Friday, January 21, 2011

"Who Is Really at the Helm?"

Several weeks ago, I changed the name of my monthly article in our church newsletter THE CALLER. I don't know why really. I do know that the title FRED'S FORUM sounded pretty outdated...kind of 70s-ish. I have been using that moniker since a youth director at Corona Presbyterian in Denver back in the 70s. They say change comes slow to Presbyterians. If that isn't proof then I don't know what is.

But long overdue change wasn't really the reason. I just kind of got stuck on a new name "THE VIEW FROM THE HELM." That title and its accompanying article was turned in December 18th in time for publication in the January edition of THE CALLER. The article talked about change and the need for clear direction in steering through the stormy seas of change. Little did I know what changes were just around the next turn. Little did I know that there would be a need for our congregation to have someone "at the helm" prayerfully and carefully guiding them through the storm that was to come.

In the February issue of SEA magazine, one boating couple from San Diego related a story that was pretty scary when it happened. However, the way it was told was actually pretty humorous as it related to similar experiences Judy and I have had in our novice boating years. The author and his wife had to make a short run to Dana Point in their new boat. They weren't fully familiar with its systems. As they prepared to leave their slip, the weather reports had told of possible dense fog. But they were in the clear so they headed out. "What could happen - right?"

Less than half a mile out from the safety of their own marina they unexpectedly ran into a very dense fog bank, visibility less than 200 yards. Watching the chart plotter (GPS) and radar carefully, the husband slowed his speed while his wife watched for fishing boats and other craft that seemed oblivious to the conditions as they sped by. Halfway into the fogbank, they found themselves face to face with a navy gun boat and a 50 mm. machine gun pointed at the bridge. The voice on the loudspeaker commanded they move to starboard far enough to keep safe, legal distance from a nuclear submarine that was being escorted out of the harbor. Then, they wer to put the boat in neutral until the sub safely passed. Somehow, in the midst of all their care and attention, the potentially biggest danger of all had eluded them. Now they had new problems to deal with - ones they never thought they'd have to face.

I tell that story simply to illustrate the fact that, even in churches, unexpected dangers and problems suddenly appear. In spite of our best efforts, attention to details and proper planning, not every "danger, toil or snare" can be avoided. When they do arise, it takes a careful hand at the wheel and a readiness to change course - all the while staring down the proverbial barrel of a 50mm machine gun.

So, the new name of my article became "THE VIEW FROM THE HELM." The possibility of any real crisis or change occurring was minimal. The sky looked clear and the waters calm for us to venture out into a new year.

The new year arrived. I got to watch lots of great football. We held one, joint, blended Sunday service in celebration of the church's unity despite our two separate congregations (Saturday contemporary and Sunday traditional). All seemed smooth sailing. Smooth, that is until about 9:30 pm that same evening.

A dense cloud of fog settled in. The temperature dropped. Peril loomed. There we were in the midst of the biggest crisis a church can ever face - the dismissal of a beloved associate pastor, the sudden departure of friends; the bitter hurt of betrayal and deceit; and the urgent need to change course or be sunk.

Somehow, at that moment, it became all too clear why I had felt compelled to change the name of that article and why the first one had to do with steering through stormy seas. God had been preparing me - us - to face the crisis and not only survive it, somehow to grow and learn and thrive through it.

I also became clearly aware that the view from the helm, while holding certain advantage of vision and information, is only one part of a ship's safe passage. An able, prepared crew is also an absolute must. The Elders at Calvary - 4 of whom were so new they had not even been ordained and installed - rose to the challenge, manned their stations and not only saw to the necessary tasks of avoiding sinking, they gave incredible confidence and calm to troubled passengers.

And there was a life boat with rescue personnel on the scene right away as well. Somehow all part of God's providential care for Calvary, the Presbytery of Seattle dove in with incredible help and support to guide, counsel, reassure and help us through the crisis.

God could not have prepared us any better for the storm we couldn't have seen coming. So while I continue to hold an illusion that my view and steering at the helm was and is so important, I am too painfully aware that ignored the possibility of danger and had to react with the help of the crew and the rescuers. But then that's what the church is like - or at least supposed to be like.

Jesus never promised that there would be no troubles of tribulation - only that he had overcome them so we could trust him completely. If anyone is truly at the helm, it is the Lord and I, if I have any responsibility at all, is simply to follow his orders and stay the course he has set, all the while relying on the able crew that has, by grace been assembled, to lead us through any storm. And though none of us knew of the impending events that lay ahead and beyond our sight, a gracious, all-knowing, and loving God did. The Lord was preparing us for these changes even when we didn't expect them.

