The Map or the Boat?

Author Mark Nepo tells the story of a troubled man who asked for help from a sage.1 The wise man offered him a choice. “Do you want a map or a boat?”

The supplicant looked at the many other suffering people around him and answered, “I want the boat.”Fishing boats - Generous Stewards

So the monk told him, “Go, then. You are the boat. Life is the sea.”

This story fits perfectly with the storms-of-life image in my book, Tossed in Time: Steering by the Christian Seasons.2 It reminds me immediately of the old hymn that begins, “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me.” But it also tells me (as Nepo emphasizes) that each one of us is like a boat, holding all that we need within ourselves to journey on the sometimes wild waves.

That is true, but I think the main thing about the boat story is that God is in the boat with us. What comes to me again and again from my own past times of struggle is that God is real, is sovereign over everything, and is personally with me, right where I am, as I try to maneuver my craft over the wild waves. God cares for me, in or despite each precise moment of chaos, confusion, or uncontrolled wildness that seems to engulf me.

Part of God’s message to us is that you are the boat. Strengthen your boat whenever you can, but also trust it will hold over the stormy waters, with God’s guidance and compassionate presence. So look for the resources God has given you that lie within yourself. Also look to the horizon for the Big Picture of what’s going on: life is not always about us, after all. Check on the horizon to get your direction. But often that far away line can be unseeable, so if that happens, look to the stars. Those are the constellations, metaphorically like how so many external factors in life can come together and point in a certain direction.

And if even those clusters above us are engulfed in darkness – as has been happening in our world of late – you can get your bearings by looking to the worship-full things you know to be true: the points along the shore to which you can turn your boat’s prow.

Like the worship seasons. They hae been my greatest help in these dislocated days. Together they reflect the life of Jesus Christ and the highlights of the Christian faith. In the process, you and I can immerse ourselves in prayer, as no doubt every sailor in trouble has done throughout history. We can ask God to lead you through the storm, one wave, one trough of water, and one more wave at a time.

Thinking again about the map-or-boat story: whenever I want a map that will show me what the situation is ultimately all about – and even when I over-confidently think I’m already holding it in my hands – the map itself hardly helps me at all. It may or may not tell me where I am on the map at this particular moment, if I’m unable to discern that from my real-life surroundings. And it certainly doesn’t tell me how to get where I want to go.

More importantly, it doesn’t give me any additional power to get there.

On the other hand, a boat can move. If I am the boat, I can search within my own life to see what materials I have on hand and consider the life lessons and skills God has taught me along the way. While I’m doing that, I can ask God the Holy Spirit within and around me to help me go in the right direction, through the requisite journey to get where I need to be.

Not to play this metaphor out too far, but I might also be able to learn something from the storm itself. As author Michaele Lavigne’s3 continually asks after each experience, “What [can] I learn about myself and/or God?” Regardless of what caused something to happen, there is always a life lesson I can learn from it. A dear friend has taught me that, through the impact of her own response to life.

You might pray along with me: Thank You, God, for the beautiful tendrils of Your grace. Thank You for each useful, eccentric “boat” you have given to each of us human beings on Earth. I love You and seek to live for You this day! This I pray in the name and the way of Jesus. Amen.

Your partner in grace,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 – Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening, pp. 425f.

2 – Betsy Schwarzentraub, Tossed in Time: Steering by the Christian Seasons.

3 – Michaela Lavigne, Living the Way of Jesus, p. 16 and every page thereafter.