sailing grace

If you’re more than an infrequent visitor here you will know that I own a 6 metre sailing yacht, based on a traditional America’s Cup yacht. Sorry, that should read I own a model 6 metre sailing yacht, based on a traditional America’s Cup yacht. There is a small (or should I say large) difference.

My yacht (I call her Charis because it means ‘Grace’ although she doesn’t have the name on her hull) is still big by model yacht standards. When fully rigged she is about 7′ (just over 2 metres) from the bottom of the keel to the top of the mast and she is about 5′ long (about 1.5 metres).

In case you don’t know about these things the only controls I have are for the rudder (which way to go) and how far to let out the sails (which controls speed and helps balance the boat in the wind). Sailing Charis by radio control is usually incredibly relaxing. She glides through the water and is incredibly responsive to the gentlest touches of the controls.

When I am sailing her I am trying to see how close I can sail to the wind, how cleanly I can go around a buoy in the lake, how fast I can make her go, and enjoying the sound of the waves lapping against her hull as she serenely slides past me.

But the other day I took Charis to one of my usual sailing lakes and I was unsure about whether even to take her out of the boot of my car. The weather forecast had said that the wind would be gentle, but it was much stronger than the forecast had said. In the end because I had driven for 25 minutes to get there I decided to give it a go. Perhaps the wind would be gentler down on the water.

The wind had been flapping the sails vigorously as I rigged the boat and I was still uneasy as I applied the finishing touches. I checked the boat slowly, making sure that I had everything ‘ship shape’ before picking her up and lowering her gently into the water.

Then, with a gentle shove from me, she slid off from the side of the lake and the wind caught her sails.

And she shot off! The wind was no calmer at the lakeside and Charis heeled over alarmingly as a gust caught her. I had to be very attentive on the controls and either correct with the rudder or let the sails out if she looked like she was going too far over.

Sailing downwind was not too bad as the sails were out fully and the boat was being driven down the lake. But tacking back up the lake was nerve-wracking with the strength of the wind and then sudden stronger gusts that threatened to capsize the boat.

Instead of finding the experience relaxing or exhilirating I found it stressful and could feel myself tensing up. After 5 minutes I decided to call it quits and brought the boat back to the side of the lake, picked her up out of the water and put her back on her stand to de-rig her.

I was disappointed – the experience had not been what I had hoped for. I was annoyed with myself- had I been more experienced I might have been able to cope more, but there was also the question about whether I should have listened to my first instinct and not taken the boat out of the boot.

Reflecting on that experience just now I wondered about coping in stormy seas. I know it wasn’t a stormy sea, but for the scale of boat I have and my level of experience it was too much. We can find ourselves in situations like that. Sometimes it’s because of a decision we have made, sometimes it’s because of circumstances outside our control.

So what do we do? Give up, pack up and go home? (That’s not always possible). Persevere and hope to survive? (Not enjoyable).

I reckon what I should have done is get someone who knew what they were doing to come and help me. Instead of working to the limits of my own experience and confidence I could have drawn on the experience and confidence of someone else*.

One of the blessings of being part of church is that there are usually people there who have experience of life beyond your own. There are people willing to accompany you on life’s journey. Sometimes they will just be there for you as you sail in the rough weather and whisper words of encouragement. Other times they may be able to help you out by temporarily taking the controls or telling you what you could do. And even just knowing that you are part of a supportive community is really a blessing: I have literally just received a text message from a Christian friend asking how I am doing!

Of course it’s not just churches that can offer this sort of thing. We find it in families and in friendships and other organisations and I hope you have that sort of support somewhere. But churches ought to be groups of people who do this instinctively. I would even suggest that if we don’t find it in a church that purports to be a free sample of Jesus (who told us that loving one another is right up there as a priority for life) then there’s something wrong.

Because life isn’t always plain sailing… be blessed, be a blessing

*I did wonder about doing this as there is a model shop in the town where I was sailing but I was unsure whether anyone would have helped from there. Perhaps I should have joined a model sailing club.

solving or resolving?

Recently, in order to make an online order up to the amount that qualified for free delivery, I bought a Rubik’s Cube. Technically it isn’t a Rubik’s Cube because it is not an official one, but you know what I mean.

Rubik's cube 3

When they first came out I was a teenager and I got hold of one. I learnt how to solve it and spent a lot of free time trying to solve it as quickly as possible. I was delighted when I managed to do it in 45 seconds on one occasion, and my average got down to about 1 minute. There are a few moves that you have to know, and of course you need to know where and when to do them. I was pleased with myself.

I don’t know that I could solve the cube as quickly as that now, but I am enjoying the challenge of solving it (each time is almost certainly different to the last because of the number of permutations of a cube). There is something satisfying about being able to transform a mixed up cube back to its solved state. However my pride at being able to solve the cube was put in perspective when I saw a video of people solving the cube in about 6 seconds! They do have special ‘speed’ cubes but even so it’s astonishing to witness. My method of solving the cube would not work at such speeds so it is clear that they have another approach.

