Patrick O’Brian for pastors

My pastor friends inspire me. Their work is redemptive — and rigorous. I see them straining at the oars for months at a time, and I see God’s grace in their wake.

When we talk books, this is what I hear: commentaries, theology, and reference. Also, books about the church, leadership, spiritual life, and social issues. Plus business, history, biography. Books that strengthen souls and sharpen skills.

winedarkseaCuriously, only once have I found a pastor who reads Patrick O’Brian. Why is that? Vivid, witty, and keenly insightful, few books better convey the nuances of human nature and relationship than O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.

For example, here’s an episode that helped me, and I think should be part of every pastor’s mental imagery. It features a season of storm. We’ve all weathered the tempest, and we’ve walked with others through their storms as well. In The Wine-Dark Sea, O’Brian captures the four cycles of difficult seasons in just three pages.

1. All is well. The story begins in the Pacific as the Surprise and her crew chart a course for Cape Horn. They all know tough times are coming, but these are days for covering ground and gaining strength . . .

“I do not like the prospect of this Horn,” said Stephen in a low voice, “or all this haste to reach it. I will need weeks of calm to prepare.”

“Well, Doctor,” said Jack, “some weeks I think I can promise you. The trade [winds] are blowing as sweetly as ever our best friends could wish.”

The promised weeks they had, weeks of pure sailing, with the Surprise slanting cross the prevailing wind and often logging two hundred sea-miles between one noon observation and the next. Weeks of close, satisfying work for Stephen, and weeks of ardent sailoring for Jack, with evenings full of music: fresh fish over the side, and penguins in constant attendance. And when at last the trade winds faltered and left them, within a day the even more favorable westerlies took over.

2. The winds increase. Difficulties are on the horizon, so you order your life and make preparations . . .

Those were idyllic weeks; but how difficult it was to remember them, to call them vividly to mind as an experienced reality, a fortnight after the ship had sailed into the true antarctic — had sailed into that green water at fourteen knots under topsails, fore-courses and a jib, impelled by an almighty quartering wind.

The change was not unexpected. Well before this ominous parallel the frigates’s people had been engaged in shifting, packing and storing her light sails and replacing them with much heavier cloth, with storm-canvas trysails and the like for emergency. Many a watch had been spent in sending up preventer backstays, braces, shrouds and stays and in attending to new rings, robands, reef-points, reef-tackles for the courses and spilling-lines for the topsails, to say nothing of new sheets and clew lines fore and aft. Then again all the hands had rounded the Horn at least once, some many times, and they took their long woolen drawers, their mittens and their Magellan jackets very seriously when they were served out, while most of those who had had any foresight dug into their chests for Monmouth caps, Welsh wigs or padded domes with flaps to protect the wearer’s ears and strings to tie beneath his chin.

3. Hold on! Once the elements let loose you lose track of time, and it’s your deep convictions and wise preparations that make the difference . . .

This serving-out happened on a Tuesday in fine clear weather, a pleasant topgallant breeze blowing from the north-west, and it seemed almost assured: on Friday the ship was tearing eastwards with four men at the wheel, snow blurring both binnacles, hatches battened down, and the muffled watch on deck sheltering in the waist, dreading a call to grapple with the frozen rigging and board-stiff sails.

Presently, in this incessant roar of sea and wind, and in this continual tension, the vision of the warm and mild Pacific faded completely. And after a few days of the first icy blow, when the deathly chill had worked right into the whole ship from keelson to cabin, all hands began to eat with far more than usual eagerness. The roaring westerly storm had sent the ship a great way, at great speed, south and east into the high fifties, a cold region even without a wind: frequent rain; even more frequent sleet and snow; most hands wet most of the time; all of them always cold.

In such very thick weather observation was impossible for days on end, and in spite of his chronometers and well-worn sextant, and of the presence of three other expert navigators aboard, Jack could not be sure of his longitude or latitude, dead-reckoning in such wind and seas being wonderfully uncertain. He therefore reduced sail, and the frigate moved eastwards at an average of no more than three knots, sometimes under bare piles or with a mere scrap of sail right forward to give her steerage-way when the wind blew a full gale from the west.

4. Through the storm. Often without warning, you wake up one morning and realize you’ve made it through . . .

And then there was calm.  The sky cleared and Jack had a series of perfect observations of first the sun, then Achernar, and later Mars himself, positions that were confirmed by the other officers and that showed that in spite of this dawdling their initial zeal had brought them almost to the rendezvous far too soon.

Weathering a storm is a milestone experience. It makes you a different person. Stronger, leaner, wiser. Toughened, yet gentler. Children know you’re safe. Others respect you. They realize you’re less tied to this world.

It also helps to know what to expect, which is why I’ve dog-eared my copy of The Wine-Dark Sea.

And what are those preparations that bring you through the blinding gale? Each of us has our own list. Learning to trust God, investing in genuine relationships, dwelling in the Word, taking care of your soul, casting off entanglements, eliminating distractions, and so on. As Scripture often says, deep roots bear fruit.

You can read about such things in leadership books, but it’s tough to assimilate them without experience — or story. Thank you, Patrick O’Brian.