Steer Less, Anticipate More

On a small sailing dinghy, like the one I learned to sail on when I was a teenager, you learn to feel the wind. With the mainsheet in one hand and the tiller in the other, you learn to balance the force of the wind against the resistance of the water. Adjust either the sheet or the tiller, and you can feel the pressure difference in the other. Your arms tell you when they are balanced. 

This is one of those major differences between what you can know with your mind and what you can know in your body. If I have to describe how sailing works with words, I say this: ”Boats can move against the wind because of the lift generated by the shape of the sail. Even though the wind may be in your face, you are pulled forward by the pressure differential.” Maybe you grasp this concept easily, but for me, it didn’t really make sense until I felt both the sail and the tiller pulling my hands, and I understood that in order to point the boat in the right direction, I had to balance those forces. 

I remember when it clicked. It was exhilarating. I was doing old-school magic, riding the boundary of these two elements, water and air. 

Not so with a big boat. The forces are too huge for you to manage them with your own strength. You cannot control the sails with your bare hands. It requires winches, a crew, and language. The idea here is not to balance the forces in your body, but to set the sails and rudder so that the boat steers itself.  

That’s why our instructor kept telling us, “steer less, anticipate more.” If you are the pilot, you cannot turn the wheel as if you are turning a car. If you move the wheel, it may take several seconds before you notice a change in direction — especially if the boat is bobbing and bouncing over the waves. I was also learning a different kind of body knowledge: the feel of the boat under my feet. How the boat slid down a wave could predict which way the bow would point several seconds later. I didn’t need to correct every change. I was learning to distinguish signal from noise. 

It’s good to have an engine on a big boat. Here, Angela participates in a lesson about diesel engines.
Our instructor doing maintenance on the rigging.

“Steer less, anticipate more”seems like good life advice, too. And good advice for the church. 

The early church often talked about the church as a sailboat and the Holy Spirit, the wind or “breath of God,” as the force that pushed the church forward. But I think She also pulls us forward. The waves of time, culture, and circumstance offer resistance, but somehow balancing these forces gives us a direction. Too often we are trying to steer the boat, fighting the waves while our sails flap in the breeze. 

Part of my rationale for taking this trip was to learn from history, to anticipate more of what’s coming for our culture and for the church. And, for myself, to steer less. After we earned our sailing certificate, we planned to go to Germany, to see where the Reformation kicked off and where, during World War 2, the world faced deep theological questions about the justice of God. 

Our last evening in San Carlos

Prayer: Help me to steer less and anticipate more, trusting in your Breath and the friction of the world to move me in the right direction.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

(You can support the ministry of Saint Junia United Methodist Church by clicking here.)

The Difference Between “Uncharted” and “Unmapped”

If you refer to a navigation “chart” as a “map,” a sailor will be quick to correct you. This isn’t just a preference for nautical jargon. A map represents landforms that are mostly still. (A geologist will tell you that land does move, but very, very slowly!) A chart, on the other hand, is “hydrodynamic,” and captures data about something that is always moving. The tides rise and fall, currents shift with the time of day and time of year. Charts refer to tables which give you the maximum and minimum height of tides by date, and charts require a lot of interpretation. A bridge which you may sail under easily at noon on Sunday may be an impassable barrier at noon on Monday. 

Dolphins joined us for a couple of days as we sailed in San Carlos
Leo and Angela aboard the Francis Lee in San Carlos

(Some people use map as a metaphor for the Bible. In this sense, I also prefer the chart metaphor, because it requires you to interpret it with reference to other information.)

The tides of San Carlos, where we learned to sail, were not as dynamic as in some parts of the world, where entire bays disappear as water follows the tug of the moon. It became clear as we learned more about charts why anchoring was one of the first skills taught to new sailors: where you choose to park your boat is a major safety issue. You could anchor in a place that seems safe, only to have the tide go out and leave your boat stuck on a sandbar. This could leave you listing dangerously to one side or even damage your boat. If you miscalculate, you could wait for months before a tide high rises enough to let you float free. Conversely, after you anchor, the tide could come in and lift your boat off of its secure anchor, setting you adrift while you sleep. Currents that shift with the tide can swing a poorly-placed boat into the path of its neighbors. 

St. Nicholas Island, a bird-poop encrusted rock that we had to sail around every time we left the bay. There were several other invisible rocks just under the surface of the water here. Click for video.

We’re dealing with tidal forces in the church these days, massive changes over which we have no control that make it difficult to know what safe harbor looks like. Climate change is a big one, and it’s one I’ve been trying to wake the church up to for years. But demographic, economic, and social change are other forces, currents that we have difficulty predicting. 

