January 17, 2013 Permalink
The sea is beautiful to observe from a distance. But have you ever encountered the wildness of the sea?
Amanda and I went to the island of Kauai a few years ago. There was a little spot called “secret beach” we hiked to each day. When we got to the shore, there was a small inlet flanked by a light house to the right. I had never seen natural beauty quite so moving. The waves were especially rough there, but I foolishly will attempt to swim in anything. As I waded out, over and over again the waves would take my 6”5 frame and fling me to the ocean floor like a rag doll. After taking a few beatings, I finally landed back on the shore with my swim trunks on my head. This part of the island has had numerous deaths by drowning over the years. I finally was starting to appreciate not just the beauty but the wildness of the sea.
On the same trip, we traveled to the North Shore of Oahu near where Lost was filmed, and there was another day I swam alone in a rocky area (very smart, I know). The waters themselves were relatively calm. But I had the most odd and wonderful experience when I found myself suddenly surrounded by a bale of sea turtles. I couldn’t believe how enormous they were. And while, of course, they were beautiful, there was something unnerving about the scene too. These turtles often live to be 150 years old. As their heads would bob up out of the water, there was something so prehistoric about them, something that reminded me of how young and small I am in a big sea in a bigger cosmos. These sea turtles could have swum with Abraham Lincoln for all I know. I was struck again by the wildness of the sea, its unfathomable depths and creatures and secrets.
I haven’t been back to Hawaii. But in the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time at sea.
That is not to say I’ve spent a lot of time at the beach. In antiquity, the sea is representative of chaos, of the uncontained, uncontrolled and unknowable. The sea is not a place of comfort but a place of unfathomable darkness beyond our imagination. This is especially true in Jewish literature. It is the reason, for example, that in Daniel’s dreams the monsters come out of the sea. It is the reason that Revelation describes a day that is coming in which “there will be no sea”—which at first seems sad for those of us who appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the sea. The point is not that there will be no waves or sand to enjoy, but that the chaos will finally be domesticated and the unknowable will finally be known.
Between now and then, we live in a world in which there is still very much a wild sea that we are very much subject to. And while Job talks about the boundaries of the sea God has established, there is also a strange way in which God seems to celebrate the wildness of the sea and even the ancient sea monster Leviathan, which the psalm says God created “to sport in it.” There is a certain beauty to the sea, even a tranquility, that can be appreciated from a distance. It is only when we get close enough to be pulled by its tides and overcome by its waves that we understand it is as dangerous as it is beautiful.
The story of Job in particular is of a man who finally has to contend with the sea. A righteous man, Job lives in a tightly ordered world. He seems to embody the wisdom of books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes—Job is the one who does the right thing and flourishes as a result. Job is the sort of man who thinks he understands something about how the world works, because the world has always worked for him. That is until the script goes off the rails and he experiences unfathomable loss and suffering. His friends, easy to vilify, genuinely try to help him when they offer what seems to be legitimate communal wisdom—“Job, everybody knows that the wicked suffer calamity but the righteous prosper. The only possible explanation is that there is sin in your life you need to repent of.”
But of course Job didn’t have a “sin problem.” Job was discovering the sea and the sea monster for himself. More directly, he was discovering the God of the sea. When God finally starts talking back to Job in Job 40.9-11, He says, “‘Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— 9 when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, 10 and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, 11 and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped”? And then in Job 40.16-17:16 ‘Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? 17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?”
In Job 41, God even celebrates the wildness of Leviathan, the sea monster He has also created. From Job 41.1-5: “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook, or press down its tongue with a cord? 2 Can you put a rope in its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook? 3 Will it make many supplications to you? Will it speak soft words to you? 4 Will it make a covenant with you to be taken as your servant for ever? 5 Will you play with it as with a bird, or will you put it on a leash for your girls?” God seems not only comfortable with Leviathan, He is playful with it. Can you imagine this? The sea monster whispers soft words to God and makes a covenant to serve him…what an evocative section!
What is so disturbing about the book of Job is that it blows the lid off the theology of retribution. That is that theology that says, If you do good then good things will happen to you; if you do bad then bad things will happen to you. That is the kind of world we can understand, order, and best of all, control. When Job encounters the sea, He encounters the chaos and disorder within the creation. He is presented with an undomesticated God who is not the originator of the chaos, but who does in fact allow it for a time until the creation will be restored to its intended beauty. There are no tightly ordered systems, there is no guarantee that any created thing will avoid the wildness or even suffering. Job must learn how to confront a world like that where there are no guarantees, and yet learn to live without fear. I think here of Frederick Buechner’s beautiful quote: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
It is understandably disruptive when Job discovers that the world is not as ordered as he thought. It is disruptive to find out that the secure land Job had built his house on had been an illusion—that he, like all the rest of us, had always been living at sea, a place where beautiful and terrible things happen…seemingly indiscriminately.
