"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Monday, June 10, 2013

In Uncharted Waters (Sunday, June 2, 2013)

           As some of you might know, in this transitional stage of concluding my twenty year ministry here in Stoughton (and my thirty-three year career in the Unitarian Universalist ministry generally), I have taken a job as a First Mate on board a duck boat. In addition to my work as your minister, I am currently also employed by Super Tours of Boston, and a few days a week, I can be found cruising the streets of Boston or sailing in the Inner Harbor, sharing my “vast” historical knowledge with people from far flung corners of the globe and from all fifty U.S. states.

            I have really enjoyed this work thus far. Finding a tour company that would let me talk, without having to drive around the city in a great big tour bus was a godsend. I enjoy being in the city, savoring its sights and sounds and atmosphere. My co-workers are an interesting and friendly group.  It has been wonderful to get to meet visitors from so many different places.

            And most of all, I get to talk about history, almost all day, several days a week.

            I get to tell the story of that dynamic and multi-faceted place we call Boston, from the native peoples who settled the Mishawum and Shawmut peninsulas, to the Puritans and the Sons of Liberty and the waves of immigrants who each transformed the city in their wake. There are many people and places—and stories—along the way, whether on land or on sea. Some of these I had already heard about and known of before starting this job (I was a trolley driver back in the 1990s, some of you might remember): the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere; the Brinks Job; the Great Molasses Flood (to bring you just to the fringes of the North End).

            But I have never kidded myself that I knew everything about anything; so some of the stories I now tell are new to me. None of them more interesting, and enlightening, and inspiring than the story of the Flying Cloud.

            The Flying Cloud was built by Donald McKay at his shipyard in East Boston, and launched in the spring of 1851. McKay was born in Nova Scotia in 1810, moved to Boston as a young man, and eventually became one of the most successful ship builders in America. (There’s even a monument to him at Castle Island, where Boston’s Inner Harbor and Outer Harbor meet).

            The Flying Cloud was to be McKay’s crowning achievement, built as an extreme clipper, the fastest boats to sail back in the 19th century. Gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Creek in 1848, and soon the Gold Rush—the mad dash to get to California as fast as possible to search for riches—was on.  But the journey from the East Coast to the West was a long and arduous one:

The first transcontinental railroad was still almost twenty years away. Trips by wagon train were dangerous, and it could take well neigh a year to reach California. Most critically (for voyages by sea), there was no Panama Canal (yet). So that meant if you wanted to go from New York to San Francisco, you had to sail down the coast of South America; around Cape Horn; then back up the coast of South America; up the Pacific Coast of Mexico; then, finally, to California.  

It took even the fastest ships in the early 19th century six months or more to make that voyage—too slow for those who craved the chance to search for gold out west. McKay’s extreme clippers would attempt to shorten that time substantially. So hopes were high as the Flying Cloud set sail from New York on its maiden voyage, bound for San Francisco, on June 1, 1851.

Eighty-nine days and 20 hours later, amidst fanfare and celebrations and headlines in the national press, the Flying Cloud arrived in San Francisco harbor. A new sailing record had been set, nearly cutting by 50% the time it took to get from coast to coast. (Two years later, in 1853, the Flying Cloud would beat its own record by 13 hours—a record that would stand for over 135 years, until 1989.)

The captain on the Flying Cloud was Josiah Perkins Creesy, one of the most famous Yankee Clipper commanders of his day. His navigator (here’s where the story gets really interesting) was his wife, Eleanor—the daughter of a sea captain from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who had studied sailing and navigation at her daddy’s knee, so to speak.

It would be an understatement to say that it was unusual to have had a women as part of the crew on board a sailing vessel back in the mid-19th century-- much less in an important position like navigator. It wasn’t just unusual; it was unheard of! The crew, we can imagine, wasn’t too pleased. I’m sure that officials at the shipping company that owned the ship had their qualms, as well. Indeed, among more superstitious souls at the time (of whom there were many), it would have been considered bad luck to have had a woman on board the ship at all!

But Eleanor proved her stuff. Because of increasingly overcast skies as the ship headed south, she had no stars above her by which to navigate. Her instruments were rendered worthless. She had to rely on a process known as dead reckoning to determine where the ship was, and where it was headed. Dead reckoning (or deduced reckoning, as it sometimes called) entails using a previously determined position, or fix, and advancing that position based upon known or estimated speeds over a period of elapsed time and course. Modern navigational aids—most particularly satellite global positioning, or GPS, have rendered the use of dead reckoning obsolete. But it was all that Eleanor Creesy and the Flying Cloud had to rely on. When she predicted that they would reach the Straits of Magellan within hours of when they actually did, her reputation in the annals of navigation was secure.

But not only was Eleanor Creesy a great navigator; she ranks as a great pathfinder as well: a shining example of the achievements women and men are capable of—when they follow their callings; are true to their deepest natures; dare to sail pathless and wild seas, and set out into uncharted waters on the next stage of their lives’ journeys.

As it is true with individuals, so it can be with churches, as well.

