I have always loved the places where the ocean meets the land. I love the sound of waves; I love the tang of salt on the air; I love the perfect clarity of the horizon; I love the slow descent of my bare toes through shifting and embracing sand; I love both the warmth of radiating sun and the chill of enveloping fog. My senses rejoice and my soul relaxes when I sit on the beach and stare out at the water. There is something beyond the sensory experience that speaks to me. There is something about that point of connection that focuses me. Simultaneously my soul is stilled in response to the vast blueness, while the fact of solid land offers me safety and comfort. I can encounter my incredible smallness in the world in a way that doesn’t diminish me. In many ways, the beach is my holy place.
Not that holiness really describes much of the past three weeks of Mediterranean vacationing. Put aside all the topless sunbathing (I can mentally recognize that the practice actually desexualizes women’s bodies in my current host cultures, even if it still feels scandalous to me). I’m not offering any cultural commentary here. The lack of “holiness” in my vacation is more a reflection of busy schedules, and clashing priorities, and frequent obligations to redirect my children’s behavior or to intervene with sibling bickering. This time has been a wonderful time for our family, but with intense togetherness rough edges get exposed and the results can be wearying.
And the days set aside for “relaxing” on the beach are not quite a blissful escape. There’s still sunscreen to apply (and re-apply), and arguments over whose turn it is with the water gun, and fruitless efforts to preserve a sand-free zone on the towels, and efforts to get progress with independent swimming, followed by motherly anxiety about keeping a vigilant eye on my suddenly flotation-free child, and generally not much time to just sit and absorb the crashing of the waves and the profundity of existence.
Thankfully, my wonderful husband is universally proclaimed to be the “fun” parent in contexts like playing on the beach, and therefore the kids generally prefer his company on the rare moments when they both want to swim at the same time. So, on Wednesday, I had a few minutes to relax on my beach chair and read my book.
The book that has captured my attention this vacation is one I mentioned a few entries back: Ben Patterson’s Deepening Your Conversation with God. I think perhaps it is not a coincidence that on Wednesday I was reading a section that describes what it means to address God as Father. Patterson’s point, intimately illustrated, is that God as Father is both a frighteningly powerful Other and a shockingly intimate source of tender care. It’s a theological point I have always assented to, but that day it was real to me in a new way.
You see, as I was reading the words, I was also glancing up regularly to check on my two little children playing in the surf. It’s not that I don’t trust my husband who was officially on parent-watch, but much as I love the ocean I am also aware of its power. The Gigglemonster and Princess Imagination are still just so small. One unforeseen undertow when Tyler’s attention was focused on the other child, and one of them could go under forever. And so, every 30 seconds or so, I would just dart a glance to check that I could see them both and that neither was venturing too far away from Daddy’s strong, protecting reach.
In one of those glances, my vision focused with sudden clarity. I saw the huge, limitless expanse of blue water, and my two children’s tiny heads gleefully bobbing on its edge. I felt, in one instant, two truths. First: that the ocean, however huge, was small and powerless in reference to the one who made it. Second, that this same Creator is also a loving Father whose attention can never be distracted from my two precious little ones.
There really are no words for the stunned wonder and humbling gratitude I felt in that moment. It was almost too overwhelming in the moment to fully register, and so I have been processing it since. I will not pretend that, over the last two days, this epiphany has constantly invaded my mind, but the echo is there. It has reverberated in my soul whenever I have given a moment’s silence to listen for it, and those quiet echoes have produced a new expression of awe that I offer now. If you feel even a sliver of the wonder of my moment on the beach, you will be blessed.
Rolling blue that stretches out / numbs my mind through vast expanse.
Each azure drop is known to You / and each wave’s movement in advance.
The Word that spoke the water’s life / is echoed by the murmuring tide.
Infinity of sea and sand / is dwarfed by You, who will abide.
Enormity, You still my tongue. / How can I speak to such a God?
You are too big, too strong, too whole / to speak to you reveals my fall.
And yet, each drop of sparkling blue / that eddies round my children’s feet
obeys your Word and leaves them safe / to dance in wonder less complete.
They cannot grasp the awesome truth: / Creator God, so very near.
Not do I, in most moments, know / as EL-ELYON that voice I hear.
For this one moment focus snaps / I see in intimate relief
How you are one, both far and near, / deep love from One beyond belief.
Then I must pray as ne’re before / I cannot stand and yet I yearn
You are my terror and my Lamb / and give me love I’ll never earn.