Yet when Job is being tossed by the waves, facing the terrible truth that even a life of faithfulness will not be without chaos, he is also on the verge of something wonderful—the reality of a God who blesses indiscriminately. A God who is not the summation of a system of demerits and rewards, a God who does not exist as an existential Santa to hand out merit badges. This is the God who will be fully revealed as the Father of Jesus, the One who “makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust.” The same waves that took Job down to the depths of the suffering also took him, unwittingly or not, to the brink of the greatest revelation in the history of the world—the revelation of grace.
Gustavo Guttierez’s On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent has a section that picked me up higher than the waves in Kauai and flung me to the ground with my swim trunks again on my head. I will never forget what it was like to read it for the first time, and it haunts me still:
Inspired by the experience of his own innocence, Job bitterly criticized the theology of temporal retribution as maintained in his day and expounded by his friends. And he was right to do so. But his challenge stopped halfway and, as a result, except at moments when his deep faith and trust in God broke through, he could not escape the dilemma so cogently presented by his friends: if he was innocent, then God was guilty. God subsequently rebuked Job for remaining prisoner of this either-or mentality (see 40:R).
What he should have done was to leap the fence set up around him by this sclerotic theology that is so dangerously close to idolatry, run free in the fields of God’s love, and breathe an unrestricted air like the animals described in God’s argument — animals that humans cannot domesticate. The world outside the fence is the world of gratuitousness; it is there that God dwells and there that God’s friends find a joyous welcome.
The world of retribution — and not of temporal retribution only — is not where God dwells; at most God visits it. The Lord is not prisoner of the “give to me and I will give to you” mentality. Nothing, no human work however valuable, merits grace, for if it did, grace would cease to be grace. This is the heart of the message of the book of Job.
This is the God of the sea, the undomesticated One who is not beholden to any of our systems. It does not negate the fact that there are negative consequences for some of our choices within the created order and positive consequences for others. But God Himself does not play by any such rules. It has never been true that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. It is rather true that we all live at sea where there are forces beyond our control at work that we cannot fathom, much less understand. What has also been true is that God’s heart toward His creation has always been to show kindness, mercy, tenderness and grace. It is grace available to all people. Any and every good thing we ever experience in this life is a gift; any and every good thing is grace. It has always been grace and grace alone.
When people begin to encounter the undomesticated reality of the sea for themselves, they often get nostalgic for a time in which there was no sea. I find this especially true when tragedy strikes, and people of faith begin to wax poetically about days when there were not swear words on TV and times were simple and life was easy. But of course those days never really existed. The times they get wistful for were also the days of Jim Crow laws and segregation. If they felt like easy times for some, they certainly weren’t easy times for others. There have never been “good old days” when there was no sea—there has always been chaos and violence in the world. And thank God, there has always been grace too.
The theoretical time “before the sea” is a myth. It never existed. The sea has always been here, and we’ve always been living on it. What changed was not the world itself but our understanding of it. Life didn’t get complicated when it got complicated for you; it was just that we hadn’t lived long enough to recognize the wildness that really had been there all along.
So we can either be nostalgic for a time that never existed and attempt to go back to a place where there was no sea, or we can receive the undomesticity of creation for its diverse gifts. There are not many guarantees. But what we can know for certain is that we will feel some hurt and do some hurting. And that even so, there will be grace. None of us deserve it, and yet it is poured out in the world on the just and unjust. The only constant besides the wildness of the sea is the constancy of the One who “makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
The only constant is the God who loves, the God who blesses. His love is the only thing deeper and more unfathomable than the sea. When we encounter the bottomless mysteries of the sea, the bottomless love of God is more mysterious yet. The deeper the revelation of the sea in all of its wildness, the deeper revelation of the love that is wilder still.
It is the constancy of this love — and this alone — that gives us the confidence to continue to face a world that is comprised primarily of seas, and not be paralyzed by its terror or its incomprehensibility. And here, I think Job would give a hearty amen to Buechner: “Here is the world: beautiful and terrible things will happen, don’t be afraid.”
January 3, 2013 Permalink
I know it has been way too long, guys. But I wanted to start the New Year by sharing some of the overarching things I’ve been learning/feeling/experiencing in the last year or so. They may feel all over the map. Some are reflections on the beauty of God that continues to capture me, some are more reflections on my own brokenness. Of course these things are never mutually exclusive. But I’m starting with brokenness…I hope it speaks to all of you who want to be used of God, but sometimes wish you could stay home. This is kind of a part one. The next installment is on the “gratuitousness of grace.”
