The following is an allegorical fiction story. I wrote it for my self, to help me realize the goals and purposes of leadership in ministry.
I can’t see far enough to know what’s out there. The sky is like lead, and not just in color. It looks heavy and poisonous. There is no sunlight, no shadows or color, just shades of grey for the short distance I can see.
I’m standing, braced against the wheel of the tall-masted sailing ship as it dives into a trench. It jolts as we reach the bottom of the wave and icy water falls over the deck, then the ship climbs the next swell. My raincoat, some unique design, keeps me dry, but for how long? Each wave over the deck brings a gasping shock of cold. But the raincoat holds out.
From the raised rear deck I can see the latest wave running off the main deck. The crew hang on through each onslaught, then return to their watch. Their raincoats are just like mine and they stay dry too. I wonder how many of them are waiting for the next wave to finally soak through and begin to freeze them to death. I can’t tell if they’re as frightened as I am. I am afraid, but I don’t let it on. I stand tall, both hands on the wheel, and scowl into the rain. I hope this encourages them.
Eugene and Felix are with me at the helm. Eugene is holding the mast, trying to huddle beneath the sails that we brought down some time ago. It was his idea: bring down the sails before they’re either torn to ribbons, or worse, the hurricane force winds catch the sails and scuttle this ship, flinging it to who knows where.
Felix, on the other hand, isn’t cowering. He keeps his eyes ahead into the storm. He watches the black and gray clouds over the churning sea as if he sees something through them. Felix is the one who advised me to stay at the helm when I wanted to run and assist the crew.
They knew what they’re doing, he had said. Do the job you were meant to do, David.
Felix has a look, not surprised or even frightened, but a look of determined anticipation. I want to feel that, to see what he sees. Eugene, however, looks more frightened, and a little angry at how we’re continuing on with no regard for what’s ahead.
The lightning flashes beneath the clouds, a visible bolt. For a moment the seas are lit bright white. I step to the rail to look over at what I thought I saw, but the ship rolls to the side and I stagger backward.
“Keep your hands on the wheel,” Felix says. “Not just to steer either.”
He’s right. Holding the wheel keeps me stable. I put both my hands on the wheel again and pull to turn the ship. I know what I saw, and the crew saw too. The next flash of lightning is up in the clouds, but we all see them now. Flotsam and jetsam in the sea around us. And there they are, the people in the water. Even Eugene knows why we’re here now.
The crew gets to work with ladders, ropes and reaching hands. People are helped aboard. Soon the deck has a small crowd putting on the raincoats. Right away, most join the rest of the crew in getting even more onboard. Many of these people are joyous to be out of the freezing water. But not everyone. Some don’t put on coats. They just hang onto the deck rails and stare back. The crew urge them to put on a coat and to take shelter from the storm. But soon these people we’ve pulled on board have disappeared back into the sea.
We will keep watch for them. We can only hope to see them again in the water somewhere. The crew are back to work keeping watch, fixing lines, checking each other’s coats. They’re miraculous in design. Despite my fear, I’m still dry underneath mine.
“We’re going to run out of those raincoats,” Eugene says.
“No we won’t,” Felix counters. “There’s an endless supply onboard.”
“Nothing is endless,” Eugene says as the ship pitches downward again. “Nothing except this storm and waves.”
The ship shudders at the bottom of the trench. I can see and feel the timbers bend and shake with the impact. How much more of this can the ship take?
Motion of lifting up makes us feel heavy, then at the top of the wave, we feel just right for less than a moment before weightlessness accompanies the decent. Going down the wave feels like free-fall until we slam into the water. In the deeper trenches, surrounded by water, it’s as if we have already sunk. Time goes by, only marked by the regular shuddering of the ship and flashes of lightning. I see the crew, watching out over empty seas. My arms ache from holding the wheel. The rain starts to sting and I realize it’s beginning to hail. I’m sure my raincoat will let water through at any time now.
“Why are we still out here?” Eugene asks.
“You saw why,” Felix answers. “We’re pulling people out of the water.”
Eugene looks down to the deck, then out at the waves. “They’re getting fewer and fewer,” he says. “Have you noticed that? There are almost no more people in the water?”
“I know,” Felix says. “It’s because we’re not really moving.”
The ship crests a wave. For a moment, it looks like we’re at the top of a mountain looking over a foaming seascape. I can’t see far with the heavy storm clouds hanging low. I don’t see anything resembling wreckage or survivors. Then we’re on our way down the wave and I brace for the impact and wash of cold water.
“You call this not moving?” Eugene cries over the quaking of the empty masts.
“We’re just being tossed around by the waves,” Felix says. “The ship isn’t really going anywhere.”
There are obviously no landmarks to confirm that we’re just moving in circles, but I think Felix is right, Eugene does too.
