Publisher’s Point: Burn The Ships

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
There is a bit of history that has long been used to illustrate being totally committed to either a cause or a crew, and it centers around the tale of the explorer Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca. You might know him by some version of the name Hernando Cortez. When he and the ships he commanded landed in Mexico in 1519, Cortez had all of the ships destroyed except one. Ostensibly, that ship would have been saved only for the one in command if he decided to return to Spain, and the scenario had the potential for being one of the biggest games of “Lifeboat” ever played. The uncertainty of their fate would have loomed before the crew, and cause certain unrest. Who would have been worthy to go back and face the sting of failure before the king of Spain, and who would have been chosen to stay and hopefully survive? Thankfully that is something no one had to face.

It is thought that the confusion over whether or not Cortez actually commanded the ships to be burned, as opposed to being dismantled, interestingly comes from the Spanish language itself, as well as the legibility of his handwriting as he recorded the incident in his letters. The word for “burn” is quemando, and the word for “break” or “dismantle” is quebrando. It is easy to see how the legend took on a life of its own with respect to how one interpreted Cortez’s cursive.

Well, now that history has been corrected, we can get back to what has been a powerful phrase used in sermons, songs, motivational speeches and pep talks. Burn the ships! Can you feel the angst surrounding destroying your very source of safety, or in current vernacular, your Plan B? Can you feel the virtual heat as the flames consumed their security? Conversely, can you imagine the sense of adventure that was available in those challenging circumstances?

There was a time in our lives, only a few years after we moved to Alabama from Mexico, when we were potentially facing homelessness. We had to burn some things in preparation for the possibility of living in the 15-passenger van we had purchased to haul around the kids from the Arbol de Vida orphanage where we worked in Ciudad Juarez. One of the things that had to go was my grandmother’s antique tea table, and as I watched it go up in flames, I had to remind myself, as a person of faith, that at some point everything is going to burn up. Not at all one of my most pleasant memories, but I have to ask myself, “What would have happened if in that moment the tea table had been more important than trusting my Maker with my whole life?” That hot, testing fire came to a quick end, and thankfully we did not have to call our van (which we nicknamed “Chester”) our home.

I was reminded the other day of Steven Curtis Chapman’s song Burn The Ships. I put it on, cranked it up, and danced around my living room in worship. While I danced, I thought about some places in my life where I had felt “stuck,” and I realized that in subtle ways I hadn’t been willing to burn the ship in order to get the results I desired and needed. I also became aware of the fact that I was wasting a great deal of precious energy by being in a place of indecision, and blaming my exhaustion on the arduousness of the task rather than the fact that I was at best stalled out, and at worst sabotaging my own efforts. So, dear readers, I leave you with the chorus of Mr. Chapman’s ballad Burn The Ships.

“Burn the ships, we’re here to stay
There’s no way we could go back
Now that we’ve come this far by faith
Burn the ships, we’ve passed the point of no return
Our life is here, so let the ships burn”

My life is here in Athens, Alabama, and if the cost of the blessing of being here was Mimi’s tea wagon, it was a bargain, and I made out like a bandit.