September 14, 2007
Two centuries ago it was one of the most dangerous occupations known to man. Going to sea had always been a risky venture. Ever since the first brave souls dared to cross a body of water in a crudely constructed canoe, seafarers have been at the mercy of the elements, the knowledge of the shipbuilder, and the skill of the pilot. But in the 1800’s, when trade routes were opened to exotic ports around the world and ships began to travel great distances, the risks were multiplied.
As sails were replaced with steam and wooden hulls were replaced with steel, lack of design experience coupled with the rush to build vessels with larger and larger cargo capacities led to an increasing nightmare of maritime disasters. By mid-century shipwrecks had doubled. According to the International Maritime Organization ship casualties rose to catastrophic numbers in the late 19th century. In the year 1873-4, around just the coastline of the United Kingdom, 411 ships sank, with the loss of 506 lives. Between 1867 and 1882, loss of life in British vessels alone (excluding fishing vessels) totaled 33,427 crew members and 5,987 passengers. The number of ships lost during that period rose to 16,393. Official inquiries into the cause of such losses determined a major factor was overloading the cargo holds. Incredible as it may seem, it was against the law for a seafarer to refuse to work on a ship, even if they deemed it to be less than seaworthy.
Incensed by the tragic loss of life and property, Samuel Plimsoll, a member of the British Parliament and a coal dealer by trade, began a battle for the reform of merchant shipping laws. Lined up against him was a powerful lobby of ship owners. Undaunted by the opposition, Plimsoll doggedly continued his fight which eventually led to the United Kingdom Merchant Shipping Act of 1876. In this law, load lines, markings on the hull of a ship designating how low in the water it could safely ride, became compulsory, although the official position of the line wasn’t set until 1894.
The line itself consisted of a circle with a horizontal line drawn through the middle. Other nations quickly adopted the marking since it was required in order to enter any of the lucrative trading ports in the vast British Empire. Though the exact position of the line varied from country to country, its existence dramatically reduced the occurrences of shipwrecks and saved countless lives. Today, load lines are governed by an international convention which has set universal standards. Port authorities around the world carefully monitor the ships using their harbors to make sure they comply. Over 130 years after they were first adopted, load lines are still commonly referred to as “Plimsoll Lines” in honor of the man who fought so hard to bring them into existence.
I was prompted to do the above research into maritime history after an unusual call-out I received in my position as a volunteer police chaplain for the City of San Ramon. The call came at 4:15 am (about two hours after I had crawled into bed) requesting my presence to help calm down a man who was suffering an emotional break down. Rushing to the address I was given, I prayed for God’s help not knowing what I was getting myself into.
Lord, I’m not sure how much help I can be to someone at this hour of the morning but this man needs you and I am your representative called into service to make a difference. I’m asking you to send your Spirit ahead of me and fill this home with your peace. Help me to say and do the things which will bring healing to this situation. Please, Lord, I am in desperate need of your assistance on this one since I don’t have a clue as to what to do.
After being briefed by an officer at the scene I was led into the home and introduced to the man’s wife who was holding a child in each arm, an 18 month old set of twins.
“Please,” she begged, “my husband can’t stop crying. He’s been like this for hours. Can you help him?”
She pointed up the stairs to the master bedroom. I cautiously walked up the stairs and slowly entered the room. A man who looked to be in his early thirties sat on the edge of the bed in his night clothes. His head was resting in his hands cushioned by a wad of soggy tissues. A light from the adjoining bathroom illumined his red face and blood shot eyes. The minute he saw me he burst into tears sobbing uncontrollably. After a few moments he quieted down enough for me to introduce myself and ask permission to sit beside him on the bed. He nodded his head affirmatively.
From the officer I had learned that the man had been working a string of eighteen hour days preparing for the opening of a new restaurant in the community. He was obviously exhausted, mentally and emotionally as well as physically.
“I just want to be with my kids,” he wailed over and over again.
“They’re downstairs right now,” I replied, “and they are enjoying some special attention from my police friends.”
Please, Lord, I prayed silently, how can I help this guy?
After getting him a glass of water I asked if he belonged to a local community of faith. He answered in the negative. Prompted by the Spirit I asked if I might pray for him. He responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”
Following the prayer I remembered the illustration of the “Plimsoll Line,” a tool I had used in counseling before. Feeling led by the Spirit I shared about the load line and its use in shipping.
“We all have our own emotional ‘Plimsoll lines,’” I explained. “When we try to pile too much into our lives our ‘ship’ becomes unstable. Cumulative stress has a way of overflowing our cargo holds. In the normally calm waters of our home port we may be able to stay afloat. But when the wind blows and the seas become turbulent we are in grave danger of capsizing. The solution is simple. You need to off load some of your cargo before you experience a shipwreck.”
Pausing to let the words settle in, I continued. “What you are experiencing is a common problem in this culture. Men seem to be particularly prone to taking on more than they can safely carry. When this happens to me I have a safe harbor I can visit to unload my burdens, a place where I know loving hands are waiting to lift my anxieties and refill my cargo holds with unbelievable peace. That harbor is called Jesus Christ. He has issued the invitation for all to enter his safe harbor.”
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30.
After a few more minutes of sharing the Gospel I prayed with the man as he transferred the contents of his overburdened cargo hold to the waiting arms of Jesus. For the first time since I had entered the room that night his tears stopped flowing and I silently praised God for leading me to take the initiative to usher him into the kingdom. I’m guessing he will need many more trips to the “safe harbor” of the Lord before he is completely healed. But now he has a free pass from the “Port Authority” and an open invitation to return anytime.
As I was researching the origins of the “Plimsoll Line” I couldn’t help but compare ourselves to those 19th century ship owners who, despite being told they were seriously overloading their vessels, continued to cram as much as they could into their cargo holds endangering life and property. Like them, we are in severe danger of being shipwrecked. Like them, we have a Savior who worked tirelessly to free us from our own greed. Our Savior, however, lost his life in the battle yet the mark he left behind, the sign of the cross, when applied to the hull of our ship, is the guarantee of a safe voyage across the seas of eternity. It is my earnest prayer that you are able to transfer the contents of your overloaded cargo holds to the waiting arms of Jesus before your life becomes shipwrecked.
“Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens.” – Psalm 68:19.
Bill, a child of God, burden lifted