Stephen Erickson

God’s Canoe

In Gogodala culture, the canoe (Gawa) is crucial. However, their canoes are different from the ones you will find in marine or sporting goods stores which have been machine-made to precise tolerances. In an industrialized society, canoes are mass-produced in factories. People in the west purchase and use canoes primarily for recreational purposes. Not so with the Gogodala. Their canoes exist not for sport. Life in the Aramia River floodplains requires one to move about on the water. Hence the need for canoes.

But the canoe has a much deeper significance than merely getting a person from point A to point B. And the canoe in Gogodala society is more than an object. It is a concept. Deep within their culture is a profound identity with the “Gawa.” It reminds them of their ancestors who, they believe, came across the ocean from the continent of Africa many years ago in two large canoes guided and propelled by divine command and supernatural power.

The modern-day Gogodala still believe their clan’s racing canoe is inhabited by a spirit. And if they can tap into that spirit’s power, they can win any race and maintain superiority over others. Unique to the Gogodala is their posture while paddling. They stand up. Doing so requires excellent balance, skill and strength to maneuver the wobbly, hollowed-out log over choppy waters.

In a training session with church elders, I wrestled with how to illustrate the importance of complete surrender to God. Many church members seemed only half committed. I prayed about how to impress the truth upon their hearts, and an answer came — so simple that a Gogodala child could understand.
I remembered hearing a speech by a politician campaigning for office. He was not a Gogodala but was in Gogodala territory and knew just how vital the canoe was to these people. He said, “Jump into my canoe. I will take you where you want to go.” Of course, everyone knew that he was talking in figurative language — If you cast your vote for me, we will work together to get things done — striking a positive chord in people’s hearts.

Gogodala men love the thought of standing in a racing canoe with forty other men, paddling in synchronized fashion, and cruising through the water with a common goal of being the first canoe to cross the finish line. So I reminded those elders, “You cannot have one foot in God’s canoe and the other in your own. If you do, you will certainly fall. To be completely in God’s vessel, you must have both feet there. You have to step out of your canoe.” They got the point.

Jesus alluded to this point when He said, “No man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). But depending on the person and circumstances, this may be easy, or it may be humanly impossible as it was with the rich, young ruler (Luke 18:18-25). We need to have both feet in God’s canoe. When we all pull together, the canoe, His church, moves forward.

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