These cold winter days I enjoy searching through articles and various notes I have stored on my computer. Among these notes were those about the life and work of Harvard photographer and historian John R. Stilgoe.
I became intrigued with the story of Stilgoe’s life and work after watching an episode of Sixty Minutes back in 2003. I then picked up one of his books, Lifeboat: A History of Courage, Cravenness (or Cowardice), and Survival at Sea1. While not an easy read, this 300 page book covered the evolution of lifeboats….dealing with how they are made, rigged, captained…and how they have been used throughout the centuries.
Stilgoe recounts in his book centuries of how the image “lifeboat” has become a symbol of human optimism amidst fear and frailty. He reflects on the fear and anguish in lives of those longing to be saved. When it comes to boats sinking, we may think of officers saving “women and children first”. Stilgoe’s research shows that this assertion isn’t all that accurate. Yes there are heroes. There are also officers who would save themselves first. There are horrific stories about what human beings will do in dire times. As an example, consider the sinking of the Titanic. Unlike the 1998 movie, Stilgoe shares some of the factual history with testimonies not only about the heroism but also the violence and human turmoil of that day when the Titanic went down. There is a story of a crew member who just about shot the radio man sending out the SOS call – only to be shot himself by another crew member…..all for his life belt……..and an interesting story about a woman who had to break up a fight among the crew on one of the lifeboats because crew members were not trained on how to use the life boats.
Metaphorically, with so many issues and struggles in the world in which we live, it’s not hard to imagine people who are suffering longing to be rescued or saved. Some questions to ponder: What is in our toolbox of resources when it comes to sinking boats (or sinking lives)? Would the best or worse of you come out if you were struggling on a sinking boat? What about those times when you have that “sinking feeling” that things just aren’t right? Where does our faith fit in when it comes to struggles and tragedies we experience?
For me faith in God and God’s continuous presence in and around us gives me hope that the “best of me” will be used when responding to crisis. What do you think? I believe God brings out the good in us. Knowing God is always with us helps take away the fears we have in working through day-to-day struggles. Money or wealth won’t save us. Politics, as we see in our nation right now, won’t save us. Power and influence won’t keep us from sinking. Is faith in God known to us through the living Christ the lifeboat that truly works – saving us even from ourselves?
On this cold winter day, imagining life filled with struggles I meditate upon scripture and the words of these hymns in my personal toolbox of resources when it comes to days when my life is sinking……
“Jesus Calls us calls us o’er the tumult
of our life’s wild restless sea;
Day by day his sweet voice soundeth,
saying “Christian, follow me”.
And when it comes to “perils on the sea”:
“Eternal Father, strong to save,
whose arm has bound the restless wave,
who bade the mighty ocean deep;
It’s own appointed limits keep.
O hear us when we cry to thee
for those in peril on the sea.”
And from Psalm 121:
I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
1. Lifeboat, John R. Stilgoe, University of Virginia Press, 2003