Two images of travel have been much in my mind lately.
The first is of a sea voyage in a sturdy but smallish vessel. The waves and the wind and currents are very powerful. The crew and the boat’s captain are simply (and sometimes literally) immersed into the mess and mayhem of life’s experience. Yet each one on board is vital to the vessel’s very survival: captain, navigator, deckhand, cook, ship’s doctor, engineer. No one is a passenger.
The second image is of air travel. The majority of those in the plane are passengers. They travel in air-conditioned comfort. Their only responsibility is to be passive, their only activity is to be entertained or fed or watered. They fly high over the currents and the waves below them. Whilst not unaffected by the winds, they have just a few key people on board whose job it is to ensure their progress and safe journey and just a few key people whose job it is to ensure their comfort enroute.
Now, which of these two images is a better picture of the church?
The answer is that we want to travel by air but we have to go by sea.
Air travel is the equivalent of a big church where most people are passengers. They pay their fare (tithe/donation) and their expectations are that they will stay safe and comfortably provided for and possibly even entertained along life’s journey and that eventually they will disembark safely in heaven only a little jetlagged and ready to enjoy eternity.
Christians have frequently preferred this method of travel. Isolated from the mess of the world, safe in an insulated flying tin can, 5 miles high. The staff are expected to smile warmly at the door and wish them a safe flight. Their pilot is expected to do his (or her) job with out any reference to them (what do they know, they are just the passengers?). They like just enough flight attendants to ensure that a hot drink or an extra blanket will be provided at the press of an ‘on call’ button. Meanwhile, having paid their fare after all, they feel justified in moaning about the lack of legroom, the long wait for the toilet or their neighbour who snores or drinks or farts.
They are not much changed by their journey. The flight crew however are exhausted and run ragged but they must always maintain the calmly reassuring plastic smile and appear with a soothing word of comfort at the right moment.
Now, I’m not called to be a pilot. I don’t know the first thing about flying planes. Instead, I’ve been given the task of captaining a ship, and my little ship is always ‘all at sea’, which is simply to say that everyone on board is subject to the wind and the waves of life and that periods of calm are very rare. We all get regularly thrown off our feet by whatever wave of life circumstance hits us next. Myself included.
And although this might seem a very much less efficient method of travel and definitely more nauseating, it has several very real advantages.
Everyone matters. Each person on the boat brings their ability, their energy, their particular gift and all contribute to the boat’s progress forward. There are no passengers. If you are in the engine room or the galley or the ships hospital, whether you are an engineer or an accountant, you matter. We are in this together. What’s more, because everyone matters, and because everyone is in the same boat, we can extend care and compassion to one another, with deep empathy. (As an aside, I’d like to appreciate several members of the crew of the good ship St Matthew’s for noticing that on a number of occasions in the last month their captain has been either hanging over the rails looking somewhat green or soaked to the skin with the shock of a sudden wave that has caught her off guard. It has been hugely encouraging to have others understand that I am not an isolated pilot behind a locked cockpit door calmly following autopilot, I am a mere member of the crew, albeit the captain, and I stand on the same slippery deck, sometimes struggling to keep a grip on my balance and an eye on our course, and sometimes my sea legs give way. Thanks for holding me up crew).
The second advantage is that we are all changed by the journey. The difficulties and the storms cause us to dig deeper for necessary qualities such as perseverance, faith and courage. If it was all plain sailing, we’d all be pretty flabby (I’m tempted to make an analogy here to the cruise ship experience which this most definitely is not but as several good friends regularly go on cruises, I’d like to point out I’m just using a few good metaphors here, not getting at anyone!).
Thirdly, it’s more biblical. Why else did Jesus allow his disciples to go out in the sea of Galilee when he no doubt knew there was a storm coming. And then how come he simply fell into a sweet sleep? He knew this was going to be a useful and important experience for them. They were taught to remember who is in the boat with them and to realise how powerful that person is.
Fourthly, it is slower. This may not seem like an advantage at first but we ARE promised that we WILL arrive. We may not disembark down the steps of an aircraft onto smooth tarmac. We might in fact arrive onshore having been washed up bedraggled on to a beach after a shipwreck (there is good precedence for this in the book of Acts) but all the souls will be saved and we WILL arrive. The one who rules the wind and the waves has promised us this:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isaiah 43)
So, if life doesn’t feel like it’s plain sailing for you or your church at the moment, if it all feels very precarious, take courage, that’s pretty much how it always is for everyone who travels by sea. Look around and see if you can encourage the crew, play your part faithfully, allow others to hold you up when necessary but most of all, trust in the presence of the One who walked on water.