A bit like my love of fountain pens (see the previous bloggage) part of my enjoyment is also tactile. There is something satisfying about the way that a Rubik’s cube moves. The noise it makes, the smooth clacking as the cubes are rotated and even the way that the cube fits into my hand and can be flicked by my fingers is soothing.

And there is a sense of fulfilment about reorganising the confusion and returning order. Each time I succeed is a victory for order over chaos (albeit a tiny and insignificant one). It’s also a victory for persistence over hopelessness and logic over muddle.

Life could be described as being like a Rubik’s cube in that it can be chaotic, disorganised and frustrating. It is also unlikely that we will come across exactly the same permutation of experiences in life, even if there are similarities. And there are some people who seem better at life than others (often they also try to sell us their advice).

But of course life is not like a Rubik’s cube. It’s not always possible to solve it. We can’t simply apply the right moves in the right order and at the right time to resolve difficulties, trauma and horrific events. Logic can’t always be applied. Sometimes the answer to life is that it sucks and it’s awful and we can’t change our circumstances.

What we need then is not someone on a video (or bloggage) telling us how to solve things, we need people who resolve to be with us. I know that some people avoid people who are going through rough times because they don’t want to say the wrong thing, or even wouldn’t know where to start with saying anything. The good news is that words aren’t necessary. They don’t need to give us advice, answers, resources or solutions. They just need to have the wisdom to know that being with us is enough. A hug can say more than a thousand words. A reassuring smile can be louder than a 1000W speaker system. An empathetic tear can be more effective than hundreds of advice videos in helping us to cope.

That, for me, is one of the amazing things about Jesus. One of the ways he is described is ‘God with us’. And he has promised that by his Spirit he remains with us and in us. He experiences our deepest depths and darkest darkness with us. The Bible even says that when we can’t articulate words the Spirit translates the groans within us into prayers in the throneroom of heaven!

And Jesus asks his followers to emulate him and we can be ‘God with us’ to others. Yes there may be practical things we can do to help, but starting by ‘being with’ is an astonishingly powerful thing. When, last year, I was trying to recover from my heart surgery the best moment of the day was when my wife and family and friends came to visit. I learnt what Sally’s footsteps sounded like in the corridor and that lifted my spirits. They didn’t need to say or do anything, simply them being there was wonderful for me. And knowing that those who could not physically be there with me were praying for me was also an immense encouragement. The McFlurries and other treats that people brought me helped, of course, but just knowing that I was not alone and that I was loved was the best medicine.

I am not going to be as glib or frivolous as to suggest that knowing that God is with us is enough and that simply being with someone is all that is needed. Of course we want terrible circumstances to be improved and there may be things we can do to help with that (like when my nurse sister spoke to the ward staff on my behalf when I was in excruciating pain). We want to believe that there is hope – that even though God is with us as we walk through the darkest valley, the valley has an end. But knowing that we are not alone, we have not been abandoned, is a good start.

Who needs you to resolve to be there for them?

Be blessed, be a blessing

words fail me

candleThat is perhaps not the most optimistic title for a word-based bloggage!

But there are times when words do fail us. They can fail us when we are overwhelmed – by awe, by joy, by generosity, by tragedy and by grief – by emotions that are more powerful than words can express.

In the tragic circumstances of Peaches Geldof’s unexpected death her father Bob poignantly described the family as being “beyond pain” following the news*. I think I can understand what he is saying. I think it is a ‘words fail me’ moment.

So what do we do when words fail us?

First of all I think we should give up trying to find the words. Let the silence speak.

Secondly I think we should embrace the emotion. Accept that this is how we feel.

Thirdly I think we should take time. Don’t feel the need to hurry to words.

Fourthly I think we should find those who will sit with us and not feel the need to impose words on us either. People who can embrace the previous three concepts, people who will not feel awkward with silence.

The book of Job in the Bible helps us to explore how to respond in tragic circumstances. It teaches us what not to do: Job’s friends try to explain, rationalise, and apportion blame for all that has happened. And it teaches us what we can do – this is from the end of Job 2:

11 When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathise with him and comfort him. 12 When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognise him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. 13 Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

We need people who will sit with us in our circumstances. Friends and family who will simply accompany us while we are unable to articulate our emotions. People who will weep when we weep and rejoice when we rejoice.

Let’s not assume that words are always the answer. Let’s not assume that we have to offer an explanation for everything. Let’s not assume that someone is asking the questions we have. Let’s not assume that God only inhabits words – he is also present in silence, in hugs, in tears, in companionship… in us.

When words fail, let our actions speak louder than words.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*Pray for grieving families: especially those forced to conduct their grieving in the glare of public interest. You don’t have to use words.