I need to make a decision. We can’t just let ourselves be tossed around like this. And we do have the oars. But can the crew row? They aren’t galley slaves.
Felix knows what I’m thinking of course. “They’re strong enough,” he says. “Rowing will help, but it’s not the best thing to do.”
I don’t want to give the order, so Eugene does. We get crews to the oars. Like long wooden spoons, they extend from the sides of the ship and strike the water. All at once, the ship turns and begins moving alongside a swell, rather than down it.
“Stay at the helm,” Felix reminds me. “You need to steer even more now.”
And I do. The rowers move the ship forward, but now I have to grip the wheel even harder to make sure we navigate along the waves rather than over them. Felix keeps an eye forward, while Eugene looks back.
And the question is there, obvious as the driving rain: where do we go now?
“We have to go back,” Eugene says. “The crew are fatigued. The ship can’t keep taking this pounding.”
“We have a job to do,” says Felix.
“There are other ships to do that.”
“Other ships, yes,” Felix says. “Ships whose duty is to rescue people from the waters.”
“Yes,” Eugene says. “Let them do their job. We need to turn back.”
“It’s just this,” Felix begins, and I know where he’s going. “It’s our job to pull people from the water too, just like those other ships. Remember that? Pull people from the water and give them safe place from the water and wreckage. That’s why we’re here. It’s not to turn back, it’s to go forward.”
I’m sure Eugene will shout, questioning this going forward to who knows where. He’s weary of it all and has no idea what’s ahead. But he doesn’t shout. Instead, he hangs his head and heaves a ragged sigh. I barely hear him over the wails of the storm, but I see his whole body shudder.
“Forward to where?” his voice breaks. “We don’t know what’s ahead. What kinds of dangers are out there? What leviathans are waiting us out?”
“We can’t turn back,” Felix says.
“We have to,” there’s strength returning to Eugene. “Don’t you understand? We don’t know where we’re going or what’s out there.”
Felix’s face still holds the look of quiet confidence. “We know what’s ahead. What we don’t know is what’s behind.”
“Behind? It’s where we came from,” Eugene says, his voice rising still.
Felix shakes his head. “Where we came from, that’s not there anymore.”
“Of course it is,” Eugene states. “Turn the ship around. We can go back. We must turn back before the next wave washes everyone overboard and the ship is hammered to matchwood.”
I feel his words giving me strength and determination. He’s right. We have a ship full of people that were pulled from the water. We need to get somewhere safe.
“The ship is safe,” Felix says. Now I hear desperation in his voice.
I pull the wheel around in a circle. Bit by bit I sense the ship turning round. The sky doesn’t change, but the waves do. Now they seem to be helping us along and the rowers barely have to work to move us. For a moment, my grip on the wheel relaxes. Eugene leans forward, hands on his knees as if to catch his breath after a long sprint. Only Felix braces himself more. And in a moment I realize why.
The current in the water may be moving us forward, but we’re still headed into what feels like an unstoppable force. Now, it’s the wind. I had not realized how the wind had been mostly at our back before. Once we turned, we were driving straight into it. And this isn’t like any wind I’ve experienced before. Crew are blown off their feet and buffeted across the deck.
And the hail, it’s blinding us now. Before, at least I could see that there were clouds hanging low with waves and spray. But now the crew and I are shielding our eyes against the hail flying straight at us.
“Steady as she goes,” Eugene says. “If we stay pointed this way, we’re sure to get back to a safe harbor.”
The oars are pulled in and the ship moves with the current. I hold the wheel and try to keep steady to where I hope is the safe place we came from. The hail lessens and even though the wind is still furious, we can begin to see better. For awhile, the lack of crashing waves is refreshing. We seem to be moving forward. But from what we can see on the water, there are no more people. And then something else starts to happen.
The crew, who had been so vigilant in watching over the waters looking for people to rescue, they are not seeing anyone now and are leaving their posts. Some of them wander the deck. Others may have disappeared below. I desperately hope that none have abandoned ship, but I’m afraid that has happened with some.
“The crew are leaving their posts,” Felix observes.
I know they are and I know why. They don’t see why they need to be there. Testing something, I take my hands off of the wheel and the ship continues to move in a straight line. Even I could leave my post now. It’s as if I’m no longer needed either.
Even the rain has eased back, and I do believe that the wind is finally dying down. And with it all, the waves are not as towering. The ship eases on and the waters begin to calm.
Eugene smiles for the first time in as long as I can remember. “Thank God,” he says. “I think we’re out of it.”
“Look,” Felix says. “Look at that.”
I look to the deck and see fewer crew than ever stand looking out over the easing waves. Some have removed their raincoats.
“Not the deck,” Felix’s voice holds a hint of fear. I look up and out at the horizon. Is that sunlight?
“I knew we’d be safe if we turned back,” Eugene declares. “Look at that. Calm waters.”
