft to explain to you how, exactly, you can best deal with fear and loneliness and despair, because as it turns out God is the answer to that question. God is not just the last resort you go to when all else fails. He is, literally, the answer.
Now, for those of you who came here tonight thinking you were going to hear some hidden secret of sports training philosophy—some strategy that sailors use to cope with fear and loneliness along the lines of how runners cope with shin splints or how Andy Murray stays focused on his backhand, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. The secret I have to share with you is no secret at all, nor is it unique to sailors. It is in fact the same Gospel that is preached in this church every Sunday.
In thinking about a topic for my talk, I chose fear and loneliness because these are the two subjects that most often come up when I tell people about my plans. “Aren’t you afraid?” people will ask, or, “Won’t you get lonely?” They are usually surprised to learn that the answer to both questions is yes, and they seem puzzled that I still do it. To explain why, I’d like to begin by reading to you two favourite passages of mine from the New Testament. The first is Mark 4: 35-41, and the person the writer is referring to is Jesus:
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 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 storm of wind arose, and the waves beat 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 if we perish?” 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. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”The second reading is from the Gospel of Matthew 14: 22-23:
Then he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
The writer of the Gospel of Mark in the first reading tells us that the disciples were afraid—not just mildly afraid, but afraid they were going to die. And in the irrational anger that often comes with great fear, you can sense they were deeply angry at Jesus that he was presuming to sleep when they were so terrified and in such great danger. (I don’t compare myself to Jesus in any capacity other than this one, which is that we share the ability to sleep peacefully on boats during storms, and on those occasions when I have been sailing with crew, they were no happier about this fact than were Jesus’s disciples.) So, what does Jesus say to them?
He doesn’t ask them, “Where is your life raft” or “Where is your radio” or “Where is your storm jib” or “Where is your sextant.” He doesn’t ask them, ‘Where is your life jacket?” or “Where is the anchor?” or “Where is your yoga mat?” or “Where is your organic basil and soy protein smoothie?” He asks them, “Where is your faith?” Why? Because faith is the solution to fear. Jesus’s answer is no different than what we might say to someone who is suffering needlessly with a headache: “Have you no paracetamol?” Faith is the never-fail antidote to fear.
Now, as you may know tonight’s event was advertised widely in hopes that we would draw a large crowd to raise a lot of money and awareness for our cause. For that reason it occurred to me that there might be a few people in the audience who not only don’t go to this church but don’t go to any church and, in fact, don’t accept what I’m saying about faith because they don’t believe at all. And I wondered if my remarks about Jesus would sound presumptuous to some of you if not a little arrogant, as if I simply assumed that everyone wishes to follow Jesus as a guide for life. I don’t assume that for a minute. In fact, one of the most remarkable things I learned about the British after I came here five years ago is how many of you are proudly and militantly atheist.
In America, the number of people who define themselves as Christian has declined rapidly with this latest generation, but it is still about sixty-five percent of the population (for the time being, if not for long). According to pollsters, more than a third of the people in the United States still show up to church on most weekends. The number of people in America who describe themselves as atheist is only about five percent of the country. They are mostly young, and those who are not young are overwhelmingly white, urban, politically liberal and well educated. In America atheists are still regarded as a small and rather weird little group—so much so that many atheists are a bit sheepish to admit they are atheists in social settings.
In Britain, on the other hand, the population that regularly goes to church has been decimated in the last seventy-five years. In my short time here I have been astonished at how many people have rather confidently and matter-of-factly said to me, “Oh, we don’t believe.” In many parts of America, hearing someone say that out loud still takes people’s breath away. In Britain, not so much. And so I decided that before I explain to a British audience why God and faith are the answer to fear, I need to say a few words (more than a few, actually) about atheism and respond to the atheist view that God and faith are simply a delusion of the simple-minded or, as Karl Marx said, the opiate of the masses.
As I understand him, the typical atheist believes that the world we see around us exploded randomly into existence from a chaos of gas many billions of years ago and that we are living today in the extraordinarily unlikely aftermath of this tremendous explosion. How unlikely? Well, mathematicians and physicists who are much cleverer than I have calculated the odds of producing the world we know by explosion. As it turns out you would be more likely to flip a coin and have it come up heads thirty trillion times in a row than to explode planet Earth, the life it contains, and our solar system randomly into existence. (Is it any wonder why there are so many betting shops in Britain?)
But of course, the problem with atheism and the Big Bang theory is not just one of odds. There is an existential problem in our inability to say who supplied the fuel for the explosion. In other words, why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there such a thing as existence? Why is there such a thing as a thing? There is no field of science and no scientist, no matter how brilliant, who can answer those questions, because science by definition begins where the natural world begins. This is why the atheist requires that he be supplied with a chemistry set to use in explaining how the world got started. But again, that leaves unanswered the question of who supplied the chemistry set and explains why so many celebrity atheists get extremely irritated if you take their chemistry set away.
But the fact is, if you’re going to imagine that there has always been something called existence and that this existence came pre-stocked with the materials needed to create our world by means of a huge explosion, you might as well skip the big bang altogether and just say that whoever was smart enough to create the bomb materials also used them to kablooey the world together for us. In other words, if you’re going to buy a desk from Ikea you might as well pay them to assemble it, because it’s not going to assemble itself, it’s going to take you all afternoon to do it on your own, your wife will be interfering the whole time, and you’ll probably get it wrong in the end anyway.
Even if one supposes that the universe began as a giant vacuum or void of some kind and, through some miracle of particle physics, where once there were no particles suddenly particles magically appeared, an existential problem remains. The very idea of a vacuum or a void has no meaning except in opposition to the existence of something—in opposition to the idea of time, space, and matter. Darkness has no meaning except in relation to light. Emptiness has no meaning except in relation to fullness. The very idea of existence itself cannot be assumed, because on what basis, and by what logic, would we surmise that anything must exist?
