The beach has never held much attraction for me as a place of recreation. Salt, sand, and seaweed clinging to my body has never seemed a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Nor does the idea of heading down to an unprotected stretch of scorching sand on an already taxing day. I have occasionally been coaxed by my children to the coast where, sometimes in spite of myself, I find myself enjoying the water. But it has not taken a tsunami to warn me of the power and the perils of the ocean, knowing that below the surface lie powerful and hidden forces with the capacity to overwhelm.
Paradoxically, I love the beach as a place of contemplation. Sitting in a comfortable space (preferably away from the sand), I contemplate the intersection of two very different spheres of life interacting with one another as I watch the waves lapping the shore and retreating – an incessant rhythm with its own enchantment. I am drawn to contemplate another world below the surface - out of sight - one which I have occasionally explored with snorkel or scuba gear, but more regularly through the camera lens provided by Jacques Cousteau. In this contemplation, the beach is a border into another world, one in which there is an ill-defined partnership with those of us who live on the land.
The ocean is a vast expanse of life, operating by different rules and bringing different experiences. We have learnt some of the ways in which it feeds our own life above the surface, but much remains a mystery. We sail upon it, fly over it, swim in it, and sometimes dive through it, but we are never really part of it. It is much more mystery than knowledge, with forces at work visible only to the experienced eye, and then some more. I find my contemplation moving from the waves, with their indefatigable movement towards and retreat from the shore, to be a reminder of the love of God, never giving up on us, at times reaching further into our lives, at other times more distant. But as my thoughts move to the depths, I contemplate the life and secrets contained within. We have an uneasy relationship with the sea, never truly mastered, never fully appreciated.
It has intrigued me that Gospel stories record Jesus teaching the crowds while standing on a boat on the sea. Beyond the words of Jesus’ teaching, I wonder at the symbolism - Jesus upon the ocean, filled as it is with a richness of life partially revealed, yet largely unknown to us, and a power we barely appreciate. Learning to explore that mystery remains a daily challenge.
March 27, 2011
NB: this reflection was published in the Sunday Age on March 27, 2011
Rev Gary Heard is pastor of The Eighth Day, a Baptist Community in West Melbourne.