20 January 2012

The Sea, and All That Is Therein

by Phil Johnson

t was the summer of 1997. I was slated to go on one of those week-long ministry-sponsored cruises along the Inside Passage in Alaska with Darlene—a full week of Bible teaching and heavenly scenery. A floating Bible conference in the north Pacific. We were very excited about it.

One major problem: I had a stack of work on my desk I could not in good conscience leave behind. It was mostly correspondence from "Grace to You" listeners—people seeking counsel and biblical help. Some of them were asking for advice regarding fairly urgent issues; some were asking tough Bible questions out of curiosity. But I needed to answer them all, soon. Prior to the cruise, I had set all my correspondence aside for a few weeks in order to meet a deadline with a book project, and I desperately needed to get caught up.

So (carefully forgetting to tell Darlene I was planning to work during her "vacation") I smuggled this 5-inch-thick pile of papers into a green fabric Eddie Bauer briefcase and took it with me as carry-on baggage.

The cruise was leaving from Seward, Alaska. We were to fly from Los Angeles to Anchorage, then drive from there to Resurrection Bay to get on the ship. We had a layover in Seattle on the way to Anchorage, and while in the airport there, I left that green briefcase in a chair while I walked over to the drinking fountain. That's when Darlene first consciously noticed the bag, and she went and stood by it to keep an eye on it. I knew I was caught.

I took an extra-long drink from the fountain, and when I returned, Darlene said, "What's in that briefcase? You should keep a closer eye on it. You don't want to lose it."

I said, "On the contrary. That's a bag of correspondence I'm going to have to work on during the cruise. Frankly, the best thing that could happen would be if it fell in the ocean. I'd have a great excuse for not answering all those letters."

Darlene was very patient, as always, and she just rolled her eyes at me. Not a word of complaint when she discovered I had dragged that bag of work along. No wonder I love her so much.

Anyway, to make a long story short, when we boarded our ship the next day, some stewards took several passengers' luggage and loaded it on a rolling cart to push it up the gangplank. Almost as an afterthought, I put that briefcase on top of the stack of suitcases, thinking it best to let the professionals get it on the ship.

Less than 20 minutes after we boarded, they started paging me on the ship's loudspeaker. That is something they never do on cruise ships unless it's a very serious emergency. They asked me to come to the front desk to speak to the captain.

So I went immediately, thinking something must be terribly wrong. It occurred to me that they might have received word that someone back home might have been in an accident, or had a heart attack, or something like that. I prayed for mercy and grace as I hurried to the main deck. The feeling got more ominous the closer I got to the ship's lobby. When the attendants working the front desk saw me coming, I heard one whisper to the others, "That's him!"—and they all scurried into the back room, out of sight.

So now I knew something was seriously wrong. A grim-looking man dressed in an officer's uniform led me into a complex of offices, stopped, and just before opening a door, he looked at me and said, "Mr. Johnson, I'm afraid I have some bad news."

After a disturbingly long pause, he opened the door and said: "Your briefcase fell in the water."

Inside that office several of the ship's crew had spread dripping-wet papers from my briefcase across every surface. People were on their hands and knees frantically trying to pat my stuff dry with towels. They looked up in unison when I entered the room. I could see panic in every set of eyes.

I broke out laughing. I said, "I told my wife I hoped that bag would fall in the ocean. You should have let it sink."

The panic in those eyes turned to pity. I think they all thought I was insane. The ship's purser, still grim, said, "Sir, I'm afraid everything in that bag is thoroughly soaked. It's very serious."

So I assured him it was not serious and tried to explain why this all struck me as hilariously funny. I also reassured the purser that I didn't need any kind of compensation or complimentary liquor for the week, or whatever. And I wasn't going to sue or demand free passage on cruises for the rest of my life.

I finally managed to convince them I really wasn't upset or crazy, and they breathed a collective sigh of relief that was almost palpable.

There was one woman in the room dressed in civilian clothes. She followed me out of the room and said, "Mr. Johnson, may I have a word with you?"

She said, "My name is Jeannette Seale. I'm on staff at the Seward Seaman's Mission, an evangelical mission to crew members on cruise ships. I was there when your bag fell in the water. I saw something fall; I heard the splash; and I heard crew members frantically shouting, No! No!" I thought a baby had fallen overboard or something.

"Two men crawled down the ship's ladder, literally risking their lives to retrieve your briefcase. They allowed me to come on the ship, because I knew the crew member who dropped the bag, and he was utterly distraught. He is a Muslim." (The ship's crew was from Indonesia.) "And he was saying, 'Oh God! Oh, God!' and I said, 'Amir, Allah is not going to help you now. We need to pray to Jesus. And I prayed aloud that whoever owned this bag would not be seriously angry. Because if you were angry or demanded compensation, it would probably cost him his job.

"Then," she said, "when we opened your bag, I could tell immediately from the contents that you were a Christian in full-time ministry. And then I began to pray for you, because I have seen too many Christians in situations like this behave worse than the world. And I thought if you lost your temper it would damage your testimony, and mine, and all the Christians on the ship.