But Britain’s secular faith doesn’t stop there. Atheists believe that the Big Bang did two things: one is to create something from nothing, and other is to create life from non-life. Now, the first hypothesis can never be tested because there is no laboratory called “nothing.” We cannot conduct an experiment that begins in nothingness, because we the experimenters exist and work in a material world. You can super-collide all the atoms you like as fast as you like, but if you’re starting with atoms or gasses in time and space you are starting with a world that already exists, and you have not answered the question of where you got time, matter, and space to begin with. Scientists have been knocking themselves out and awarding each other Nobel Prizes for smashing atoms and mixing chemicals to create all sorts of odd reactions, but the one thing that that no scientist on earth has ever been able to do is to create life from non-life. No scientist has ever created so much as a single living cell much less something so phenomenally complex as a common housefly.
But if you are an atheist, the good news is that you should be fearless. Why? Because you believe that after you die you become a nonentity. You won’t be lying in your grave thinking, “What a shame I had that heart attack. If only I had been a vegetarian.” Why? Because sooner or later the vegetarian atheist will be lying in the grave next to you, and because, per your belief, he will have no conscious existence after this life, he won’t be thinking, “Thank goodness I didn’t eat cheeseburgers like the poor sap lying in the grave next to me, because I got to live ten years longer.” He won’t be savouring the memory of those extra ten years or remembering how great it was to be thin rather than fat or what a wonderful time he had trekking through the Himalayas while the other fellow was already dead. He won’t remember anything, because there will no longer be a “he” or “him” to do the remembering.
In other words, for the atheist there is no meaning to our existence that transcends our physical reality. Life is just one long trip through an amusement park of different sensations, and when you get off the last ride you cease to exist. You, along with your memory of what you did or didn’t do on earth, your fears and regrets, your hopes and your dreams, your proudest achievements and your darkest crimes, all disappear into the ether of nonexistence. So, the point of life for some atheists quite naturally becomes to have as much fun as they can while they are wandering through the amusement park of life: eat the best food, take the best vacations, have the most sex, drive the nicest cars, wear the nicest clothes, have the biggest house, acquire the most toys, and so on.
To Christians this is a lie as old as time, but in the West we have been selling this lie to the public very aggressively in the last fifty years, and the campaign has had great success. We are now standing on the brink of a brave new world which, for the first time in history, is actually telling itself with a straight face that the universe created itself by accident and that human beings are part of that accident. This is new. For you see, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in his wonderful book, Mere Christianity, if you had told Pontius Pilate or any ancient Roman or Greek or pagan that there was no God, they all would have looked at you as if you were a madman. True, they had various and conflicting ideas about who God was, and Pontius Pilate was blind to the fact that the man standing before him was God Incarnate, but he along with virtually everyone else in the ancient world firmly believed that God existed.
What is new about this generation and our world is that the majority of people we call the elite—the wealthy and highly educated—but also increasingly people in every strata of society not only doubt the existence of God but firmly believe that everything we see in the world and the universe is just a huge, meaningless happenstance. So, how is this new way of thinking playing out?
Well, middle-aged atheists and their friends in Britain were likely raised in Christian homes by Christian parents and grew up in a Christian society that was so steeped in the mores and manners of Christian belief as to make those things almost invisible, like sugar dissolved in water. The effect of Christianity on western civilisation is by now so ingrained, in fact, that some atheists look at world bequeathed to them by 2,000 years of Christian history and conclude that the central, animating feature of western civilization is not Christ but rather a Christ-like school of philosophy. They regard Christianity as not much more than a “secret sauce” whose ingredients can be co-opted, decoupled from ideas about God and any moral imperative, and rebranded as something totally new called “secular humanism.”
It all very much reminds me of the little boy who took a rucksack, stuffed in all the food and clothing lovingly provided for him by his parents, and ran away from home. With his knapsack on his back, he tells himself that he really doesn’t need Mom and Dad and that life as it turns out is really pretty easy. He wonders what all the fuss was about over having to obey his parents, do his chores, stay in school, and work hard. “My goodness,” he says, “that was all just a lie my parents told me to control me for their own diabolical purposes. I can do just fine on my own without any of that.” Just fine, that is, until the supplies he has taken from his parents’ home start to run out. (By the way, that little boy’s name was John Lennon, and while the supplies he had borrowed from home were still running high, he wrote a song about his experience called Imagine.)
In the Christian worldview, most of the ills in society do not chiefly result from poverty or racism or discrimination or sexism or hunger or illness or inadequate funding of social programs—all of which are real problems but which were far greater problems for previous generations whose faith enabled them to cope with them with much less social pathology in the form of crime, suicide, addiction, mental illness, teenage pregnancy, divorce, domestic violence, juvenile delinquency, and so on. These pathologies as it turns out have much less to do with economics and politics than we were led to believe, which is why they continue to get worse despite the various economic and political schemes we keep throwing at them. Instead, our social ills have a great deal more to do with the fact that the supplies from the storehouse of our common Christian faith are starting to run low in the brave new world we have invented for ourselves and our children.
What is that world? Well, for starters we have taught our children that the universe itself and their presence within it are colossal accidents, and that for this reason their lives on earth have no eternal significance or meaning. We have told them that because ultimately nothing survives their physical existence, nothing is more important than their physical safety and nothing transcends their physical desires. And guess what? It turns out they’ve been listening.
Who are we to scold the child of today who looks at all the ways he can entertain himself during this short, meaningless trip through the amusement park of life and says, “You know what, I don’t think I’ll take the yoga ride or the gardening ride or the baking or the backpacking or the bicycling rides like my parents did. I’d like to take the rape ride in this amusement park.” Or, “I’d like to take the random, senseless violence ride.” Or, “I’d like to take the gang ride.” Or, “I’d like to take the ride where I bring a gun to school and watch my classmates run in terror while I shoot them.”
When you turn to that child and say, no, don’t do these things because that wouldn’t be morally acceptable, he will rightly turn to you and ask, “Whose morals?” By what authority do you presume to tell this child what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour? In an accidental world in which human life has no transcendent meaning, who indeed are you to tell that child what is right and what is wrong? In a world in which every person is headed to absolute oblivion, what possible relevance do your opinions about right and wrong have to anyone? The answer is none. It’s a worldview called nihilism, and we live in a world increasingly held hostage to it.
