(The following thoughts were shared at the annual Church Conference of Lakewood United Methodist Church in Houston held on November 13, 2012.)
The Thanksgiving holidays always make me think about them. For though everyone knows the story of those first Pilgrims and their celebrated Thanksgiving meal, what is usually forgotten is that most of those Separatists who came to America to establish a religious colony here didn’t actually start in England—they began their historic voyage in Holland, where they had fled because of opposition to their religious beliefs in their homeland. Leaving the rest of their congregation and even their weeping and praying pastor behind, they boarded a ship called the Speedwell in Delfthaven, Holland, on July 22, 1620, sailing for four days to Southampton, England, where they met up with the Mayflower that had just come down from London. That ship had a number of other passengers from England whom the Pilgrims did not really know—some were friends, and others, investors that had become interested in the voyage while the Pilgrims had been trying to raise enough money for it. Like a lot of church fundraising projects, however, those Pilgrims fell a little bit short of meeting all of their expenses and so they had to sell off most of their oil and butter before they could leave Southampton. After doing that, thus, they left for America on August 5, but they got only a short way into the English Channel before they were forced to land at Dartmouth because the Speedwell was leaking. It took a couple of weeks to fix the ship, but on August 24, 1620, they finally started back on their voyage again and this time they got nearly 300 miles from Lands End in Cornwall out into the Atlantic before the Speedwell began to take on water once more.
They turned back again, thus, landing in Plymouth where it was finally determined that the Speedwell was not seaworthy enough to make the rather dangerous cross-Atlantic voyage and that further repairs would take too long and put them well beyond the safe season for sailing. About twenty passengers had already had their fill of adventure and decided to just go on home. But the remaining dozen or so passengers and cargo were transferred from the Speedwell over to the somewhat larger Mayflower which finally put back out to sea on September 6, with 102 passengers on board, three of whom were pregnant women, along with a crew of about 30. The first half of the trip went well, with good winds and weather. One of the pregnant women, Elizabeth Hopkins, had her baby, whom they named Oceanus. But the smooth sailing came to an end about a month into the voyage when the little ship—just 25 feet wide and 106 feet long– was hit with so many storms and crosswinds that it began to leak as well. One of the main beams of the ship bowed and cracked and they had to use a great iron screw to try to raise it back into place. One of the passengers, a young boy named William Button, died while on the two-month trip. But finally after going some 2,750 miles, at an average speed of just two miles an hour, they spotted a spit of land which turned out to be Cape Cod, and there, on November 11, 1620, they finally landed, and the rest, as you will know is history.
But whatever happened to the Speedwell, you may wonder? Well, back in England it was repaired and fifteen years later, in 1635, it finally made the trip to Virginia, leaving Southampton and bringing 59 people with it, led by the owner and captain of that ship, a man named John Thomas Chappell. I know of him because he was one of my direct ancestors. Indeed, some will say that John Chappell set the family pattern for us way back in 1620 when he missed sailing into history alongside of those on the Mayflower. In some ways, thus, those in our family have missed the boat ever since! But on the other hand, maybe it’s not so much about getting into the history books that matters as it is simply being faithful to whatever task it is that God may place in front of you. For if your life has ever seemed like a rocky voyage, you’ve probably figured out that in the end, it’s all pure grace anyway. It’s the grace of God that we have a church at all, for instance, much less that He enables us to do the clearly incredible ministries which take place in and through us. It’s the grace of God that we have found such a sweet season of peaceful purpose as a congregation, as we carry out our vision of being a place where all can live, learn, and love. It’s the grace of God that has enriched each of us with the gift of each other. And it’s the grace of God which will carry us forward into yet another new year of serving Him as we begin to reach out to whole new communities around us.
Oh, we will no doubt come across some storms along the way, just as those folks on the Mayflower did. And like them, we may feel a little stretched and seasick every once in a while. Our sails may split and our masts may creak and even break. Just like on that boat, some will die, but others will be born. And just like was the case with the Speedwell, we may not get to our destination exactly when we planned to. But, my friends, if we stay the course and stay together, stay in love with God and in love with each other, we will get there. For the truth is that it’s not the pace but the race that matters as we run with perseverance the course that has been marked out for us (Hebrews 12.1). Or to put it another way, the operative words for us are not “speed well,” but “God speed.” May God speed us all thus in the days and weeks ahead, even as we all look to the Captain of our Faith and the Lord of our lives.