Ready, Fire, Aim

Forrest Church   January 17, 1997

If timing is everything as they say, on this one I blew it. About five months ago -- the cutoff point -- I missed my chance to deliver a news-breaking sermon on the millennium. This probably won't disappoint you. It won't disappoint you (if I am right on this, which I am sure I am), because by now you are thoroughly sick of the millennium.
Not that you should be proud of this. After all, Millennia, statistically, are far more than once in a lifetime opportunities. They are once in about every twenty lifetimes' opportunities. Being blasé about that kind of thing -- even if we know that one year is much like any other -- takes a small purchase on our souls. This said, even though the millennium is two years away, the market on millennium musings is so super-saturated that even I, who like things like millennia, have absolutely nothing new, interesting, or valuable to say on the subject.
So you are spared.
Which is not to say that I don't have something new, valuable and interesting to say about the Titanic.
I hope you've seen the movie. It's a great movie. Great as in big, wide and grand. Anyone who carps about the dialogue or acting is missing the point. Neither is particularly good. But neither is the dialogue and acting in most of our lives particularly good. The great thing about this movie is that it puts us smack in the middle of a magnificent ship, which then sinks, in a bone-shaking way.
If we have even the slightest amount of imagination, life is precisely like that. We board this great ship, a ship far more magnificent than any shaped by human hands; we sail into the deep; we dance on the lower deck or preen on the upper; we fall in love; things happen that test our mettle; we rise and fall to occasions; and then, at the end of the story, there is always an iceberg. Cancer, a heart attack, a wild drunken driver, and our ship goes down.
I really liked this movie. Everything from the chandeliers to the dead bodies floating in the water. It dazzled my imagination, all the more so because I knew how it would turn out.
I also know how my own life will turn out. When my ship hits an iceberg I will either drown or live long enough for my ship to hit another iceberg. It doesn't really matter if I am the captain of my own ship or if fate is. All that really matters, in both steerage and the ball room, is our dreams and our tears, with even these transcended in the mystery of a sunset or the passion of an embrace.
What I just said is actually not quite true. Rivets also matter. And bulkheads. And kindness. Not only that, but folly, though it can never quite be avoided, can foolishly, if often unintentionally, be sought.
The Titanic is a morality play, not all that different from Noah's Flood or the Fall from the Garden. By definition, morality plays teach us to be careful. But if all we learn from morality plays is to be careful, or not to take chances, we will always be in the audience, never on stage. In other words, if life is a cruise, nine times out of ten it will not be an adventure.
Take today's cruises. Since the movie came out, cruise bookings are up. Counter-intuitive, isn't it? As one travel agent said, "The wonderful opulence that people saw in the movie has a good many of them saying, `Wow, that was a sharp-looking boat." Great. Two of my closest friends in college were killed in a sharp-looking car.
On the other extreme, when I read that "Problems with cruise ships nowadays run more toward things like a galley fire, or the air-conditioning going out, and meanwhile, the passengers are up on deck getting a suntan," something tells me problems such as these contribute very little either to our character or to the drama of our lives.
Here are three things you probably don't know. The architect of the Titanic was a Unitarian. The captain of the Titanic was a Unitarian. And "Nearer my God to Thee," the hymn played as the Titanic went down was written by a Unitarian.
I hope this makes you at least a little less comfortable here in this church! I would welcome that. Religion shouldn't be a pacifier. Religion should awaken us, throw open a window, point to a trap door. The problem with a place like All Souls, so beautiful, so soothing, with angelic music and well-crafted sermons, is not all that different from the problem with the Titanic. If we forget how dangerous the waters are, spending our lives rearranging deck chairs to catch the sun, lulling ourselves to the gentle background of a soothing sound track, we set up our lives to do only one important thing: watch them pass before our drowning eyes.
So forget about the millennium. The millennium is just a game for historians and religious fanatics. Instead, think about your life. That's what's in the balance. Think about your loves, which, of all the things that may live beyond you, are the only things that really matter.
How about your parents? Are your parents still alive? Have you forgiven them? Have you surprised them by a sudden burst of affection while you still can? Have you forgiven yourself for repeating their mistakes? Even if they are not alive? Wish upon their star. Even their falling star. Wish upon it before it disappears across the bow of your life.
And your children. If you are so blessed to have children, did you wake up this morning and say to yourself, "I am blessed." Did you, do you, ever think how strange it is -- passion to fertilized seed, birth to death -- what a gift you have given, what a gift you have received? Have you taken the time to remember how hard it was being children? How much you had to do to insulate yourself, to feel less pain, to smother fear? Do you remember? Please remember. Don't just work hard and pay your bills and go to movies and attend church and forget.
How about your brothers and sisters? Or your old forgotten friends? When did you last call your old best friend? How long has it been since you dropped everything to remember that night twenty, thirty, forty years ago when he saved you from yourself, when she told you what to do, when they threw that party for you, when your old best friends let you know how deeply you were loved?
