As far as the eye could see in any direction, there was nothing but rolling gray-blue ocean waves. Hours ago we had left the security of the shoreline with its water towers and distinctive hills on a heading that took us far out into the open sea. The twin diesels of our 40-foot motor craft powered us steadily through endless white-capped swells, sending waves of salty spray up and over the boat. The captain had invited me to take the helm, my first time piloting a craft this large and my first time navigating without a shoreline to keep me oriented. Hold to a compass heading of 093 degrees, he told me, and in an hour or so we will come to a floating red buoy. That's where we would swing to a new bearing. The adventure we three male friends had embarked upon was to sail this new yacht from her winter mooring in Charleston to her summer home in Newport, a 1000 mile journey up the Atlanta coast. It was the first time our captain, who was also the boat's owner, had been to sea without a master mariner at his side. Our first mate had sailed once before and had some rudimentary knowledge of navigation. And then there was me with my wealth of experience pulling kids behind a ski boat on inner-tubes but not a clue as to how to traverse the open ocean. It would take a week to make the journey if seas were favorable, a week of male bonding that I had looked forward to for months. We would talk some about urban ministry, I rationalized as I attempted to justify taking this much time away from my work.
It was not as simple as one might think holding the prow of the craft steady in a precise direction. Large swells breaking across our bow at unpredictable angles drove the boat easily off course by ten or more degrees in first one direction then the other. I had to spin the wheel constantly to keep the compass needle swinging back to the proper heading. The waves and currents were quite deceptive. They rolled and shifted relentlessly, confusing my sense of direction. It would be very easy to be swept off course even if I held the bow on roughly the correct compass heading. I expressed my concern that we might miss a small red marker in this vast undulating expanse and lose our bearings.
The captain and first mate seemed remarkably unconcerned. They pointed out a small navigational instrument called a global positioning system (GPS) situated beside the large glass-domed compass. Every second or so this GPS sent and received a signal from a satellite in the sky miles above us that pinpointed our exact location. At any given moment, based on the information we were constantly receiving from above, we could locate our precise position on our navigational charts. What's more, they assured me, the signals we received gave us constant course corrections so that the adjusted compass heading would always be aiming toward the point we had selected.
I was not quite as confident as my companions. I saw how wildly the compass swung as we crashed through swells and slid down troughs. Toward the end of a long hour of sometimes finessing, sometimes muscling the bow back on course, I began an anxious scan of the horizon. The GPS indicated that the navigational marker was directly ahead of us, but I was not at all sure how precise this electrical devise was. If it were off by as little as a mile - even a half a mile in these seas - we could pass right by our buoy. My forehead moistened with perspiration as I thought about how embarrassed I would be if I got us disoriented and we lost several hours circling the seas in search of the red buoy I had missed.
Fifteen more minutes of buffeting seas and fruitless port-to-starboard scanning passed. I had reluctantly decided that it was time to face the humiliation and admit that I had steered us off course when the first mate announced, "Marker at twelve o'clock." I squinted at the horizon and sure enough, there, a mile straight ahead of us bobbed our floating red buoy - precisely where the GPS said it would be! I quickly concealed my utter astonishment that this little devise had led us to the exact coordinates the captain had programmed into it. "What's our next heading?" I asked with an air of confidence that bordered on cockiness.
If I were a preacher I would now have a notebook full of sermon illustrations about sudden storms and hidden shoals and lighthouses and safe harbors - all gifts of this 1000 mile journey. But being the pragmatic practitioner that I am, I ponder but one indelible sermon from the sea that has daily application to my urban life.
Much of the time I find myself sailing in unfamiliar waters. Winds of change and political undercurrents require constant vigilance and frequent course corrections. I know the general direction of my mission but without familiar landmarks to guide me I am often tempted to rely on my instincts. And that, I find, can be dangerous. The correct heading often seems counter-intuitive - like abandoning a day's sail plan to accommodate an unforeseen human need or investing hopefully in a crime-ravaged community that appears to be beyond reclamation. I conceal with confident sounding words my uncertainties about the direction of our heading. Though the scriptures may serve as a reliable chart and my calling a good compass, it's the moment-by-moment communication with an unseen Presence in the heavens that provides the precise promptings on how to stay the course. And just how trustworthy are these signals? Well, in the final analysis, that's what the journey of faith is all about, isn't it?