Still Sick in the Bay of Biscay: An Unremarkable Reflection

“Still sick, -in the Bay of Biscay - Lat. 47 N. Long. 3 W.”
–William Carey, Journal entry for June 15, 1793.

I heard these words in the Angus Library at Regent's Park College in Oxford, UK where the original manuscripts of many of William Carey's letters and journals are housed.

This particular entry resonated with me at that particular moment, not the least because I was still experiencing the drag of jet lag and flirting with a migraine. Pro Tip: This is not the best disposition for a walking tour of the city! I was initially intrigued by Carey’s statement and upon further reflection, I think his terse journal entry is instructive for a fully formed understanding of the missionary and pastoral task.

One of the reasons Carey kept the journal was to keep his supporters back home informed of his mission work during his trip to India. In the previous entry for June 14, Carey grimly recounts, "Sick, as were all my family and incapable of much reflection." The next day on June 15, the effect lingers, "Still sick," followed by the latitude and longitude. All Carey records is where he's at and how he feels. The entry itself is sparse, unglamorous, and strikingly unremarkable.

No, "Though my physical body grows sick of the sea with each tumult of this billowing ocean, my soul sallies forth on the waves of supernal bliss as I sojourn to the mission field on celestial wings fueled by the verve of my Spirit-wrought blood-earnestness . . ." Not even a, “You call me out upon the waters . . .”

Just, "Still sick."

A few days later, an entry reads, "Nothing remarkable."

If you’ve been in ministry for any length of time, you’ve likely had more than one “still sick in the bay of Biscay” type of day. The minister or missionary must be fueled by more than the "thrill" of adventure when the only thing on the horizon is the "chill" of illness or a long string of unremarkable days.

If we could see Joseph’s journal entry about a decade into his imprisonment in Egypt, it might read, “Still wrongly accused and misunderstood. Still in prison.” Centuries later an apostle under house arrest might have recorded on his parchment sometime after his third denied request, “Thorn still in place. Still hurts.” Sunburnt and weary, a Jewish carpenter waiting and wandering in a Judean wilderness might have written, “Day 39. Still hungry. Nothing remarkable.” Before Jesus faces the devil on day 40, he endures the drudgery of day 39.

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul connects the task of living out the gospel to the work of making a living. Paul and his co-workers were not idle among them, but “with toil and labor” they “worked night and day” so that they would not be a burden (2 Thess 3:8). They even reasoned, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (3:10). Some among them were walking in idleness, “not busy at work, but busybodies” (3:11). Paul strongly encourages them “in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (3:12). After this specific admonition, Paul backs up and gives a general application. He urges, “Do not grow weary in doing good” (3:13). Fittingly, then, Paul begins his conclusion to the letter by saying, “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all” (3:16).

The believer who toils and labors, who works quietly and earns a living, and who does not grow weary in doing good is able to do so precisely because of the promise of the Lord’s continuing presence in those moments. Union with Christ means the Lord of peace remains present in your joy, in your pain, in your liftoffs, and in your layovers.

The Christian life is exhilarating. But every journey includes the trial of transit, and sometimes those lulls can make you seasick. The glories of the gospel oftentimes (perhaps most of the time) are proclaimed in the throes of weakness and within the steady rhythms of the unremarkable. The gospel is not only big enough to leap the gap between departures and destinations; it’s also able to settle into the strain of the mundane.

One of the lifelines for the minister who is “in it for the long haul” is the confidence that the God of this gospel grants perseverance in the pastoral task even when you’re still sick and there’s nothing remarkable to report.

Pastoral Ministry
December 30, 2023


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