Remember, we are on this magnificent ship. It is going to sink. It always sinks. The menus don't matter. Nor do the size of our accommodations, not really, not finally. Neither does the speed our ship is going or the weather or the points of call. All that matters is stored away safe in our memories, too safe sometimes, so safe that the passion and connection are forgotten, as we choose from the wine list or worry about the coming storm.
Not only this, but also the opportunity of an afternoon and evening we almost surely have in front of us matters, this too, potentially so poignantly, not to hide in, not to sleep through, but to savor and to share. As in one memorable scene from the movie, when young Jack Dawson finds himself temporarily elevated from fourth class quarters to the first class dining room. "Well, Mr. Dawson," one haughty matron asks, "Where do you live?" "My address is the Titanic," he replies. "I have everything I need here with me: the wind, the sun, the ocean, and the pleasure of your good company."
On what was to be the eve of his death, this young man was not making too much of nothing. He was making at least something of everything.
As for us, if we had any sense, when we came to church, we would feel the pews beneath us trembling, even shaking. We would hear the collision. We would sense the water leaking through the hull. Here in church we would hear our hearts beating and the hearts of those we love, pumping blood -- this is not nothing -- blood coursing through our veins, keeping us alive, but only for a time, a time to love, a time to throw aside the curtains we have drawn to decorate and camouflage our lives.
I admit, if crossing on the Titanic, I wouldn't have enjoyed the first four days on the Atlantic if I only had been worrying that my ship might hit an iceberg. There is something to be said for routine, for semi-consciousness, even for hiding. That something is safety. It may be an illusion, but it can be a useful and successfully sustained illusion for a very long time.
So let me argue against myself. Let me confess how pleasant it is to go through days, even weeks, without thinking about death, our own death or the death of our loved ones. As a master of rationalization -- in fact as a world-class practitioner of better living through rationalization -- I know full well how functional it is to worry only about little things, little failures and successes, to be nettled only by little envies and grudges, and to indulge lots of little pleasures -- watching a game, reading a good book, taking in a show. Even coming to church.
An overexamined is not worth living. I know that. Some of you who come to me for counseling are so wrapped up in your own and your parents' underwear that I sometimes wonder if you will ever get out, if you will ever get naked. Just remember, you are not alone on the Titanic. We are all here together, on this extraordinary ship, different classes, yes, and not enough life-boats, but when it comes to death there are never enough life-boats.
For those of you who are so caught up in your own pain that you can hardly leave your cabin, I recommend that you completely forget almost everything I have said this morning. Take a walk on deck. Breathe the air. Forget about the icebergs. Look into your fellow passenger's eyes and open your own to the miracle of this day.
But if you are begrudging things, if you think that life is other people's fault, or if you are just sailing along, keeping lists, planning your next cruise, I do want to ring a few alarm bells this morning. Life is not other people's fault, it is God's fault. And none of us, not the architects among us nor even the captains of industry, are in charge. The ship is magnificent but one day it will sink. All hands will be lost.
The books about the Titanic, even the movie, fall easily into the ancient Greek dramatic category of Hubris and Nemesis. We dare to do more than we can only to be dashed against the rocks of our own pride. When I was a kid, we described this as "Ready, fire, aim." The lesson was obvious. When you fire before you aim, not only will you probably miss, you may even be hit by the ricochet.
I am now almost fifty. If taken, this advice may return to haunt you, but I am now a convert, at least on occasion, to the spirit of "Ready, Fire, Aim." Even as an over-examined life is not worth living, an over planned life lacks wonder and spontaneity. The harder we work to get things exactly right, the more cautious we become, the more careful not to fail. Risking nothing, we stand to gain little beyond the security of a battened down existence. We miss the sea-breeze and the country dance. We will know little failure, or only little failures, but consider the cost. Any sure thing is almost sure to be so carefully packaged that when we unwrap it the size of the box will turn out to be so many times larger than the size of the gift that we cannot help but be disappointed.
So, to suspend logic and prudence for at least this one moment, I am proud to number the architect of the Titanic, even the captain of the Titanic, and certainly the woman who wrote the words to the hymn that was played as the Titanic went down (and which we are about to sing) as faithful co-religionists. All our ships go down. Theirs at least reminds us of this in a grand, unforgettable way.
So if you are struggling with a relationship, out of touch with an old friend, unsure of whether to risk a new job, uncomfortably estranged from your father; if you are hiding to be safe, taking care not to be wrong, I suggest that you take a chance: Ready, fire, aim. Don't wait until you are sure. Don't wait until you have it right. Though waiting till we have it right works for some things, mostly little things, often our most important decisions, our most important actions, are so filled with danger that we will never surely get them right. If we don't fire before we aim we may never fire at all.
But life is filled with danger. That's just the way it is. Finally, the Titanic always hits the iceberg. Hence this simple, if imprudent, bit of advice. Before it does pick up the phone. Pick up your gauntlet. Do whatever it takes. Take a few chances. Dare to be alive.
Amen. I love you. God bless.    Copyright AllSouls 1998

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