One thing I have become accustomed to is the impeccable timing of God. Early in ministry, I thought most situations that turned out unexpectedly well were coincidences, naively sure that my life was my own. As years passed, too many situations occurred in which the confluence of people, skills, timing were just “too good to be true.” Such surprises opened my eyes, convincing me that God is behind the scenes of life in unseen ways.
Guidance, provision, protection, and each breath of life is guarded and guided in loving and accepting ways, even when we refuse to realize it. In recent years, I realized this confidence supports most seafarers who spend months and years at sea. Most of what we call coincidence is really God at work placing people and situations before us for our benefit. With few exceptions, seafarers are aware of God’s protecting hand in the little things, such as calming of the seas, guiding them through a storm, easing a engineless vessel into safe harbor to anchor for repairs, and the chaplain’s visit just after hearing a brother died at home the previous week.
“To everything there is a season…..” Solomon tells us, as he laments how the many seasons of life have a Godly purpose. In maritime ministry people come and go, part of the seasons of an industry that expects changes like the weather. Shipping in even 10 years has the industry has shifted a few times, the needs of seafarers adjusts with the changes in technology, and practical needs for communication requires learning all the time by those in ministry. Years ago, a chaplain boarded ships with rolls of quarters for pay phones located on each dock. A few years later, mobile phones with international calling cards were necessary (and much lighter). Now we are asked for SIM cards and await the next change enabling seafarers to connect with loved ones at home.
However, the changes in technology have not changed one thing: the need for someone to be present. Someone to listen and care remains embedded in human nature, woven into the fabric of creation. The ministry of presence that maritime chaplains provide often is the right person at the right time and place to offer support to a lonely seafarer. Recently one chaplain reported:
“I headed to the quarterdeck, where three seafarers were off the side painting.” One asked, ‘Excuse me Father, would you pray for us?’ So we all took off our hard hats and prayed. When we got to the ‘Amen’ and crossing ourselves, I looked up and saw tears in all of their eyes.”
Or another quick comment: “I thought my timing would be all bad, but it wasn’t…”
When thinking he was visiting too late on a ship, the result was an engaging conversation needed by a seafarer who had been hoping someone would come by from the Seafarers center. “I really wanted to talk about….” and a deep or consoling conversation is launched.
Recently, another chaplain mused, “Seems like it was good timing for a visit. Sometimes it seems that no matter what time we go it just isn’t. But today was different.”
Often the visit to a ship was not for those onboard, but for one of the terminal workers. Like the time the chaplain could not board the ship but spent an hour as the guard unraveled his pain at a spouse leaving him. Times of reflection about God’s purpose of each visit are invaluable and pray before heading onboard is essential to seeing how God is with us. If only most of us approached life with the same preparation and reflection. Could it open our eyes to evidence of God’s presence assured by Jesus, “I will be with you always…”
Faithfulness to God and listening each day can reassure us of God’s timing played out in real circumstances over and over again. It only takes a little listening, praying, and asking God for wisdom and, in retrospect, we will be amazed at how He works through our lives. It has nothing to do with seminary education; it has everything to do to discipleship, and listening to the nudges of God’s Spirit. Why not start looking, listening and anticipating God’s presence today and be amazed at the Spirit’s ability to work in lives at just the right moment, when needed?
The Rev. J. Loring Carpenter is the interim general secretary of the International Christian Maritime Association.