This is part of why I chose “uncharted waters” as the metaphor for my renewal leave. “Uncharted” doesn’t simply mean “we don’t have a map.” It means that the ocean we’re on is constantly shifting, and places that were safe and predictable in the past are no longer. We cannot see what’s just under the surface of the water, and our ignorance keeps us in a constant state of vigilance. “Uncharted” is far more perilous than “unmapped” because it’s not just about knowing what direction to go; it’s about knowing when, if ever, we can let our guard down. It’s one reason we are often so tired these days. 

Waves and rocks off the coast of Northern Ireland; click for video

Charts are not as important on the open ocean, where you can navigate by looking at the sky. It’s coastlands where charts become important: your departure and destination. 

It is astonishing to me how people without GPS have crossed oceans. Polynesian people navigated with little more than ancestral knowledge, the sky, and measurements taken with their hands. They sailed enormous distances across the Pacific Ocean generations before their European sailing counterparts crossed the much-smaller Atlantic. In the West, the history of navigation is bound up with colonialism and slavery, which are in turn bound up with the church and its history of mission. But I thought it would be important to look at all of it, to get the big picture, if I was going to understand what “navigating uncharted waters” means as a church. 

An interpretation of a Polynesian navigator using hand navigation at the Royal Maritime Museum in London. Illustration by Ashia Te Moananui.

On our trip, we made it a point to visit some important sites in the history of Atlantic navigation: Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum in London, the port cities of Nantes, France and Belfast, Ireland. We developed our itinerary around the history of the Reformation and the history of navigation. All of this was meant to help us understand our own moment in history, where we are sailing without a chart. 

The coast of Northern Ireland

Prayer: Help us navigate by the stars, and thank you for watchers who alert us to unseen hazards. Give us safe harbor and time and place to rest.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

(You can support the ministry of Saint Junia United Methodist Church by clicking here.)

The Best Ocean View in the World

Since COVID scuttled our original plans to sail in Greece, our alternative was a sailing school in San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico. This was a long way from Paul’s journeys in the Mediterranean! But we decided that since sailing was our theme, it was more important to have an understanding of how sailing works than to visit archeological sites. 

We gave ourselves a few days in San Carlos before our sailing school started, in order to get familiar with the restaurants and practice our Spanish. 

Hanging out at the hotel

San Carlos was voted by National Geographic to have the most spectacular ocean views in the world. So after settling into our lovely family-run hotel, we took a taxi to “El Mirador.” There is an observation point that juts out over the ocean, with views on every side. Below, birds wheel and coast in the air currents. At the tip of the point, the wind is so strong that visitors clutch their hats or phones. 

View from El Mirador

The twin peaks of Tetakawi are visible from anywhere nearby. It is striking how these massive rocks seem to change every hour, although they never move. The air, the light, the clouds, all paint the mountain in different colors and shades. It’s like a giant kaleidoscope. I understand why Claude Monet was moved to paint the Rouen Cathedral again and again in different light conditions. We found ourselves pointing and staring at it every day, multiple times a day. It’s like God was painting it over and over again, showing off a divine impressionism. 

The other ocean view we had during our time in San Carlos was up close and personal. Jacques Cousteau said that the Sea of Cortez was “The Aquarium of the World,” filled with marine biodiversity. People come to snorkel and see huge varieties of wildlife. Dolphins would come and swim alongside our boat, attracted by the wake (and the fact that we didn’t have noisy engines). There was one large group of females, and a couple of adorable baby dolphins, who sped along at our side. Various sea birds bobbed on the surface. We also got to see thousands of two-inch wide purple jellyfish: the Portuguese Man-o-war. We kept our distance from their sting. 

Humans throughout history have talked about the ocean in reverential tones. It is massive, powerful, teeming with life. It responds to cosmic forces like gravity and the spin of the earth. I think it is important to experience it from multiple vantage points to cultivate the appropriate respect. It’s alive, and it’s essential for our survival on this planet. 

The city of San Carlos has a large ex-pat population. Many Americans and Canadians move to San Carlos to sail or spend their retirement near the beach. Like many places around the world, there is a large gap between rich — or even the merely comfortable — and the poor.  

Sailing today is largely a hobby of the wealthy and middle-class, not a vital transportation mode for everyone. But this shift in global dynamics is driven by “cheap oil.” Of course, we know that fossil fuels are not really cheap; they are deferred cost which will have to be paid by future generations. I suspect that as wind and solar power become more mainstream, gas-guzzling boats will give way to more sail power. Shipping companies are already going “back to the future” by exploring wind power. Part of my desire to become more proficient at sailing is simply to have a method of travel that doesn’t require airplane or boat fuel.