It was a brisk December evening in Manhattan, the city under the spell of Christmas lights. I was warm in my seat in the crowded theater on what should have been a joyous night. We were there to see the kitschy, fun musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. I knew the show had got mixed reviews, but I didn’t care. It’s Spider-Man on Broadway, and Bono and Edge wrote the music–how bad could it be? I had just signed my first book deal 2 weeks prior, and my parents had invited Amanda and I to celebrate with them by spending a few days before Christmas in the Big Apple.
The show works on the level of sheer spectacle at least, so I was having a good time. Until all of a sudden, I felt my eyes fill up with hot tears. You should know I do not cry easily nor often, a fact I find more troublesome than encouraging. And I most certainly do not cry at anything I consider sentimental or otherwise designed to pull on my heart strings. I am immune to sap. I would not cry if you sat me in front of a 1,000 tear-jerker Lifetime movies.
And yet the simplest, silliest of things wrenched my heart with shocking velocity. It was toward the end of the musical, and young Peter Parker had decided he had enough of the Spider-Man business and all of the complications it had brought to his life. He knew that he loved Mary Jane Watson, and he knew that he didn’t need the trouble of fighting super villains and feeling misunderstood in the city. So he had just hung up the tights to be an ordinary guy. And then, all hell broke loose. All of the classic Spider-Man villains were plundering New York, and he was the only one who could help.
And in a flash, I felt a pang of sorrow in my ribs. Why exactly can’t Peter Parker stay home with Mary Jane if that is what he wants to do? What would be so wrong with that? Why is he obligated to save New York City? What does he owe anybody, and how could anyone have the right to place such expectations of him? What’s wrong with being with the one you love at night rather than prowling the streets fighting crime? The tears spilled hot on my cheek as this irrational emotion gripped me, and I honestly felt like I could have stood up and shouted: “HEY! It’s Peter’s life! He ought to be able to stay home if he wants, damn it!”
No one knew about my reaction that night. It’s not the sort of thing you want to bring up at dinner. Of all the moments to feel this sudden surge of emotions, why on a trip to New York City celebrating my book deal with my family…at Spider-Man the musical?
That was December of 2011. Since then, I have a bit of perspective on the wild emotion of that night. Dr. Sonja Lyubominrsky addresses this phenomenon in The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make you Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does. In her well-researched book, she deals with the odd reality that things (including major, “positive” life transitions) often leave us in the cold, whereas in many cases it is the unexpected little things where we derive much of our happiness. “We may think we know whether a particular turning point should make us laugh or cry, but the truth is that positive and negative events are often entwined, rendering predictions about consequences—which may cascade in unexpected ways—exceedingly complex…when we consider the single best thing that has happened to us during past years—and the single worst thing—we may be surprised to learn they are one and the same.”
Indeed, this has been a pattern of my life in recent years. My darkest and loneliest seasons have not been a product of my failures and disappointments per se, but upon the fulfillment of “hopes and dreams.” These moments seem to be almost correlative to my greatest moments of elation. I do not consider myself overly ambitious, so I was not aware of how much stock I must have placed in said hopes and dreams. Until beginning to taste of them, and instead of feeling stronger and more powerful, feeling like the fact that God would seem to use me greatly only seemed to underscore the reality of my own brokenness. That in so many ways I feel like the opposite of what my 6’5” frame and confident demeanor would seem to suggest.
I did not feel such empathy for Peter Parker because I have a Messiah complex, or have delusions that the world is in need of me to save it. I resonate with Peter because there is a calling on my life that pulls me along with a force of inevitability, where I often don’t feel like I have a choice. I often think of a letter John Wesley wrote to his brother Charles during a dark moment where he questioned whether or not he ever loved God. He felt like God was using him to save others, but had no confidence in that moment that he was saved himself. He said he wanted to enlighten other men to a joy he himself did not know (again, at least in that moment). The words that haunt me are Wesley saying that even through all of this he felt he was “borne along” by God’s Spirit. That’s the phrase: “borne along.” He recognized God moving him, animating him, working through him, even while feeling completely broken himself.
I am aware that my life is comfortable and too much so. I am aware of my blessings and I don’t take them for granted. I know that life and ministry and health are unspeakable gifts, and I am privileged to do what I do. And yet the weight of what feels like divine destiny is so heavy at times. I do not want to be Spider-Man; I do not feel qualified to fight super-villains. Sometimes I just want to stay home.
And yet by Holy Spirit, I am still borne along…