In the spring of 1991 I accepted their invitation to join their crew in a sailboat race in Galveston Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, I'd had no experience crewing on a 40-foot sailboat and, had I known what the weather would be like on the day of the race, I would certainly have had my misgivings about the adventure. The sea that morning was what might be described as "choppy." To a landlubber like myself, the atmospheric conditions seemed not greatly unlike a hurricane--charcoal grey sky, roaring wind, and raindrops which struck one's face like the sting of a thousand evil gnats.
Some of the other vessels in the race were disabled by the wind before leaving the marina. Sails were ripped to shreds. One of our crew--an experienced sailor nonetheless--took to the side of the boat and puked violently. Even in foul weather gear, I was soaking wet before the gun was fired to signal the start of the race.
In spite of the tempest, however, the race proceeded without incident--for the most part. Yes, we had a close call when a lead vessel suddenly saw its mainmast splinter and crash to the deck. The derelict craft drifted towards our bow, and we, under full sail, managed to avoid a mid-sea collision by an extremely uncomfortable margin.
All else went as planned and our craft took the lead. With victory in sight our captain made what in hindsight proved to be a rather rash decision. We would hoist our spinnaker--a special sail for navigating at angles. I took my position and grabbed my line. The sail began to rise. The ship began to list sharply to port--where I stood! Suddenly my left foot was under water. Just as suddenly, the entire port railing was submerged and, before I knew it, I was awash over the side of the capsizing vessel.
I grabbed despearately for the railing atop the cabin, but missed. Astonishingly, Tom, who was perched like a nesting duck on the cabin's roof, reached his long arms out, caught me by my lifevest, and pulled me to safety. The offending spinnaker was lowered, the ship began to right itself, and all was right with the world again.
The seasick sailor smiled at me as I took a seat on the dripping rail. "Looks like you went swimming," he said.
"Yup." I replied.
"What was going through your mind?" he asked as he deftly lit a cigarette in the punishing wind.
Truth be told, the only thing I was thinking as I washed into the Gulf was a desperate hope that the ship was not capsizing because of something stupid I had done. Other than that, I had the very comfortable feeling, the very blessed assurance, of knowing that I was not alone. I knew my shipmates would not let me drown.
That evening, Tom and Vickie took me to dinner. I wondered if I should offer to pick up the cheque since Tom had rescued me, but Tom insisted on catchng the tab. I realized that my brief dip in the Gulf had made me officially "okay" in the eyes of these experienced sailors. I had become family. I had been baptized.
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The Revised Common Lectionary for the First Sunday of Lent tells the story of God's promise to Noah after the Great Flood (Genesis 9:8-17). The mythology of this tale is confusing. We tend to see it either as a cute tale for children with animals and a rainbow, or as a horrific tale of God's wrath and destruction. The words of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Bible state that God was "sorry" over the wickedness of humanity and "it grieved him to his heart." (Gen. 6:6) One could conclude that God's wrath is actually the pain that is caused by our own selfish desires. Noah survives this flood of violence and sin, and humanity is given a chance to begin over again. But Noah is no saint, either. In later chapters we see him as a drunken, abusive father. God realizes that we are all given to evil inclinations, but makes a one-sided deal with humanity. It will never be God's will to see us destroyed. Never. God will set down his weapon--in this case a bow--and when we see it, we will have the assurance of God's love even in the midst of the flood.
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The story of Jesus' baptism and temptation in Mark's gospel (Mark 1: 9-15) is also a story of God's presence in the flood. Jesus washes in our dirty bath water. That is, the holiness of God joins with us in all things--both the cleansing and the journey through a wilderness of temptation and danger. Although Jesus is declared God's beloved child, he is still swept into the desert to deal with Satan and the creatures which bite, claw, and sting. And yet, he is never alone. The angels minister to him, and see him safely through the ordeal.
There are many baptisms in our lives: illness, addictions, broken relationships, unemployment, depression, etc. etc. It is easy to be swept into the flood and give in to temptation. How we so need the reassurance that we are not alone, that Christ has been here, too. How we need to lean on the one-sided promise that God's will is not to destroy us, but to cleanse us. Throughout our many baptisms, we are anchored by the first one we experienced at the font of grace. Hear and believe the good news:
Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever!
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