It takes a long time to turn a big ship.
This maritime lesson keeps popping up in my life these days. It has profound echoes for much of my work: for dialogue, for spiritual direction, for our lifelong transformation from people of self-interest to people of God.
It also sheds light on world affairs, as todayâ€™s readings for Morning Prayer indicated.
The lectionaryâ€”the fixed schedule of psalms and Bible passages to be read during the daily cycle of prayer in churches and monasteriesâ€”brought me to Psalm 83, a difficult psalm for us 21st-century folks. The psalmist asks God to wreak havoc on Israelâ€™s foes, and a picture emerges: that of Israel, a beleaguered nation, all alone in the world, surrounded by enemies that wish to obliterate it.
Sound familiar? Listen to the commentary from Israel and its friends in 2017, and you get the same picture.
The point of this post is not to assess the accuracy of this picture, or tout one side or the other, or analyze the endless complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Other people are far more qualified to do that. What strikes me today, instead, is simply this: the way that Israel perceives itself in 2017 is old. Â Very old. More than two millennia old.
Maybe thatâ€™s one huge reason why Israel and the Arab world canâ€™t â€œjust settle their differencesâ€â€”why they just canâ€™t sit around a table and dialogue through the issues and come to a tidy resolution. This has been going on for century after century. Itâ€™s a big ship. Maybe 50 years is nowhere near enough to turn it.
Our individual lives reflect this same dynamic. In my first meeting with a new client, Iâ€™ll ask what brings them to spiritual direction, and theyâ€™ll provide some sort of â€œpresenting issue.â€ At this point, I assume weâ€™ll work through the issue for a few months, maybe even a year, get it squared away, and then go deeper into this personâ€™s spiritual life.
Wrong. As it turns out, the presenting issue is not some tidy, compartmentalized quandary. Rather, itâ€™s rooted deeply in the entire infrastructure of that personâ€™s soul. We might spend the rest of our professional relationship coming back to it. Itâ€™s a big ship.
What do we do with the big ships, in our lives and in our world? The obvious response is patience: as a monk in my monastery puts it, we must learn to â€œmake haste slowly.â€ Thatâ€™s especially relevant in our go-go culture, where intense speed and 24/7 availability and overcrammed schedules are touted as virtues.
But thereâ€™s a hitch. Whenever things move slowlyâ€”particularly when I have some responsibility for helping them moveâ€”itâ€™s easy to wonder whether theyâ€™re moving at all. Am I really helping, or are my actions making no difference? Is there a way to speed things up that Iâ€™ve missed? Should I devote myself to some more productive pursuit, with more tangible results?
Have you grappled with this too: times when lifeâ€™s difficulties donâ€™t resolve as fast as youâ€™d like? Times when nothing you do seems to move the needle? How do you manage in that reality?
P.S. Just in case youâ€™re in the market for arcane knowledge, hereâ€™s a fun read about big ships and, especially, how to avoid getting killed by one.