I am a wind watcher. In other words, I am a sailor.
I learned to sail when I was 9 years old. My instructor was a seasoned skipper, Robert Whittaker. His voice was gravelly, growly and firm. It resonated with strength and certainty. Mr. Whittaker used very few words as he taught us, but what words were used were barked -- and with unquestionable authority! Discipline was not a problem in our sailing class. I can't say that we liked Mr. Whittaker. However, I carry memories of him with me every time I head out to the open water, because his words instilled an honest respect for craft, crew and conditions. His words have become the bare bones of my sailing maneuvers.
It wasn't that Mr. Whittaker didn't want the young sailors to have fun, but fun took a back seat to the fundamentals. We were never allowed to leave the dock unless each one of us knew the weather conditions: wind direction and velocity, wave height, and the forecast for the morning. We needed to be able to speak accurately about the cloud formations and what was likely "in the air". We also had to have everything ship shape: all lines clear, sails appropriately rigged, ballast suited for the day's sail, safety equipment accessible.
Then we would cast off. We were skippers of our own craft. For several hours Mr. Whittaker (who was on a speedy power boat) would whisk around in the midst of our fleet barking orders to us -- but only when necessary. He let us make our own wise (or foolish) choices. We couldn't always see him, but we knew that he was present. Countless times when we would be on the brink of capsizing and suddenly his craft would be there and we'd hear his voice over the wind. One or two words from Mr. Whittaker could make all the difference! Truth be told, even now, 50 years later, I often can "hear" his words when I am out on the water. "Fall off!" "Hold your course!"
And then the most emphatic command: "Watch the Wind!"
Of course, you can't literally "see" the wind. You watch its effect upon water. You hear its whistle (or roar) in the rigging. And you "feel" its approach as gentle propulsion or a sudden surge. You watch the wind with a sensitivity that is a combination of knowledge, experience and most often, basic intuition. It is a matter of attentively making constant adjustments. You learn not to fight it. You can't make it do what you want (very frustrating for control freaks), but you can maximize its use for your objective (at least most of the time).
One other thing -- it doesn't help to get angry with it or panic in its presence. One time, following a scene when this skipper essentially "lost her cool" and got all agitated, the crew said to me: "You know what, when the skipper gets nervous, all of us on board get nervous too!"
You see, as long as clear, confident leadership is present, everybody involved goes through the journey with greater peace and a deeper sense of safety. Sometimes the "orders" need to be given firmly. Sometimes the participants are disappointed by a turn of events or a postponement of plans. It is all about being able to continue the journey and reach the destination in one piece.
No surprise, these thoughts are about more than sailing. They also speak to the church.
Certainly the winds of change are stirring her. Every congregation seems to be in a time where what is "known" is being challenged. Whatever is approaching can be seen as an unknown peril or an amazing adventure. What might we do to prepare ourselves and our craft? What needs to be made clear, or trimmed or offloaded? How can we, together, watch the wind? When the turmoil of uncertainty and the realization that we are entering uncharted mission territory, can we hear the voice of God, our skipper, offering commands that will direct us to our destination in one Peace?
No wonder the following prayer is becoming one of our favorites, for it sets our focus and inclines our ear towards God's guiding light and supportive presence.
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the endings, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, copyright ©2006 Augsburg Fortress, pg. 317.