I press my toes into the sand. They disappear; my whole foot disappears up to the arch. I push the pads of my feet forward and a furrow forms behind them. Soon, the sand that I am plowing dips into something clear. The clear substance is moving and alive. It laps at the ankle. It is not like land at all; I find that I can stand up and move out into it and it closes around my calf. I can keep moving into it and it continues to reform itself around me. In fact, it is reforming itself constantly whether I’m there or not. The movement is constant and there are literally billions of acres. Little pinpoints of light dance and shake, and as I look out, I realize that these flashes of light have been playing for hours and days and years. Most of them haven’t been seen by a human eye, but they have flashed just the same. Every wave that kissed the beach is a miniature show, a tiny catastrophe. And there are so many of them. Just in the hour while I’ve been sitting here, letting the sun enact violent death to some of the cells that make up the skin on my back, a million waves have formed and crashed and merged back into the water. Nobody can catch them.
The water out there is so unlike the land that it can catch people up and suffocate them. It can scour things; it can scour the land. It can house life forms that exist under almost exactly mirrored, exactly opposite rules from those we exist under up here on land. For those life forms in that mysterious, shifting, murky place, air is death. Water is oxygen. The surface tension of the water holds more than just a change of scenery; it is the outer border of another kingdom.
The water here is not for drinking. Salt makes it useless as a beverage. We don’t use it that way, so what is it for? It makes our continents into enormous islands. It’s a place we don’t venture into except with manmade protections like boat hulls and life jackets. We aren’t at home in it, but it’s part of the world we inhabit. It doesn’t care whether we know how to swim.
When I was in Florida last week, blissfully vacating normal life with my family, I looked out at this ocean and wondered why humans see eternity in it. Why is it that my little daughter and I both saw the ocean and were alternately stilled and goaded into screams of laughter? Why is it that a three-year-old looks out at vast water and gets a dose of smallness, and a 30-year-old gets the same dose, on the other side of education, marriage and responsibility? The message in the ocean is the same. It’s putting you in your place, but it’s also exalting you. It tells you that you’re nothing, and it tells you that you’re something made for something. It rejoices with you—Look at how I’m surging, wave after wave, and I keep doing this and there’s nothing you can do to start me or stop me. You’ll die if you come out into me; I’m dangerous like the One who moves me. The One who makes me keep doing this is also making you breathe. It’s wonderful to be alive.
My daughter ran along the beach, because at three she knew that she could not run perpendicularly to it into the great endless water. It would kill her if she did that. But she could let the death touch her, running alongside it, and feel that she was living.
Nautical illustration in Hebrews
This week, back at home, someone drew my attention to some nautical terms used in the Book of Hebrews. The most famous is this reference to an anchor:
So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6: 17-20)
Earlier the writer of Hebrews makes another passing reference to the dangers of drifting out on the ocean of unbelief. “Therefore we must pay much slower attention to what we have heard,” he writes, “lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1).
These images make use of a feeling that we have all had, any of us who have stood on the edge of a large body of water and felt it lap against our shins. That pulling, beating, living danger of the water is familiar to us. We know that when we stand in the moving water, it isn’t neutral to us; it is intent on pulling, pushing, or drowning. It doesn’t stay put and only with effort of our own does it allow us to stay put.
When this writer tells us that the truths of God’s promises are the anchor of our souls in a world of darkness, we can make use of our imaginations. We can call up the sensation of that rhythmic, relentless washing and realize our danger. Where would we be without an anchor of the soul? Where would we be without the unchangeable things, the things in which it is impossible for God to lie? And where will we be if let go of this anchor? We will drift away from it. The nature of the ocean we float in won’t change. Not for us. Our world is a world that beats in a relentless, rhythmic beating and is not neutral to us.
And when I am finished thinking about this nautical picture in Hebrews, I wonder again something I’ve wondered many times before. When God amassed those dwarfing bodies of salt water, when he made up this concept of a substance that behaves this way, seems alive but can mean death—was it for verses like this one? Was the ocean made as a physical metaphor for spiritual realities? Or did he just like it? Does he laugh with the ocean the way my daughter did?
Perhaps it’s time to stop asking presumptuous questions.
“…who shut in the sea with doors
When it burst out from the womb,
When I made clouds its garment
And thick darkness its swaddling band,
And prescribed limits for it
And set bars and doors,
And said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
And here shall your proud waves be stayed?’