Lisa Nichols Hickman: Epiphany and votive ships

The traditional votive ships of Finland teach lessons on stewardship.

Enter just about any church in Finland and you will find a model ship gracing the ceiling and hovering over the center aisle of the sanctuary. These “votive ships” are handmade offerings for a safe return from a tumultuous trip on the sea. When a seaman returned from voyage, he crafted a model of the ship on which he had sailed and brought it to his church as an offering. It was a tangible expression of humility and thanksgiving.

Votive shipDuring this season of Epiphany, the votive ship resonates with the hymn “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” -- a symbol of the wise men who journeyed to Jesus bearing thank offerings. This Finnish tradition also brings to mind the testimony of Psalm 107, particularly Eugene Peterson’s translation. Verses 23-32 come as an answer to verse 2, “Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story”:

“Out at sea you saw God in action,
saw his breathtaking ways with the ocean:
With a word he called up the wind—
an ocean storm, towering waves!
You shot high in the sky, then the bottom dropped out;
your hearts were stuck in your throats.
You were spun like a top, you reeled like a drunk,
you didn't know which end was up.
Then you called out to God in your desperate condition.”

For us landlubbers, the tradition of offering votive ships -- as it echoes Psalm 107 -- deepens our understanding of stewardship in four ways.

Votive ships demonstrate that stewardship is also testimony. Psalm 107 tells a story of God in action that is breathtaking because God has met us in our desperate conditions and raised us out of the storm. Channeling that thanksgiving is the craft of stewardship. Are we offering in our congregations avenues of stewardship that allow testimony, thank offerings and thoughtful expressions of stories of God at work in our lives?

Votive ships tell a deeply personal story. The maker of a votive ship brings real life experience to the verses of Psalm 107. The words of the Psalmist call forth waves of real conditions. Through the making of votive ships, the personal story of gratitude found public hearing in the life of worship. This is testimony at its best. This is not self-referential or grandiose, but a humble acceptance of God’s transcendent hand at work in the world. In the Greek language, there is a word for sin -- amartia -- that literally means “not to witness”. In other words, not witnessing to the redemptive power of God in the midst of life’s desperate conditions was considered an act of sinning. Are our churches too anxious to bring personal stories into public worship?

Votive ships are thank offerings that connect work and worship. The beauty of the votive ship is that it intimately connects the spheres of work and worship. The daily vocation of the sailor in all of its peril and glory is brought into the sanctuary. Too often we separate these spheres of life, and create that impassable divide between Sunday and Monday. Gratitude for survival in the workplace, brought to expression in the sanctuary, bridges that divide and transforms the gratitude we offer in worship into the daily world of work.

Votive ships are physical expressions of God’s invisible love and grace. While Psalm 107 creates within us a physical reaction of seasickness, the psalmist testifies to the invisible love and grace of God made manifest in breathtaking ways. If the call of stewardship is to consider how to make tangible the immense love and grace experienced in life’s storms, then the next step of stewardship is to make that tangible expression accessible to a world of need.

After the offering of the votive ships, the sailors eventually had to face seaward and venture back into the open sea that had proved tumultuous before. Maybe stewardship carries that same current as well. We experience a desperate condition. We experience God’s grace. We pause to tell the story. We create a physical expression of that thanksgiving. Our courage to testify emboldens others. But in the end, we go out once again into that vast sea to face life’s challenges.

Perhaps stewardship is, at its best, really seawardship.

Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.