But we as a society are quick to say, “Never fear, citizens! We have a political scheme that will fix all that.” There is never a shortage of politicians and social scientists on the left and the right to tell us that our problems can be solved by human government—that if we just elect this politician and throw out his opponent, if we just help women and minorities to find more opportunity, if we just help the working class to become more financially stable through lower taxes, fewer regulations, better healthcare, better education, more job training, whatever—we will one day create a perfect society. And of course, those may all be laudable and worthwhile goals, but we keep mistaking them for solutions. There is indeed much that politics and public policy can do both to get out of people’s way and to help them as they try to build fulfilling lives, but political systems and political debates will never remedy our poverty of spirit and satisfy our innate spiritual longing and restlessness for God. Political initiatives, freedom and prosperity alone will never achieve the lasting social peace and stability we seek. “Put not your trust in princes,” the psalmist warns us, “nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.”
So, to the atheist I would say that the reason the perfect society never comes and indeed things seem to be going from bad to worse is that we are increasingly incapable to hear what Christ was trying to tell us when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” It’s easy to overlook but dangerous to dismiss the profundity of that statement. What Christ is saying is that human society doesn’t have the capacity and so cannot succeed, apart from faith in him, to find its way, to know truth, and to experience life to its fullest. In other words, if you’re listening to my talk tonight and saying, “I don’t need to hear what Jesus said about the importance of faith in overcoming fear because I can find meaning and transcendence and purpose and peace to conquer my fears and build a better world without Christ,” Christ would tell you that you are doomed to failure. And just looking at the world around us today, here in Britain and elsewhere, can there be any doubt that what Christ is saying is true?
Let’s be clear: if we really believe this Christianity business (and many of us want to say we do), there are two great forces that transcend all of the events of human history: one that is trying to bring us toward God, and one that is trying to pull us away from him. The rest is all just background noise. Because of this fact, we and particularly our political class should not be surprised, despite our continuing struggle, that the affairs of men do not naturally travel through the sunny uplands of reason and good will.
If we accept what Christian faith teaches us, which is that mankind has an enemy who “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,” should we really expect that any number of yoga or mindfulness classes, studies in psychology, well-written speeches and columns in the Spectator, or political campaigns for one party’s ideology over another are going to dispel the ignorance and cowardice and dishonesty that rule the day? I’m not suggesting that these efforts don’t have value, only that in the end they are not enough to save us from our darker selves. In the end our fate as individuals and as a society comes down to something much bigger than all of us. We should traffic in learning and ideas but be clear-eyed enough to see that in the end what we’re up against is an enemy engaged not in a good-faith struggle of ideas but a naked struggle for power. We’re not going to “win the argument” with that enemy. He’s not hoping to persuade us, and he’s not open to persuasion. He’s hoping to kill us, body and soul. Christ doesn’t debate Satan in the desert—he resists him. The cleverest man ever born resisted Satan not with cleverly devised arguments but by quoting scripture. Faith, not eloquence, was his shield.
Faith is the only weapon that can defeat the enemy of mankind–not free-market economics, not libertarianism, not socialism, not Marxism, not democracy, not classical liberalism, not conservatism, not environmentalism, not secular humanism. The reason we are continually bewildered and frustrated that we cannot find lasting political solutions to the world’s problems is that we naively assume our problems as individuals and as a society are fundamentally political, not spiritual. This naivete seems to me to be what St. Peter was getting at in his first epistle when he said, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
When we hear obvious and enormously destructive lies being peddled as truth by leaders in the news media, academia, science, medicine, law, government, and even in the church—no longer secretly but openly, boldly, and with increasing coerciveness for the public to submit and conform their views to this “new orthodoxy” or be shunned—do we not recognize the handiwork (and growing confidence) of the one Christ describes as “a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him”? Can we not see the hideous form of the one of whom Christ said, “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies”? St. Paul recognized that political and polemical weapons alone would be ineffective in this fight when he said, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” It is Christ himself who warns us, as recorded in the 24th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:
You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Do we imagine the gospel writer left out the part at the end where Christ said, “unless conservatives win solid majorities in Parliament and the U.S. Congress, in which case everything will be fine”? Our greatest problems are spiritual, not political. This is why there is such danger in conflating political arguments with spiritual solutions. The Jewish elite in Jesus’s day were looking for a political solution to their problems and for a powerful messiah who would become a political leader. Their frustration with Jesus had much to do with the fact that he showed no interest in amassing political power to solve the problems of the people and instead chose to associate with the weak. No doubt one of Satan’s most effective tools has been to convince each political tribe that they alone are the Children of the Light.
When Jesus says, “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice,” like Pontius Pilate modern society answers back, ‘What is truth?” The truth is that we can have a civil government apart from God, and we can have a prosperous and powerful society apart from God, but in the long run we cannot have a successful society apart from God. And importantly for our talk here tonight and for the atheists who wonder why a seminar on fear has so much to say about Jesus, my point is that you cannot conquer your fears apart from God.
So then, you have heard my argument against the illogic of atheism, and hopefully I have brought the doubters in the audience far enough along to consider the rest of what I have to say.
Christ tells his disciples again and again, “fear not,” and “peace be with you.” Why? Because fear is a victory for Satan. Fear is a rejection of the hope Christ offers us by his death and in that way a rejection of the power of the cross—a rejection of the power that reassures us, fear not: This body of yours is not all there is. That warm house and warm bed and nice car and good food are not all there is. Your job is not all there is. That mound of dirt under which you will be buried and the flowers and tears that will be planted there are not all there is.
All of you in the audience will say goodbye to me later tonight, and some of you may take comfort in knowing you’ve got the good sense not to be crossing an ocean in a small boat, but that comfort is an illusion. We are all on a journey headed out of this world, because this world is not all there is. We are all pilgrims to another place, and whether we end our pilgrimage in a storm in the middle of the ocean or in a hospital bed in Lewisham, we cannot help but be afraid and lonely at times, but we should never despair. Fear and loneliness are immutable facts of our human condition, but despair is a choice.
