Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Knowing and Doing God's Will vs. Being IN God's Will

"Knowing and Doing God's Will" is a lot different than being in it.

In 2004 I was the captain of our 41-foot sailing vessel FAMILY TIES during a 4-day weekend vacation in the Great Lakes. On board was my wife Pam, our son, Josh, and his family with two young children.

In the early morning we had motored out of our marina into the Detroit River, out across Lake St. Clair, then up against the St. Clair river's 3-knot current and stayed overnight in Sarnia Bay Marina in Canada. The next day we headed out under the Blue Water Bridge that connects the U.S.and Canada, and east across Lake Huron. We were hoping to sail but there was no wind. It was so hot in the August sun that we stopped in the middle of this huge and deep Great Lake and went swimming.

Family Ties stops to let her crew go swimming in
300-feet of southern Lake Huron and a wind-free day.
Photo by Stan from the dinghy. 
After an overnight in the Grand Bend, Ontario, Canada marina we headed back to Lexington, MI. Again, no wind. This was no fun. The boat, with it's old engine, cruised at just under 6 knots, and although under full sail, it didn't go much faster. At least there was a breeze that made you think you were going faster.

That third night we tied up at the Lexington, MI marina in one of the last slips available. After dinner we prayed as a family for wind on our return. Never pray against natural law. It doesn't work.

The next morning, I turned on the marine weather radio and climbed up on deck to see what the day's "sailing" might hold for us. Having to get back to work the next day, we were to retrace our steps south to the base of Lake Huron, and down the St. Clair River (with the current this time), across Lake St. Clair and home to our Detroit River marina. Because the current was with us, we could do the whole return trip in one day.

Standing on deck and looking south I began to realize how wrong we were to pray for wind in August ,considering the direction we needed to travel. The wind, in August, naturally comes out of the south and southwest. If I wanted a north or northwest wind it was the wrong time of year to pray for it. One needs to take into account Natural Law when one prays. I groaned.

Yes, we would have wind today but it would be on our nose, and we didn't have time to tack off on a close haul to the east and then back to the head of the river. But the marine weather forecast out on the lake was for only a 20-knot southernly breeze. Twenty knots is a lot of wind for a small boat, but not for our 22,000 pound, full-keeled, ocean going ketch. In fact, it was about right for a nice day on the Lake, provided we were not plowing into it.

The ladies fixed breakfast, which we would eat underway, as Josh and I prepared the boat and disembarked. As we loosened the dock lines and backed out of the slip, I sensed something was not "right," ("Right" is in quotation marks because Nature is never wrong, it's only our perception of it or our attempt to integrate with it that can be wrong -- as was today the case.) The wind felt stronger, and we were still in a mostly protected marina. This is the place where I tell you that the motoring controls on the binnacle, just below and in front of the wheel that I was standing behind, were old and confusing to operate. There were two levers. One was throttle and the other was the gear shift. We had owned the boat for five years and I frequently got them confused, especially when backing up.

On a hot day with no wind, Josh, Stan & Christin
take the plunge into Huron's depths. Photo by Pam.
Josh was on the bow, having just pulled aboard the dock lines. My plan was to back to the left (or north), and then head out of the marina aisle to the south, make a left turn and head out into the lake. But as soon as we cleared the end of the protected dockage, our big bow caught the southern wind like a sail and turned the bow north. And with the encouragement of a southern gust of wind, which was stronger than 20-knots now that we were out in the aisle, the boat drifted quickly to the north, directly toward the large wooden and steel wharf.

Confused by the gust of wind and the bow of the boat turning in a direction contrary to my plans, my "skipper" mojo kicked in and I immediately gunned the throttle and threw the boat's transmission into reverse. We would have to back out of the aisle, except this boat with a single prop did not steer very well going backwards unless we were going at least 2-knots, which is pretty fast for a closed-in marina with expensive boats and all sides. But the wind had pushed us out past our slip and I didn't have a choice. So, I throttled the engine to full speed and threw it into gear.

