Sweat fell from my brow as I crawled through the small wiring-duct area below the bridge. Old paper, crinkled and yellowing with age was strewn before me, causing me to anticipate with horror the possibility of rats lurking in the gloom, just beyond the illumination of my flashlight. At least there were no spiders, I thankfully noted. The failure of my radio to operate correctly due to the environment as well as the age of the batteries left me with no manner of communication other than to tap on the side of the duct, or yell very loudly, which made my head hurt.
It was 1987, and I was stationed temporarily aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Westwind in Mobile, Alabama. The ship was ancient; a timeless relic of World War II and was used primarily as an icebreaker in the Antarctic regions. Our job was to retrofit the vessel and prepare it for a return to service as soon as possible. Ordinarily, as a history buff, the job would have thrilled me to the core, but not at the time. I was going through a rough patch in my life, very rough, and the last place I wanted to be that summer was away from home aboard an ancient ship I was certain would sail no more.
I finally reached the junction, after what seemed to be hours – scooting on my elbows and knees, pausing to listen for rats, and then sliding forward a little more. I wondered if someone had preceded me, surely someone had been here before, and what thoughts entered their mind or what did they encounter in that small chamber during their time in these nether regions? The heat was oppressive, and as the duct turned toward my destination, I fought against gathering feelings of claustrophobia. “Perform the task and get out” I reminded myself. “That’s all I gotta do.”
In seconds I had managed to complete the required terminations, and I tapped on the duct to give my cohorts the signal to verify the connections. As soon as I received their affirmative signal, I began to back out of the abyss. That’s when the problems began for me. I was stuck – my boots unable to gain the required traction to slide me backwards due to the steel floor, slickened by humidity and my own sweat in passing earlier. Panic began to set in; a vision in my mind of my skeletal remains being found years later by some other poor soul unlucky enough to be assigned the same task. Forgoing tapping an SOS signal, I began to yell for help and pound the side of the bulkhead.
Through an inventive manner of communication, (I yelled and pounded while they calmly tapped in response) I was told someone would be down to help, but it would take a little while. I had been chosen for the job due to my diminutive stature (20 years ago) as it was a requirement in a confined space that small. It would be hard to find someone undersized enough to be able to get to me. I resolved myself to wait, as the gathering darkness began turning the minutes into hours. With time to think and do nothing else, I began to recount my years to that point and considered the circumstances I had forged into my life. In those quiet moments, I found myself again. Most of the troubles in my life were of the self-inflicted kind. I used a blame for others as a salve for my own damaged feelings, and a hardened heart to hide a loneliness that I felt inadequate to share. As a bonus: I had plenty of both to go around. These problems in my life coincided with the haphazard manner I had developed of holding onto my faith, at a time when I should have been holding onto it tightest.
It may sound cliché at best, but in many ways it was a spiritual awakening by definition, and it changed my life. By the time I felt a hand grabbing my ankles and attaching a pull-line, I had discovered an inner peace that had been missing in my life. I believe today that it was more than just taking time-out to think – that doesn’t always work. Nor was it the stress of the situation that day, though it may have contributed to the result. There was something moving in my heart, something unexplainable, and there is only One who can truly move there.
As I walked down the gangway and arrived on the dock that evening, I turned and looked back at the ship. My eyes found the bridge and I recalled the cable duct I had been trapped in earlier. I remembered Jacob in the Bible, how he had a similar experience at a bad time in his life. He had his own epiphany of understanding, and in that moment he realized: “Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.”
Sometimes we’ll find ourselves in bad situations in life. Life is messy. It happens that way - far too often and no one is excluded. The zenith of our existence as Christians and the measure of our faith is not in the bad things that happen to us. It is not exactly how we react to them, either. We shine when we keep our faith despite what happens to us, bad or good. Our faith is there to remind us that no matter where we may happen to find ourselves, despite the situations, the grief, and the pain; the Lord is always there with us.
Even when we didn't know it.