To All the Ships at Sea
Years ago, I had a parishioner named Roger. He was one crusty individual, one of a rare breed of antique humans who had worked since he was a child after dropping out of school at a young age. He joined the Merchant Marines when he was barely out of short pants, lying about his age. Serving in the North Atlantic, he was one of the many experienced mariners whose job it was to navigate cargoes of supplies, arms and ammunition from the United States to Great Britain during the earliest months of the era of "Lend-Lease." He told stories of that transit that haunt me to this day.
He was shipwrecked, twice. Left floating for days in the salt and cold, he contracted an eczema that left him with chapped skin for the rest of his life. He was never warm, relying on cold-locker clothing even in summer to keep his bones from remembering those cold waters. He cherished every bite of good food and every nip of good drink, refusing gently ever to talk about what he and his crew mates were forced to eat and drink during their weeks on the raft. He knew, intimately, the risks of making a life on the waters of the world, and yet he kept going back to it. When I knew him, he was an ancient and trusted pilot for the harbor where the church was placed. He knew he waters, the risks and used those experiences to do what he could to bring as many vessels as he could to safe harbor.
Roger also knew God, and respected not only the grace, peace and mystery of the Divine but also the power, the might and the majesty. "I wouldn't say we are on good terms," he would opine, "because God knows me...but we do find some respect for each other's perspectives."
We forget just how big God is too often, getting caught up in the distractions of the concerns of human commerce and the primacy of seeking to do well by our own with our resources. Today's readings seek to remind us that God is the one who holds the winds, the seas, the changes and chances of life...and we are the ones who must navigate those troubled waters with faith and trust in that majesty if we hope to prevail, much less to survive.
Therein lies the hope we share with Roger and all those who go down to the sea in ships. We are being schooled again and again in the fact that our desire to control, to dominate and to possess are illusions. The reality beckoning to us most of the time (and at others breaking over us like those great, immense open ocean swells Roger would remember to me) is that we are in fact in God's hands. our prayers, like the one above, can help us to remember and find solace that even in the face of the storm, God is still with us. We might not like the situation, or the sense of impending judgment, or the truth staring back at us that we are trying to live out and beyond our means....but God is still with us. Even when we are being tossed to and fro, as were the people of Israel in exile, God is still with us. Even when the eye passes over, and a too-brief respite only reminds us that more of the storm is on its way, God is still with us.OMOST powerful and glorious Lord God, at whose command the winds blow, and lift up the waves of the sea, and who stillest the rage thereof; We, thy creatures, but miserable sinners, do in this our great distress cry unto thee for help; Save, Lord, or else we perish. We confess, when we have been safe, and seen all things quiet about us, we have forgotten thee our God, and refused to hearken to the still voice of thy word, and to obey thy commandments: But now we see how terrible thou art in all thy works of wonder; the great God to be feared above all: And therefore we adore thy Divine Majesty, acknowledging thy power, and imploring thy goodness. Help, Lord, and save us for thy mercy's sake, in Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord.Amen. (from the Book of Common Prayer, 1892)
Roger lost a lot in his time at sea. He lost significant portions of his health. He lost friends and shipmates he held dear. He lost his assurance that he could ever presume to be the master of his fate; but he NEVER lost his faith. I think God had a particularly soft spot for that man, as God does for all who see the face of the oncoming storm and choose to sail into it, trusting that God will be as present there as anywhere else.
O ETERNAL Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens, and rulest the raging of the sea; who hast compassed the waters with bounds, until day and night come to an end; Be pleased to receive into thy Almighty and most gracious protection, the persons of us thy servants, and the Fleet [or Ship] in which we serve. Preserve us from the dangers of the sea, and from the violence of the enemy; that we may be a safeguard unto the United States of America, and a security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions; that the inhabitants of our land may in peace and quietness serve thee our God; and that we may return in safety to enjoy the blessings of the land, with the fruits of our labour; and, with a thankful remembrance of thy mercies, to praise and glorify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (from the BCP, 1892)