Dear Friends, as we come into the "home stretch" of this Lenten season, I want to remind us of where we started this year. Those who attended our Ash Wednesday Eucharist this year heard me tell the story of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and his battle flag.
On September 10, 1813 under the command of Commodore Perry, the fledgling United States Navy won a great victory repelling the attack of a small British flotilla in the Battle of Lake Erie. It was a major turning point in the War of 1812 paving the way for other decisive land victories. It was hard fought, the Americans lost many sailors and at least one of their ships was crippled in the action. But through it all, Commodore Perry inspired his men to victory, having hoisted his personal battle flag: A simple blue banner with the embroidered words, “Don’t Give Up The Ship.” Even today these words remain as an informal motto of the Navy. Don’t give up the ship.
But this great symbol of victory had in fact been forged out of a great tragedy. "Don't Give Up the Ship" was the dying command of Perry's good friend, Captain James Lawrence. In June of that same year Lawrence died in a battle of his own.
Just out of Boston Harbor, Lawrence’s ship the Chesapeake was defeated and captured by the British frigate Shannon. It was Captain Lawrence’ last order after being mortally wounded and carried below deck, “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” Tragically, about 5 minutes later, they did give up the ship. Three days later Lawrence died of his wounds.
But here is the most stunning and perhaps the most tragic thing, that particular battle never should have happened. Lawrence was new in command. The Chesapeake was a brand new ship. His crew was newly formed. He had no business taking on a seasoned veteran with a seasoned crew in a war hardened ship like the Shannon.
In fact, the Department of the Navy knew this. Captain Lawrence had been given express orders not to engage but to slip out of port under cover of night and sail for the Mediterranean. But he ignored those orders, his pride led him into battle - and he lost his ship and his life.
At this point in our Lenten journey I think this story is an even more poignant reminder than it may have been when I first told it 4 weeks ago. Because by now in our Lenten journey our own pride has probably revealed itself and possibly led us into some lost battles. Either rearing its head at inopportune moments and causing us to speak words we wish we had not spoken. Or perhaps led us to a moment of laxity where we were lulled into thinking, "at least I don't have to worry about struggling with X anymore." Only to find ourselves falling to sin X, Y, and Z within that very week or even that very day. Is any of this ringing true with anyone else? Or perhaps your Pride has caused you to struggle and chafe at what my friend Fr. Kevin Miller calls, "The Spiritual Disciplines You Didn't Choose." - Those trials that the Lord has brought into your life this Lent because he loves you and he knows what will refine you even more effectively than the disciplines we may have set out intending for ourselves to follow.
Pride rears it's head in many ways, shapes and forms. And many a spiritual battle has been lost because, like Captain Lawrence, our pride has led us there - right to the very place we have no business being. Led us right into a conflict we are not equipped to win even if we thought we were. But here is the point where the glorious good news of the gospel enters in. My wife often reminds me of the words that one author from the recovery movement has said, "we never run out of tries."
Just as Lawrence's failure led to a mollifying rallying cry which led to an even greater victory, so too our failures and the shame that follows them leads us back to that place of utter reliance upon God's Grace. The place where greater victories can be experienced. Where we, by the Power of the Resurrection manifest by the Holy Spirit of God, are picked back up off of the bloodied and muddied ground of battle, our wounds are dressed and we are sent back out to keep up the fight. A fight which we are ultimately assured that we will win. Not necessarily because we go out as better spiritual warriors (although hopefully our failures do lead us to a place of greater wisdom). But because we return to the front, humbler and more reliant on the spiritual weapons we have been given and ultimately reliant upon the One who has already won the War for us.
So, as we approach Holy Week and prepare to celebrate the victory of our Champion and the winning of the War, be encouraged in your own skirmishes with the World, the Flesh and the Devil. Don't Give Up the Ship. Even (or perhaps especially) if you have experienced defeat, return to the front and Don't Give Up the Ship