All Your Waves and Breakers

It used to be that when the psalm writer said, all your waves and breakers crash over me, I felt I was in the depths with him. I felt not necessarily low emotionally but that I was in over my head with God.

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls. This was a drawing under, quite like the pull of ocean waves around my calves. I could steady myself and take a step back, or I could not. I could let the power pull me in. Watching from the outside, it may seem like a nonevent. But within, I was locked into focus with the voice and presence of the Almighty.

A trip to the seaside leaves you sun-drenched and so sandy you take the beach with you for days. Next spring, when you pull out the flattened beach ball, some of last summer’s sand sprinkles your toes, who fondly remember the salty grit and how easily they were buried when the waves rolled around them.

That tangible, textured memory is how I remember worshiping you, God, and listening to you. I remember how it felt to be swept into communion with you. To know you had spoken and were present, to dwell in waters both dangerous and splendid. With you, it’s radiance and life. With you, it is constant change.

Do I long for that now? These days, I am at the spiritual equivalent of a resort swimming pool. There is no running, no sand, no real danger for an adult who knows how to swim. On the plus side, there are bathrooms, lounge chairs, clean water, and no jellyfish. This pool has straight lines, careful steps and ladders, and tan teenagers with whistles to keep everybody in order.

Do I miss the sound of waves, the smell of wet salt, the hot walk over desert sand to reach the shore? Do I miss the unknown, stronger-than-all depths?

I would have to travel from where I am now to experience you as an ocean again. I suspect that if I ventured out like an hiker in search of a waterfall, I would find you. Can I not now seek you out?

You have said, "Seek my face."  
My heart says to you,  
"Your face, Lord, do I seek."  
Hide not your face from me.  

You spoke first. If I answer, it’s because you called. I think you’re calling me again, but it’s distant, like the sound of ocean waves from a roadway.

When I was a missionary, many ocean moments were built into my life, even weekly. Our church and ministry sought to bring to the forefront that connectedness and sense of power and mystery.

Now that I’m in a different church culture and no longer in ministry, those moments are farther out of reach. My new church reveres God, thinks of him deeply, and serves him wholeheartedly. The potency of God’s goodness permeates our regular interactions.

There are times when people respond to God emotionally, but it’s very controlled, like an English funeral. One dabs one’s eyes with a tissue and and neatens one’s makeup before making eye contact with others. It’s far removed from the wailing of a deep South black church funeral, where emotions are honored and their weight is shared.

I was a bridesmaid in my sister-in-law’s wedding. She is a white midwestern intellectual and she married an upper class Zimbabwean. During the wedding, from my precarious place on the steps, I watched the groom’s mother break into a joy-dance. Aptly, she is named Joy. She let out a little whoop and jigged around the front, even though the music was not very vigorous. A few black hands clapped along in encouragement.

It was evident to me that she chose her moment to dance. She was not so overcome with happiness that she could not constrain herself. She stood out—literally and culturally—because she brought her own ways into the ceremony. She was slightly and charmingly defiant of the order and posh that pervades a white American wedding.

So it is with people in my new church who raise their hands or pray in the corner for longer than the allotted time. There is love and acceptance for those exceptions to the norm, but they must make their own way.

This new church culture has a different sense of the costliness of worship. The church life I’m used to is marked by all-night prayer meetings, a sense of anguish and languish in worship, and sometimes sweaty, jubilant dancing. It’s often enjoyable, but it is rarely comfortable. Other expressions of costliness in worship might be going to a weekend event to seek God or potentially embarrassing oneself by leading out in spontaneous prayer. There, the expense was in risk and fervor.

My new church knows costly worship, but they use different currency. They spend actual cash on beauty and excellence in worship. They also give to the needy and take care of each other. Still another costliness is in giving things up for Lent. These are measured, well-thought-out sacrifices of comfort, pleasure, and normalcy.

I’ve always struggled with Lent. We’ve tried to participate for a few years as my husband has become more “liturgical.” To me, Lent feels like Old Testament sacrifice. A prescribed ritual to make a statement; an untested trust that the mystery is real; a quietness of expectation—a sowing of seed.

There are Old Testament stories of costly worship that resonate more with me. Hannah weeping at the altar for a baby; Jacob wrestling with God and walking away with a broken hip; and Moses’ face aglow with holy bush fire.

The Old Testament is replete with both ritual and drama. Ritual sustains and reminds and keeps things in order. Drama directs and surprises and fuels the engine of faith. In a similar way, swimming laps in the pool at the YMCA means I can jump in the waves when I make it to the ocean.

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