Lodestar and Lodestone

Today I heard a sermon of an older man who spent his early years as a Catholic priest and his middle years as a Marxist organizer, before becoming a Baptist pastor. He noted that no step along his path was a waste because he gained from each step and helped him in his life and ministry today.

I went formally into ministry when I was 38. Before that I was a mechanical engineer, and before that I was in the US Navy. As a conning officer, my watchstation on my ship, I worked with CIC and the quartermasters to determine where we are and how to get to where we want to go. On the ocean, that can be a bit of a trick… especially in the past.  In this day of GPS, it is a lot easier, and even before that, Loran-C and Omega provided help in determining where one was. But before that, things were much more tricky.

A. Looking Down. 

  • A fathometer and sounding line can tell the depth of the water below a ship or boat. It is not very good at determining one’s position, although it is okay to support or contradict one’s predicted position. By comparing it with one’s presumed position and the associated sounding line on the chart, one can confirm whether or not the EP (esitmated position) makes sense.

B.  Looking Across.

  • Landmarks. Landmarks work great when one is close to shore. One can do line of bearings to multiple landmarks, and triangulate one’s position. Doing this multiple times over time gives a heading. To do this, one must have an approximate idea of one’s location. (not likely to be that helpful if one is totally lost). Otherwise it is unlikely one can match up landmarks to places on a chart.
  • Radio frequency.  When one is too far out to sea for visual landmarks, radio beacons can be used for triangulation. Loran-C, and Omega could also be used. Further, radar can be used to pick up certain types of landmarks regardless of visibility.
  • Magnetic.  Magnetic compasses point to the magnetic north that can, if you know about where you are, give a pretty good approximation of true north.

C.  Looking Up

  • Celestial navigation.  The sun, the moon, and various stars can be used to determine position, as long as one has a good timepiece. Certain stars are classically used because they are brighter, more identifiable, easier to locate, and provide better triangulation. Of these, polaris (north star) is prominent among the stars because moves less than others, staying within about 1 degree of true north.
  • GPS. Satellites provide very reliable triangulation. It is nice because the sensing and calculations are internal. Additionally, it is accurate enough to give location, direction, and speed over water.

D.  Inertia. 

  • Inertial Navigation. With an inertial navigation system, as long as you know where you started, the system can tell from changes of inertia where one is now.
  • Gyrocompass. A gyrocompass develops angular inertia to establish a bearing to guide off of. Similar to Inertial Navigation. as long as it is set properly initially, it can continue to give heading guidance after.

I suppose there are more. It has been awhile. But why does this matter? For me, there are some ways this corresponds to life:

  1.  Life has a chaotic feel to it that the ocean gives. It can be amazingly difficult to know where one is and what direction one needs to go. Without effective navigational skills and tools, one is likely to go in circles. Our social and physical context is very much in flux, and we need something to provide stability.
  2. One needs a good unchanging reference.  In navigation, the unchanging (or slowly changing) north star, earth’s magnetic field, inertial reference, geosynchronous satellites, and so forth, are needed. We need something stable to base our lives on. For Christians, God in His transcendence, and Christ in His imminence, provide our ground of being… the standard that we can get our bearings from.
  3. One needs some idea where one is. Points of reference don’t help much unless you can interpret to the appropriate chart. In Christian thought, we need to gain some sense of who we are and what we need with respect to God and how to know more. One might call this a conversion experience… recognizing our shame and hope in Christ.
  4. One needs a good chart/map. Even if one knows where one is based on a reference, that does not necessarily tell us where we are with respect to others and give info on where we are to go. For Christians, the Bible helps us understand where we are to go based on where God/Christ is with respect to us.

<Unrelated thought.  I thought I would look up stars and celestial navigation as it relates to Christianity. Found some stuff on Prophecy (or pseudo-Christian end-times industry). Found some “Christian” astrology. Kind of a shame that “Christians” with the least useful to say in this area have the biggest presence on the Web.>

Missions “Rule #2”

While in the Navy, I had to learn the US Coast Guard Rules of the Road. This provides rules for navigation of vessels on the water. I thought it was a masterful booklet. Part of its greatness is its brevity. It is not hugely detailed. It provides guidelines, with flexibility.  This Rules of the Road is not set up like the Code of Hammurabi (with extremely detailed specific rules) but like the Mosaic Law, which is mostly broad principles (not speaking of the heavily detailed rabbinical interpretations developed later).

What makes this brevity possible is Rule #2.  This is the “Responsibility Rule”.  It says:

(a) Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master, or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case.

(b) In construing and complying with these Rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.

In effect, it says… sailors/captains are required to act in such a way as to protect their ship and other ships in their vicinity. There is no excuse for failing this protection. You are even required to break the rules of this document to avoid immediate danger.

Why is there Rule #2?  Because it is impossible to set up rules to cover every possible situation and give good guidance under each of these situations. For example, when more than 2 vessels approach each other, one must use wise seamanship and good communication with other vessels.

In missions, we need good principles… like the Rules of the Road. Why? Because it is impossible to come up with laws covering every possible situation in missions. We could set up some basic principles:

A.  Do not buy out or hijack local ministries.

B.  Do not create long-term dependencies.

C.  Develop self-generating faith communities.

List could go on.

But I believe that we also need a Missions Rule #2. I think it would take a considerable amount of thought and prayer to come up with just the right wording, but a possible form could be something like the following:

“(a)  Nothing in these Missions Rules shall exonerate any missionary, mission team, or mission organization from the consequences of neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of Christ-like ministry, or by the special circumstances of the case.

(b)  While these rules are created to prevent the shipwrecking of human lives, God’s mission, and God’s reputation in a culture, failure to prevent such disasters shall never be justified by refusing to depart from these Rules.”

Missions needs a “graduated absolutist” ethics for conduct. Mission groups have been developing “Best Practices” in recent years. But I think more is needed. We need to recognize that God is our ultimate captain and navigator. We also need to recognize the failure of a legalistic structure to provide all answers for every situation. Rather, recognizing what is closest to God’s heart, and our responsibility to conform to this ideal can give better guidance. It also provides us freedom that a a narrowly interpreted set of rules fails.