When in grade school, I was fascinated with 15th-16th century nautical explorers and the ships they sailed into uncharted waters. I was particularly fascinated with Columbus and Magellan and the courage it took to sail off into the wild blue yonder, not knowing what awaited them on the other end of the journey. In their travels they had a general idea where they were headed (or, at least, where they thought they were headed). However, they were at the mercy of the elements that tossed them to and fro, often driving them off course.
I have often heard the phrase “we are navigating uncharted waters” to describe our world as we know it today. Uncharted indeed! We don’t know exactly where we are headed, we are tossed about daily as news changes, and we have no idea what is on the other end of the journey. Uncharted waters and we feel a bit overwhelmed.
Overwhelmed. A few years ago I wondered, “If one can be overwhelmed, is it possible to be whelmed? Is there such a word?” I discovered there is such a word as whelmed! It’s a nautical term that basically means to engulf or submerge. Its root relates to the overturning of a vessel in a storm. As bad as being in an overturned vessel might seem, we might still be alive and rescue still possible. Overwhelmed, on the other hand, implies complete defeat. We are on the way to the bottom!
One of my favorite gospel stories is found in Matthew 14 where our friend Peter walked on water. If Mathew’s narrative is chronological, then this is what led up to the event…
John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod, the puppet Jewish king set up by the Roman empire. John was the prophet that called people to repentance (including Herod) and prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. He was also Jesus’ cousin. When Jesus heard of his cousin’s death, “he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” The people figured out where he was and his solitude was interrupted by 15-20,000 people! Filled with compassion, he healed people all day long. He wrapped up his interrupted day by feeding all of them, then sneaking off to continue his time of solitude, sending his disciples by boat to the other side of the lake.
So off sailed the disciples, into the wind, beaten about by the waves. Sometime between 3:00a and 6:00a, after struggling to get half-way across the lake, Jesus approached their boat walking on the water. They were terrified (an understatement!) and cried out in fear, to which Jesus reassured them that it was he and they need not be afraid. (Have you ever noticed how often Jesus told people not to be afraid, to “fear not?”)
Peter, as he was wont to do, spoke first asking Jesus if he, too, could walk on the water. So Jesus (I’m sure with a twinkle in his eye) said “Sure.” As Peter walked on the water toward Jesus, he looked around at the waves with fear and started to sink. He was whelmed by the waves crashing around him (not overwhelmed yet – his head was still above water) and cried to Jesus for help. “Lord save me” were his exact words. Jesus extended his hand which Peter wisely grabbed before he became overwhelmed!
As we navigate the uncharted waters of a world-wide pandemic, we might be feeling a bit overwhelmed. Truth be told, as long as we have our head above water, we are simply whelmed, able to see Jesus’ extended hand. This is where trust comes into the picture. Can I trust Him in my state of whelmness? Or do I double down – work harder, try harder, tread harder? No doubt, there is certainly hard work for us in the days, weeks, and months ahead. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather navigate uncharted waters from on top, rather than the ocean floor.