God in the Ocean

Yesterday morning I flew from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, where we picked up a rental car to drive up to Malibu, where we’re staying for three nights in connection with a conference at Pepperdine Law School that I will be speaking at this morning.

I frequently joke about all of the ways Minneapolis is not like New York, things like the lack of good bagels.  But one of the things I miss most about living in the mid-west is not living near an ocean.  Minnesota may be the land of a thousand lakes but that is not the same as the ocean.

The first thing we did after arriving at our hotel (after the drive on the Pacific Coast Highway) was to walk along the beach.  Staring at the ocean – water as far as the eye can see, I breathe more easily and I feel, at one and the same time, a sense of calm and a feeling of awe.

I can find God anywhere, I know, but one can’t stand at the ocean and not see God.  I understand deeply what Frederick Buechner expressed about it:

They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks. One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.

The beauty and the power of it? The inexpressible mystery of it? The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again? The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain? Who knows? . . .

Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to. Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time a near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears.

I think Tillich caught “a glimpse of the One he was praying to.”  Perhaps more than a glimpse.

[In his comment, my friend Richard reminds me Minnesota is the land of ten thousand lakes, not a thousand.]