We have all just about reached now the point our own great transition, you and I: that point at which this common journey we have shared as minister and congregation will separate, and we will go our separate ways, on separate journeys. There are just three more Sundays now in our ministry together (counting this one). By August 1, you will have a new interim minister at the helm. (Is the minister, in our tradition, the captain of the ship, or is he or she the navigator, or the steward, perhaps? That’s a question worth pondering as you move forward. I’m not sure what the best answer is. But think about it.)

Ccertainly, at this point in the journey, we’ve all got some interesting and challenging sailing to do, and we are both, you and I, in largely uncharted waters.

We know that in the realm of these day to day lives we lead, there is no such thing as an infallible GPS. Of course, there are the deepest values we hold, the deepest faith to which we cling. I know that, for me, and for some of us, the “G” in my GPS is God, and that, if I am true to my faith and my calling to glorify my Creator and serve His creation, that, in the end, in the big picture, “when the roll is called up yonder”, as they say, all will be well.

For this church, too, if you remain true to your Unitarian Universalist values—including and especially, perhaps, the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every man, woman, and child, and respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are part—then you, too, will come ‘round to where you ought to be and end up just right, and redeem the important mission that this little church holds along the religious landscape of our community.

But even though we remain people of faith, the pathway of change can be challenging and intimidating and even frightening. That “big picture” GPS, that I do truly believe we each have deep within ourselves, guarantees nothing of ease or comfort or earthly success on these paths of everyday we trod (or sail) year in and year out.

Even the glorious Flying Cloud, which continued to have an illustrious sailing career even after the Creesys went elsewhere and retired from the sea, eventually (in 1874) went aground on a sandbar off the coast of St. John, New Brunswick, and was scuttled and condemned and sold off, piece by piece, as scrap copper and iron. 

There is no guarantee of earthly success (or institutional success) for me or for this church. We don’t know what the future holds in that realm.

But would you have had Eleanor Creesy stay at home, baking biscuits and sipping tea and tending her garden in Marblehead, when she had so many seas yet to sail?

Much more dangerous to our souls, I think, than setting out into new and uncharted seas is to remain holed up in the old familiar waters, even though they have grown stale and stagnant.  Even worse than dashing against the rocks on the way to new ports of call is to stay at home and stagnate and rust and die. To move the metaphor inland, a grave is the same as a rut, only deeper.

No, however sheltered this port may seem, and however hospitable it has been, we cannot anchor here any longer. It is time to hoist the mast and sail those pathless and wild seas.

We can rely on the instruments we have to set our course. We can use the navigational charts drawn up by those who have sailed these same seas before us. The library, and the marketplace, and the internet are full of would-be guides to help us on our journey. We would be foolish not to seek help when we need it, when the opportunity presents itself.

But sometimes, the stars above that guide us are obscured by clouds of doubt and uncertainty and confusion and complication, so we have to rely on our own dead reckoning, rather than on charts drawn up by others.

We have to look back to where we have sailed so far. We each have a history—a story—which has important lessons of discernment to teach us, if we pay attention to it and take it seriously. Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, they say. Those who do study history are doomed (or blessed) to be tour guides in Boston, perhaps.

But our lives largely are a product of the decisions we have made, good and bad, and both have so much to tell us. It is no accident that the most important maxim of the ancient Greeks was “Know thyself”, for in the answer to that riddle lies a pearl of great price indeed.

As we undertake the process of dead reckoning in these lives of ours, we need an accurate appraisal of where, exactly, we are—if we’re ever going to know where we’re headed.

Then, as we reckon, there is a need for us to be almost brutally honest with ourselves, if we’re going to stay on path. I’m sure you’ve heard the computer aphorism, “Garbage in, garbage out.” So it is for these reckoning brains of ours (the brain was really the first personal computer, you know, and it’s still the most important, at least for now). If, as we proceed on our journeys, the data we use is full of wishful or magical thinking, or is inaccurate or questionable, or is just plain garbage—then don’t be surprised if you end up stuck in the middle of the ocean, rather than at the Straits of Magellan.

And finally, here’s one more piece of navigational advice that I’ve learned from the various duck boat captains I‘ve sailed with in recent days: don’t steer toward the rocks.

It continues to amaze me what breathtakingly stupid things people have done (and continue to do) down through the ages. I like to think that, in my own life, I’ve avoided most (if not all) of the Really Big Mistakes that have, from earliest times, landed people in hot water time and again. But I have had enough little screw ups of my own over the past 58 ¾ years to keep me humble. As have we all (or most of us, at least). Many of these rocks I found myself cast up upon were avoidable, had I engaged my brain, my critical thinking, my God-given powers of reason and common sense (and sometimes, had I disengaged my tongue, which gets even the most even-tempered of us in trouble so very often).

But it’s a journey, isn’t it? This journey we make through life is often difficult and seldom predictable, and that’s the way it is supposed to be. For in the greatest challenges lie the greatest rewards, and in the greatest mysteries lie encoded the biggest surprises. It is wonder and surprise and the joy of new discoveries that make this life worth living. For that is how we know

…the universe itself as a road—
As many roads—

As roads for traveling souls.