Psalm 139:1-12

A Sailor Twice Over

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Psalm 139:1-12

A Sailor Twice Over

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

The man we have gathered her to remember was born in this port city and always called it home.  As a young man, he served in the United States Navy during the Korean Conflict and spent his eighteenth birthday aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic Circle.  In later years, he remained an avid sailor, passionately interested in antique wooden boats.  So it was that the water and traveling upon it, voyages both short and long, figured in the life of Carman Naylor.

As a Christian, Carman participated in a religion where boats and voyages were important from the start.  Some of the first disciples of Jesus were fishermen whose daily work placed them aboard boats on the Sea of Galilee, the Holy Land’s Great Lake.

Jesus himself sometimes traveled by boat.  According to the gospels, he calmed a storm that threatened to capsize a boat containing his disciples.  He even walked on the storm-swept surface of the lake, astounding his disciples, terrifying them.  Under much calmer conditions, he used a boat as a floating pulpit to speak to crowds gathered on the shore.

Paul the Apostle, patron saint of the parish to which Carman belonged, was familiar with travel by sea.  At one point, when recounting his sufferings, St. Paul tells us that he had been shipwrecked on three occasions, and once was adrift in the water for a night and a day.

Early Christianity grew up largely around the Mediterranean Sea, and thus it is not surprising that the ship often appears as an early Christian symbol.

At times it represents the Church, the Christian community.  The ship in this sense is related to Noah’s celebrated ark.  The Church often appears as a ship in full sail, representing safe passage through the waves of this troublesome world.

Alternately, the ship may appear with its sails furled, as though resting quietly in port after the voyage of this life. Thus it suggests the repose enjoyed by the departed Christian, whose name may appear on the ship.

This theme is further developed in Christian art and literature.  Thus one carved gem shows Christ as the steersman in a boat with six oarsmen on either side.  Some early church buildings bore a marked resemblance to ships.  In the Apostolic Constitutions, a fourth century document, we find the Christian community described as a ship, with the bishop as the steersman, the deacons as seamen, and the faithful as passengers.

So Carman was a sailor twice over.  A sailor in the sense of somebody engaged in travel on the water, and a sailor in the sense of the Christian who travels through this life aboard God’s ark, the Church militant, anticipating that safe arrival in port when finally the sailor is home from the sea.

As a sailor twice over, Carman might well have taken for his own some words of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  For Tennyson speaks of his Christian faith in a poem that, by his request, appears as the final one in all collections of his work.  In this poem, “Crossing the Bar,” he refers to the moaning of the bar, the mournful sound of the ocean beating on a sand bar at the mouth of a familiar harbor.  He looks ahead to his own final voyage, when he will move out of that harbor past the sand bar, beyond the boundaries of place and time and sail forth on the dark and limitless ocean.

Listen now to “Crossing the Bar.”  The trust and anticipation apparent here are characteristic of every Christian.  These words belong not only to Tennyson, but also to Carman Naylor.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark.

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

It was tremendously exciting for young Carman Naylor from Port Huron, Michigan to spend his eighteenth birthday abroad a ship crossing the Atlantic Circle.  The memory of that day remained with him ever afterward.

But now at the end of seventy years of life, he has launched out on an adventure even more exciting, the greatest voyage of them all.  This sailor twice over has embarked from among us on a dark and silent tide that will take him beyond the boundaries of place and time to where in his final, peaceful harbor he will indeed see his Pilot face to face and hear long-expected words of welcome.

Copyright 2008, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications), a book devoted to helping busy clergy prepare funeral homilies that are faithful, pastoral, and personal.