Finding New Life by Sailing into the Void

As the sailboat continued to rise about the white capped waves, I gripped the side and leaned back as far as I dared trying to drive the boat down flat on the water. My feet slipped on wet floorboards and someone yelled, his voice constricted into a high-pitched squeak, “We’re going over!”

I recognized that voice: It was mine.

Wide-eyed and heart pounding, I pictured myself tossed forward, face down in cold waves, feet tangled in ropes, sails, wet and heavy, pushing me farther and farther down into the dark water. My chest clenched. I’m going to drown!

“We’re fine,” I heard my instructor say calmly. “We have a five-hundred pound keel under us.”

It was only my second sailing lesson, and I had no idea what a keel—the backbone structure running from front to back (“stem to stern,” as sailors say) along the bottom of a boat that balances it—looked like. I wondered if it could break or fall off. It was only then that I realized why I’d felt this call to learn to sail.

A quote from H. Richard Niebuhr’s Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, which I’d read in seminary some thirty years before, came to mind:

There is something about reality with which we all must reckon. We might not be able to give a name to it, calling it only the void out of which everything comes and to which everything returns. Against it, there is no defense.

That day six years ago, as I looked down into the churning waves, I felt my whole life falling into that void. I’d just left the comfortable familiarity of a twenty-five year relationship and was living in a rented room in someone else’s house. I was terrified and doubtful if there was anything to be found on the other side of letting go. The leap of faith is to trust in the void, Niebuhr says—a trust that I stepped away from living again and again over the years.

For, the truth of the matter is that I’d never really believed in the resurrection. I don’t mean whether Jesus was literally raised in a physical body from the tomb or not. Rather, I doubted the truth behind the story—that out of death, out of the void, new life comes. Sure, I’d preached about it, counseled parishioners that it was true, celebrated with them when they witnessed signs of surprising new life in what they had considered a dead-end relationship or job, a rekindled hope that something might be possible when before they were convinced that nothing indeed was. But in my own life, I didn’t believe it. So, for reasons I didn’t entirely understand at first—especially given my general lack of interest in boats or the sea—I took up sailing.

Instead of following an endless lists of to-do’s, I’ve allowed myself to listen for the wind and be led by the Spirit.

As I learned to sail, I heard a call for another leave-taking before me. I was in my 25th year of ministry at University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle. I was 56, and not old enough or ready to retire. I wasn’t worn out or burnt out. I didn’t have another job waiting. But I just knew it was time. No, not “my time,” which would have kept me at my church position until retirement, but God’s time calling me out into my next season of life and transformation.

After more than thirty years in ordained ministry, I knew how to do many things. Yet, I didn’t quite know how to say goodbye.  Thanks to guidance from a couple of members in the congregation, my last three months at the church were some of the most significant and life-changing times in all of my ministry. I cleared my calendar and sat down with over a hundred members of the congregation for conversations unlike any I’d had before as we looked back on what we had walked through together, asked forgiveness for times that we had stumbled along the way, gave thanks, blessed this marking of goodbye. Conversations like these with the members and groups I worked with helped me have a good ending and opened a way to a new beginning.

December 31, 2018 was my last day—the last day of the year, the last day of the existence I had known for nearly half of my life. After a few months in Seattle, on May 22nd I packed up my car and headed East.

By this point in the journey, the summer has turned into an autumn of discovery that changed my life. A new way has opened that I never could have imagined.

Instead of following an endless lists of to-do’s, I’ve allowed myself to listen for the wind and am led by the Spirit.

Instead of being lost in anxiety about finances and where I “should be” headed, I’ve been grounded in a faith I didn’t know I had—a deep trust that in conversations and making connections, my “boat” for this new season is being formed.

Instead of needing to figure it all out myself, I’ve stepped into a freedom and willingness to ask others for help and to receive their hospitality.

Instead of just wondering, I’ve actually been able to do all the things I only dreamed of doing. Working with great folks I’ve met along my journey, I’ve developed into a coach and spiritual guide.

I’ve led two adult sailing retreats on navigating life transitions and change with Broad Reach Ministries, led by Abby Lynn and Bob Haskell in Biddeford, Maine. I was the co-sailing director (how far I’ve come in these past six years!) at Camp Pride at our United Church of Christ camp at Pilgrim Lodge. I facilitated a retreat with a church facing their own time of deep unknowing. I’m exploring ways to help our institutional structures support clergy and churches ending a ministry well and launching pastors into a new chapter. As I have learned, I’m helping others to see that there is new life to be found in trusting in the work of the “void.”

Instead of needing to figure it all out myself, I’ve stepped into a freedom and willingness to ask others for help and receive their hospitality.

Through this wave-swept process, I’ve discerned the seeds of a new vocation forming, that, indeed, my passion and call is to support others going through their own times of change and transition so that they might be times of transformation—as mine has been.

I continue to keep my focus on “discovery” as my compass for this season. Yes, at times, I would like for things to have been discovered and settled in less turbulent seas. But in the past months—opening myself to connecting with new friends and reconnecting with others I haven’t seen recently or shared such quality time with—I have been reminded that it is in relationship that life is lived at its best. I am grateful beyond words for the encouragement of friends, former colleagues, and members of University Church who encouraged and supported me to step out into this season of discovery and new chapter in my life. I have never felt like I am making this journey alone.

This fall is a big season of unknowing. But there are a few things I do know. I’m attending a national Outdoor Ministry Conference in North Carolina in mid-November, and am excited about exploring possibilities for the program I’ve developed with sailing and transitions. I’ve got a marathon in Virginia, a family gathering in New Hampshire at Christmas to mark my parent’s 60th wedding anniversary. So, I’m not sailing alone, to be sure.

And, also, there’s this, which I’ll be mulling all along the way:

The other day I was walking off the dock when the sailor behind me asked, “Hey, why did you learn to sail?”

I smiled. That’s the very question I ask each sailor I meet.

“It scared me.” I said.

“You can’t sail if you’re scared,” he said.

“It took me a long time to learn that,” I laughed.

And the truth is, I need to keep learning it again and again.

change, sailing, vocation

Peter Ilgenfritz

The Rev. Peter Ilgenfritz was pastor and member of the leadership staff team at University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle. The author of Setting Sail: A Collection of Poems,he offers coaching, consultation, sailing retreats and workshops through his ministry Navigating Through Change. You can connect with him at Peter@NavigatingThroughChange.com.


Featured Image: Skitterphoto, “Brown Rope on a Pulley” (April 8, 2019). Via Pexels. CC 2.0 license.

Photo #1: Bas Leenders, “Making Waves” (May 23, 2008). Via Flickr. CC 2.0 license.

Photo #2: Jordan Ladikos, “Weather Vane, Whiskey Island” (February 5, 2016). Via Unsplash. CC 2.0 license.

Photo #3: Sushobhan Badhai, “Green Plant Sprout” (September 12, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC 2.0 license.