Saturday, May 1, 2010

Sailing Without a Rudder

A fumbled attempt at launching my 13-foot sailboat on Ford Lake in Ypsilanti, Michigan, reminded me of an important principle for a successful living.

It was my first outing of the summer and I was rusty, to say the least. The lake was new to me and I had carried along a lot of stressful thoughts. It was, in fact, to relieve stress that I had decided to go sailing, but distracted as I was, I made an embarrassing mistake.

After my wife and I had rigged the boat and floated it off the trailer to the pier, I checked the wind direction and velocity. It was moderate to brisk and heading toward the pier at about a 30° angle. I figured that if I pushed off soundly from the end of the pier and my wife raised the sails, we would sail off at a comfortable angle toward the picturesque little island at the west end of the lake. So I gave a shove and she hoisted the mainsail, but instead of heading out, we drifted backwards and sideways toward the next pier. I jammed the tiller in the opposite direction, but to no avail. We would have crashed broadside into the next pier if our son Bryn, who had come to windsurf, had not seen our dilemma and run to cushion the impact.

I couldn't understand why my plan hadn't worked. First I blamed the boat--it was not responsive enough. Then I blamed the wind--it must have shifted on me. Finally, I discovered the real problem: I had failed to lower the rudder, which tilts up for docking, launching and trailering. Without the resistance of its rudder the boat could not harness the power of the wind, so it was blown helplessly about.

This embarrassing moment reminded me of two Bible verses that speak of wind and rudders.

In James 3:4 we read: ". . . take ships as an example. Although they are so large and driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go." (NIV) Although James was illustrating the power of the tongue, his illustration also shows that it doesn't take much of a rudder to guide even a large ship, but the rudder must be in the water! Likewise, in our spiritual lives the Word of God, the Bible, should be our rudder. And it’s not enough just to know the principles of God's Word; we must apply them to each challenge of life if we expect to make progress in our journey.

Our rudder is especially important when the ill winds of false doctrine blow upon our barque. The Apostle Paul exhorts us in Ephesians 4:14: "that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine . . . " (NJKV) When the rudder is not in the water, we are at the mercy of the wind and waves. Especially when we are under stress, popular doctrines or teachings that promise relief, happiness or wealth may blow us off course, unless we are guided by the sure rudder of biblical truth.

Even ill winds, however, can be harnessed to carry us toward an even deeper understanding of God's Word as it applies to contemporary issues. "No doubt there have to be differences among you," writes the Apostle Paul, "to show which of you have God's approval" (I Corinthians 11:19 NIV).

Once I got the rudder in the water and we hoisted the sails again, a fresh breeze lifted us and we sailed off crisply toward our island destination.