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There are no leaders

May 1, 2024

On February 11th 1914, Captain Edward Johnson of the Old Dominion Line steamship Monroe occupied the witness stand for over five hours, testifying in front of the United States congress on the ramming and sinking of his ship in the freezing waters of the Atlantic. It was discovered that the ship’s steering compass ‘deviated as much as two degrees from the standard magnet compass’. In the one year that Johnson was captain of the ship, the compass was never adjusted and on that tragic day it drifted into a thick fog, causing it to be rammed by another merchant vessel. It eventually sunk not long after that and forty one lives were lost that day. The story serves as a cautionary tale and, as James K.A. Smith put it, ‘a moving reminder of the tragic consequences of misorientation’.

Smith uses the story to illustrate how our hearts (defined as the ‘control rooms’ of the self), much like compasses, need regular recalibration if we are to avoid such wreckage. I couldn’t agree more. To use another image; we are much like musical instruments in that we’re neither by default nor automatically ‘in tune’— in fact, if we let things take their natural course, the instrument will go out of tune all the time if the musician doesn’t keep at it.

Part of the reason why I loved Smith’s analogy, is the indisputable fact that life is a journey. We’re all on our way, we’re all heading somewhere. The Monroe shipwreck could serve as a reminder that we need to attach much importance to moments of pause, rest and reflection; moments to examine our ways, evaluate how we’ve been ‘sailing’, question if we’re still on track or if we’ve taken some sort of detour. These moments of recalibration need to be regular and intentional; they must become a discipline; one without which the drift from the way will be for a moment only subtle and gradual, but the wreckage certain and inevitable.

Unfortunately, this tale can be thought to be just about this small lesson; this life hack teaching us how to keep a ‘focused’ life. If that’s the case, this would be, from where I stand, the weakness of the analogy: The fact that it rightly pictures life as a journey needing direction, but wrongly assumes a known (perhaps even an obvious) destination — James K.A. Smith’s book ‘You are what you love’ where I got the story from is certainly not guilty of this shallow take!

Granted, the lesson we learnt was very important: Regardless of the destination and without regular recalibration and frequent tuning, no one will make it! This already certainly speaks volume about our broken sense of direction. True and helpful though this reminder is, questioning the destination is, in my opinion, of much greater importance!

What I mean is, if the analogy was just an efficiency tip, or if this was just a nice way to tweak our inner compasses, would any of this matter if the destination is wrong to begin with? What would be the use of all those optimisation techniques if we end up in a place we didn’t want?

Really, where are you going? Do you ever ask yourself that? I sometimes hear motivational speeches telling us that we get to ‘set our own course’ and ‘determine our destiny’, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. If our natural sense of direction cannot be trusted (because of the constant recalibration required, even if we suppose that the destination is known), what makes us confident that we know by instinct where we’re supposed to go?

Let’s think about it this way: If you’re thrown in the middle of an unknown ocean on a small raft, good intentions and courage and strong will coming from your friends in the next raft won’t help you. They’re just as limited as you are. No one truly knows what’s beyond their eyes. The sheer vastness of the ocean is enough to render our efforts useless. Do not be deceived when you see people who seem to know for sure; they might be rushing to their ruin. You don’t get to decide where salvation is to be found either. You need outside help, you need external intervention if you’re ever to find your way. You need a map, and a well calibrated compass, and the knowledge of where you are on the map; without this, your options are limited.

“I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself,
that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.”

Jeremiah 10:23

First century Palestine saw a man (thought to be a prophet) walking around calling people to ‘follow him’ — as if He knows the way. Many of his close disciples were first called to leave their occupations to (once again) ‘follow him’. He knew sometimes it would require self-denial and a daily ‘taking up of a cross’, but He often insisted that we have to choose to suffer whatever we must to ‘keep in step’ with him because, as He once said, ‘wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it’ — hence his frequent expressions of compassion on people following ‘blind guides’.

On many occasion, He calls people to change their directions and follow him; it seems to be at the core of his message. He kept telling people to repent of ‘their ways’ — which essentially meant they needed their lives completely turned around; i.e. a complete change of direction. He also said that only He was able to “forgive sins”: Sinning defined as missing the mark, aiming wrong — a kind of misdirection. He really came to save the lost!

He wasn’t like anyone who was ever able to commend a large following any other time in history. He wasn’t your average moral teacher either. His claims were of a more provocative, outrageous and outright offensive nature! Not only was He claiming that He knew the way, but He claimed He was the way — and the only way! He declared that not following him meant staying lost, and that there was no other hope! C.S.Lewis was right to say that to make such claims, you must either be a lunatic, or really be who you claim to be — Lord! If He is right, only He is the a leader — in the truest sense of the term. And if He is right, we need only do the only thing He insisted upon: Believe!

Jesus said to him: “I am the way, the truth and the life…”
John 14:6


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