Who is really at the helm? I think we all know that answer to that question. I guess I'll go below and get a cup of coffee for my next watch.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


It was a beautiful, warm, Indian Summer day in the Puget Sound Region. Judy and I - novice boaters to say the least - decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather. We hopped in the car and drove down to the Des Moines marina where we kept our first boat. We named her the DAWN TREADER from the children's books by CS Lewis. We loved that little 25 foot Bayliner Cierra. Like the Dawn Treader she was not as big as other ships but she was well cared for and every "spar and mast" lovingly preserved.

Off we went. Our departures and landings during those early days of boating were never things of beauty. If you've never run a power boat, they don't handle like cars. The steering is not as responsive and there are no brakes. There were times when we felt we should have called her the "STEER CLEAR" or, at least, have posted a sign like the ones on driving school cars: CAUTION! STUDENT BOATER.

But we made it safely out the fairway separating the docks, past the rock-walled jetty and public dock and out toward the buoy marking the shipping channel. Carefree, wind blowing through our hair, amazed to see seals, dahl's porpoises and all manner of birds. The calming effect of the gentle waves, the relative sparsity of any other boats, and the quiet soothing sounds of smooth jazz playing over our stereo system made it a morning to remember. We headed south west toward Pt. Defiance and the Clay banks. Then, turning south we went underneath the Tacoma Narrows bridge for the very first time, further south past Fox and McNeil Islands and finally west and south past Anderson Island and around the southern point of the Key Peninsula. We were exploring yet undiscovered sights (at least for us)and we couldn't have been happier or more at peace.

Once we rounded the point, we headed north to JOEMMA STATE PARK where we docked our boat, walked up the dock to use the public facilities, hike around a little and enjoy the view from a different perspective. Then we returned to the boat for a simple meal of fruit, crackers, cheese and sausage (I think there may have been a glass of wine involved as well).

It had been a glorious day. We were absolutely floating with a sense of unbridled amazement, wonder and joy. We hated to head back to home port but we both had things to do the next day so off we went - retracing the dotted path indicated by our GPS.
All was serene. All was calm. Weather continued to be great....great that is, until we rounded the point at the Clay Banks - leaving the Tacoma Narrows and heading back NE to Des Moines. Without warning (at least to novices like us) a strong wind of 25 - 30 kts had begun to blow out of the Northeast. Combined with the changing tide, the waves were beginning to pile up in short distances and some of them were at least 20 feet high ----ummmm, maybe 2 - 3 feet high.

We were being bounced around like a cork in our little boat but we pressed onward. As the boat crested each oncoming wave, then smacked bow first into the next, chilling sprays of foam and sea water cascaded over the deck, and, some even splashed up over the flying helm.

Well, we got back in safely but we were tense, probably a little irritable, and certainly glad to be back in our own slip, in a protected marina, and making preparations to head back to Enumclaw.

A few days later, our back sides (you know what I mean) were stiff and sore as though we had been through a rigorous workout. We couldn't understand that until we realized we had been so tense on the way in that day, we had clenched those gluteous maximus muscles so tightly and for so long, we were paying the consequences.

Sometimes in life, we sail along in calm waters, enjoying life and all the things along the way each day. Then suddenly and unexpectedly, we turn a corner, begin a new day, hear some bit of news, and we are tossed in the maelstrom of s storm. All we can do is hang on tight. And trust that the boat will get us safely through.

Such a storm has hit once again in our lives and the life of our church and the fear is that it could threaten to undo us. My advice is, hang on tight, but trust your charts, your GPS and the ship you are sailing in.

When I was a kid our church used to sing a little chorus called "Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me." I never much liked it. I did, however, find myself drawn to a painting that hung in the church parlor. Unlike many paintings of Jesus that depict him as ashy-faced, silky-haired, blue-eyed, and rather weak, almost effeminate features, this one showed a rugged Jesus. He stood firmly and strongly behind a young man whose eyes depicted fear and uncertainty. The man was standing at the wheel of a boat obviously trying to steer through a gale. That picture has stayed with me - not just because of some of our boating experiences but because everytime I have needed to depend on the Lord's strength in life's storms, he has been there - calmly and surely holding me up and guiding the way.

That is also why one of my favorite stories in the Gospels is of Jesus out on the Sea of Galilee, asleep in the bow when the disciples fishing boat begins to toss violently in a sudden storm. Afraid, they cry out to Jesus and ask, "Don't you care that we are about to die?" Calmly Jesus simply speaks to the wind and the waves and says "PEACE! BE STILL!" Immediately the wind and the waves and even the disciple's anxious hearts are stilled. They are amazed. They are filled with wonder. They are stunned. But they are reassured.

Be assured that in this storm, Jesus is in the boat with us. The wind and the waves that threaten to sink us are under his control. He lovingly, calmly and strongly will stand with us and guide us - all of us - every single one of us - through this storm.