Voices from the Deep

Reflection for Oceans Sunday in the Season of Creation.

Take a deep breath. Let it out.
Another. Smell the seawater, taste the salt.
Let it go.

Close your eyes. Breathe in the tang, the heat, the brine.
See the waves, the driftwood, the wading birds.
Feel the sand, hot underfoot, cool where wavelets creep up the beach.

Breathe freely and deeply.
Inhale the memory of fish and sandcastles and kites and gulls and bonfires.
Sense the depths and currents.
Feel the moon pull of tides.
Touch that space within you that yearns to return to the ocean where all life came from.

In The Healing Moment, Elizabeth Tarbox writes:
“Each day I am newly reminded of my unworthiness—a dozen thoughts misspoken; another day when the good I do falls short of the good that I could do; myriad small interchanges; moments of sharing that strain to the breaking point my desire to be generous, helpful, and kind; months of careful work lost by a moment’s impatience, a careless word. But when I am here at the edge of creation, breaking with the small tide over the sand, the need to do good rolls away; the question of what is right diminishes to insignificance and is easily borne away by the tiny waves.  Here, where no words are spoken, none are misspoken. I am with the broken stubble of the marsh grass that holds on through the wrecking wind and the burning flood.  I am with the grains that mold themselves around everything, accepting even so unworthy a foot as mine, holding and shaping it until it feels that it belongs. I stand somewhere between truth and vision, and what I don’t know ceases to embarrass me, because what I do know is that the water feels gentle like a lover’s touch, and the sand welcomes it. What I have done or failed to do has left no noticeable mark on creation.  What I do or don’t do is of no moment now.  Now I am here and grateful to be touched, calmed, and healed by the immense pattern of the universe. And when I die, it will be an honor for my blood to return to the sea and my bones to become the sand. Reassured, I am called back to my life, to another day.”

As inhabitants  of an island nation, we in Aotearoa have sun, sand and sea in our veins. Our forebears came here via waka and sailing ship, and our celebration of the birth of Jesus brings a special gift to our summers.

Yet in the Hebrew scriptures, the sea is often a symbol of chaos, and in our hymn tradition, a metaphor for sin and despair. The ocean continues as the source of water, the source of life – and a place of danger. Liquefaction of sandy soil in Christchurch, devastating floods in Pakistan, oil spills and pollution in the Gulf of Mexico and in Nigeria, the melting icecaps threatening the millennia-old flow of the Gulf Stream – all remind us how dependent we are on water – and how we interfere with the ocean at our peril.

In our own place and time, we recall the tragedy of the Wahine, the sinking of the Lady Elizabeth II, the death of yachtsman Peter Blake at the hands of pirates, the young refugees from the Tampa, and the loss of 74 lives in Tongan waters in the Princess Ashika.

While preparing this service, I was flooded with memories of old hymns and fascinated what inspired so many images of the sea:
from life’s tempestuous sea to the moaning of the bar,
from wide, wide as the ocean to peace, be still,
from the ocean’s depths to love lifted me, and Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?

Intriguingly, many lyricists refer to the ocean not just as the metaphorical location for present troubles but as a safe destination at the end of life. We can understand the eighteenth and nineteenth century preoccupation with death – shorter life expectancy, less reliable transportation, and lack of cures for fatal illness. Yet even contemporary writers like Colin Gibson offer images of leaving the coast and journeying to the rim of the sky and the sea… to eternity.

These voices from the deep remind us that life is a cycle;
from the chaos of creation to the comfort of still waters,
to rebirth as clouds and resurrection in rain;
that what originates in the formless void eventually completes the circle
in the waters of mother earth.

The waves of the sea have lift up their voice, sore troubled that we in Jesus rejoice.
The floods they are roaring, but Jesus is here. While we are adoring, he always is near.

Charles Wesley wrote “Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim” not as a hymn of praise but as encouragement for believers facing persecution. It appeared in 1744 in a small collection entitled Hymns for Times of Trouble and Persecution and was captioned “To be sung in tumult.”