We were able to get experience on three very different boats: a single-mast 26-foot boat, a vintage two-masted ketch, and a very large catamaran (which our instructor called “a floating condo”). 

Having the skills to sail suddenly opens up a new world of opportunities for travel. Boat captains are often looking for crew to help them make journeys, and there are websites that match teams by personality, skills, and destinations. While I don’t plan on making any trans-Atlantic trips anytime soon, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. There is much more of this amazing planet to see. 

Prayer: God who paints the landscapes, cosmos, and creatures, thank you for filling the universe with such beauty.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

The Boat and the Crew

In the fall of 2019, before the pandemic hit, we were scheduled to take our sailing class the following June in Greece. I was excited to get our curriculum package in the mail! I opened up a large folder full charts, and unwrapped the protractor and the navigation divider. I had seen these in movies, but had never used one.



Image description: Sailing curriculum including a workbook, notebook, clear plastic protractor, and navigation dividers.

But before we got to navigation, we needed to learn the basics. The first section of our curriculum was about the parts of a sailboat. And right here, in the first few pages of our workbook, I found one of my most important lessons. The V-shaped part of the boat above the bow is called the pulpit — the same word that describes the place in a church where a preacher delivers a sermon.

(It’s also the place where, in the movie Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett shout and stretch out their arms into the wind. I’ll talk more about the Titanic and how it fits into “sailing uncharted waters” when I tell you about our time in Belfast, where the Titanic was built).

An illustration of the parts of a sailboat. The pulpit and pushpit are highlighted.

Churches have often used the metaphor of a sailboat to describe their community. At certain early Christian pilgrimage sites, you can often find graffiti of a boat carved into a stone wall or bit of plaster. After the early church stopped meeting in homes and started meeting in dedicated buildings, congregations referred to the main sanctuary as the nave, as in “navy,” because the vaulted ceiling looked like the ribs of a boat. They imagined the pews as seats in a galley, and the congregation as the rowers. The pulpit resembled the bow of a boat. 


An ornate Baroque pulpit is preserved in a modern church in Erfurt, Germany. Erfurt is where Martin Luther was a monk. We visited Erfurt in June, 2022

Above: a panorama of the vaulted ceiling of St. Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny, Ireland. Though it is distorted, you can clearly see the bit that looks like an upside-down boat above the nave.

But I realized an important church-related truth in this sailboat diagram: you don’t steer a boat from the pulpit. You steer it from the pushpit (or the cockpit), in the rear (or stern) of the boat. The person in front is not necessarily the person who is running the show. 

I think the early church communities understood, even after they began to become more institutionalized, that the clergy were not the only people in charge. See, it takes a lot of coordination to make a sailing vessel move. A boat probably has a captain, but a person on watch stands in the pulpit to see where the boat is going or to take bearings. A pilot stands in the rear to move the wheel or rudder and call out to the crew controlling the sails. A navigator takes measurements to make sure the boat is on course. 

And early church theologians talked about the Holy Spirit, like a wind or the breath of God, being the power that filled the sails and actually moved the church forward. 

When people talk about the church today, they typically talk about it as an institution or a business. I’ve heard people say “the church should be a hospital for sinners instead of a museum for saints,” which is true enough. But I wonder how it would change our perception if our main metaphor for church was not a static building or an institution, but something that actually moved under the power of wind or spirit. I wonder what would change if we traded our binary model of “leader” and “follower” for terms like captain, pilot, watchman, navigator, and crew. 


I snapped this photo in the Royal Observatory in London, England, in July. This is an exhibit about how the museum would curate exhibits in the future, considering England’s history of world colonization and the harm it has caused. I’ll return to this image, and how colonization plays into my sailing metaphor, later in my reflections.
Image description: A line drawing of a sailboat, with diverse crew. Large text reads “Our Guiding Concepts.” Banners on the boat read: habitability, adaptability, adversity, ingenuity, practicality, creativity, community, equality, identity. 

Prayer: Jesus who stills the storms, help us to be your competent crew. 

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

An Interrupted Journey



The Church of Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee, featuring a striking boat altar. Personal photo, 2019.

