Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sailing and the Plum Tree

For the first time since arriving in Greece, I woke up before the rest of the crew. For some reason, ever since I got aboard Reflections I’d been sleeping like a rock star in the morning, hung over from the UV rays and hypnotized by the swaying of the boat on water. When I was in Paris with my friend Raphaelle I didn’t sleep for about a week, but instead lay in bed staring out the balcony window. So sleeping, even on a hard bunk in a sailboat, felt great.
That morning though, I got up early, climbed up to the pilot house with a mug of instant coffee, and began reading my Bible. The Captain awoke next and came to join me in the pilothouse with his version of coffee—instant cappuccino mix.
“What are you working on there?” he asked curiously.
“Um,” I hesitated. I was still trying to be careful about how showy I was with my faith on the boat, knowing I’d be on board with these people for weeks and not wanting to create any unnecessary tension.
“It’s a study on the life of Paul,” I paused, “Which is really interesting because his missionary journeys take him around the Mediterranean.” I hoped Max would pick up more on the sailing in the Med than the whole “missions” part.
But suddenly Cap didn’t look so curious. He leaned back still clutching his coffee cup, his face hardening over. “You know what?” he said, “You don’t find God in a book. That’s not where you find Him at all. You find him in your heart.”
I sat for a moment in silence, trying to decide how to respond. How do you respond to someone who doesn’t believe in the book that’s supposed to guide your life?
“Well, I find God in other people,” I said slowly. “And I see Him working in my relationships.”
“That’s beautiful, Rachel!” I heard Terri-Leigh, one of the crewmembers, shout from down below.
My struggle with faith has been going on since birth. As a child I witnessed the unshakable devotion of my mother and godmother, Nellie, making it so easy to believe. To them God was as inextricably tied to life as water, like a sixth sense. Nellie was the person who reestablished my mom’s wavering Catholic conviction, showing her the Christian ideology of salvation through faith, rather than works, or rosary prayers.
Nellie used to take me outside to pray underneath the plum tree that didn’t bare plums. The tree had been barren for years. It wasn’t dead, as the green leaves as big as my four-year-old face proved, but I had yet to see the plums that gave the tree its name. Situated in the corner of our seemingly huge back yard on Hayworth Avenue in Los Angeles, on the small plot of grass laid out in a square behind the driveway, my main reason for visiting the tree was to swing on my wooden rocking horse. My dad hung the swing up with thick white ropes, and it served as one of my only escapes from the scorching summer heat. It was like my personal Garden of Eden in the middle of the city, the roots of the tree buried deep beneath the cement crust.
Nellie and I walked out and prayed under that tree every day, asking God to breathe life into its buds. It seemed so natural to me at that age, to be bowing methodically like a tiny student monk, my hands clasped on top of my bent knees.
Even more amazing than my solid faith was God’s answer. The following summer the tree bared fruit. We had the best plums I have ever tasted in my life. They burst open in my mouth, dying my hands and cheeks a deep violet color, the juice running down onto my little blue dress and ashy legs. We gave them away to neighbors in brown paper bags because there were too many for us to eat. Imagine that, too many plums from the tree that didn’t bare plums.
I want faith like the plum tree again—the illogical kind that doesn’t need explanation beyond your own deep, inner well that tells you to believe in something bigger than yourself. My belief system in general was tested a lot on the sailing trip. I found it really hard to live with seven different people with entirely different views about God and religion. Sometimes I felt like I was under constant scrutiny while other times I felt satisfyingly encircled in unbiased hope and love.
The one thing we all had in common was a belief in a higher being who created us and moves and works in our physical world. We also had traveled quite a bit so we certainly weren’t ignorant about differences in people’s cultural norms.
Everyone, even the Captain, accepted my Christianity for what it was, as long as I wasn’t being the judge about heaven and hell and who got to go where. I was careful not to talk about my spirituality in that sense. I wanted it to be more material than that.
“It bothers me when people talk about what heaven’s going to be like,” Rommy, my closest friend on the boat, said to me one morning. We sat on deck munching our corn flakes and staring out the plastic windows towards the water. “What does it even matter?” he asked.
Rommy was right. What does it matter? We aren’t in heaven yet, and we won’t know anything certain about it until we die, so why start making plans? Live for today. Live for the people who surround you. Find, as one of my professors always used to say, how to be “In the right place and at the right time, and still do the right thing. That is the best you can do.”
Unfortunately, while I don’t have to be Judge Judy, I still feel I have to be concrete about what I believe. Like, if I believe Christianity is the only religion leading to salvation, and if Christ is the bridge connecting us to God, is it enough to love God and your neighbor? Or, does a person literally need Christ to fill the hole in their soul that cries out for freedom?
I  always thought the Bible was so clear cut, especially growing up in a conservative, expository preaching style church, but now I wonder if I’ve been too close-minded, too intolerant.
Rosie, one of my crewmates from England, once told me how an old man who looked exactly like Santa Claus used to come into the grocery store where she worked in Leicestershire.
“I tried to be extra nice to him,” she said. “Just in case.”
The matter-of-fact-ness with which Rosie said this amazed me—complete honesty in one sentence.
Maybe I’m trying to be extra nice to this man called Jesus, just in case He really is the Son of God.

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