"So I was profoundly relieved when you reacted the way you did, and I wanted to tell you thanks."

Now I'll be the first to admit that I'm no hero in circumstances like these. I have lost my temper and shamefully damaged my testimony in other, more trivial circumstances. Ask Darlene. I'm much too prone to mutter really unkind things about other drivers on the freeway. And she always admonishes me to try to speak in a kinder tone with customer-service reps on the phone. If you are a long-time blog-reader who has seen my responses to persistently-critical blog-comments, you know that sharp-tonguedness is one of my besetting sins. I admit it to my utter shame.

But this was different, because I immediately saw the hand of Providence in the whole incident. I had virtually prayed aloud that my bag would get dropped overboard. I had said to the bag, "Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea." It seemed clear to me that God had answered in a dramatic way. When the bag fell into Resurrection Bay less than 24 hours after my flippant comment to Darlene, I knew instantly that it was God Himself who gave it a push. (A crew member told me that in 20 years of working with that cruise line, he had never heard of a passenger's bag falling into the ocean.)

Fortunately Eddie Bauer bags are sturdy and well-sewn. Though by no means watertight, the bag floated just long enough for the crew to retrieve it before it sank. Their risky rescue operation was above and beyond the call of duty.

Subsequent events proved that the Lord had a good purpose for dropping my bag in the sea. There was a group of Indonesian Christians on the crew who always visited the Seward Seaman's Mission when their ship was in port, and when they heard what had happened, they invited me to come and preach at their worship service on the ship on Monday night. They work long hours every Sunday and Monday, and then at 11:00 Monday night, they have just one opportunity per week to hold a worship service. About 25 of them would meet together each week in the middle of the night in a partitioned section of the ship's large dining room. And they gave me and Darlene the rare privilege of worshiping with them.

Their worship and fellowship lasted well into the early morning hours—not because my sermon was long, but because they kept singing and praying and enjoying one another's fellowship until we all simply couldn't stay awake any longer. That late-night worship service was the highlight of the cruise for me. Indeed, it was one of the highlights of my life, like a little foretaste of heaven.

I have thought about this a lot in the ensuing years: All the trials we go through would be a whole lot easier to endure if we had more trust in the workings of Providence. If we would just bear in mind that God is fully in control of everything that happens to us—both "good" and "bad"—we would be far less frustrated, and far more confident that He is in charge, working all things (including the "bad" and merely inconvenient things) together for ultimate good.

By the way, the papers in that bag dried just fine. I answered every letter. Though wrinkled and covered with a layer of crystallized salt, they were all still readable. And each time I picked up the next letter and felt the salty texture, it made me smile. So even the work I had to do that week was a special, memorable joy.

Phil's signature


Lance Roberts said...

Encouraging testimony. This morning I have personally been overwhelmed by God's providence in our lives and ministry. Praise Him!

Katy said...

A fantastic story....I wonder if that young Muslim man's eyes were opened to Christianity!? :) Thanks,so much, for sharing this with us!

Bruce Mills said...

Great story, Phil! I needed to read that because of some issues that are currently going on in our family. It is so encouraging to be reminded that God's providence is perfect! Thanks.

Staci Eastin said...

Great story. It's tempting for us to think that people in service positions are just anonymous beings, but they're real people who need the gospel.

Anonymous said...

This brought me to tears. What comfort to trust in God's guiding hand of providence.

Terry Rayburn said...

Thanks for a wonderful story. I'll be thinking on the Lord's Providence today, recalling instances of It in my life, and praising Him for it.

Huge great reminder!

Robert Andrejczyk said...

Great story that had immediate application for my life. Listen to how God providentially worked through your post:

I read your post right before leaving for work this morning. Today, instead of driving directly to work, I had to take about a 20 mile detour to drop off a package at a company that provides services for my company.

On the way, I stopped to get gas. The first pump I stopped at had a sign that said, "Card reader broken. Please pay inside. Sorry for the inconvenience." Not wanting to go inside, I pulled around to an adjacent pump. I finished pumping my gas, waited for my receipt, and turned to get into my car.

As I stepped forward to open my door, I noticed a young lady backing out of her parking spot in front of my car. She was talking on the phone - MY BIGGEST PET PEEVE - and not paying attention. Despite the guy next to me shouting out, "WHOAH! WHOAH! WHOAH!", she plowed into the front-end of my car without braking.

I felt the anger rising within me and I'm sure my face was beet-red. As the young lady got out of her car, I was fully prepared to give her a tongue-lashing that would make her feel much worse than she already did. At that moment, your words came flooding into my mind. I calmed down, smiled, and simply told the girl that she needs to be more careful because the next time it could be a person. I told her not to worry about the damage (the car is old). She kept asking if I was sure. I told her again to please be careful and not to worry about it.

Think about it: a route to work I never take. A gas station I never stop at. A broken gas pump that caused me to pull up to the next one. All coincidence, right?

God used your story to keep me from sinning in my anger. Thank you for sharing.

Robert said...

