Shipbuilding: Tasks or Vision?

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Spending a week in the Pacific Northwest on vacation, surrounded by boats and the vastness of the sea, when I read this quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery on my way home, I couldn’t get it out of my head:

If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Today’s post is from guest poster Melodrama.  As I thought about the ramifications of the ideas in different realms of my life and particularly in my worship, I was struck, because the point of the quote actually seems so opposite of my experience with the corporate nature of the church. Most lessons or talks focus on checklists or commandments or assignments: the ABC’s of revelation, the 4 steps to repentance, lists on chalkboards of how to keep x commandment better.

Is it because they are afraid that if they teach us the longing for what Joseph Smith claimed to have had, a very personal relationship with God, that they can’t deliver? Or are the checklists and assignments necessary for the institution of the church to survive and thrive?

I thought of K, a little girl I taught in Primary. At her baptism, her excitement got the best of her as she literally ran from the chapel to the font when it was her turn. Or a woman I watched baptized in the inner-city ward I used to attend. She could not contain her joy as she was raised out of the water, and it was manifest in a boisterous shriek of happiness. Her active participation in our church was short-lived, typical for the baptisms in that ward. I used to complain that the people the missionaries brought forth were not ready to fully commit to the church and its teachings, but who can deny the joy in her heart that day and who can tell the power it had in her life?

Others express their joy in a more subdued and quiet way, but these examples of those whose emotions were oblivious to procedure and protocol made me reminisce of my own baptism. While I don’t remember the details, and I’m certain I was not a runner or a screamer, I do not recall being assigned to baptism. I like to think I am pretty typical, that I chose baptism, not because I was commanded to do so, but because even as a little girl, I sensed the love of God and had a longing for the divine.

And nearly 30 years later, as I sat in church one Sunday in my ward in December, I was notified we would unexpectedly end one hour early due to problems with the facilities. When the bishop came in to announce it, one woman physically clapped at her excitement. As everyone went to find their children and leave, one man said, “I’ve never seen a happier bunch of Mormons”. It sort of begs the question, why build a boat if you have no desire to set sail to sea? If church is supposed to answer those longings for us, why are we happiest when we are freed from our obligation of attending? Must we have herdings and assignments because our longings are not enough to sustain us in the work of building a ship?

I wonder, are we efficiently building boats only to turn around and build another one and never recognize the endless immensity of the sea?

Comments 9

  1. what a beautiful post, thank you. it’s precisely the endless immensity of the sea that makes it hard to ponder when next to it we are so small. we look for something more our size. these pieces of wood, now, measuring them and cutting them i can handle. we need reminders of why we build ships.

  2. The principles in this post are, I personally can attest to, at the “heart” of the matter of spiritual progression, diligence in scripture study, prayer, and in personally “paying the price” for not only submitting to the Holy Ghost….(doing all we can just to get his companionship), but in the HARD WORK of the DAILY GRIND of living those principles / laws and so forth that are the necessary part of building our ship.
    A compass or sextant …..yea even liahona…must be transfixed into our heart…and that focus being a LOVE for the Lord Jesus Christ (the destination on our sea journey)…we can and MUST crave their presence. When we experience the fruits of the Holy Ghost…Galatians 5: 22-23…those feelings and resultant actions are essentially the DESIRE to have more, seek more, BE more, DO more and instill that craving….to build the strongest – fastest ship to sail our ship right to His kingdom. Day by Day, Hour by Hour, Moment by Moment..let us focus on the Savior, who is the captain of our ship. We will then, arrive at safe harbor.
    Thanks Melodrama for your wonderful guest post.
    Love to all, God Bless your individual “ship building” !!!!

  3. Great post. Thanks.

    I have said more than once that I believe church is NOT the place to “become” much of anything. I believe that has to be pursued independently – outside of church. I see the Church as a gathering place for communal reinforcement, meaning I’m totally fine if I never “get anything” from it personally but the chance to mingle with my fellow travelers.

    To me, “The Church” might actually be the boat – and when there is no full-time captain or first-mate or cook everyone must pitch and work the boating process. I think the problem occurs when the passengers forget to jump in the ocean during their off times and swim, scuba or snorkel simply for the joy of being in the ocean – when they forget that running the boat isn’t the ultimate goal – that the boat is there simply and singularly so the passengers can become exceptional seafarers. That happens outside the boat – in the ocean, surrounded by the wonder and danger of it all.

