Perhaps in response to a humid, but dry, summer in Maine, much of my reading this season has involved a lot of cold and ice. After watching the AMC series “The Terror” in the spring, I read the book by the same name by Dan Simmons. The book is a fictionalized account of the two ships, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, and their combined 129-man crew, that went in search of the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. And never returned.
Now, I’m reading In The Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides, the nonfiction account of the voyage of the USS Jeannette. This ship ventured in search of the North Pole around 1880. Of the crew of 33, only 13 returned home, without tales of a successful discovery of the North Pole.
These books may offer a bit of a reprieve from the heat of summer, with the endless scenes of ice, cold, and the notion of a “balmy” June day in the 20s. The books also offer into an interesting view into the age-old concept that we human beings can really get carried away with ideas of our own destiny, God’s desire for us to conquer and dominate, and that sheer will can allow us to achieve what we believe to be ours and will allow us to overcome any obstacle in our path. Hubris is the neat and tidy word.
It’s hard to listen to these stories (I’m a big audiobook fan) and not be filled with a deep sense of dread. How could they not see that so many of their decisions were terrible ones, that they were doomed to failure? From the beginning of the germ of the idea and then all the way through their journey, decision after decision is shown to be misguided or just plain wrong. And, instead of seeing each disaster as maybe a sign that the plan was a bad one, there’s only the sense that God (or some sort of power beyond themselves) likes to place obstacles, somehow in order that strong men (they are all men in these stories) can become yet stronger.
While such groundbreaking exploration as these two stories unveil involves a great deal of risk, these two adventures contain something beyond risk: an overwhelming amount of recklessness. That recklessness is certainly clear in hindsight. Yet, it’s interesting to wonder if the voice of reason was ever raised in the decision-making process—and dismissed—or if the voice of reason was simply silent all the way through.
As I listen to these stories, I can’t help but reflect on my own decisions and, at the present time, the decisions related to my work as a pastor of a local church and as the chair of the board of directors for the Maine Conference United Church of Christ. It’s not hard to be lured into the notion that my decisions or the decisions of which I am part are all good and right ones, that they are part of the laying out of such things as healthier group dynamics. Past decisions and behaviors were clearly bad ones and have led to “dysfunction” and problematic practices. And, now we are all about bringing health and wellbeing.
It’s much more difficult to see that current decisions and choices have their own elements of trouble and waywardness. After all, we are all imperfect beings. Our decisions and choices cannot lead to a perfect, or even near perfect, system. Yet, somehow we find convenient ways of keeping our own imperfection at bay.
It’s awfully tempting to see ourselves as saviors, of a sort, to the groups of which we are part—church and conference. Look at the good work we are doing, “righting the ship,” so to speak. Such work always invites a disgruntled group, or groups, of those who represent the old, bad way of doing things (which, of course, they tend to see as not at all bad or dysfunctional). Can we get them onboard with our new plan, or find a way to dismiss them or discourage them, or minimize their attempts to undermine this new, better way?
It’s hard for decision-makers to see the mistakes inherent in their own choices. It’s also hard to fathom that some future group will look back to this time and wonder what in the world we were thinking. On the one hand, we see ourselves as contributing to the improvement of whatever situation we are in. But, on the other hand, we are certainly making errors that will contribute to dysfunction of some sort, now and into the future—whether we want to realize it or not.
The decisions that we make may, at least on some occasions, be wayward. Sometimes our choices are just plain wrong. Yet, our intentions are usually good ones. In looking into the past, and trying to undo, or redo, some of the work of our predecessors, we ought to cut them a little slack. With the grace that I’m sure we would appreciate when some of our decisions are clearly shown one day to be bad ones, we ought to look back with that same sort of grace, resisting the dangerous appeal of believing that we are the ones to finally “right the ship” fully and completely.
Decisions in local churches in Maine, and on the Maine Conference board, will likely not result in considerable death and destruction like those adventurous voyages of the nineteenth century, of the Terror and Erebus and the Jeannette. Still, those of us who participate in the decision-making for and with our peers, and for the institutions of which we are part, ought to spend some time in serious and deep reflection regarding the way we are forging. For the sake of the past, the present and the future, we should be of a conscientious mind in resisting hubris, appreciating that our knowledge is, like that of our predecessors, incomplete. We may steer the ship in a more positive direction, for this time and context, but we will never fully “right the ship.” That is beyond our capabilities, no matter how hard we try.