Thanks for this, Phil. I think that if we all had this attitude about us all the time and we were looking forward to what awaits us in Heaven, that we would be much less frustrated and worried and would provide a much better witness to the work of God at work in our lives.

Bishop, thanks for sharing this story as I am sure we can all relate to various events in our lives that we could and should have handled better. Maybe we can take this to heart for the next opportunity to let our good works shine before men so that they may give glory to our Father in Heaven above.

Rhology said...

Great story.

However, this Freudian slip makes me suspicious of you:

I didn't need any kind of compensation or compl**e**mentary liquor for the week

You mean, to complement the numerous bottles you brought with you on the ship?
You fiend, you.

Beng said...

I think this is the first time I've been moved to tears on reading a Pyromaniacs post.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

What a wonderful blessing this story is, it is truly God at work in His unique ways. AND...I am glad you saw it as a precious moment in your life's history. The fact that you cherished this in your heart means so much to all of us.

I have one, too, and I may post it on my blog in a few weeks. It concerns a head-on collision I had, and a book I was carrying with me in my car by John MacArthur.

Thanks, Phil, it more then made my day!

Someone needs to write an article about besetting sins. :) Just a thought.

Charlene said...

Phil, thank you for this testimony of God's providence and faithfulness and sovereignty! And I'm sure we only know the half of what God did/is doing for His name's sake through that one event. What mighty God we serve!

rockstarkp said...

What a reminder that a bad temper can ruin one's testimony at any point.
Great story and reminder that God is always in control.
Life happens, and how we respond to it is what really matters.

Nash Equilibrium said...

What a great testimony to the Lord. And wonderfully told.

Always Reforming said...

What a story! God has a sense of humor, I believe.

Sharon said...

I believe I was on that trip, and you told that story to the GTY folks. I never get tired of hearing it!

As a friend of mine said, we cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we react!

Rob said...

What a wonderful story. Where's the 'like' button? This needs to be shared.

donsands said...

Wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing.

"Indonesian Christians".

I think these are some of the most persecuted in the world. That's a rough plave Indonesia, I think.

Have a great weekend, and especially Lord's Day in the Lord's house.


Josh B said...

I think I heard you tell this story on Wretched once. The context you were speaking with Todd about was the distinction between providence and prophecy.

Thanks for writing this one down for the ages.

Solameanie said...

How can one even make a comment besides "glory to God" for a testimony like this. Inspiring and yet very convicting at the same time. Wow!

Aaron Snell said...

I wonder, Phil, if you ever wish some metas would be likewise cast into the sea :)

Thank you for a great reminder that a robust, biblical doctrine of Providence has very practical outworkings.

Mizz Harpy said...

Thank you for posting this Phil.

Jay Beerley said...

Preaching about Joseph tomorrow. Adding this baby as an illustration. Blessings.

Marie said...

Marvelous story, thank you.

threegirldad said...

It's an even more compelling story when you listen to Phil tell it (imo).

It begins at around 50:20, but by all means, listen to the whole sermon. :-)

Rachael Starke said...

Loved this.

How good God is to give us particular grace against our besetting sins to glorify Himself. Makes me wonder about those times in my life when the angry words "win" over the Spirit, but God is sovereign over that also.

Darlene said...

How intriguing your narrative is when considering all that transpired after your comment wishing the suit case would fall into the ocean. It seems those letters were meant to be answered after all. And that you were to meet with those Indonesian Christians. God and His angels are always working behind the scenes, often unbeknown to us.

Jeri Tanner said...

Absolutely wonderful! :)

Linda said...

"I had said to the bag, "Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea."

hilarious ~

you shoulda said ballyhoo bag overboard

next time bring your rod and reel..

wonderful way of making the most of every opportunity

Bill O'Neill said...

I also had heard you relate this amazing story of God's divine providence to Todd Friel on Wretched (likely just after Todd's perennially fruitless arm-twisting efforts to enlist you to the Wretched fill-in host bench.)

Away From The Brink said...

谢谢你,菲力浦. 我需要。

Susan said...

Ah, that lovely word. Providence. The word that gave me such assurance when I heard it from RC Sproul, Sr., at a Ligonier's Conference, when he used Joseph's life as an example of God's amazing outworking of his Providence. And what assurance it is to hear (read) it again now! Thank you for sharing this lovely story, Phil. :)

Lonnalee Anderson said...

What a Great Story!

Burrito34 said...

Phil, your story is a painful reminder to me how I once angrily cussed someone whom I caught stealing something from me. I've regretted ever since the damage I did to my Christian testimony since I reacted naturally instead of as the Holy Spirit would have wanted me to. Bishop55 raised some very good points about how circumstances can come about to make us show what's really inside us. I pray that God will help me and all of us respond as we should in ways that will glorify and honor Him in situations such as these.

Ebeth said...

Thanks, Phil, for both the story and the perspective.

Mel said...

Once again your writing has blessed my heart and given God glory.
Thank you Phil Johnson.

Reuben H said...

had to laugh with joy through brimming eyes.
God is so good.

Patrick said...

I love this story. Thank you for sharing God's Providence and good humor in your life.