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The most tragic survivor of the sinking of Titanic was surely J. Bruce Ismay.

The dapper, mustachioed managing director of the White Star Line often chose to travel on the maiden voyage of each of his company’s new ships. 

He wouldn’t have missed Titanic’s first cruise for the world. 

In retrospect, he had endorsed a decision that would come back to haunt everyone associated with White Star, not to mention the more than 2,200 passengers and crew members who sailed in April 1912. Ismay had authorized a reduction in the number of lifeboats from 48 – more than enough for everyone aboard – to just 16, the minimum number allowed by the British Board of Trade.

Too many lifeboats, it was thought, obscured the inherent beauty of Titanic’s lines.

According to the testimony of at least one witness, Ismay, during the course of the voyage, had tried to persuade Captain Edward J. Smith to undertake a “test of speed” – to set an all-time record for a trans-Atlantic crossing. Why shouldn’t the most magnificent ocean liner on the planet delight everyone by arriving a full day early?

But that put Titanic on a collision course with an iceberg.

During the ship’s death throes, approximately 20 minutes before it plunged beneath the surface, Ismay stepped into Collapsible C, the last remaining lifeboat.

Historian David Lynch writes:

Once safely (in the lifeboat), Ismay deliberately faced the other way as Titanic sank, a gesture that could stand as a metaphor for the rest of his troubled life. Numerous editorials and cartoons lampooned him for having saved himself while the captain and most of the other men in first class went down with the ship. More than once in the years that followed he must have regretted his own survival… Although he liked to be kept informed of shipping news, it was forbidden to mention Titanic in his presence.

One newspaper called him the Coward of Titanic. Another identified him as “J. Brute Ismay,” and proposed that the White Star flag be changed to a yellow liver.

When the extended family gathered to celebrate Christmas in 1936, one of his grandsons, upon learning that Ismay had once been involved in maritime shipping, asked his grandfather if he had ever been shipwrecked. That’s when Ismay broke an almost quarter-century of silence: “Yes, I was once in a ship which was believed to be unsinkable,” he said, wistfully.

One year later his life was over.

But in a real sense his life was over the moment he got into that lifeboat.

As Jesus puts it, we lose our life by doing everything we can to try to save it. 

When Jesus starts talking about what it would really mean to join his movement – to surrender our private agendas, our cherished resources, and our panicked need to stay in control – most of us start looking for lifeboats.

We don’t want to stay a minute longer on a ship in which everyone is going to “die,” even if that’s where Jesus is.

But Jesus outrageously asks: “What good will it be for you to gain the whole world – to appear to get off the sinking ship – if in the process you lose the very thing you were trying to save?” He adds, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

That paradox is at the very center of the Christian faith.

Which means we can sum up the call of Christ in these 18 words:

We give up a life we cannot keep in order to gain a life we can never lose.