It isn’t fear that sinks Peter in the waves; Christ knows he is afraid. Who wouldn’t be afraid? What sinks Peter is despair. I will have more to say about despair in a moment, but understand this: despair is nothing more than fear without faith. Peter despairs that the grace of God that is calling him out into the water is not bigger than death and will not be sufficient to save him. What is Christ doing by calling him? He is calling Peter to believe that the raging sea is not all there is, that the howling wind is not all there is, that this earthly life is not all there is, that death is not all there is.
A little baby daring to take his first steps without holding on is afraid. Why? Because he’s never done it before and doesn’t really know if there is such a thing as walking. He might never be able to do it himself were it not for two very important facts: First, he’s seen his father do it, and secondly, his father is right there with him, telling the child that he can do it too, and that everything will be alright.
This is literally the story of the gospel of Jesus walking on the water, and it is metaphorically the story of our faith journey. When Jesus called Peter to walk to him on the water, Jesus was standing on the water himself. Jesus had done first what he was asking Peter to do, and Peter had seen Jesus do it. When Jesus asks us to believe that we will rise to life after death, it’s because Jesus has risen to new life himself, and not only his followers but hundreds upon hundreds of people saw him do it. Jesus has already done what he is promising we can do.
“But now wait a minute,” I can hear the atheists and secular humanists in the audience say. “You might have an argument that no one can disprove the existence of God, but why would anyone believe that God took human form in Jesus and that he died and rose from the dead to save us from our sins? Where’s your proof?” Fair point. I’d like to address it.
The New Testament, which is a compendium of the testimony of eyewitnesses whose contemporaries found credible and important enough to preserve, copy, re-copy, distribute, and defend with their lives, tells us that great crowds in Jerusalem came out to see Jesus enter the city and go to his death on Calvary. He did not die in secret. There was no denying or faking his death. The Jewish leaders handed him over to be crucified, the crowd shouted for him to be crucified, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate ordered him to be crucified, he was crucified, and the soldiers stabbed his side with a spear just to make sure he was dead. Then, according to eyewitness accounts, on the third day he rose to new life. He didn’t walk out of the tomb, call an Uber, go to heaven, and send his disciples a text message that he had arrived. He appeared to them bodily and in person for forty days. He ate meals with them. He invited Thomas to put his fingers in the nail holes.
We are also told in St. Paul’s letters of the New Testament that, after the resurrection, Christ appeared to more than 500 citizens of Judea, most of whom, Paul writes, were still alive at the time Paul was writing and preaching that Jesus rose from the dead. Do you know what that means? That means that if what Paul was saying about the resurrection of Christ were not true, not a single one of those 500 people would have existed, which means that thousands upon thousands would have called Paul a liar. Yet just the opposite happened.
The story of Christ’s resurrection and the early church not only spread like wildfire, it spread like wildfire despite a driving thunderstorm of opposition. So credible was the story of the gospel, thousands upon thousands of people who lived at the time of Jesus and who had the capacity to know from personal knowledge whether the gospel was true or false came out in public asking to be baptized when being a follower of Christ meant torture, persecution, financial ruin, social disgrace, and death. Notwithstanding this, Christianity, led by a small and unlikely band of uneducated and unremarkable men, swept the world.
You know, the most popular, most widely admired, and most deeply mourned political leader of the last 100 years in America would undoubtedly be President John F. Kennedy. In Dallas, where he died, two white exes have been painted on the street where the first and the second bullets hit him as his motorcade passed by the Texas Schoolbook Depository. That’s where Lee Harvey Oswald took aim and fired from the sixth-floor window. That building is now a museum where hundreds of thousands of people come every year to learn, to remember, and to relive those awful days when JFK was cut down in the prime of his life.
Almost immediately after President Kennedy’s death, a movement of people of all ages who shared his vision for America sprang up. They became advocates for what his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, would call the Great Society. The ideals that animated John F. Kennedy when he was alive still animate American politics today, and the followers and admirers of JFK have grown by the millions since his death. They hold the reins of power in American government, in academia, and in the media and Hollywood.
But as beloved and admired as JFK was then and is now, and as grief stricken and desperate and afraid as his followers were, if you had sent twelve people out onto the streets of Dallas three days after JFK’s assassination to say that he had risen from the dead, no one would have believed you. People would not have gathered in public by the thousands to be baptized into the Church of JFK. No one would have published papers attesting to his resurrection, and even if someone did, no one would have bothered to read them or copy them over and over, again and again, laboriously by hand, to be distributed all around the world, handed down through the centuries, and cherished more than life itself.
These things would not happen because people would know that the story was not true. How would they know? They would know either because they were there, or because they had friends and family members or other people they trust who were there who would tell them that no such thing ever happened. They would know it was a lie because if JFK had walked out of Parkland Hospital alive and unharmed in front of hundreds of people three days after the world witnessed his head literally being blown apart, people everywhere would have known this and everyone would have been talking about it—which, of course, is exactly what happened after Christ’s death and resurrection. This is why the Bible tells us the men on the road to Emmaus were so incredulous that anyone within miles of Jerusalem could be unaware that Christ had risen from the dead, because the entire region was buzzing with the news.
But even if by some miracle you were able to convince thousands of strangers for no apparent reason or advantage to themselves to lie to their families and friends that JFK had risen from the dead, you can bet that when armed guards showed up at their doors, held a gun to their heads, and told them either to recant their story or die, all of them would have recanted. And why wouldn’t they? They would know they were lying, and there’s no point in lying if there’s no advantage in the lie. Why not tell the truth and live?
It was a very different story in first century Palestine, and it was different because the facts were different. Ordinary Christians chose to be burned at the stake or torn apart by wild animals rather than deny the miracle of the resurrection—not as it was told or taught to them from a book, but as they or those they knew and trusted had actually witnessed it.
