Packing Ballast (on gaining weight, for good)

One of the things I really love about belonging to a book club (okay, I lie, I belong to two. Three over the summer…) is that I get introduced to books I would not otherwise have picked up. Most recently, I read Lansing’s book Endurance: Shackleton’s Amazing Voyagea biography which tells of the ill-fated attempt by Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 to cross Antarctica in 1914. Spoiler alert: it did not go well.

The ship Endurance got stuck in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea before the crew even set

foot onto Antarctica. The terrific pressure of the ice crushed their mighty vessel, andShackleton and his men spent the winter, the following summer, and yet another

250px-Endurance_Final_Sinking winter adrift on make-shift camps of ice, surviving on a diet of seal, penguin, and heroic courage.  In the final unfolding of the drama, the crew (all of whom survived: a testament to Shackleton’s remarkable leadership skills) rowed to Elephant Island, just off the shore of Antarctica, and made one of their ramshackle lifeboats as seaworthy as they could to try and make it over the Southern Ocean. No one in the world knew where they were and there was no technology to make contact: if they were to survive, six of them would have to cross the stormiest sea on the planet – 800 miles in a 22 foot yacht (and just for perspective: that little vessel would be facing hurricane-force winds and waves measuring up to 60 feet.) Biographies are not usually my thing, and maritime ones even less so, but I stayed up late in the night reading what happened to this feisty crew. Here’s a little documentary if you’re curious:

That final leg of the journey had me holding my breath – that one voyage even has its own wikipedia page.  The crew slept in snatches, the rest of the time bailing water as if their lives depended on it (they did), spending every last breath on holding their course through wind and waves. And, they repacked the ballast.

I don’t know that I had ever given a moment’s thought to what ballast was or why it was needed until I read this part of the book, but it became clear why it was critical. In preparation for the James Caird’s voyage, the men had devoted significant time to finding stones to pack into the base of the boat as ballast. The weight was needed to make the boat stable against the waves, giving it balance and a center of gravity (in as much as anything on the sea can have such a thing). These days, elaborate pumps push water and air in and out of the base of sea-going vessels to add (and lose) weight as needed for stability, but Shackleton’s men had to do as the seafaring Vikings had done centuries before: they packed stones in the hull.

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Reconstruction of ballast in a Viking vessel, by Stephen Fox (archaeofox.com)

As the James Caird was buffeted by walls of water, one of the many brutalities the men endured was being bashed and bruised by rocks as they tumbled around the base of the boat. And no sooner had rocks tumbled their way to the starboard side, the little boat would once again be somewhat unbalanced, and the crew would have to pick up those rocks and repack the ballast. So much of their energy in preparation had been to making sure they had enough weight for the voyage. And so much of their energy in the arduous journey involved repacking and redistributing that same weight so that they would remain stable.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ballast. I won’t be so dramatic as to compare my life and calendar right now to crossing the Southern ocean, but it certainly has had its ups and downs and is requiring a focus and discipline I can’t remember having needed in quite the same way before. To be sure: it’s an adventure. I’m working hard on writing a book, I’m loving working as an editor and curator for Propel Women’s ministries, I’m delighting in the preparation and study and teaching of a 9 week series on the parables, and there’s no small amount of travel and house project and kid stuff going on, too. But the possibility of taking on water and the feeling that I’m about to sink feels all too real. I’ve long loved the image of Jesus being my anchor in a storm, but I didn’t know until reading this book that a ship being buffeted in a storm needs more than an anchor: it needs ballast. Something weighty to keep me from keeling over. Some centering stones, which may need to be tended to and re-packed from time to time.

My ballast comes in the form of sleep, setting aside time to exercise, and to be quiet and pray . In truth, those are the first things I tend to chuck overboard when things feel choppy, but if I think of them as ballast – things that will not sink me in a storm, but in fact keep me stable, it helps. I’ve set reminders on my phone to go to sleep on time. I’ve got calendar appointments to “be with God”. I’ve installed an app that reads Scripture to me, and set a reminder so that it pops up right around the time I’m usually wiping down the kitchen counters at night. This week things got crazy and I needed to repack my ballast: exercise isn’t working at the same time of day now that daylight savings time has kicked in, so I’ve needed to move it around. Redistribute the ballast because I feel myself tipping.

