My boat is so small — looking to be antifragile

The spiritual and philosophical seas are stormy. Will our small, fragile ship get broken apart in the waves? JFK kept a plaque on his desk in the Oval Office that read “Oh God thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”  This Old Breton prayer was given to new submarine captains by Admiral Rickover who gave the plaque to the President. JFK used it in his remarks at the dedication of the East Coast Memorial to the Missing at Sea, a few months before his death in 1963. I don’t have an oval office, but I also think the powers seem rather large this week and my boat is so small.

Stormy philosophical seas

President Obama gives a nice eulogy at the memorial at Mother Immanuel (and sings) but doesn’t mention the Lord of the departed. A Methodist pastor sets himself on fire for inclusion. The Dominican Republic disenfranchises Haitians. In Obergefell v. Hodges the Supreme Court redefines marriage for the law — the majority and dissenters sound miles apart. Stormy seas.

I don’t usually read Supreme Court arguments but the recent one about marriage is pretty interesting. We had our own dialogue last year and came up with a good conclusion that put together what the court split apart. A couple of quotes point out how stormy our political seas really are: The majority says that “new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution [of marriage]. Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.” This may seem obvious to us who do not trust the government to deal in truth, but it is a rather breathtaking assertion. The dissenters reply, “The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent. The majority expressly disclaims judicial ‘caution’ and omits even a pretense of humility, openly relying on its desire to remake society according to its own ‘new insight’ into the ‘nature of injustice.’”

Fragile psychological ships spring leaks in such seas

What would you say is the opposite of “fragile”?

If you immediately thought: “solid,” “robust,” or even “unbreakable” that seems about right.

But economist, philosopher and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a different response.  He says that which is “fragile” is “damaged by stress.” If you have an anxious attachment, for example, you might be more likely to spring a psychological leak under the pressure of criticism.  But if you navigate through stress with some confidence rather than being sunk by it, you can succeed in gaining an earned secure attachment. The opposite of fragile is not something that is invulnerable to stress but something that grows stronger under it or finds new ways through it.  Maybe the person who can grow under criticism becomes “antifragile.”


The church is remarkably antifragile

The first church, as we can see in Acts, was amazingly antifragile. Consider the stress it endured.  First, Jesus is betrayed by Judas and abandoned by his disciples.  He dies the ignominious death of a common criminal and is buried in a borrowed tomb.  At that point, the disciples and budding Church appear ready to collapse.  But the resurrection turns them around and at Pentecost the Spirit empowers them. However, it isn’t long before the Church once again appears fragile.  Peter and John, the church’s leaders, are arrested. Dishonesty breaks the communal sharing that had emerged. More arrests and threats happen. The Greek-speaking converts complain that they are being slighted by the Hebrew-speaking leaders. One of the first deacons, Stephen, is martyred. A Jewish leader name Saul breathes “threats and murder against them.” And that is only about a third of the way through the book!

Nassim Taleb

Despite all that stress the church didn’t just endure; it prospered.  That’s because it was, as Taleb would say, “antifragile.” The pressure on it served as a catalyst for spiritual and numerical growth.  That doesn’t mean that every follower of Christ or every congregation grew stronger because of the stress, but, somehow, the Church as a whole did.

Even though I know Acts rather well and know Circle of Hope very well, I often wake up and pray the Breton prayer. We feel fragile. Even though we have met our extravagant goals for nineteen years and are meeting  this year’s even-more-extravagant goals, I am still amazed that the waves of the huge forces stirring up the waters of the world don’t sink us. Right when I think we are going to break up, something amazing often happens to calm my fears. Last week it was Adam getting pulled from the river and many of us pulled into prayer and wonder as a result. Someone discovered the last vestiges of their Buddhism. A surprisingly positive response came from someone at the About Circle of Hope dinner. Jerome told his wild story about being led by God.

At the same time, it is also true that a person sent some hate mail (not kidding, it happens). And, of course, the culture in general is not too fond of the church in general these days. In reaction to constant boat-shaking and the challenges of sailing, some people have tried to make being a Christian more acceptable by embracing the latest standards and “insights” of the latest laws. This avoids stress by being little different than an attractive new pub — but a pub, however communal-like, is not the church. Others have taken another tack.  They withdraw (at least figuratively) into a “spiritual” enclave, avoiding stress by avoiding interaction that might create it.  While the first reaction might, for a while, appeal and the second, for a while, appear strong, they are ultimately fragile, susceptible to the whims of the culture in the first case and to any event or idea that might disrupt their unity in the second.

An antifragile church (and person), on the other hand, understands that pressures are necessary for growth.  Rather than hide from them, the antifragile church embraces them and, by God’s grace, becomes stronger in the process. We’ve done this and say we intend to do it, but how are you doing today? How are we doing? Do you have any examples of what makes us so antifragile? Or maybe you think I am being too optimistic about our ability to ride that next wave on the horizon.

4 thoughts on “My boat is so small — looking to be antifragile

  1. I think a great example of our anti-fragility is the transparency with which we discuss money and the openness to Spirit-led structural changes. We are flexible around the solid rock of Jesus. And that’s a good thing.

  2. I think we’re going to do it tonight at the Doing Theology meeting. What makes us antifragile is speaking the truth in love. Dialogue keeps us together and protects our gravity.

  3. While doing some long overdue yard work on Sunday i found a plant that appeared to be on one side of a low brick barrier. When I tugged at the leaves I notice that the plants on the far side of the bricks moved. The plant, apparently having been crowded by other, more established vegetation, had grown beneath a low arch formed by erosion at the base of the brick and cement to reach the small stone slab on the other side and all the sunlight it offered. For the plant, the ideal would have been more ample space for it grow up into the canopy of my lawn. That wasn’t possible so it had to forge an unorthodox path. Reading this reminded me of that plant and of Paul. God makes things grow. We should trust that imperative.

  4. I think you said in your opening paragraphs: we are antifragile because we can change. What the Supreme Court split apart, we joined together. What splits churches apart all over the nation, we are managing to navigate. We are antifragile because despite how small we are, it is God’s sea that we are traversing. The waters may be stormy, but calm seas don’t make good sailors. More here:

    On a related note, the pastors, Leadership Team, the “Hub” and everyone else in Circle of Hope is changing in order to usher in a new era. We are working toward finding our tipping point. And I think we are doing it well. It is not easy, but hard things are worth it.

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