  4. Thanks for taking these thoughts to another level everyone.


    I think you’re right, that the immensity of the sea has two effects, both creating an awe and wonder, but also is a bit overwhelming. Do you think we’ve become a “checklist church” in order to make ourselves feel better? I can pat myself on the back with 100% visit teaching, full tithe-paying, monthly temple attendance, etc. etc. and not have to think about my inadequacies when compared with the sea. But doesn’t that deprive me of the blessings of a Savior (experiencing the sea), of becoming something more than I could have imagined with just the pieces of wood I could handle – maybe the immensity of the sea inspires me to build a grander ship than I would have if left to my own vision? Is it better to have a false sense of adequacy or feel overwhelmed or is there a balance of these two?


    I love the image of the church as the boat and the need to explore the ocean. But if all we ever personally “get” from church, is it necessary? Can we find another way to enjoy the sea? Is there something about the church as the boat that is superior to other ships? I would argue ours definitely does have a full-time captain who determines where in the ocean we sail, which winds we use, etc. So do we explore the sea by choosing a ship that has fellow travelers we wish to commune with, or a captain whose style we like or do we look to the sturdiness of the ship in handling the power of the ocean. Is one better than another?


    I agree the fruits of the spirit leave us craving more and that a compass is essential for traveling. Thanks.

  5. I’m amused that we talk about “enduring to the end” but struggle to make it through a three-hour Church block (speaking as someone who, uh, skipped out after Sacrament meeting today, but it’s because I’m still recovering from the flu! Honest!). Our complaint is often what we do (or don’t) get from our Church meetings, often without really asking what we’re supposed to give while we’re there. I’m usually at Church early (due to PEC), so I make it a point as people file in for Sacrament meeting to wander around, shake hands, and greet those I haven’t seen for a week, a month, or sometimes ever. I teach Sunday School most Sundays (Gospel Essentials), which is one of my favorite things to do. And while I sometimes doze through our Priesthood lesson, I love all the men in our High Priests group.

    And I do agree with your fundamental premise: Church can become tedious if it is simply done in obedience and without a view of a much larger picture. Fortunately, Sandra and I are in a ward that keeps the concept of “building up Zion” very much in view, and it’s one of the reasons why there is a strong turnout for every move and service project, strong contributions for special-needs situations, and strong emotional support for one another’s burdens. Every PEC/ward council/welfare meeting starts with a review of a standing list of names of families and individuals in the ward in need of our prayers (and help), followed by a kneeling prayer that includes asking blessings upon those on the list, calling out by name any new families/individuals added to the list or any already on the list in need of special attention. And, of course, the bishopric, RS, EQ, and HP leadership works to figure out how best to actually help those members.

    Without that kind of focus, going to Church can devolve into just going through the motions. ..bruce..

  6. “Is it because they are afraid that if they teach us the longing for what Joseph Smith claimed to have had, a very personal relationship with God, that they can’t deliver?”

    Or are they afraid that if they teach us the longing for what Joseph Smith claimed to have had, a very personal relationship with God, that they WILL deliver, and once we have that, what use will we have for the institutional church?

  7. Beautiful thought, Reuben!

    And Ray, exactly my point that they can’t “deliver”, but the kind of thing I was talking about is identified in this example: my child’s primary class was without a teacher for a couple of months. We got a letter about the primary program and in it, the presidency asked us to help the children to pray for a primary teacher, to which my husband responded with an offer to be the teacher if they really couldn’t find someone. He got an immediate response that they already had one lined up, but still wanting our child to pray. These well-meaning leaders apparently wanted to help the children have an experience with prayer, maybe so much that they came up with an arranged one. I know you would never support this strategy, but I wonder if we are seeing it in more diluted form, where they want us to stay the course so badly that they give us all these assignments and herding because they know they can’t deliver the spiritual experiences, those are between individuals and God.

  8. What a crappy, contrived concept. *shaking my head in resignation* That’s a great example of something that would receive an “A” for sincere effort and an “F” for actual execution.

    I can see your point, m – and I think it’s a valid one. I think too many members lose sight of their own responsibility for their own spiritual growth and start to place that responsibility on the Church, so we agree with each other there.

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