So again, Christ doesn’t just tell us not to fear. He doesn’t just tell us to have faith that we will live after death. He shows us with his own death and resurrection that it is true. We have faith we can do it because we know that Christ has done it. Christ doesn’t stand in the boat and offer to push Peter out of it into the water. Christ is already standing on the water when he asks Peter to come to him. Christ has shown Peter that it can be done, and he asks Peter have faith that he will be sustained and lifted up by the same power and in the same way.
You may have noticed that Christ also doesn’t explain to Peter why there is a storm at sea to begin with, nor does he calm the storm just for Peter’s benefit. Christ doesn’t solve this problem for Peter. Instead, he simply tells Peter not to fear the storm and to walk out to meet him anyway. Likewise, Christ doesn’t tell us why our wife or husband left us, or why our father or son is an alcoholic, or why there are people in the world seemingly hell bent on hurting us and destroying us. He doesn’t explain the storms in our lives; he just reassures us that the storm is not all there is. Peter sinks because he insists on living in the world he can see and interpreting that world through the laws of his earthly knowledge and understanding. Christ is calling him to have faith in a world he cannot see and one that is governed by laws he cannot understand.
No one has all the answers in this world, but I do know this: If we don’t let go and take those first seemingly impossible steps, if we don’t leap, if we cling to our anger and outrage and our demand for answers, if we choose to despair rather than to hope, we won’t see God, because we’ll never reach him. The little baby doesn’t know why it’s going to be okay if he lets go and walks toward his father. He just chooses to rely more on his faith in his father than his fear in himself, and he lets himself be drawn by the hope and excitement of discovering something totally new.
I am very flattered by and grateful for the people who worry about my safety on this trip. You make me know that I matter and that I am loved and wanted. But I am secretly a bit amused by people who hear I’m sailing across an ocean who say, “Aren’t you afraid you might die?” I sometimes want to pull those people into a quiet corner and ask them, “Have you got an angle on some kind of deal where, if I don’t get on a boat, I won’t die?” Most of us live our lives as though death is something that happens to people who don’t eat right, get enough exercise, or know how to plan well. But of course, death is coming for us all, and he won’t be detained. We can either live huddled in fear and denial and let him corner us and sink our ship in the harbour or we can sail out to meet him.
What exactly did Christ say about fear? Are we simply to be blissfully confident and walk around the earth like happy idiots, oblivious to every danger? Certainly not. In the tenth chapter of Matthew we have the story of Jesus sending his disciples out into the world to preach the good news. What does he tell them? He doesn’t tell them the world isn’t a scary place. On the contrary, he says, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
Then he tells them what they need to be truly afraid of, and it’s not that they might get beaten up on the side of the road, or that they might lose their job and be unable to pay their mortgage, or that they might get sick and die. Christ tells them that none of those things has the power to harm them. He tells them instead to be afraid of Satan: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Yet, in the face of this fear, he gives them and us someone to trust who is bigger than our fears and who cares about us and our happiness, and that someone is God. Christ says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.”
What Jesus seems to me to be saying is that we are afraid of the wrong things. You and I are both afraid that I might fall off my boat in the middle of the ocean, alone, far from aid, and never see you or this place again. If you are fortunate enough to have a job, you are probably afraid of losing it. We’re all afraid of illness and death. Or of burglars. Or bullies. Or pain. Or not having enough money for rent or food or clothing.
If you want proof that the world is on the wrong track, ask yourself what the world is afraid of, and I think you’ll find it to be everything but what is truly scary. Tell anyone that you’re afraid of the devil, and they’ll smile and chuckle and pat you on the back. Tell them that you’re afraid of dying, and they’ll respond with the utmost gravity and seriousness. It’s not that people who are afraid of dying are cowards or that we shouldn’t comfort the sick. The point is that we’re all dying, right now, this very minute. Yet for many of us, the health of our soul, the only part of our being that will endure forever, is the stuff of children’s fairy tales, while the health of our bodies, the only thing that is absolutely certain not to endure for any of us, occupies all of our effort and attention.
We have only to look at the recent reaction to the coronavirus to understand how skewed our thinking is. We’re living in a country that went stoically about its business and refused to budge while Nazi bombs falling from the sky killed some 29,000 people in London alone. Yet today, we are so paralyzed by fear that we are literally losing our minds. What’s the difference? Seventy-five years ago the vast majority of us believed that there was a meaning and purpose to our lives greater than our own survival. Today many of us have accepted the lie that there is nothing beyond our animal existence, so naturally, like animals, ensuring our own survival is not just the most important reason but the sole reason for everything we do. And if that means I have 82 rolls of toilet paper and 25 bottles of hand sanitizer and you have none, well, so be it.
I don’t mean to put on a false air of bravado. Fear of physical danger and illness is a natural and unavoidable part of our human condition. Peter showed us that when he denied Christ three times out of fear for his own physical safety. But as it was in Peter’s case, our fear is a direct affront to Christ and our Christian faith, because it is telling Christ that we regard his sacrifice as insufficient to save us and we regard his promise of a better life to come as illegitimate.
Let there be no mistake. The answer to fear is revealed to us in the question Christ asked of his disciples who were terrified of the storm in the boat: “Where is your faith?” In other words, the solution to fear is faith. But the fact remains that we are imperfect vessels of that faith. We waver. We wander. We doubt. And we must strive every day to strengthen and aid our faith to give ourselves every advantage. How do we do that? First by prayer, and secondly by coming here. By coming to church. I feel less frightened every time I see each of you on a Sunday morning. And if you come to church on a Sunday morning, that’s what you’ll find—a gathering of cowards who know what it is that’s truly scary in the world and who come here literally to encourage each other—to give each other courage.
So, hopefully I have encouraged all of you to face your fears with greater confidence. Now I’d like to shift my focus to the other subject of tonight’s talk, and that is loneliness and her frequent companion, despair.
In a few hours I will leave this place and you lovely people, and tomorrow morning I will say goodbye to my wife outside the airport at Gatwick. And in that moment, after she is gone, as I stand there, and this wonderful evening with all of you and my wife’s kisses fade into memory, I will be greeted by two very old friends. One is loneliness, which is welcome and to be expected. In fact, if I weren’t lonely I would be missing something elemental to love and marriage and humanity. But loneliness has a darker side, and that is where we encounter a dangerous thing called despair.
