The Vasa was a magnificent warship built on the order of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Construction began in 1626 and the ship was launched on August 10, 1628. The Vasa reflected the king’s military aspirations as well as his ambitions for the glory of his kingdom. However, when the Vasa left the Stockholm naval yards on its maiden voyage, it traveled only 1400 yards before a gust of wind shook the ship and it sank to the bottom of the sea.
While an inquiry commissioned by the king produced no results and assigned no responsibility for the demise of the great ship, it is generally understood that the ship suffered from a serious design flaw. It was top heavy with insufficient ballast to sustain the ship. The hull of the ship lacked the weight and structural breadth and depth required for successful navigation of wind-swept seas.
It is believed that engineers participating in the design and construction of the ship recognized the problem. However, the king was intent on completing the construction and utilizing the ship in his campaign against Poland. His subordinates were unable to persuade him to delay, and there is some evidence those closest to the king lacked the courage to inform him of the risk of failure.
In the middle of the last century the Vasa was rescued from the bottom of the sea and placed in a dry dock in Stockholm. The ship was restored in all of its original glory and now is visited by millions of tourists each year. I had the opportunity to see the Vasa this summer.
I was struck by the grandeur of the ship, by the attention to detail in ornate wood carvings and the sheer magnitude of the vessel. But as I learned the story of its design and demise, I found myself reflecting on the importance of ballast. Ballast provides a ship with stability. Ballast allows a ship to remain upright in stormy seas. Without ballast, nothing else matters.
There’s an important analogy for the life of faith. Our faith gives our lives meaning and purpose. Our faith grows out of a humble acknowledgement that left to our own devices we are prone to fail. Our faith provides the deep roots from which our lives are nourished and grow.
Strong faith, like the ballast of a ship, reflects both depth and breadth in our foundation. Ballast requires sufficient weight to hold us steady, to keep us upright and to make us strong.
Ballast requires time and energy. Ballast is not well-served by a sound-bite world that reduces complex issues to bumper stickers. Ballast does not assume there are simple solutions to difficult problems. Ballast is unseen, but without ballast that which is seen is ineffective and ultimately does not matter.
In my faith heritage, ballast comes most fully in the form of love. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”
We live in a world where much of the rhetoric defies the ballast of love. Kindness too often goes missing. Envy, arrogance and rudeness too often carry the day. We see hate crimes reported across our country. We hear media pundits, elected officials and, yes, religious leaders use language that does not reflect the ballast of love in its most extravagant form.
The Vasa was a magnificent ship that failed because its designers paid too little attention to the fundamental structure required for a strong ship. People of faith offer our world the ballast of love. We offer our civil society a commitment to human dignity, love and respect for all persons. This is the fundamental structure of our society. It is our ballast. Let it continue to be so.
Rock Jones is President of Ohio Wesleyan University and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church.