When devils engage, the billows arise, and horribly rage and threaten the skies.
Their fury shall never our steadfastness shock—the weakest believer is built on a rock.

It was a time of great tension in England, a time of bitter persecution for those new people called “Methodists”.  Mobs broke up their services, often hurling bricks, cabbages and eggs at the preachers. Undaunted, the Wesleys produced this collection of hymns to buoy their followers’ spirits.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote Crossing the Bar in his eighty-first year. A nurse who had been with him for eighteen months and suggested he turn his pen to writing hymns. “Hymns are such dull things,” he replied. But her suggestion evidently bore fruit. In October 1889, with his son Hallam, Tennyson travelled from eastern England to his winter home on the Isle of Wight. As they crossed the Solent strait, the sounds of the sea and the phrase “moaning of the bar” kept running through Tennyson’s mind and he jotted down some words to accompany it. Hallam wrote: “after dinner he showed me the poem written out. I said, `That is the crown of your life work.’ He answered, `It came in a moment.’ A few days before his death he said to me, `Mind you, put Crossing the Bar at the end of all the editions of my poems.’ ”

In 1870, Edward Hooper became pastor of a small church in the New York harbor area, known as the Church of Sea and Land. It was while ministering at his sailor’s mission in New York City that Edward Hopper wrote:

When the darkling heavens frown,
And the wrathful winds come down,
And the fierce waves, tossed on high,
Lash themselves against the sky,
Jesus, Saviour, pilot me,
Over life’s tempestuous sea. 

We began [today’s service] by singing “Eternal Father, strong to save”, written by William Whiting of Winchester, England, in 1860. It was originally intended as a poem for a student of his, who was about to travel to the United States.  This apparently traditional hymn is in fact extremely flexible. Because of its association with the US Navy, many extra verses have been added, to include Marines, Navy nurses and chaplains, SEALS and Seabees, divers and submariners, the Antarctic and Arctic service, the Coast Guard – and many others. In WWII, verses on naval aviation were written, and in the 20th Century, space travel and exploration themes emerged, including a verse ending:

O hear us when we seek Thy grace / For those who soar through outer space. 

Sadly, many of the extra verses feature forced rhymes and over-worked metaphor. As in many early hymns – and a distressing number of modern ones – trite lyrics are somewhat redeemed or at least disguised by the power and strength of the music. There’s a treasure chest of stories aot the tunes to these seafaring hymns as well, which we don’t have time for today.

One final story of passion and redemption:

George Matheson was born in 1842 with only partial vision. He was a brilliant scholar and finished the University and the Seminary of the Church of Scotland with very high honours, helped by his sister, who learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew to help him in his theological studies – for his sight failed rapidly while at Glasgow University, and he became totally blind.

On the day of his sister’s wedding, George Matheson – now in his 40s – was alone in his manse at Innellan; the rest of his family were staying in Glasgow. He wrote later, “Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering.”

It’s believed the memory of his fiancée who left him just before their marriage, when she learned of his impending total blindness, prompted him – years later – to write of love that will not let me go:

I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be. 

Finally, there are many versions of Loren Eiseley’s story The Star Thrower; like many parables and wisdom stories, it invites retelling:

A man is walking along a beach where thousands of starfish have been washed up. He notices a boy picking up starfish one by one and throwing them back into the ocean. After a while, he asks the boy what he’s doing. The boy replies that he’s returning the starfish to the sea, otherwise they’ll die.

The man asks how saving a few, when so many are doomed, would make any significant difference. In reply, the boy picks up a starfish and throws it back into the ocean.

“Made a difference to that one,” he said.

May the mysteries of Sophia, 
the wise and playful Creator who is reflected in her creation,
teach us to value her creatures 
and to live in right relationship with all of them,
and with each other.
So may it be

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All image credits © bronwyn angela white (2017), Kāpiti, New Zealand

Kapiti 2012-06-30