Except...I was already in reverse, so "throwing" the transmission into gear meant only one thing -- I had thrown the transmission into forward. Heavy boats take a few seconds to respond to forces on their hull. And when they do, there's a mass of inertia to contend with. They don't stop or start quickly, but when they get moving, they have a mind of their own. Suddenly the boat, with the assistance of the 30-knot stern wind,  and the prop churning at full forward rotations, was headed for the large wooden wharf -- not at 1 or 2 knots but at 4 knots and increasing.

Suddenly, I realized I had "shifted" the gear, when I should have left it alone where it was -- in reverse. To shift back I had to dethrottle the boat, wait a second for the RPMs to return to idle, and then shift back to reverse, before upping the throttle to back up.

By the time I did all that, we were inches away from the wharf going a good 5-knots. Josh, who is 6-ft, 10-in. tall, was standing on the bow as the dolphin striker hit the wooden dock. The dolphin striker is a heavy steel cable that runs diagonally from the water line of the hull, to the tip of the bowsprit angled up over the water. From the bowsprit there's another heavy cable that runs to the top of the forward mast. The combination keeps the masts under tension and upright. It's a strong rig, able to withstand gale force winds and the tons of associated forces.

When the dolphin striker hit the wharf, it smoothly rode up a good five feet onto the wooded wharf. I looked forward to see Josh (who is normally taller than me) way up in the air. Finally, the weight of the boat and the prop, now full spinning in reverse, backed Family Ties up... and down the aisle into the eye of the wind. A man standing on the dock near where we hit looked down at the dock and proclaimed to Josh as the boat backed off back down into the water,  "No damage here. Have a good day."

Now with the wind behind us, it kept our large bow pointed downwind, and I barely had to steer to keep the boat in the aisle. At the end of the aisle, I had time to lower the throttle, shift, and then gun the engine into forward again to turn the helm around and point the bow toward the lake.

I could not believe we got out of the marina safely. My heart was pounding in my throat and my adrenalin was pumping

But as soon as we were into the lake, I was wishing were were back in our slip. The wind on the lake, out from the protected marina, was not anything close to the weather forecast that predicted a20-knot breeze. The winds were howling out of the south at gale force, with sustained surface speed at 50 knots (or 63 miles per hour).  The dilemma was that to return to our slip in this wind, with a large boat such as ours with large exposed freeboard that acted like a hard-sided sail, would be more dangerous than staying out in the lake. So, I checked the engine speed, and turned south.

Lexington is about 20 nautical miles north of the entrance to the St. Clair River. With 50-knot winds out of the south, (on our nose), the fetch was kicking up 8 to 10 foot waves, that our bow was plowing into. It was going to be a rough ride, and our old 28 year old engine would be under strain. I eased off the throttle, turned the helm so we'd take the waves at an oblique angle, and finally managed to get up a handkerchief portion of the genoa bow sail to give the boat some stability left and right.  There would be no "sailing" today.

On the trip south our bowsprit frequently buried itself into an oncoming wave sending water over the deck and into the cockpit. But the boat was solid. We all wore personal floating vests, cinched up tight, not so much out of worry from being thrown overboard, but to protect our bodies if we got slammed into a cabinet below, or a steel line above.  Meanwhile, as the floor swayed under their feet, the kids (in their PFD's) tried to maintain their balance while frolicking on the salon floor dodging the sunlight that streamed in the side windows.

Heading south into 55 knots true wind, 16-degrees
off the bow. Apparent windspeed was 61 knots (70 mph).

As we approached the southern tip of Lake Huron and the fetch was reduced, so were the waves. The last several miles were on nearly smooth water, although the wind continued to pipe into the mid fifties.

I was looking forward to the river and getting out of the wind. But as we passed under the Blue Water Bridge, the waves suddenly picked up again, a ferociousness that made me want to be back in the middle of the lake with 8-10 footers. Here in the river the waves were not only 10-15 feet (crest to trough) but confused and irregular. It took a minute to figure out why, but then it hit me. The river, which is perhaps a quarter-mile wide, acted like a wind funnel for the southern wind as it pushed against the southern flowing river, which at the head of the river, under the bridge was 6-knots. But now, in the river, with other boat traffic, a freighter or two to dodge, and the wild waves reflecting off the shoreline (some with hard cement wharfs that reflected waves perfectly) we tossed and rolled at random...all 11-tons of boat and passengers. It was going to be a rough ride.

