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  • The Rev. Mary Davisson

The Seafarer's Life

In spring 2004, I bid a fond farewell to my field ed experience here at this parish, graduated from seminary, and was ordained a transitional deacon. Meanwhile, vocational Deacon Ed Munro, who’d founded the Baltimore International Seafarers’ Center as a volunteer, was ready to move on. Ministry to international cargo ship crews docked in Baltimore had become more complicated, by new security rules and other changes. The diocese agreed that the seafarers’ center should be directed by a priest--which is what I would become 7 months later--with a full-time salary. There were just a few little challenges with this vision. For instance, we had no clue where this salary would come from.

So several of us met together, to seek God’s will. Meanwhile, I began visiting ships with Ed, and following in love with this ministry; but that’s another chapter. The chapter I want to quote now comes from a meeting where we were brainstorming. Should we spend down assets, while trying to figure out whether the center could survive? Could we convince one single parish to sponsor port ministry? And during this meeting, the person listing options said, “We could close the center altogether. But closing would be the worst thing which could happen.”

Well. Actually, the worst thing which could happen is being separated from the love of God. Except that can’t happen. Scriptures tell us that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Of course this person didn’t mean that closing the seafarers’ center would be worse than losing God’s love. They just meant they’d rather keep this ministry alive and flourishing. But I left that meeting with an obsessive fear about the center dying. Then, by God’s grace, that fear was gradually transformed into trust, that God will work among seafarers. With or without a seafarers’ center, God will keep working. And the more I trusted, the more I’ve witnessed God doing God’s work. That trust made our ministry live stronger.

So what is the worst thing that can happen? Death of a ministry, death of a person? Jesus viewed death differently. In today’s Gospel, he warned his hearers that the temple, that beautiful institution where a widow had just contributed all she had to live on, would be destroyed. Wars and disasters would break out. We might be betrayed by our families, condemned by religious and secular authorities. Execution could be agonizing and humiliating.

Yet, “not a hair of your head will perish”? Seriously!? You’re gonna be crucified or stoned, but no worries, you’ll have a great hair day when you go?

Okay, Jesus wasn’t talking about great hair days. “Not a hair of your head will perish” is figurative for “all of your essence will be preserved.” You might be executed, but by your endurance, you’ll gain your psyche. Greek psyche can translate both “life” and “soul.” The widow who donated her last pennies earlier in this chapter gave up her living, her bios, her biological sustenance. But--whether Luke was praising her generosity, or blasting the wealthy bystanders who failed to help her--either way, this widow preserved her psyche, her faithful essence.

So that’s how the faithful, even when oppressed or persecuted, preserve their lives. Now let’s explore the lives of lions!

Here’s my question about today’s Old Testament reading: can lions really sustain life with straw? Lions eating straw will make God rejoice, according to Isaiah. First God rejoices in God’s people living longer, healthier lives; not laboring in vain; enjoying the rewards of their work. I get that. I taste that joy in port ministry. Seafarers face hazardous work, grinding fatigue, and depressing isolation from the families they’ve left behind, throughout their nine-month contracts, and especially as Christmas approaches. Volunteers and I rejoice when we can sustain their physical and mental and spiritual health. Already this month we fulfilled one crew’s search for a treadmill, another’s for donations to their library, another’s for a blessing and Filipino Bibles. As for seafarers making a living, enjoying the rewards of their work: we’ve advocated repeatedly for seafarers to recover wages owed. And surely God rejoices in that.

But lions sharing a tasty snack of straw with an ox? Is that what God needs, to rejoice? Hmmm. Websites claim that a vegan diet can’t sustain a lion’s life. A healthy vegan lion is about as realistic as enjoying a good hair day while dying a messy death.

Of course these verses aren’t about re-training or genetically altering lions. Or wolves. Or serpents. Isaiah’s talking about us--and about hope. Maybe eating straw isn’t what you hope for. But I see real hope in this vision of animals changing their nature.

“The wolf and the lamb feed together”--the powerful at table with the powerless. Imagine those with more power and those with less power being truly present with each other. Imagine a ship owner from one nationality, a crew from 6 different countries on the same ship, and U.S. security guards of various ethnicities all truly listening to each other. I don’t have to imagine that, because sometimes--not always but sometimes--I’ve witnessed that mutual respect, between Asian and European seafarers, between black and white port workers. And sometimes, port chaplains are blessed to help that happen: helping different groups understand each other’s experience.

And the lion in Isaiah’s second animal image doesn’t just “understand facts” about the ox. By eating straw, he experiences the life of the other. Today, our country, our world, seem so divided that half of us can’t imagine how the other half feels and why. How have we come to know so little of each other? What if we could grow our imaginations, not by abandoning our principles, but by trying to see and hear and feel and taste the experience of our neighbors who talk differently, vote differently, live differently?

Seafarers’ center volunteers and I literally taste the experience of other nations. Fresh baked specialties on some ships. Or, instant coffee, with sugar and creamer we didn’t ask for, because that’s how many crews prefer their coffee, so that’s what we drink too. At lunch, the “vegetable” may be a limp piece of lettuce. Imagine 9 months on board, with those provisions.

But I tasted a deeper experience of seafarers’ lives at a port chaplain conference in Manila. Manila’s where Filipino seafarers hang out between jobs. And it’s where port chaplains from around the world gathered one Saturday, after traveling up to 24 hours. At 6:30 on a blazing Sunday, we dragged our chronologically impaired bodies onto cramped buses with no air conditioning. We marched for hours in the National Seafarers’ Day parade; attended a two-hour ceremony, half in the Filipino language; wandered around a huge mall trying to figure out Filipino money and buy a very late lunch. And our week of thirteen-hour days was a piece of cake compared to what Filipinos seafarers experience. After just a few weeks’ vacation with their families, they fly half way around the world to a U.S. port; immediately start working long hours on a ship; and wonder when they’ll have time and money to call home. My taste of the Philippines was luxurious compared to most Filipinos’ lives. Still, I understand the anxieties and politics of that country better than before.

Isaiah’s third animal image is the serpent eating dust. The serpent is often interpreted as the Tempter-- capital T. But sometimes, we too become tempters. When our vision doesn’t work out, our indignation tempts us to drag others down our path of anger. When I don’t have enough volunteers to transport every seafarer ashore, it’s hard not to bark at the frustrated crews I have to refuse. Good Lord, deliver us. Teach us when to close our mouths, swallow our bitterness, eat dust.

Maintaining presence with those less powerful—or more. Tasting unfamiliar experience. Swallowing frustrations and failure. All these can feel like fates worse than death. But for Jesus, this means opportunity to witness. When we trust God’s work instead of our fears, stop clutching survival and success, embrace each other’s lives: paradoxically, we become our selves—our truest selves. Jesus promises : “By your endurance you will gain your psyche, your souls.”

Thank you, Jesus, for feeding our lives: not with straw, but with your very self. Amen.

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