The Boundary of the Ocean
Rob Gieselmann, Pent. 24B, Oct. 18, 2015
Seven or eight years ago, I kicked a sabbatical off with a short camping trip. I drove to Big Sur, and pitched my tent on a cliff, high above the Pacific Ocean. The nights were deep and dark. No moon, no light pollution, only stars. Millions of them, their ancient light, piercing the eternal veil –
Several shooting stars flew high above, as I sat there, alone with God. One, and then another, and one of them flew so low above me, it seemed larger than any I’d ever seen before – Fiery orange, and the size of my fist, and I thought to myself – if I listen hard enough, I’ll hear it splash into the Pacific …
The thought was foolish, and the meteor landed miles away. I’m sure. The stillness of that night, the holiness of that dark, and the only sound besides my heartbeat was the low rumble of waves that kept pushing in vain against the craggy coast. Those waves seemed to think they could alter the ocean’s boundaries. The swells moved in a cadence like marching troops, wave after wave after wave, but the army failed, and the shore didn’t budge, not even an inch. God was explaining to Job how foolish he’d been, God said of the oceans – No farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped. No farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped. To me, sitting high above it, the ocean seemed almost benign, only I knew better.
A roiled ocean emasculates and destroys.
Growing-up in Florida, I learned to body-surf. October was always the best month for it. The water isn’t winter-cold, yet, but the waves become large, when hurricanes flirt with the coast. To body surf, you have to yield to the wave, enter the wave’s fold, and if you do it correctly, the wave will carry you to the shore, and gently release you. If you fight against the ocean, one of two things happens: either you won’t catch the wave, or the wave will slam you violently downward, against the ocean bottom, rolling you over and over. Complete chaos, and I wonder whether Jonah felt that chaos as he roiled around in the belly of the fish. I’m certain that’s the chaos Job felt with his life now upended. Before this, he had lived a harmonious life, abiding by all the rules. Do good, and you will receive good. But his rules betrayed Job. He felt as though swallowed by the waves, rolling over and over, thrust hard against the sand. To survive, Job needed to learn the lesson of the body-surfer, to let the waves enfold him. To enter into the chaos, rather than fight against it. He had to change. Before now, Job believed the same thing 90% of all religious people believe: That God was good - because Job was good. Think about it – this faulty assumption placed Job at the center of his universe. God was good
because Job was good. But now, with waves crashing down on him, the perennial question became his question: Why do bad things happen to good people, and why do good things happen to bad people?
*Chaos theory is the construct that admits: not all of life is predictable. Not everything can be explained. The most obvious example is the weather – so many factors determine the weather, it is ultimately unpredictable – it acts chaotically.
Remember that time when Knoxville sunk to 24 below, back in 1985? Job – to survive - had to convert – to chaos theory, if you will, that he was not in control his life, that God or good or bad are not entirely dependent upon him. And sometimes – bad
things just happen. And when they do, God is still good.
All the time. *Theologians and scientists have parsed the relationship between religion and science in any number of ways – Anglican priest and physicist John Polkinghorne distinguishes between science and religion this way: science inquires into the physical universe – religion inquires into truth. To understand the distinction, you have to define truth as something distinct from fact. Truth does not equal fact. For example, The Genesis story claims God created the earth in six days. If that is a fact – as some people believe – then God created the earth in six literal days. But my junior high teacher taught me about evolution. Which is a scientific fact. Does the science of evolution render the Genesis story meaningless? To the extent the story claims to be science, then yes – But it doesn’t claim to be science, it is a myth - a story not written for its factuality, but its truth. Six days, six thousand days, six quadrillion days – it doesn’t matter. What matters from the story is this: God is the breath of life – behind it all. And, God is a creator. Always a creator. Astronomer Owen Gingerich, takes a different tack from Polkinghorne, in his little book, God’s Planet. He says that science and religion overlap. That our understanding of one has always influenced our understanding of the other – The two cannot be divorced, one from the other. Science influences faith – for example, evolution has reminded us that the creation story need not be literal to contain truth.
And, faith influences science. Interpreting science, giving science and life meaning beyond cold fact. Because each influences the other, our understanding of God has evolved with the evolution of scientific thought. Which is exactly what is happening to Job – his foundational belief that God is good because Job is good – has been challenged by fact. And let me insert here - the minute you think you understand God, God will resist you – and ask you the same question asked of Job: Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth? Instead, the question of integrity – is the exploration question asked daily by St. Francis: Who art thou, O God, and Who am I?A question of integrity because the question never presumes its answer … James and John presumed to know the answer. Can we sit on your right and left in your kingdom? They asked Jesus. They presumed God planned to supplant the Roman occupation of Palestine. But God didn’t send Jesus to solve Israel’s political problems. And their very question reveals their need for spiritual evolution. The kingdom of God, Jesus told them later, is within you. An explosive and radical concept to men who wanted political change. Start with yourselves.
The ocean is bound not by rocky shore, but by the voice of God. And yet, the rocks keep the sea at bay. Which is it? The voice of God, or the rocky shore? Either way, I hear them, the troops of the ocean, swell after swell, and wave upon wave, crashing below me, as I sit alone with God on the cliff. Asking myself the question of Francis and of Job, Who art thou, O God, and who am I?