Four people with taper candles light chalice framed by two rings

“Becalmed” – Homily for 17 May 2020

May 17, 2020

I had the extreme good fortune of growing up with a father who loved to sail, and who instilled in me a love of sailing. As a child, I spent many weeks over the course of many summers, cruising the Chesapeake Bay, exploring its inlets and coves, sleeping in the cockpit under the stars. It was beautiful and lovely…except when it wasn’t. There were plenty of mosquitos at dusk and dawn, and many hours spent sitting still under a hot sun waiting for the wind to blow.

For many years, I did not sail. And then, in my early thirties, I got the hankering again. And the most economical way to get back on the water was to get a little boat. So, I built a seven-and-a-half-foot pram that I could row and sail, and I started taking it with me to Maine where we camped for a few weeks each summer.

I loved sailing that little pram on the Penobscot Bay. It was small, but mighty, and could handle the wind nicely. Together we could fly when conditions were right. The only problem is that in such a small boat, one without a motor, the oars take up so much room that it can be a little uncomfortable at times. And so, one afternoon, I decided to leave the oars behind. Big mistake. The wind carried me out into the middle of that big bay and then stopped blowing, leaving me there with no way of getting home.

“It is perhaps an all-too-human frailty to suppose that a favorable wind will blow forever.” So writes Richard Bode in his lovely book, First You Have to Row a Little Boat, in which he describes a similar incident of having been becalmed. After an exhilarating sail, he was headed home late in the day, when the earth and sea temperatures equalized, and the wind stopped blowing. Like most becalmed sailors before and after him, Bode tried everything he could think of to get moving again. He jiggled the tiller. He pushed the mainsail out as far as he could hoping to catch a breeze. Nothing worked.

He was out there for a long time, long enough for a night heron to land on his mast and keep him company for hours. Bode writes that the night heron “possessed the secret of stillness,” and Bode wondered if the bird had been born with that secret “or if he had learned it as an imperative of survival in a world he couldn’t control.” He learned from that heron how to wait, to be patient, to be still.

Eventually the wind did start blowing again, having “done a complete about-face, turned 180 degrees.” And Bode writes that he, “felt ridiculous for not knowing beforehand what now seemed so obvious. The wind could shift an imperceptible compass point or two without pausing, but it couldn’t make a radical change – it couldn’t go from southwest to northeast – without first passing through a period of calm.”

I was glad to have reread that passage this week amid this modern plague. Here we still are, two months into an indefinite stay-at-home advisory, wondering when the wind will pick up and when we will be able to move forward again with our lives. Living with the long pause of pandemic is uncomfortable. One of my colleagues, the Rev. David Breeden, has written, “You can’t live there long, in the liminal.” And that feels so true! How much longer can we possibly endure?

But then I recall stories of those who endured long pauses…the post-Passover story of the Jews wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, complaining all the while, but enduring…and their radical 180-degree turn from enslavement to freedom.

The story of Noah and his ark which, as Lauren said to me earlier this week, is about people who are “literally on a boat waiting for a new direction.” And not just any boat, but one filled with a human family and 1000’s of animals. This was a crowded, noisy, stinky boat. Imagine them trying to fit in Zoom meetings for work! But they needed to endure all that temporarily in order to start all over, living in a new way, a radical, 180-degree turn.

What radical 180-degree turn might be coming up for us? What old ways are we leaving behind and what new ways will open to us? As a society? As a congregation? What doors are being closed and which new ones will be opened? What awaits us on the other side of this pause? I find such questions intriguing. If we can practice patience and learn to endure this stillness like the night heron, as “an imperative of survival in a world [we can’t] control,” then perhaps we will be ready to take flight again in a new direction when the wind returns. So may it be.

©2020 Rev. Wendy L. Bell

Reverend Wendy Bell
Interim Minister | + posts

Wendy Bell was appointed Interim Minister of First Parish of Watertown in August of 2019, and served a two year term while we searched for a new settled minister.

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