Emerald Shellbacks

Family on Bow of Mercy Ship

“Pollywogs no more! We’re Emerald Shellbacks now!”

What on earth is an Emerald Shellback, you ask?  Ah, all my fellow sailors who lived onboard the Mercy Ship in 2000 will know.  Our ship’s crew claimed to be first in the world at the turn of the millennium to receive this rare title.

In January 2000 the Mercy Ship sailed from Cape Town, South Africa to The Gambia, on the bulge of Africa’s West Coast.  Who can forget when the Captain announced to the crew that we were reaching the 0 degrees longitude AND latitude point!  What an exciting moment!  Some crew decided they were going to jump over the line.  And so we did.  At the zero-zero invisible line, with ship horn’s blaring, the crew jumped high into the air on aft deck.

Following that, we celebrated by taking photos with mops and plungers – a tradition related to the line-crossing ceremonies at sea.  Captain Malcom Carter from the UK, signed our certificates marking our new titles as Emerald Shellbacks.

The Navy Terms

Pollywogs are sailors who have crossed the equator for the first time.  The Golden Shellback, another rare status, marks a sailor who has crossed the equator at the International Date Line.

But the rarest of all is the Emerald Shellback– a sailor who has crossed the Prime Meridian at the Equator – the zero longitude and zero latitude intersection.  Typically Captains will try to chart the course in order to cross this point and initiate the crew.

For all our years at sea, it’s great to have a certificate that acknowledges we actually sailed. It’s buried away in a binder with others and means almost nothing to anyone else.  It’s even useless on a resume, unless I’m applying for the Navy! So what value does that that certificate really have?  Is there any eternal significance?

The Sticker Generation

We all love to receive payback and acknowledgement for our achievements.  My children have oodles of awards and certificates packed away in binders, sitting on shelves and hanging in their vacant rooms.  From the time they were young, teachers and parents rewarded achievements and behaviors.

In Grade One, Jillian, our youngest, received the highest award in the Mercy Ships Academy – The Captain’s Award for outstanding achievement in school.  I happened to be the Captain’s secretary at the time and was put in charge of preparing this award.

When the Captain handed it to me, he commented with a twinkle in his eye, “Do you think this child deserves this award?”  I read the name and gasped.  Then I was sworn to secrecy until the end of the year school ceremony.

My children grew up in the sticker generation that rewards everything.  From sticker charts on the fridge to printed awards, to trophies, to bursaries and university cash awards, they were constantly affirmed for achievement.  In fact, it seems this generation is even awarded for non-achievement.  Awards are given to an entire class so that no one’s delicate self-esteem is damaged.

I guess I’m part of the “mediocre masses” since I grew up without receiving awards….until 2007, when to my shock I was given The Word Guild Award for my book.  Totally thrilled to be short-listed, I had no aspirations of winning.  I can certainly remember how it felt to walk on stage and receive that prize!  My speech is a blur (just like the photo below); I had not really prepped due to my lack of belief in the possibility.

Seems the photographer was excited too!

Yet, as I think about awards in light of heaven, what truly matters?  A drawer full of awards and trophies that appear in Goodwill eventually?  Award-winning books that end up at garage sales?  Medals, honours and a wall of certificates or degrees?  Does our tombstone record these?

God does require that we reach for our highest calling, that we use the talents and gifts he gave us and maximize our strengths.  As parents, we always required our children to strive for excellence, not perfection.  There is a difference. God evaluates faithfulness based on our potential.

I also know that the danger in achievement is that it easily strokes our egos and feeds our performance-orientation.  Then we tend to base our significance on what we do rather than on the value God imparts to us.  Dangerous.

So then, what kind of life does God reward?

First, let’s remind ourselves that we are not saved by our good works.  Scripture never promises that we’ll receive heaven on the basis of our good deeds, only faith in Christ.  But as believers, we are promised heavenly reward according to what we do!  (Matt. 16:27)

In Bruce Wilkinson’s book A Life God Rewards, he begins with the following: “There you are poised on the brink, ready to step into eternity.  But what if I told you that the small choices you make today – like how you interact with your boss, or whom you invite to dinner- could change what happens next?”

Think about it.  Every day, your words and deeds are being recorded in heaven and will be rewarded accordingly.  Take heart, those of you who’ve not received any awards on this earth or feel you’ve accomplished little in life!  You may not have anything to show for the great or small things you’ve done , but someday you & I will be part of the greatest Awards Ceremony ever; the one that truly counts!  So you see, your reward is truly out of this world!

According to Wilkinson, nowhere does Jesus give an exhaustive list of rewarded deeds. But we can see from His teachings, a list of some actions He promises to reward.

Acts that meet a need and honour God:

1.  Seeking God through spiritual acts such as prayer, fasting and worship.
2.  Submitting to an employer faithfully & working to make him/her successful.
3.  Self-denial in His service.
4.  Serving those in need – the poor, orphans & widows.
5.  Suffering for his name & reputation.
6.  Sharing of time, talent and treasure to further the kingdom.
7.  Loving our enemies.
8.  Giving of our financial resources.
9.  Surrendering ourselves to God with all our heart, soul & mind.

If you’ve done even one action on that list, then your deed is being stored up as treasure in heaven!  In fact, we are even commanded to store up treasure “for ourselves” in heaven.

Now here’s the wee glitch, which turns out not to be so “wee”.  The good things we’ve done will be put through some tests.  Will they pass the tests or be burned up in flames?  First, the test of relationship – did we perform our deed apart from abiding in the Vine and in our own strength?  Second, the test of motive – did we serve God or strive for acknowledgment and reputation?  And finally, the test of love – did we do it to improve the well-being of another?

If I have not love, it profits me nothing.


I believe we’re going to have huge surprises in heaven.  That obscure missionary washing out dirty clothes for orphans in the far corners of the earth may receive highest awards, while the wildly gifted, Christian celebrity may receive little.  Everyone has been given an equal opportunity to please God based on the potential He’s given us.

The Academy Awards

Yesterday in the grocery store, I caught sight of a magazine reminding me of the upcoming annual Academy Awards.  So now you know what prompted this blog.  On February 27th, the 83 year-old coveted Oscar will create a Gala event watched by the world.

A red carpet will roll out for the glamorously good-looking, body-altered, blinged-up, made-up, rich and famous people clad in expensive gowns and tuxedos.  Cameras will flash and the masses will worship their idols.  These are ordinary people that the world has decided to make into celebrities based on what we like.  Ordinary people that by the world’s standard have achieved greatness.

If I happen to remember the event, I may watch part of it, until my eyes begin to droop and I become bored with long-winded thank you speeches and all the “glam.”

If you do watch the Academy Awards this year, I hope it will remind you of the great up and coming Eternal Awards Ceremony.  The Oscars with all its accolades will pale to nothing and we’ll see what really counts to the Master.

Someday, we’ll stand before the throne and wait for the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”


Yes, I may have a useless Emerald Shellback certificate, but what I really long for is an emerald crown to throw at His feet.   I don’t know about you, but that’s what I’m living for!

WATERCOURSE:   God promises to reward a life that pleases Him, which is completely different from how the world validates us.

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