Saturday, March 8, 2008


Oh ye! Who have your eyeballs vex’d and tir’d
feast them upon the wideness of the sea.[i]

Walking the two miles northward along the Oregon coast on a rainy winter morning, I spotted a large round object sitting at low tide. Though it was still before dawn and the rain was coming in at an angle, I went to the water’s edge to discover what had washed up during the night. Nestled between two large yellow plastic coverings, a three-foot in diameter glass ball was staring back at me. I struggled to carry the over-sized globe up the dune to where I work. Later that day, I removed the plastic shell to more thoroughly acquaint myself with the ‘gift from the sea’. According to a sticker inside the glass, this orb was manufactured by an ocean research lab in Massachusetts, sold to the Florida State University, attached to an unmanned research lab, and sunk four miles deep into the heart of the Pacific Ocean. Over time, the metal bolts holding the float to the lab corroded and broke, freeing the giant jewel to rise the surface and wash ashore near my home on a low tide dawn in November.

We’ve found a few Japanese floating glass balls in our beachcombing treks. The hand-blown Japanese glass floats travel tens of thousands of miles in the whirlpool of the North Pacific, before a severe storm breaks a few loose to castaway and wash up onto the sand. Anne Morrow Lindberg’s classic book, “Gift from the Sea, offers a beautiful way of looking at our life on planet earth. Every period of our life is like another tide, bringing in new gifts for any and all who are willing to go a little out of their way to discover these treasures. Life is a beachcombing adventure. Speaking of her beach return, Lindberg writes,

At first, the tired body takes over completely…. One is forced against one’s mind, against all tidy resolutions, back into the primeval rhythms of the sea-shore…. And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense—no—but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach. One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up, on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind, what perfectly rounded stone, what rare shell from the ocean floor…. But it must not be sought for or—heaven forbid!—dug for…. Patience… is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.[ii]

People love to stroll along the edge of the North American continent, lazily beachcombing for treasures washed in by the latest high tide. As we walk, our eyes gaze long and far out across the silver-blue Pacific. With pink and orange cirrus clouds flying high overhead, we stand as statutes at sunset, looking for the ever elusive green flash, gazing as if we were expecting the arrival of some flotilla, or some sea-farer coming to make land before nightfall.

As Jonah once looked westward, considering his options, so we stand at the shore to ponder our life’s direction. Do we head east into the heat of the desert to confront our fears in the face of enemies? Or do we head west into the heart of the sea to face the fierce gale force power of God’s breath upon the open sea? Our choice. By God’s grace, Jonah got a second chance, allowed to taste both saltwater and the stinging taste of Assyrian sand. Neither tasted as sweet as the ‘grace upon grace’ Jonah received from the deep, compassionate heart of God.

In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. from the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas.[iii]

Jonah’s deliverance offers what I consider one of the funniest sentences in the entire Bible: “And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”[iv] By God’s grace, Jonah himself became piece of driftwood, an event Jesus describes as “the sign of Jonah”, the only heavenly sign his generation would receive. What exactly is the ‘sign of Jonah’? Nothing less than God’s grace revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, prefigured in Jonah being swallowed and spit out three days later.

Daily, the sea spits out new treasures, unveiling wonders to the human eye and human heart. Whenever I walk the beach, my eye looks for these gifts from the sea. It’s what I’ve come to call ‘grace-hunting’, or looking for tangible signs of God’s gifts in the ordinary places of daily life. Beachcombing spirituality. And sweetest of all, we don’t need our toes in the sand to discover the gifts from God’s ocean of generosity. We need only have the eyes to see the gift of life lying all around us. It is what Gerard Manley Hopkins described in his ‘kingfisher’ sonnet:

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his,
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.[v]

[i] John Keats, Sonnet on the Sea, from The Penguin Book of English Romantic Verse, (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1968), 288.

[ii] Anne Morrow Lindberg, Gift from the Sea (New York, NY: Random House, 1955), 10-11.

[iii] Jonah 2:2-3

[iv] Jonah 2:10

[v] Gerard Manley Hopkins, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, from Poems and Prose, (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1963), 51. In Eugene Peterson’s book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Peterson explores the spirituality of attentive wonder before the grace of Christ, drawing upon the poetry of Hopkins, including the poem quoted here.

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