Standing on the stony coast, winter’s fading nip in the air, I was surprised how quickly I no longer heard the water pummeling the rocks. I tinkered with my aperture and shutter speed. Occasionally, I’d glance up to see a wave spray like a geyser. Maybe the Pacific was rowdier than usual, or maybe this was the way it stays: one wave after another, giant water balloons bobbing up and down until they burst against the rocks. I could’ve felt sorry for the ocean. With all of its might, brooding, and daunting size, the Pacific ran out of its depths, and the rocks punished every effort.
My time in Oregon was counting down quickly. I was booked on the redeye; by the math, factoring in such things as a rental return, TSA, repacking bags, one or two hours to be comfortable, et cetera, I had nearly ten hours to pull off and wander around taking photographs. I wanted to see as much as I could. I stopped at beaches, lighthouses, a waterfall, one-hundred state parks (more or less), and God only knows where else. I stood at the edge of an escarpment and looked down to discover lazy sea lions warming their bellies on heated rocks. The trails that meandered through shaded forest, covered with ferns and mosses and every kind of lichen. The wildflowers like candy apples and sapphire-blue cotton candy. I stopped in a little seaside town and ate lunch at Gracie’s Sea Hag. I tried halibut for the first time. (It tasted like a big flounder.) I systematically went north, checking off one site at a time. Zip-zip-zip.
For all the beauty and wonder just footsteps from my parked rental, I was hounded by the rocks and water. Fourteen to sixteen million years ago, lava flows created Oregon’s coastline. And for that same amount of time, the Pacific Ocean adopted a policy of attrition: one wave after another, ploddingly but tenaciously, grinding, chipping, scouring, and massaging boulders to rock to stony flecks to sand to a geological footnote. But the rocks, millions of years on now, seem unmoved, unconcerned, and unaware of the ocean’s lifelong commitment.
No one, of course, has a photograph from The Land Before Time, so it’s impossible for this non-geologist to say exactly what inroads the water has made. But standing on the shore, I felt the water’s frustration. The ongoing heartbeat, wave after wave, tide after tide, the ocean was knackered. But still came the sneakers and crashers and swallowers from the deep.
Long ago Han Feizi, a Chinese political philosopher told the story of a man selling a sword and shield. The salesman claimed that the sword was so strong there wasn’t a shield that could withstand its blow. The salesman was then asked about the shield he was selling. He claimed the shield could withstand the blow of any sword. Then he was asked what would happen if his sword struck his shield. The salesman had no response.
This seems to be the situation along Oregon’s coast. The paradox of the unstoppable force and the unmovable object played itself out with every crashing wave. But that wasn’t exactly correct. I mean, each wave was crushed by the rocks and sank back into the ocean. The immoveable object seems to be winning. But for all their stoutheartedness, the rocks could only vanquish one wave at a time. The waves’ platoons were innumerable, eternal. One falling back into the depths only to be regenerated by the same endless treadmill that causes day to succumb to night and night to be blindsided by dawn’s grit.
Philosophical paradoxes weren’t really the brain-teaser gnawing at me.
Repelled back, the wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame, returned where go the ships, and Leviathan that…sport in it. God certainly seems to have a preference to the human predicament: a mountain vacation or off to the beaches? God made the storm be still and the waves of the sea were hushed. Jesus, woken from a nap in a boat by his panicked disciples, rebuked the winds and the sea. A couple of chapters later, Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray…and early in the morning he came walking towards [his disciples] on the sea. God constantly rebukes, silences, and in the ultimate display of subjugating the sea to his sovereignty, walks on it. I placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail, though they roar, they cannot pass over it.
A simple matter of proof texting (maybe) reveals God much prefers the mountains to the sea.
I suppose the militant atheist, the scientifically inclined but literary unlettered, and the deliberately provocative, these aficionados of the metaphorical challenged, might point to plate tectonics or the corrosive, eroding power of water over millions and millions of years – earth sciences. And yes, we happily celebrate the empirical facts too. With great alacrity, however, these bumbledoms of monochrome confuse truth with fact and fact with truth; which is to say, the point is entirely missed. (I should add here that we in the Christian community do this in equal measures of joy and ignorance. We just do it with gleeful condescension, getting both facts and truths wrong.)
So, what is the truth of a wave, this wave and the next one, crashing against the rock? The waves of life keep coming at us, one after another. Our task is, like the rocks, to stand our ground, in the steadfast knowledge that God will get us through all life’s problems, one at a time. Yeah, maybe. That’s a nice sentiment. A pitched chestnut to rescue the comforting from being truly empathic. Not to mention, it is an outright lie. Sometimes people are crushed by life’s waves. Often people never recover. You can drown on land. And that’s not a failure of prayer or devotion. Sometimes God doesn’t show up.
We live in a spiritual culture of wishing on stars. A spiritual ambiance of “there, there,” or “this will pass.” Or my most hated, “God has a reason.” Yeah, well, maybe God has a reason. If God had a reason for letting Satan kill off Job’s sheep, servants, sons and daughters, it was as petty as, “I told you so.” Even God admits as much. You incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason. So Job had it bad. Though not as bad as his servants and children who were killed. Do you think they believed God is fair or just? Simple pawns in a celestial chest match. How would they hear the quip, “Bless your heart?”
I found another spot to photograph the waves crashing around tidal pools, those little harbors for star fish and sea urchins. And it dawned on me, not so much as an epiphany as much as it was one of those rare gifts from frustration. Just like (in my blog before) wanting a mountain top experience on a mountain, you can’t force God. God isn’t a sort of jack-n-the-box, where if you just crank long enough, poof, God appears.
God is quiet in my life right now. I’m running out of words. I’m running out of wonder. Sometimes I think I will asphyxiate on irony. I remind myself that this is normal. It is natural. There is a gap between one wave and the one that follows. The wave is the interruption of normal. I try not to think of this normalcy as a spiritual abeyance but a time of graceful absence. Jesus is probably behind me, somewhere tucked away in the Cascades, praying.
I grew up in the evangelical spirit of a personal God, a personal savior. If God wasn’t immediately and emotionally present, God wasn’t “doing” something in my life – which of course was my fault. I was succumbing to religion instead of embracing a “relationship,” – I was told. Trapped by my own head, I needed rescuing by the Holy Spirit. How easily, how sneaky that past slips back in my mind like a stowaway.
Now that I am home, I see the trip as a pilgrimage, quod non. A missed opportunity to have been in the moment. As I edit the photographs, I feel like I’m looking at a stranger’s photographs. Maybe I didn’t even go. I was never really there. But there’s good news. God and I don’t need therapy. It was time well spent between waves.