This is a revision of a post I first offered a few years ago for the Multnomah University website that maintains Alumni connections.
Years ago, long before today’s satellite GPS—global-positioning-systems—the standard way for navigating boats of any size through inland waterways was to combine a set of resources: the boat’s radar, its magnetic compass, a system of light signals and markers located either on buoys or on the shore, and a guide book. As fishing boats traveled from Seattle up to Ketchikan, and then throughout the waterways west of Ketchikan, it was this last item—the navigational guide book—that tied everything together.
I know because in my college days I spent a summer on the small crew of the Northern Light II, a 60-foot fishing boat. As I learned my duties one of the daunting roles at first was steering the boat whenever I stood watch. For almost two months we traveled through the splendid but potentially treacherous island and inland waterways of British Columbia and southeast Alaska. It offered a great analogy for life.
My orientation to navigating the boat began as we traveled north from Seattle through the inland passageways of British Columbia. Hans, the skipper, had me watch him for most of a shift, then left me with the job long enough to eat his breakfast. It was mid-morning and we were transiting a relatively narrow but straight channel. The only hitch was a thick fog that had yet to lift. Still, the job proved to be easy enough. All I needed to do was keep my eye on the compass and check the radar scope every few minutes. The auto-pilot—a steering system that maintained any course we set for it—kept us aimed in the proper direction.
By proper I mean the course-heading that our trusty guidebook called for at that point in the voyage. Often, when we reached a certain shoreline feature—say a distinctive peninsula or a small island as faithfully predicted by the guidebook—I would need to change our heading according to the new directions in the book. A pair of buoys or shoreline markers, once they were aligned with each other, would cue me on the exact moment for taking over the steering from the auto-pilot. The new compass heading was listed so I would then steer to that course, spinning the wheel until our actual direction matched the numbers on our ever-glowing compass. I then reset the auto-pilot and from that point onward I was something of a tourist. At least until the next redirection was called for. And , to be accurate, not quite a tourist. I also needed to watch the radar screen—especially at night—to be sure we were near the center of the channel, well away for the rocky shores on either side. My confidence grew as our miles of travel grew.
That’s not to say there weren’t some exciting moments. My first adventure came when I looked at the radar and saw what looked like a massive rock in the middle of the channel looming ahead. It wasn’t listed in our book.
“Hans,” I shouted, “I need you on the bridge!”
He, too, was puzzled, but made sure we shifted our course to the starboard side of the ‘island’ which soon proved to be a massive cruise ship traveling in the opposite direction!
The greater adventure came as I began steering on night shifts through unknown regions. It was here that the shore beacons were indispensable, along with the radar, the compass, and our trusty guide book. The secret was to shift to the new heading provided by our book just as soon as two beacons were aligned with each other. The book told me how long we should expect to stay on that heading before the next turn—with a new pair of aligned beacons there to assure us that we were still on course.
What was frightening in all this is that our radar could not “see around the corners” of the inland channels we were transiting. So when I checked the radar screen in the black night to be sure we were away from the shoreline it looked as if we were sailing directly into a rocky dead-end. It was only by staying on course that I discovered, in due time, a new passage opening up in one direction or the other. Our guide book was always accurate when it promised these bends ahead of time.
The application is obvious. Life today has its own threatening ‘shorelines’ of financial, relational, and spiritual rocks that might put a serious hole in our lives if we aren’t steering a safe course—the course provided by Christ himself as the “author and finisher of faith.” The analogy has its limits, of course, because Christ doesn’t tell us ahead of time where the various bends in life will show up, so at times it looks like we’re sailing into a cul-de-sac!
Where the analogy does work is in following Christ’s heart. We’re called to travel in the direction of love rather than anger, of integrity rather than dishonesty, of faithfulness in place of pragmatism, of peace instead of anxiety, until we reach a maturity that reflects Christ’s own character. He offers all we need to steer through life successfully. My practice on the Northern Light II was to scan the radar, the compass, the beacons, and the guidebook constantly. Now, with the Bible replacing the Southeast Alaska Inland Waterways Transit Manual, the pattern remains the same: enjoying the adventures of faith as I stay fully alert!