Friday, July 16, 2010

Something about the Sea

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

I have never lived far from the ocean. Even if the busyness of life keeps me from heading to the sea, it is a comfort to know that it is out there close in its grey infinitude. You don’t need to press your ear against a sea shell to hear its voice beckoning. The sound of the waves goes well beyond earshot.
What is the ocean’s allure? Personal history of course plays a part. If half my childhood summers were wasted in the slough of despond that is 1970’s television (“Joker, joker…and a triple!”; “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”), the rest were spent on the beaches of Duxbury, MA. There was plenty of opportunity to think as you walked to Duxbury Beach from the mainland, across what was said to be the longest wooden bridge in America; or as you walked down its six miles of sand. From the prospect of high waves to ride in youth to the reality of broken romances in adolescence, the ocean was the backdrop for much of my life. All of this clings to your mind as determinedly as the sea salt once stuck to your skin.
On a more philosophical level, the sea side incarnates the tension of land and liquidity, changelessness and change. The shore may erode through the slow decades, the sea may explode in hurricane force, but the shore is still the shore and the sea is still the sea. The marriage endures through the storms. Yet the sea is always shifting: changing color, changing shape, changing depth. A friend of mine admitted that he was reluctant to move to St. Andrews in Scotland because living by the sea would be so monotonous. He happily discovered how wrong he had been. The Greeks said you can’t step into the same river twice; the same could be said of seeing the sea. For the land-loving Israelite, such shape-shifting made the sea a ready image of the chaos that always threaten to engulf the world (Daniel 7, Revelation 21:1). But even they knew that down deep it was the magnificent handiwork of the living God, and even the dread Leviathan was just a (Ps. 104:24-26).
The sea is also the great repository of memory, a magnet for musings. Dylan Thomas writes in the beginning of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, “All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves.” It is a great gray slate waiting for you to scratch your thoughts on its surface. There is no therapy quite so satisfying as simply spinning your shredded soul into the forgetfulness of the deep. Not for nothing did God promise that he would cast our sins into the depth of the sea (Micah 7:19); there they can be drowned as dead as Pharaoh.
And so the sea’s highest call is to remind us of God: beautiful in his simplicity, ferocious in his wrath, unfathomable in the depths of his sin-swallowing grace.

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