Since we’re in one of these “Five-hundred year rummage sales” where all our old ideas and values are being reevaluated, I thought it would be a good idea to look at past rummage sales. Two thousand years ago (or four rummage sales ago), when a small group of Jesus-followers started spreading his message, the new movement met in peoples’ homes. The early movement called themselves “ecclesia,” or “the called-out ones.” This usually gets translated as “church,” but the old name, ecclesia, implies that this new community would be an alternative to religion as usual. Many of those house church leaders were women, and Paul names them: Chloe, Nyssa, Junia, Lydia, and others. They were explicitly egalitarian and inclusive. Paul wrote “there is no longer Jew or Greek, enslaved or free, male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Paul and his companions sailed around the Mediterranean, networking these new communities and doing what we might today call “community organizing.” He was trying to get several different communities to cooperate as one. 

This history is one reason I chose “sailing uncharted waters” as my proposal theme. The early ecclesia had no idea where the future would take them. There was no chart. They had no idea what hazards lay ahead, or who might try to hijack their movement. They did not know how the currents and tides of history might move their boat off course. 

Boats, of course, were an important symbol in the early church. Jesus preached from a boat, stilled the storm on the Lake of Galilee, and hung out with fishermen. 

My first experience with sailboats was when I was a teenager. My parents bought a single-sail 14-foot dinghy and we learned to sail on Alabama lakes. But in 2019, in order to get a sense of what the leaders of the early church faced, I decided I needed to learn how to sail on the sea. Part of my proposal would include sailing lessons. We made a plan that included sailing on the Mediterranean and visits to Greek archeological sites where Paul met with early church leaders. 

But after my proposal was accepted and I received the grant for my renewal project, the pandemic hit. We had to cancel our plans. I wasn’t just disappointed. I was heartbroken. But I realized that plagues have also been part of the “uncharted waters” that church and society have faced in past centuries. We know that pandemics will occur more regularly in the future as our climate changes. Perhaps it was fitting that my journey began with an interruption. I realized that we really are sailing uncharted waters. 

Prayer: God, our Guardian and Guide, you are with us on the journey, even when we are standing still.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Introduction: Shoeing Horses


At a scenic stop in Ireland in July, we were visited by a friendly (and huge) work horse.

In addition to being a pastor, I have a Ph.D in religion, with an emphasis in homiletics (preaching) and social ethics. But as I watch the many crises affecting churches and academia, sometimes it feels like I did an incredible amount of work to get a degree in shoeing horses. There just aren’t a lot of jobs for farriers these days. It’s a niche occupation. 

I don’t think religion will ever be obsolete. But I do think religious institutions, and the clergy who maintain them (my online friend David Dark refers to clergy as “professional god-talkers”) will become more rare in the coming years. In addition to all the evidence of plummeting church participation, churches are polarized and splitting. There is a well-documented trend of pastors burning out and giving up, especially during COVID. I’ve felt it, too, that sense of hopeless dread. This is a hard season in which to try to build or maintain a religious community. 

As a society, I’d argue that in many ways, we’re becoming more religious. Back in the 1960’s, the General Social Survey reported that only 22% of Americans said they’d had a life-changing spiritual or mystical experience. By 2009, according to a Pew Religion and Public Life survey, it was nearly half of all Americans. Spiritual experience increased even as church participation decreased. 

Some of this may have to do with the growth of a population who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In the sociological research, they are often described as “SBNRs.” Twenty years ago in his book After the Baby Boomers, sociologist Robert Wuthnow described what younger generations did as “spiritual bricolage,” sampling from multiple streams of faith traditions.   

In many ways, I feel like the work I did to earn a Ph.D in religion prepared me to have a ringside seat at this period of the Great Emergence, to observe of this work of spiritual bricolage as an anthropologist might. 

Even though church and academy are struggling, on my good days, I don’t feel that my effort in church or academia has been wasted. I didn’t go into ministry for the career advancement opportunities — I did it because I love God and I love people. And I didn’t go into academia so I could fight to earn a tenure-track position — I did it because I love learning. That’s why I proposed the trip I’m about to share with you: Navigating Uncharted Waters. If you’ve signed up for these devotionals, that probably means you do, too. This moment in history calls for people who love God, love people, and love learning. 

Thanks for joining me on this journey. 

Prayer: God, you who are both hidden and revealed, reveal to us the path toward truth and life. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Finely Crafted Fertilizer

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“Deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” That’s Max Black’s definition of humbug, and it provides a jumping-off point for Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit.

Of course, the essay is itself BS, an example of the kind of delightful writing that’s more poetry than philosophy. Frankfurt waxes rhapsodic about the metaphor: He says BS implies a lack of refinement: “Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought. The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain strain.”

