You know how often, you’ll hear a word or phrase or concept for the first time, and then it’ll come up 42 more times that week? The world always seems to work like that. And that’s exactly what happened when I heard the phrase “Burn your ships” for the first time.
I don’t remember when it was, but I know it was within the past year. Some websites attribute the idea to ancient Greek or Roman tactics, but the most common use of the expression is attributed to the Conquistador Cortes. The idea was that he and his men would not be returning home on the same ships that brought them there: They would return on Cuban ships or die trying.
Leaving ourselves escape routes is often a way of holding onto a safety net of sorts in life. If you know the ‘ships’ are still there floating in the Atlantic, you’ll be tempted to run to them when trials come and sail safely back home.
You leave that one last folder of pornographic pictures or videos on your computer.
You hide that one last pack of cigarettes in the ceiling tile.
You keep your day job because you’re scared to commit to your dream job, or to create it.
Years ago, my brother went to photography school. When he graduated, he moved back to Colorado and went back to his previous job as a hotel valet. I had warmed him: “If you go back to your job as a valet, photography will get pushed to the backburner. I’d encourage you to go all in with photography — if you don’t make money from it, you don’t eat.”
He didn’t burn the ships of his ‘safe’ job, but he still managed to become pretty successful with his photography.
I did the same thing with my writing. I moved from LA to Denver and decided not to get a job, but to pen my second book. When no publisher accepted it, I decided to self-publish and it somehow still made it to #1 on Amazon.
My real dream, however, is to adopt the Kerouacian philosophy that “he who owns a rug owns too much,” and live on the road for a season. I have done this in fits and spurts throughout my life, but I’ve never burned my ships. I’ve always left the door cracked just enough to feel safe and avoid the thrill of tasting the reality of the road.
I want to go back to Guatemala.
I want to sell all my crap and quit letting it own me.
Why am I so scared? Why are we so scared?
Ship-burning is a risky deal. Historically, those men were more likely to die than return home on Cuban ships, whether by disease, war, starvation, or abduction. Are you ready for that level of commitment?
As a Christian, I always have to add that layer of perspective as well: How does my faith inform this brash decision? If we really think about it, nearly every major decision in the Bible is pretty extreme. Many biblical characters burnt their ships.
Abram moved to a foreign land, going only off the voice of his God.
Jonah was cast into the stormy waters, not knowing he would be saved by a fish.
Jacob relocated his entire tribe to Egypt.
Every person who followed Christ essentially signed their own death warrant, and a painful death at that. Jesus Himself told us that if we want to follow Him, we need to take up our own crosses to do so. In case you weren’t aware, one you pick up a Roman cross and head toward your Golgotha, there is no turning back.
We’re offered the same question: Will you forsake all others for the name of Christ, or will you keep your back door exits cracked? Will you keep your access to the creature comforts you used to fall on, or burn them up, trusting the Voice that called you forward?
For some of us, this will look different than others. Most of you will live your lives the way you always have: you will work, love your family and your neighbors and continue putting sin to death. For others (me?) it will mean closing the door to the United States once and for all.
The great missionary Hudson Taylor supposedly got a tooth infection while serving in China which forced him to return to the England for extraction. He told the dentist to pull all of his teeth out so he wouldn’t have to leave his beloved Chinese ever again. That’s what burning your ships looks like.
May we listen to the voice of God always; even if He tells us to burn our ships.
Then may we be faithful enough to pour the oil and strike the match.