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A Pastor’s Reflections: Burn the Ships

November 15, 2016

When Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez reached the new world in 1519 he gave orders to his men to burn their ships. Why would he do such a thing? Legend has it that he gave the order to burn his ships to motivate his men. There would be no turning back—they could not go home. They had no way to get there—the only way open to them was forward. Sometimes this principle comes to mind when I look over my work and I think, “I need to burn the ships!” There are several different scenarios when I’ve burned the ships.

I have looked over work that I’ve done and not been happy with the final product. I once laid a tile floor in a small powder room. As I looked at it, I could tell the floor was off by just a fraction of an inch. Most people would not have noticed, but I did! As I sat watching TV, I would glance over my shoulder and see my slightly crooked floor. My wife graciously told me that she thought it looked fine, but I knew better. I eventually cracked! I excused myself and grabbed a crowbar and I burned the ships! I tore out the floor and felt much better. The next day I laid the tile again and got it right.

I have been in the process of writing a sermon and looked over my message and disliked it. I simply hit delete and started from scratch again. I’m not saying that the next version of the sermon was the sermonic version of the Mona Lisa, but I was happier with the newer version.

Over the years I have accumulated scores of lecture notes and written research. Perhaps this is unthinkable for some who want to archive every thought, but as I’ve looked over the material I’ve thought that I could do better. So, yes, I deleted the files—I burned the ships. In fact, I deleted three different sets of lecture notes on various subjects.

Why would I burn my ships on these different occasions?

Sometimes its best to start from scratch—get out a fresh sheet of paper (or a new digital document) and begin the process afresh. Your inclination might be to use your initial effort, and that might be possible in some cases, but in others, it’s undesirable. I knew that the crooked tile floor would always bother me. Sometimes when you’re writing a sermon, your first idea isn’t always your best. And sometimes, you have to discard old notes no matter how valuable you might think they are so it forces you to reexamine material and write fresh information. The decision to burn or not burn your ships is ultimately calls for wisdom. Don’t be afraid, however, of starting over and burning your ships. In the end, your mediocre work can become the enemy of your great work because you’re unwilling to throw it out and start over.