“It’s worse than calm waters,” Felix says. “Look how still it is. Do you know what’s there, what we’re headed into?”
Eugene looks, now with concern, and shakes his head.
“Doldrums,” Felix announces. “Waters so flat, with no wind or current, that our ship will come to a dead stop. We’ll just sit, motionless.”
Eugene looks again and I certainly see sunlight there reflecting off what looks like polished glass.
“We’ll be safe,” Eugene says.
“We’ll be trapped,” Felix counters. “There will be nothing there for us to do and nowhere to go.”
The current seems to have slowed down and the wind in our faces is a gentle breeze. My raincoat has become warm and feel I want to slip it off.
“We won’t be trapped,” Eugene finally says. “We can get the crews to the oars.”
Felix’s face darkens in a frown and he utters the words, “What crew?”
I look down. The deck is almost empty. Eugene almost looks panicked.
“We’ve got to turn back around,” Felix says. “While there’s still time.”
“We can’t go back into that storm,” Eugene says, his voice rising in disbelief. “That…” he searches for the word. “That tempest, it’ll wreck this ship.”
“This ship!” Felix shouts. “This ship has a name. It’s Tempest Runner. Its purpose is to drive into the storms and pull people from the waters.”
I remember that now. The ship has a name, and yes, it has a purpose, just like we do.
“The ship has a name,” Eugene murmurs. He runs his hand along the rail feeling the touch of the Tempest Runner. Feeling the ship, knowing its name, and knowing its purpose begin to fill me with a new feeling. It’s dissatisfaction. We don’t belong here, heading away from the storm. There is a new urge to get back in there and do what we were meant to do.
I put my hands on the wheel and rotate it. The ship begins to turn, and at the same time, to list to one side. Crew suddenly hang on. Finally we’re pointed away from the doldrums. But something is wrong. The ship continues to be carried toward them. Yawing like someone shaking their head in protest, the ship is pushed backward.
“The current’s too strong,” Eugene says. “We’re moving backwards. Ships aren’t supposed to do that.”
I glance back over my shoulder. The calm waters are closer now and the wind is barely blowing.
“What are we going to do?” Eugene cries.
Felix steps up to me. “You know what to do,” he says. “It’s time for you to step up and lead now.”
I bow my head and try to slow down my breathing. But he’s right. I can’t overthink this anymore. I’ve known all along what to do. I’ve just listened to the wrong voice sometimes. So I stand on the deck, alone, like I have all this time. No more debating inside my head. This ship, Tempest Runner has a purpose. And so do I.
So I call out to the crew. “All hands on deck.” My voice is characteristically calm. But there is still strength. Eyes are lifted up to me at the helm. I take a deep breath, and give the order:
“Raise the sails!”
The crew know what to do. Like the ship, and like me, they know their jobs. The covers come off and ropes flash. In moments, the sails are going up. As soon as they’re unfurled, they fill with wind.
The push is strong, almost like the shudder of being hit with a wave, and the Tempest Runner is sailing forward again. We’re going against the waters and the bouncing begins again. But as the current strengthens, so does the wind and we continue forward. Then the rain begins again.
“Get your raincoats on,” I call out. “Batten down the hatches. We’re going in.”
It’s not long before we come across people in the water. All are brought onboard, and as usual, some don’t stay. But as we head deeper into the storm, we bring on more and more. Soon, the deck crowded. All are helping pull others in.
Once again, the sea is a furious cauldron. But the wind and hail are at our backs. The sails, made of the same material as our raincoats, hold out against the wind. Then a rope breaks. I almost hear the voice of Eugene, but instead I call out the trouble. Crew get onto the flailing lines and the rope is secured.
Eventually, other people are there at the helm with me. I stand back from the wheel and instruct others on how to navigate. Keep the wind at our back, steady as she goes.
At one of these times, we from a wave crest and the ship nearly reels completely over. I take the wheel and turn into the rolling motion. I’m feeling frightened again. Eugene’s voice tells me how it’s not too late to turn back. I want to hear Felix. What’s more I want to see what he saw when the sky was dark and full of the crashing sea. What was he looking to?
I look out over the bow, ahead to the crashing ocean. Did he really see anything? Or was he imagining something? How can I see something that isn’t there?
What is there? A voice seems to say. What do you really see?
We’ve rescued more than ever and the decks are full of crew members now. We’ve saved so many.
These souls are saved, the voice says. Because you drove back into the storm.
Lightning, brighter than ever fills the sky. I see what’s ahead, more stormy sea, with more souls to save. My hands grip the wheel of the Tempest Runner, our ship. What do we need a safe harbor for? The ship is our safe haven from the storm and waves.
So what is ahead? What did Felix see? He saw the seas ahead, filled with opportunity. We are in the right place. We’re driving forward, pushed by a power greater than ourselves, doing the work we were meant to do.