On Sunday Susan and I spoke in a fireside to the new students. We likened Book of Mormon scriptures about shipbuilding and sea voyages to them.
Susan spoke about Nephi’s building a ship in 1 Nephi 17. Like Nephi, we are often called to do new, seemingly impossible tasks. Hard things. Sometimes overwhelming things. Susan mentioned feeling overwhelmed when she became a mother, was called to serve as Young Women General President, and was asked to write a history of the Relief Society.
Similarly, our new students often feel daunted by the challenge of starting college. Most of them are far from home, often for the first time. Many are getting a college education in a second or third language and in a new culture. All face the uncertainty of what college will require of them. Susan encouraged the new students to go to the mountain, like Nephi, and assured them that the Lord would help them build their particular ship.
I then spoke about voyages. The Book of Mormon details two voyages: that of the Lehites and of the Jaredites. Nephi speaks of bringing provisions or “loading” to the new world (1 Ne 18:4). We discussed what spiritual provisions our students had packed in their loading. They mentioned scriptures, patriarchal blessings, temple recommends, prayer, the Spirit, etc. Nephi also describes nearly disastrous rebellion on the journey. We discussed the consequences of disobedience, the temptation to ignore or even “bind” those who give warnings, and the need to keep the compass of the Spirit working.
Then we turned to the Jaredite crossing. Unlike Lehi’s family, the Jaredites crossed the ocean not in a single ship but in eight small barges. Having built the barges “according to the instruction of the Lord,” the brother of Jared faced three problems: air, light, and steering. He presented these to the Lord.
The Lord answered the first problem, air, as follows: “make a hole in the top, and also in the bottom.” This answer resolved the problem, while at the same time revealing the pitching, turbulent, topsy-turvey nature of the Jaredite journey. Sometimes on our voyages we will be given answers by the Lord, by our professors, or by others. We need to learn to ask good questions and heed wise counsel.
The Lord does not answer the second problem, light, but throws the question back to the brother of Jared: “What will ye that I should do?” Sometimes the Lord, like college teachers, require us to come up with the answers, to propose solutions to our problems, to work things out for ourselves first. This develops initiative, deepens learning.
The brother of Jared comes up with an audacious plan for light. He fashions sixteen small, transparent stones and invites the Lord to touch them “that they may shine forth in the darkness.” The Lord touches them and they shine.
So, too, the Lord’s touch can fill our souls with light. We need to take these moments—these precious, shining stones—with us on our various voyages. Sacred encounters with God can illuminate dark passages. They can become shining stones of testimony lighting our way.
The Lord’s response to the third problem, “whither shall we steer,” is the least commented upon and most enigmatic in the narrative. How do the Jaredites steer the barges? For that matter, how do they keep eight barges together across a vast ocean? And, if they could steer the flotilla, how do they know “whither” lies the promised land?
The answer to this third problem seems to me that they are required simply to get “aboard of their vessels or barges, set forth into the sea, and commend themselves unto the Lord their God.” Then they let the waves and “the winds [which] have gone forth out of my mouth” do the rest. Their voyage requires a leap of faith if ever there was one!
Nephi steers his ship (1 Ne 18:22). The intrepid Jaredites, by contrast, trust themselves to the “furious wind,” “mountain waves,” and “terrible tempests”—and this for 344 days!—all the while singing praises and thanking God day and night and trusting to “his tender mercies over them.” Few scriptural examples of trusting God surpass that of the Jaredites.
The Jaredites learn that God is in the storms as he is in the stones. Perhaps the most evocative verse in the account is this: “And it came to pass that the wind did never cease to blow towards the promised land while they were upon the waters” (Ether 6:8). Likewise, the winds and storms in our lives can waft us to the promised land if we trust in God when He asks us to set forth our vessel into the sea.
In the Epilogue to her beautiful book My Grandfather’s Blessing, Rachel Naomi Remen (who is not LDS) cites the Jaredite exodus as a symbol for how to face uncertainty. She calls attention to the symbolism of stones touched by God and winds that blow towards the promised land. Remen writes of the stones:
“[T]he stone is one of two archetypal symbols of the soul. This image of a people sailing through heavy seas . . . steering only by the light that the touch of God kindles in their souls, is a particularly beautiful one for me.”
Likewise Remen writes of the wind:
“Having accompanied many people as they deal with the unknown, I find that the most moving part of the Mormon exodus story is a single line. Despite the challenges and great difficulties of this sea journey, “the wind always blows in the direction of the promised land.” I have seen many people spread their sails and catch this wind.”
May we spread our sails and catch the Lord’s wind. May God’s touch illuminate our way in the dark. Whether in shining stones or in raging storm, He will surely be with us on this epic crossing we call mortality.