The navigator

compassAdmiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell was lost, but given the unbroken fog his fleet had been wandering through and the abysmal state of 18th-century navigation, he was fortunate to be off-course by only a few dozen nautical miles. He didn’t know that, of course. Neither did he know that his fortune, or misfortune, hinged on his navigational error being just a few miles greater. Or less. The heading he had chosen was exactly the wrong one, and he would not make it home. On the gloomy night of October 22, 1707, the Admiral and more than two thousand British sailors drowned when their ships piled into the rocky Scilly Islands, just to the west of England’s Land’s End.

The Scilly Islands disaster provoked the British government to offer a cash award to anyone who could develop a practical method for calculating longitude. John Harrison, a self-taught clock maker, labored for decades on the problem until, in 1760, he solved it by perfecting a clock so precise that it kept time to within one-third of a second per day.

Those who know about John Harrison regard him as a creative genius, a man who elegantly solved a problem so thorny that it had stumped the world’s best minds. Longitude, the measure of our position east or west around the globe, cannot be determined from the sun or the stars or any simple astronomical measurement. For centuries, a good navigator could precisely determine his latitude from the sun, but longitude was just a guess. With the invention of what amounted to a highly accurate pocket watch, the vast surface of the earth could be measured and mapped with an accuracy never before known.

Today, I accomplish the same feat by switching on my hand-held GPS receiver, which tells me that I am within fifteen feet of 32° 31′ 42″ N latitude, 110° 53′ 08″ W longitude. Call me weird if you like, but I find it comforting to know that I am a mere 1,719 miles southwest of Cleveland, should I want to drop in on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Go anywhere today and you’ll find people yakking on cell phones, in touch with their spouses and sweethearts and brokers, 24/7, coast to coast. Hike to the top of Mt. Everest and you can greet your Aunt Beulah via satellite videophone. Pile the Chevy into a tree in Podunk, Montana, and the On-Star service has you located before your air bag deflates.

Despite our excellent communication, many of us seem to feel more isolated than ever. Despite our globe-tracking technology, many of us feel as lost as old Admiral Shovell, and bodies are washing up on the rocks every day.

The proof? Suicide rates are climbing, despite breakthroughs in mental health care. Substance abuse is soaring. Broken families wander the country like nomads in search of water and fertile ground. Church attendance has been declining for decades because of a perception that God is no longer relevant. The roots that used to anchor us are being torn from the ground. We drift with the current like pieces of flotsam.

It’s a paradox, isn’t it? Science has pinpointed our location in the universe, and yet we feel less certain than ever. We live in unprecedented comfort, yet the nagging feeling persists that we’re missing something important.

Luke, the physician turned Gospel writer, relates three of Jesus’ parables about being lost.

In the first, a shepherd loses one of his sheep. He could have shrugged his shoulders and written off the loss on his taxes—instead, he searches high and low, finds the lost animal and carries it home joyfully.

In the second story, a desperately poor woman loses a nickel in her home. A measly nickel! But she has a family to feed, so she scours the house until she finds it, and when she does, she rejoices with her neighbors over her good fortune.

The third is the story of the famous “prodigal son,” a young man who takes his inheritance early and heads for the beach to do some real living. When the money runs out, his friends desert him. He’s living on the streets. He’s at the end of his rope. He decides to go home and try working as a laborer in his father’s business. But when his father sees him again, he kisses him warmly and throws a party in his honor. The son is forgiven and restored to his family.

Jesus was telling us about God. He will not give up on us, no matter how thoroughly lost we are. He will never abandon us. Such is the breadth and depth of his love.

I can never escape from your spirit! I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the place of the dead, you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me. —Psalm 139:7- 10, NLT

When the hated tax collector Zacchaeus repented and became a disciple, Jesus told the grumbling crowd:

I, the Son of Man, have come to seek and save those like him who are lost. —Luke 19:10, NLT

Right up to the moment when the lookout screamed his warning, Admiral Shovell was convinced that he was on course. So much so, in fact, that earlier in the day, when a seaman had dared to question his navigation, the Admiral had the man hanged from the yard arm. It’s called shooting the messenger.

Jesus came both to warn us and rescue us. You’re lost, he said, but you’re still precious to God. You’re wandering aimlessly, he said, but God is eager to save you and show you the way.

These are dangerous, uncharted waters we are sailing through. Whom are you going to trust to navigate you safely home?

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