It’s the requisite line of nearly every adventure movie. “I’ll come back for you,” says the courageous hero. “I promise.” And, against all odds, he always does. We script our stories this way because we hate disappointment. We long for the assurance of “happily ever after.”
Nearly 100 years ago, on bleak and forsaken Elephant Island, 22 men waited for a hero to return. They had watched him disappear beyond the horizon. But the days and weeks since then had stretched into five months of hell. Subfreezing temperatures coupled with howling winds, snow and sleet had given them no relief. Time was running out.
The year before, with great expectations, they had embarked as part of a 28-man crew including their visionary leader, Ernest Shackleton. Traveling aboard the study ship Endurance, they set out in January 1915 to reach the icy Antarctic continent, intending to cross it on foot. But nearly 1,000 miles into their journey, Endurance was trapped by pack ice — like a “pecan in a piece of toffee,” one crew member observed.
For 10 months, they were forced to drift with the ice floe, farther and farther from their destination. But instead of eventually breaking free, the ice compression increased, and the crew of 28 men was forced to leave the splintering vessel and pitch their tents on the ice. Endurance, the ship, had reached its end. Endurance for the men was just beginning.
There they remained for another five months, until the ice began to break up. Shackleton ordered the men into the three small lifeboats they had salvaged from the ship.
After seven horrific days and nights in stormy seas and minus-10-degree weather, the three little ships hove to at Elephant Island. But Shackleton knew survival depended on one more valiant journey, a long shot. Leaving those 22 ravaged yet hopeful men on the island, he and five hand-picked sailors set out in a lifeboat for a whaling station 800 miles across the South Atlantic, some of the most dangerous water on the planet.
Months dragged by. The men waiting on Elephant Island, famished and fainting, held on to life with the slimmest hope their leader would come back. Then, one unforgettable day, there came a shout from the lookout. A ship had appeared on the horizon. Shackleton had returned. In a frenzy of jubilation, within one hour, all of the men were aboard, headed back to the land of the living. Not one had been lost.
In this cosmic adventure, we too await a rescue. We await fulfillment of the promise given by angelic messengers two millennia ago: “In like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven, he will come again.”
And while we wait, the conditions are deteriorating; the enemy has had his way, ravaging the flock, culling the herd, tearing at our flanks until it is easy to despair for the prophetic patience of the saints. When will our Leader return? we wonder. How long can we hold on? Do we look for Him in vain? Is the promise really true?
What answers do our lives reveal?