Ten hours more or less after I leave London I will arrive at JFK airport, met there by no one, greeted by not one familiar face. No one will speak to me except to tell me “thank you for flying with us” or perhaps as the 800th person at Starbucks that day who will be told to “have a good day.” But I will welcome even that contact a bit more than usual, because I will be lonely, and human contact of any kind to a lonely person is like water to a thirsty man.
I will board the Long Island Railroad to take it out to the end of the line. The people I meet most likely will treat me with that mixture of politeness and indifference that passes for kindness among strangers. I will eventually find my way to my boat. She will be dirty and looking a bit run down and unloved, having spent summer fall and winter propped up on metal jack-stands in a gravel parking lot strewed with abandoned paint pots and the assorted detritus of boatyards. When I first see her, the realization of the hard work ahead of me to get her ready for sea will hit me like a cold wave. And I will be lonely, and I will be afraid. And what I have been busy planning for the last six months will start to seem, in that moment, suspiciously like the most obvious of mistakes and the most ridiculous of delusions. I will begin to doubt myself. Memories of past mistakes I have made will pay a visit and stay for tea to make unwelcome comparisons and draw unhelpful conclusions. But then, after lying awhile in the bed I have made for myself, I will grow bored with self-pity and get to work.
As I make my way through that work, I will meet passersby in the shipyard who will ask me what I’m up to. When I tell them I’m crossing the Atlantic, their first question will be, “By yourself?” When I say yes, I will see as I always do the gleam in their eye that says, “This man might be out of his mind.” Then they will look at my boat and say, incredulously, “In that thing?”
That’s when I will know that I’m not speaking to a long-distance sailor, because a long-distance sailor would take one look at Nevermore and see the nautical equivalent of Zola Budd: small, slender, not a lot of high-tech equipment, but absolutely built to go long distances. But because sailors nowadays don’t really sail anymore and instead mostly motor and drink their way aboard luxury yachts in protected harbours waiting for extra crew and a spare part for their watermaker and a new compressor for their refrigerator and a new hot water heater for the shower in the master bath, they will not understand how anyone could cross an ocean “in that thing.” And when he is over that shock he will ask me, “Have you done much sailing before?” Just out of boredom, I will answer, “No, never, but I took a correspondence course last week and made a score of 71%.”
Each of the dozen people with whom I will have this exact conversation over the next two weeks will go home to a warm house with a soft bed and a functioning toilet that isn’t tilting sideways, and he will think, “What in God’s name is he doing? Thank God it’s him and not me.” After I have had this same conversation three dozen times more, I will start to think, “What in God’s name am I doing?” I will still be lonely and afraid, but in that moment, I will face something new. I will face the temptation to despair.
I imagine that Christ asked himself that same question, “What in God’s name am I doing here?” as he wandered alone for forty days in the desert. We know of course that in that moment, Satan was at his elbow, tempting him to despair. “Throw yourself down from this mountaintop,” he goaded him. Give up. Give in to despair. You have no hope. You’re all alone. No one loves you. You have no father. Everyone thinks you’re a fool. You’re making a spectacle of yourself. Why can’t you be normal like other people? Other people have satisfying and successful lives, earning a good living, well regarded by all, enjoying some richly deserved luxury and status, but look at you. You have no friends, you have no home, you have no job, you have no career, you have no money, you’re a fool! You have nothing to live for.
When I hear that same voice telling me to despair at my situation, whether I be sick or thirsty or lonely or threatened by a storm or by boredom, my only defence will be to remind myself of what Christ knew when he faced the same questions. What did Christ know? Well, first and foremost, he knew who it was who was speaking to him out there in the desert, tempting him to despair. Satan despises our faith, our hope, our love, and our perseverance in the face of our fear and loneliness. Fear and loneliness are part of the human condition, but despair is a trap of the devil. Despair is fear without faith and loneliness without hope. Faith and hope come from God. Despair comes from down below, and the most important tool we have in resisting despair, in not giving in to that negative voice in our heads, is to know who it is who is speaking to us.
What exactly is despair? Despair is a dishevelled, dodgy-looking man in a dark alley whispering and motioning us to come over and share a drink with him of what he’s hiding in a brown paper bag. Most of us in our daily lives wouldn’t linger to ponder the wisdom of going over to that man, or tie ourselves up in knots wondering whether we should or shouldn’t go over there and have a bit of what he’s offering. Most of us would have no problem in walking right past that sort of man without a sidelong glance. We intuitively know that what he’s offering is not healthy or good for us. And yet when we are drawn to despair, we allow ourselves to be convinced that that dark alley is the only place left for us to go.
But of course the answer to our problems is never there. Looking back on my life, there isn’t one problem I’ve had, no matter how big or small, that has been made better or easier to bear, much less solved, by despairing over it. Fear and loneliness are facts of our human condition, like hunger and thirst. But despair is a choice.
How do you conquer despair? Simple: you do what Christ did. First you resist, and then you get about your business. You do something else. You avoid it in the same way you avoid that man in the dark alley: you just keep on walking.
I’m amazed by how many Christian scholars and theologians go all giggly and slightly embarrassed when you start talking about the devil. The American comedian Flip Wilson’s signature punchline was “the devil made me do it.” He was famous for his comedy sketches where he tried to rationalize all his unsavoury behaviour by claiming the devil was really to blame. These sketches made Wilson a millionaire because the idea of a spiritual nemesis lurking in the shadows, horns and all, making us do the things we ought not be doing seems a bit silly to everyone. Blaming the devil for our failures sounds a bit like blaming the family dog for eating our homework, and so it gets a lot of laughs. The loudest laugh, however, no doubt comes from the devil himself. Because I’m sure it doesn’t matter to him whether you believe in him or not; he just wants you to come join him in that dark alley and share a drink called despair.