But paying attention to the ballast is the thing: some items on my to-do list feel heavy, but others are weighty. Weighty is not the same as heavy. Weighty helps us stay the course, even when the going is heavy.

One Great Question Makes All The Difference

Our family got to travel to Europe this summer, and apart from a horrendous, miraculous day when we lost our six year old in Paris, it was memory-making magic. We ate gelato and rode gondolas and listened to a dozen audio books and hugged cousins and gasped at the Alps. Glorious. We drove more than 60 hours through cities we’d never been to in countries where the travel conventions varied wildly, all the while with our hopes pinned squarely on the reliability of GPS directions. God bless Google Maps. And Waze. My husband’s better with maps and I’m better with… let’s call them surprises in driving conventions… so I did most of the driving.  I have to say that it can’t have been less than every twenty minutes that I would mutter under my breath: “how did people navigate before GPS?”, just immensely grateful that he was manning the maps, and not me.  Just imagining ourselves under twenty half folded AAA maps of Europe trying to figure out the impossible logic of Basel’s bicycle and tram signals gave me the heebie jeebies.

Of course, this question gave us plenty of opportunity to talk to to our kids about the “olden days”, of compasses and maps, about the stars and seasons, and how early mountain passes followed the tracks animals had made on those same climes. And then, on the day we nearly lost our kiddo, there was a similar question: how did people find each other before cellphones? I’ve wondered the same thing often of late as I walk into a crowded auditorium madly texting in the hope of finding the friend I know is there. The answer? We made better, more specific plans. We briefed our kids on what to do if they got lost: who to talk to, where their landmarks were etc.

This may seem an unrelated segue but I promise it’s connected in my head: I recently stopped using shampoo and conditioner. Sorry, didn’t mean to make you squirm. My hair is really clean (that’s a story for another day), but my curiosity was sparked by my sister who—with her glorious hair swinging down her back—asked “how do you think people washed their hair before there was shampoo?” Hmmm. Good question, now that she mentions it. It would be nuts to think that for centuries past, humans were all the great unwashed hairy masses, finally rescued from their personal cranial oil-factories when Proctor and Gamble came along. There had to be a way to wash hair before foamy shampoo came along (although manufacturers would have us believe that’s a lye.)

So many unexpected conversations and decisions have come this summer from the asking of one good question. I am often quick to rush through conversations, a habit made worse in a digital age. But sometimes a timely question can do the world of good, or unlock a whole new way of thinking of things, if we will just let the question sit with us a while.

Why are you so angry about this? What’s really going on there?

Why do you keep repeating that pattern that isn’t working for you?

That seems like a good idea.. but is it what you really want?

These are all questions that have given me pause. Good questions work as conversation starters, lifestyle tune-up opportunities, relational probes, and—in Jesus’ hands—deeply soul-searching invitations. “Do you want to get well?” Jesus asked the paralyzed man in John 5:6. The man had been lame for 38 years, surely the answer was obvious? But Jesus’ question probed deeper, inviting the man to think about where he was at in faith and hope, and maybe the excuses and blaming he’d leveled at others (“I have no-one to help me… and others get there before me…” verse 7). “Who do you say I am,” he asked Peter—he asks us—an unsettling and centering question if ever there was on.

So I’m thinking today about good questions: grateful for those who’ve wondered aloud why things are the way they are, who have probed deeper, who have give us opportunities to stop, think, and choose a better conversation, if we will let those questions do their good work.

 

Photo credit: Pexels free images

Garden-variety God-thoughts: growth

We planted our first vegetable garden when I was three months pregnant.

We pushed those little, dry, brown seeds of hope into that dark soil, and then we waited.

Sun, water, time.

Sun, water, time.

And one day, the tiniest little folds of green poked bravely out of the ground.

Sun, water, time.

Sun, water, time.

Newly pregnant, I marveled at the parallels: a little life forming in an unseen place because a seed had been planted. But everything after that? The miracle of life, unfolding in my yard, in my womb.

Spiritual growth is like that too. A little seed planted in our hearts, perhaps something we heard long ago. A little water, perhaps a sprinkling of encouraging conversation. A little sonlight. A little time.

It gives me such joy to watch things grow: vegetables, babies, faith.

“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
– 1 Corinthians 3:7

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