A Boat with No Oars

March 1, 2021 by Beth A. Richardson
Collage by Beth A. Richardson

It has been a year since our lives were upended by the pandemic of COVID-19. In this long, difficult journey of wilderness, our fragility has been revealed.

There’s an image from Celtic spirituality that comes, often, to my mind. It’s a coracle—a little round boat made of reeds and covered with hides. There’s a story from the 9th Century of three Irish monks who set sail in a coracle, leaving their oars behind. They washed up on the shores of Cornwall and were taken before King Alfred, who asked them where they came from. The monks said that they “had stolen away, because they desired, for love of God, to be in a state of pilgrimage, they recked not where.” [The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861.]

These Irish monks set out intentionally without oars. They began their pilgrimage willing to be guided by the wind and currents, welcoming the unknown destination, trusting that the Spirit was guiding their journey. To these monks, following the Holy One was a calling of radical surrender. They acknowledged the fragility of their humanity and offered their tender lives into the care of God.

While I might wish I was as committed to radical surrender, I find myself anxious about setting out into the ocean in a boat with no oars. But I can relate, deeply, to knowing how tender and tenuous our lives are. In these days of pandemic, of climate change, of the continuing march of hate in our world, I often feel that I am in a boat with no rudder and no oars. I don’t know where I’m going or where I will end up. I am lost in the waves, feeling the fragility of life, powerless to know how to fix all the things that are broken, vulnerable to feelings of hopelessness. I thought I had a plan, and then I discover that I’m so much more fragile than I ever imagined.

Isn’t that the way life is? We have our five-year plan all mapped out. We set out toward our goal and then tragedy strikes. A child is killed in an accident. We lose a loved one in a traffic stop. Someone we love is diagnosed with cancer. A pandemic hits, and everything around us is turned into chaos.

Our path was charted, and then we find ourselves in a boat with no oars, going where we never planned to go. We are floating on the sea, unsure of what is next, trusting—or being forced to trust—that somehow, we will get through these difficult times. And, if we are able, to sense, to trust, to remember—God is with us. God is beside us in the boat. God is in the wind and the waves. God is on the rocky shore where our boat lands. God is in the waiting room. In the funeral home. In the homeless shelter, the empty apartment, the ICU. God is present with us with our shattered dreams and broken hearts.

And God is in us—in our communities and families. In our compassion and gratitude. In our hopes and desires. In our tears and our sorrows.

God of Creation, you walk before us, behind us, beside us, within us. Be in our hearts as we face the fragility of our lives and our world. Journey with us and with all who suffer. And let us offer ourselves to be servants to the hurting places in the world. Amen.

Beth A. Richardson serves as the director of prayer and worship life and Dean of The Upper Room Chapel. Her latest release from Upper Room Books is Walking in the Wilderness: Seeking God During Lent.

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