So to the Christian intellectuals who no longer have use for quaint notions of heaven and hell and angels and demons, I say this: If there is no Satan, if there is no Hell, if there is no risk to us of embracing what Satan has to offer, then Christ’s life, death and resurrection were pointless, and so too is your life. Christ knew one thing on that mountaintop: he knew who was calling him to throw away everything of real meaning and value for an empty promise.
Our best defence and our only defence, therefore, is to imitate Christ: to resist Satan by resisting and ignoring the despair to which Satan calls us. To just keep moving. To get up. To do something. To go somewhere. To sit down at the piano. To pick up a paintbrush. To pick up a pen and write to a very old friend. To pick up the telephone. To slip into our gardening boots. Anything.
Do whatever, but whatever you do, don’t give into despair, because despair is a lie. Despair is a drug dealer offering you a pill and saying you might as well take it because you’re never going to find happiness. Despair is a prostitute beckoning you over and saying you might as well pay her to pretend to love you because you’re never going to find true love. Despair is a gambling house beckoning you to give away your hard-earned money and saying you might as well take a chance because you’re never going to succeed on your own.
Fear and loneliness aren’t the real problem. They remind us that we are human. The real evil, and I use the word evil deliberately, is where we allow fear and loneliness to lead us. The real evil is when we allow our fear and loneliness to sink into despair.
Some of you may have heard of the term, “True North.” Some of you may even know what it is. True North is not a thing or a place. It is a force. It is the magnetism at the northern pole of the Earth that never varies and from which every other direction and location on the planet is determined. If you have travelled anywhere in a plane or on a boat or have wandered in the woods with a compass or have used Satnav or Google Maps in your car, True North was an essential part of getting you to the right destination. I want to tell you a story about how I found True North.
When I was fifteen years old, my mother sent me to spend the summer on the family farm in Tennessee where her father had been raised and where she and her sisters had gone to live for a time during the Great Depression when their own parents could no longer afford to keep them. In this farmhouse where my great aunt and uncle still lived, in the early seventies, there was no indoor plumbing and no heat but a wood stove. No running water. No indoor bathroom. Just an outhouse. But there were fields and woods full of wild game and creeks full of fish, and to a teenage boy who loved the outdoors as much as I did, it was heaven.
Then one day into this heaven came walking a beautiful girl my age with long blonde hair. She was the farmer’s daughter from the next farm over. She had heard about the boy from the Big City who had moved into the neighbours’ place down the road, and she had come by to have a look for herself. She invited me to accompany her and her family the following Sunday to church. Being an Episcopalian, I naturally asked her, “What church do you go to?” Because where I came from, whether you were a Baptist or a Presbyterian or a Methodist or a Catholic said a lot about who you were.
She answered that she and her family attended the “Church of Christ.” I said, “Well, I know you attend the church of Christ, but what church do you go to?” She told me again, “We go to the Church of Christ.” And that was the beginning of my encounter with a little Bible church in Greenwood, Tennessee, that changed my life. I became a regular churchgoer that summer, even if, I must confess, my interest in the beautiful farmer’s daughter was at first far greater than my curiosity about the Gospel. But then the members of this church did a remarkable thing. As a sign of their affection, they presented me with a leather-bound Bible, Revised Standard Version, engraved on the front in gold leaf with my name.
The year was 1973. I remember taking that Bible home to the farmhouse where I lived and staying up all night reading page after page of the New Testament. I was mesmerized by it. I had never read anything so completely compelling before. I began to realize I had found the answer to many of the questions in my life: how I should conduct myself, what I should do for others, what kind of man I should aspire to be, why I am here, what is truth. I had finally found a father who I knew loved me and whom I could trust. I had finally found my heading. I had found True North.
I experienced an enormous comfort knowing from that moment onward that no matter where I went in life, no matter how lost I became, no matter how thick the fog, no matter how great the storm, I could always return to this book and find True North again. I had found my faith, which is not to say that I had found all the answers. As Pope Francis wisely said, “Faith is not a light that scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.”
The truth is, there is a lot I don’t know and don’t understand about my faith. I don’t know why the Old Testament tells us of a God who slaughters innocent children on Passover and commands the Israelites to kill every man woman and child in the land of Canaan. I don’t know why the Apostle Paul is so hard on homosexuals and women, or why Jesus, who is full of compassion and mercy, appears to be so rigid and unforgiving toward those who seek to find love again after divorce. Honestly, these things make no sense to me just as, I suppose, it made no sense to Eve that she shouldn’t eat the fruit of a particular tree in the Garden. The question for us is whether we shall react to these imponderable questions as Eve did by inventing a God of our own volition—a God who does what we want him to do, who makes us comfortable, who is very much as we think God ought to be, and who approves of our choices in life. A God who lives in the mirror.
It matters not whether you believe the story of the Garden of Eden is literal or figurative. Either way, it could not more accurately illustrate the familiar pattern of human vanity. We are not told that God gave Adam and Eve a detailed explanation of the reasons why the fruit of this particular tree, which appeared to be perfectly delicious, was so harmful, or why, for that matter, a poisonous tree was placed in the centre of a garden to begin with. (How many times did our parents tell us not to do something for reasons that we didn’t understand and would later realize we were incapable of understanding at the time.) Eve’s fatal mistake was not that she bit into an apple but that she bought into the lie that she could become her own True North.
Do you remember the serpent’s lie to Eve? It was that by eating of the forbidden fruit she would become “like God.” Our fatal mistake is the same—to imagine, as Eve did, that when we wake up in the morning each day we will meet God in the mirror and that we can rely on the God in the mirror to tell us all the things that a just God should and should not require of us. Instead of seeing ourselves as made in the image of God, we remake God in our own image. We imagine that we can be our own True North, and so not surprisingly, we wind up sailing in circles.
But instinctively, something tells us that’s a lie. As frustrating and at times infuriating as our parents are, we know we need them, that without them we would not exist, and that they deserve our loyalty and honour and obedience. As frustrating and at times infuriating as God can be, I know that I need him, that without him I would not exist, and that he deserves my loyalty and honour and obedience.
