Ken Evers-Hood: Burning the ships

BADAJOZ SPAIN: Glazed tiles with America conquest scenes. Hernan Cortes burning the ships Spain

In 1519, in the Yucatan peninsula, Hernan Cortes burned his ships, eliminating the possibility of retreat. Likewise, there was no turning back for Ken Evers-Hood when he sought help from a physician. Bigstock/juanaunion

A Presbyterian pastor writes that he had to face the distance between the person he knows he’s called to be and who he is.

Every Lent, Jesus astounds me. His focus in the wilderness, even with Satan whispering in his ear, confirms my faith in him. At the same time, his example convicts me of the sinful distance between who I know I’m called to be and who I am.

For leaders, facing our own sin and accounting for it can make the difference between a ministry that brings life to others and a ministry that ends in broken promises.

Last fall, I turned 40. I didn’t want that round number to be a big deal, but it turns out 40 was a significant milestone for me.

Pastoral ministry is hard, very hard, and the emotional toll of this work can accumulate over time. Soon after my birthday, I realized that some of my coping strategies were not working as well as they once did.

A healthy striving for excellence sometimes turned into a more desperate chasing after achievement to prove my worth. More and more, I was using my sense of humor to mask frustrations. And my deep appreciation for God’s gift of the fruit of the vine sometimes edged into using alcohol to avoid feeling painful realities. I had a growing sense that I needed to face and deal honestly with my inner divisions.

Nobody sums up our divided selves better than the apostle Paul: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15 NRSV).

There are times these internal divisions frustrate us to the point of throwing up our hands and crying out with Paul, “Wretched person that I am!” Are we just doomed to wander around in this torn state? As Paul would also say, “By no means!”

We are not powerless, and our actions matter. And sometimes we have to take serious, meaningful steps in order to help ourselves be the people and the leaders we deeply want to be.

A collection of writings from the late first and early second centuries, now known as the Apostolic Fathers, offers insight into the leadership and practices of the early church. Among the most prominent of the writers was Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, leader of the Syrian church.

Ignatius was arrested by Roman officials and sentenced to execution. In one of the letters he wrote as he prepared to face his fate, Ignatius asked the Romans for help. But it wasn’t the kind of help you might expect.

You might think a condemned man would ask someone to organize a team of lawyers or perhaps craft a rescue attempt. But Ignatius, hoping to be an example, wanted to face his end as faithfully as his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To do that, he knew he needed help.

Ignatius wrote in his letter that he was coming to Rome and that he wanted to die well. He was also wise enough about himself to know that it’s one thing to think this way while heading to death; it is quite another to feel this way when facing it.

So Ignatius ordered the Romans to follow his instructions in the letter, no matter what: “Even if I urge you otherwise when I arrive, do not be persuaded; instead be persuaded by what I am writing you now. For I write to you while living, desiring to die. My passion has been crucified.”

Ignatius acknowledged his internal divisions: part of him desired to face his death witnessing to his faith in Christ, but he knew another part might try to sabotage his hope.

This is one of the earliest examples of a strategy that game theorists call “burning the ships.”

In 1519, Hernan Cortes landed on the Yucatan peninsula with a force of about 600 men, and they faced a hardened Mayan army. When his men discovered how powerful the resistance was, Cortes ordered a few of his leaders to “burn the ships.” By burning the ships, Cortes eliminated the possibility of retreat and ensured his men’s best effort, effectively offering them the Yoda choice: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

After talking seriously with my wife, who confirmed my need to make some positive changes, I went to see my doctor. I learned that I likely have been dealing with undiagnosed depression for years. I exchanged alcohol for Prozac. I’m learning to be a little kinder to myself.

I burned the ships when I entered my doctor’s office. When I am tempted to tell myself I was just exaggerating the hole I had been digging for myself, I have that meeting with my doctor seared into my memory. I have paperwork from her with “depression” written at the top. Like Ignatius’ letter to the Romans, I have a physical document helping me stay committed to the person, the father and the leader the deepest part of me knows I’m called to be.

This season of Lent, we are all called to self-examination. If you are having trouble being the person you know you can be, consider what ships you might burn.

What courageous conversation do you need to have that might help you step forward and not look back?