The key distinction, Frankfurt says, between BS and lying is that a lie requires the liar to know or at least be interested in the truth, and to misrepresent it. The BS artist, on the other hand, is not really interested in misrepresenting the truth. He is interested in misrepresenting himself. The truth is irrelevant.

As I said, Frankfurt’s essay is, in many ways, also BS. Like a signpost, though, it points beyond itself to something that is true. Much of our language is not about truth, but about performance: gaining the upper hand, making peace, shaming, praising, wooing, or persuading. We often do one thing while pretending to do something else: shaming while making peace, gaining political advantage while praising, and so on. It is drama, performed by actors (or hypokrites, in the Greek).

Jesus and Paul used similar scatological metaphors (see Luke 13:8, Luke 14:5, 1 Corinthians 4:13, Philippians 3:8) to describe flavorless followers or praiseworthy credentials. Our English translations tame the metaphors into “manure” and “rubbish.” First century “rubbish” did not consist of aluminum cans and take out containers. It was far more vile. Manure is… well, bullshit. I don’t think either Jesus or Paul would have a problem with the way Frankfurt uses the word.

What happens among Christians, though (and especially preachers), is that since we have these important commandments to love each other, and we want to be more Christlike in our behavior, we pretend. We wind up attempting to be bullshit artists. Honestly, we’re not very good at it. We have too much invested in creating the illusion that we are nice people. We are especially fond of smarm, the kind of BS that allows us to occupy a morally superior position because we are so nice about it.

You may have heard the famous Winston Churchill quote about diplomacy being the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions. Most preachers, though, can only aspire to Churchill’s art. Instead of learning our rhetoric from schools (where it is no longer taught) we learn it from television. Our BS is not finely crafted. It is dumped.

At our Annual Conference, for example, one of my colleagues got up and made a speech, that went something like, “I am colorblind. Anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t see color. I don’t care who we elect to the delegation as long as we choose somebody who believes in the authority of the Bible.”

See, like cable news anchors, we have become practiced at using dog-whistles and code words. I actually agree with this colleague’s statement. (Well, except for the reality or even the desirability of being “colorblind.”) I, too, was eager to elect representatives who believe the authority of the Bible for faith and practice. I would say I want representatives who are orthodox (they can say the Apostle’s Creed without crossing their fingers,) evangelical (they believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ,) and Spirit-filled (they are pursuing sanctification.) But I mean very different things when I use those words. In the context of our Annual Conference, and in the context of the recent brouhaha over LGBTQ inclusion and rumors of schism in the United Methodist Church, what he said and what he meant were two entirely different things.

Of course, everyone listening knew it. There was no question that what he was really doing was making a campaign speech, asking folks to vote for someone who would not support LGBTQ inclusion. It was bullshit, a statement that had no interest in any particular truth-claim, that misrepresented the desire and intentions of the speaker. It was a performance. I could have made a similar speech by saying, “I think we should elect someone who really believes the gospel is Good News for all people.” With my voice and eyes, I could have communicated quite a bit. Of course, at that point, people would have groaned because I would have drawn attention to the BS performance in which we were all complicit. It would have been like polishing a turd.

And certainly, progressives often do the same thing. They can make pointed comments, insinuate, connote, and cast aspersions under a veil of politeness. People who claim to be neutral or moderate often bring buckets of smarm to the conversation, denigrating “both sides” as being extreme and virtuously claiming the middle. BS, all of it.

As Frankfurt concludes, insofar as we are unaware of our own selves, “sincerity itself” is BS. All language is, in some sense, a performance, and whether we find something convincing or not or even label it as true has a lot to do with how good the performance is and how much we trust the speaker. Most of us who read Catcher in the Rye resonate with Holden Caufield’s complaints about all the “phonies” in the world, even though the narrator himself is a compulsive liar. But we develop a sense that he is trustworthy. I have friends who I disagree with about a great many things, but I trust their yes to be yes and their no to be no. I trust them well enough to participate in bull sessions, in which we try out different ideas or points of view to see if we can convince ourselves of their truth value. If one can’t “pull off” the idea, another will usually point it out. So perhaps the real issue with BS is whether we trust the person with the shovel not to hit us with it.

I do not know if it is possible, or even desirable, to reduce the amount of BS in church life. Certainly, some of it is good fertilizer, well-seasoned, out of which may grow tasty fruit. But too much just stinks, and bad fertilizer can scorch roots and stunt growth. I’m not actually sure which I want more: better-quality BS, or more clergy colleagues who I can trust enough to fight fair. Honestly, I think I could go for either.