Unlike the atheist, I don’t regard my discomfort with God’s commands, or my inability to answer all of the difficult questions about Christianity, or to solve the mystery of how God created the world, as grounds to reject faith. The reason why is simple. I know two things with absolute certainty: one is that God exists, and the other is that the man I meet in the mirror every morning is not God. Those two certainties are the latitude and the longitude of my faith, but they are given meaning and direction by the True North of the Gospel.
When I first heard the story of the gospel and the message of Jesus, I recognized it instantly as true, and I still recognize it as true. I cannot tell you why. I just did, and I still do. I didn’t recognize it as easy. I didn’t recognize it as comfortable. I didn’t recognize it as profitable. I didn’t recognize it as something that was popular or compatible with the dominant social and political views of the world. I didn’t even totally understand it. But I recognized it as true.
There is another, equally important truth that has been revealed to me, much more gradually, as I have gotten older. As a younger man I used to believe that if I just prayed hard enough and disciplined myself strictly enough, I could achieve or very nearly achieve that state of perfection to which we were all called in our baptismal gowns, when the priest exhorted us to “bring this garment unstained into the light of God’s kingdom.” The truth is, the older I get, the less impressed with myself I become. In fact, I’m like the Chicago Cubs playing the New York Yankees. It’s the bottom of the ninth inning, and people are already leaving the stands because there’s no use pretending any longer that I can tie the score much less win the game.
Sure, I know where True North is, and I can stand here and point you straight toward it. But the older I get and the longer I’ve been on this voyage, the more I’m realizing that I’m never going to get there on my own. And guess what: neither are you. Neither is any of us. All of us are going to sail wide of the mark, veer off course, and run up on the rocks. Let’s face it, we’re all crap at this sailing business! But Christ has given us a set of course corrections in the form of a two simple instructions that are almost impossible to misunderstand. One is to love God with all our heart and the other is to love our neighbour as ourselves. On this, he tells us, hang all of the law and the prophets. The Golden Rule is the rule to which all other rules are subject.
And so when Christ elsewhere tells us to stop judging one another lest we be judged, we recognize that rule as a sub-category of the love-your-neighbour rule. Because I love my neighbour, and because I know how far off course from True North I have veered, it’s not my job to judge you about how well you are sailing. That is between you and God. I’m not a member of the management in this organization. I have two very simple, menial jobs on this earth. One is to love God, and the other is to love you. Judging you is not in my job description. None of us hits the mark. None of us can steer a straight course for True North. We all, at times, despite our best efforts, succumb to fear, loneliness and despair. We all sink beneath the waves, just as Peter did.
If I am wise and awake and don’t give into fear and despair, when I find myself sinking, I will reach out and take Christ’s hand, just as Peter did. Where will you find Christ’s hand extended to you? I know of one certain place, and that is in the hands of the priest who offers you the Holy Eucharist.
But it’s also important to remember that Christ hasn’t left us alone on the ocean in the darkness without means of calling for help. He has given us a radio. It’s called prayer, and as with the life raft, we should be using it every day, not just for emergency calls. When it comes to prayer, there is a great lesson waiting for us in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was there that Christ, who of all people knew that his suffering and death was necessary, prayed on the eve of his crucifixion that the cup of his suffering might pass from him. Why did he pray for this? Because Christ knew that all that all things are possible for God.
Have you ever noticed what’s missing from the story of Christ’s prayer in the garden? Any perceptible answer from God. We are not told that a voice spoke from the clouds to give Christ some reassurance that his prayer had been heard and was at least being taken under advisement. What follows Christ’s prayer in the garden is what seemingly so often follows our prayers, and that is silence—silence, but not indifference. Because God knows, and so also did Christ know, and so too can we know, that whatever our lot, it is well with our souls.
I told you at the outset of this talk that I would explain why I sail across oceans even though I am often afraid and lonely. The way I see it, God has given us the gift of life and this incredible world in which to spend our lives. It’s no secret to any of us that our time on this beautiful planet is limited, and every man while he still draws breath has the right to explore the world that has been given to him. The Great Age of Exploration begins anew with the birth of each human being. When Jill and I sailed from the Canary Islands to the West Indies, we were sailing the exact course taken by Christopher Columbus when he discovered the New World. Although he had made that voyage 500 years before us, what we saw and experienced was no less a discovery for us than it was for Columbus.
So, knowing this, the question for me has always been not why someone would want to cross an ocean but why wouldn’t anyone want to cross an ocean if he could? Why wouldn’t you want to fly on the wind across a magical sea and sail in the wake of Columbus, Magellan, Drake, and Captain Cook? The pertinent question is not why I am going, but why are you not going with me? If the answer is, “Well, I really wouldn’t want to do that because I wouldn’t find exploring the world by sea terribly interesting,” then fine (strange, but fine). But too often what keeps us from pursuing our dreams, whether they be crossing oceans or anything else, is not that we don’t want to do such things but that we are afraid. We are not willing to take the risk, we tell ourselves. We are not willing to trust to the advice of the American philosopher John Burroughs, who said “Leap and the net will appear.” Like Peter, we don’t believe the net will appear, and we tell ourselves we can’t afford the risk of what might happen when we sink.
But the truth is that one day, no matter how cautious we are, no matter how many Brussel sprouts we do eat and how many steak and kidney pies we don’t eat, no matter how many yoga and Pilates classes we take, no matter how many kale smoothies we drink, no matter how many hours we spend at the gym, no matter how many miles we run, and no matter how often we wash our hands or how far we stay away from crowds—whether we sail across all the oceans of the world or never wander farther than Charlton Park—the risk of death that is a part of every life will catch up with us.
When we stand before God in that moment and he says to say to us, “I made oceans and mountains and wonders for you to see and experience. What did you think of them?” What shall we tell him? That we would have loved to have seen and done all of these things, but we couldn’t afford the risk?” And then won’t he surely laugh, as he spreads out the glory of heaven and all eternity before us, and says “What risk?”
Thank you all very much for coming tonight. God bless you.
(c) 2020 by M. C. Hurley