During the day, every few hours, I went below and looked in the engine room as a normal precaution. One year on a trip up this same river, I looked in and discovered water rising from the floor. I traced it to a fitting that was easily tightened and the leak ceased. But vigilance is necessary,  especially with two grandchildren aboard. This time, when I opened the engine room door I was not greeted with water but with flying oil and coolant. The engine was indeed under a strain, and the gaskets were in the process of blowing. I reduced engine speed, but there was no stopping the engine without risking our lives. (The next summer the engine was replaced with a new one that incorporated an updated design which used a simpler single control lever for throttle and transmission. It took all summer, but now the boat easily cruises at over seven-knots and there's no confusion about which way is forward or reverse.)

The day taught me a lot about God's will—that elephant in the room of every Christian's life that we can never see very clearly.  I've always wanted to know God's will so that I could do it, and thus be in it. (I'm speaking here about the particular decisions in life apart from moral obedience. Among religious people, at least, there's no dilemma about following God's moral will.  We must or there will be a just and unpleasant judgment, either here or in the next life.)

The practical dilemma is: What is God's will about everything else in my life?" It's not like God uses road signs that clearly say, "Turn Here, Roadblock ahead." The assumption I've always lived with (or wanted to believe) is that we know, do and are in God's will when we are: (a) confident of our knowledge and ability in the task, (b) productive in executing the task, and (c) happy with the results of our decisions and action in the task. If we are insecure, unproductive, or guilt ridden then we were probably ignorant of not doing, or being out of God's will in the first place. But was I in God's will sailing a boat with a weak engine into a gale force wind with my grandchildren aboard?   Am I doing God's will by quitting a good paying job and risking a livelihood for my family by trying to make it as a freelancer?  Is knowing God's will the same as doing it or being in it?

Here Is What I've Concluded

We make a mistake when we obsess about knowing and doing God's will and not contemplating with joy of purpose when we're in God's will, even before being able to do what we know. I've come to believe that knowing and doing God's will has a lot to do with understanding natural law, living within it, and making wise decisions. But being in God's will, and relishing it, is perhaps the more difficult and noble task.

If I make wise or foolish decisions, there is still God's will to live inside those decisions. God's will does not end with the knowledge or the decision, but continues throughout the task. We can argue whether or not I knew or was doing God's will to leave the marina that day with gale force winds on the lake. We can argue whether or not my experience should have told me that wind on the lake would be much greater than it was in the marina, regardless of the marine weather forecast. There was no moral guilt involved, but there may have been a lack of wisdom. (I do not believe it was God's will that I sail home that day, but rather my careless impetuousness.) Or, it may have been that the wind picked-up just as we were leaving and surprised even the forecasters. I've seen that many times on the Great Lakes. What was at issue was how well I was going to bring my skills and knowledge to bear on the present situation and live IN God's will of the present moment—the storm in my face that risked the lives of my family.

The windstorm on our nose, the water crashing over the deck, the nearly uncontrollable boat motion, all may not have been MY desire (not do I think it was God's), but how I skippered the boat was entirely my decision as to how well I am going to live IN God's will of this natural law storm. My free will was involved in going out into the lake, but it was also involved in how well I embraced God's will of being IN the moment. How well as I going to seize the day, the moment, and make the best of where I'm at right now. (I just got up and helped Pam in the house with groceries. Was the interruption in my writing God's will, or, was my response to the interruption being IN God's will?)

I have felt for a while now that it was God's will that I should be in Hollywood making movies. I have the knowledge, the connections, and passion. But I'm not in Hollywood. I'm in Michigan where my knowledge does little good, and there are few connections. Does KNOWING God's will and not being able to DO God's will keep me from being IN God's will? Am I in a windstorm that requires me to live well and productively IN the will of God where I'm at?

Knowing and Doing God's will is one thing. Being IN his will and doing well while in it, is entirely another.

And that's why I'm Catholic.

Stanley D. Williams

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