My wife and I recently celebrated our ten-year anniversary in Kona, Hawaii. It was an incredible trip, though not your typical romantic getaway. The reason? We brought along our eight-month-old son.
It’s amazing how many things you can’t do on the Big Island with a baby in tow. No surfing, no snorkeling, no kayaking, no crater climbing, no late-night luaus.
More than once we wondered aloud whether we should have made the trip with such a young child. But by the end, we were glad we did. There’s nothing quite like watching a child watch the world. And when that world is filled with the vivid sights of a tropical paradise, it’s even better.
On one of our first evenings there, while my wife was getting ready to go out for dinner, I walked our son down to the beach. The early months of his life had passed in the landlocked Midwest, so this would be his first glimpse of the ocean.
As we neared the water’s edge, I was curious to see his reaction. Would he smile? Giggle? Open his mouth and unleash one of his familiar “Gee, gee, gee!” exclamations? Or just stare, wonderstruck?
I should have anticipated his response. The tide was in. The waves were high. They sped toward us with a growing roar before slamming into the rocky shoreline, churning up stones and spewing them across the pebbled beach. It was a violent scene.
As my son took it all in, his bottom lip started to tremble. Then he jerked his head from the sight and stifled a scream against my shoulder.
Suddenly I understood how strange and terrifying the pounding waves must have appeared to him. He’d never seen anything like it. What guarantee did he have that the next angry surge would stop before swallowing us whole?
His reaction made perfect sense: the ocean is overwhelming. And not just for children. Truth be told, I’m a little scared of it too. Poets wax eloquent about the ocean’s beauty, its power to inspire serenity and introspection—and that’s all true.
But there’s another side to the sea, a scary side, the side of powerful tempests and deadly creatures and dark depths. There’s a reason swimming instructors tell you to respect the ocean. If you don’t, it can kill you.
When I was about twelve years old, I remember looking out over the ocean at night and trying to imagine what it would be like to swim out into those black waters. It was about the scariest thought I’d ever entertained.
Vast, beautiful, powerful, dangerous—that’s the ocean. It makes me think of God, which is probably appropriate. Both are immense, mysterious. Both can make us feel frighteningly small.
The appropriate response to such greatness is respect and awe, even resignation. Yet often we tend to do something else, something very strange. We devise ways to make them more manageable. We scale them down to our size. We domesticate them. Or at least we try.
The god lagoon
One of the highlights of our anniversary trip to Hawaii was staying in the Hilton Waikoloa Village, a sprawling four-star resort located on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island.
We could only afford to stay there two nights, but it was worth the price. You didn’t even have to leave the 62-acre, 1,240-room resort to have a good time. It featured a dozen restaurants and a variety of shops, boutiques, and galleries.
In the daytime we swam in the pools and dined in the open-air restaurants. In the evenings we strolled the meticulously gardened grounds, taking in the lush vegetation and cascade waterfalls. When our feet got tired or the baby got fussy, we simply hopped on the air-conditioned tram that whisked us back to our room.
But the big draw for us was the lagoon, an enclosure the resort’s website described as “teeming with tropical fish and rare green sea turtles . . . a protected oasis perfect for snorkeling and swimming.”
The lagoon, of course, was man-made. Every min- ute ten thousand gallons of water were pumped in from the ocean. All dangerous marine life was screened out.
There were no jelly fish or barracudas or sharks in the lagoon. Nothing with stingers or poison or fangs. No spiny backs or razor teeth. Just slow-swimming turtles and brightly colored fish.
Beside the lagoon was a perfectly rectangular, white-sand beach, with cabanas for rent. And yes, a Lagoon Grill to fill you up between swims.
After getting situated on the beach, my wife and I took turns swimming while the other parent watched the baby. I jumped into the water first and swam for the other side.
The water wasn’t perfectly clear, but I made out several large fish passing beneath me. When I reached the rocks on the far side, I even spotted a sea turtle. I swam back to the beach, toweled off, and it was my wife’s turn.
The lagoon was enjoyable (it definitely beat a cold night in Chicago), but after an hour or so something unforeseen happened. We got bored.
Why did the initial thrill of crisscrossing the enclosure fade so quickly?
Maybe we had unrealistic expectations. I had been attracted by the promise of an authentic marine adventure, but this felt more like swimming in a large pool stocked with fish and turtles. Perhaps the experience was diminished by the fact that the lagoon was crowded with other vacationers, many riding inner tubes, paddleboats, canoes, and giant water bicycles.
But the problem really wasn’t what was in the lagoon. It’s what wasn’t. There were no waves, no spray from the surf, no tides, no coral reefs, no danger, no depths.
It wasn’t the ocean.
At one point I looked over my shoulder at the sea. It lay about a hundred feet away and seemed to stretch forever beyond the horizon. “You know,” I said to my wife, “we could swim in there.”
I believe there’s a spiritual equivalent to that man-made lagoon. If the ocean is like God, the lagoon is a poor, but useful, replacement. It’s domesticated Christianity. It’s engagement with a lesser deity. It’s the golden calf in place of Yahweh. It’s a life designed to give us spiritual experiences while cushioning us from the reality of a dangerous God.
Just like the manmade lagoon had real ocean water and marine life, this “god lagoon” may contain some spiritual truths. We may even encounter qualities of the true God—but only the ones we deem acceptable. Divine characteristics we find threatening or that clash with our modern sensibilities, we carefully screen out.
Life in the lagoon means never being surprised by God. It means never having to take seriously what he might have us do or ask us to give up. Ultimately, it means we are in control.
The power of the god lagoon lies in its subtlety. It’s easy to think you’re in the ocean when you’re immersed in saltwater and surrounded by sea turtles. And it’s easy to believe we’re encountering God because we go to church, sing the songs, pray the prayers, and interact with Christians. But we can do all of those things without ever having to grapple with the real presence of God.
And it’s not like the lagoon is filled with pagans and heretics. It’s filled with us—well-meaning believers who gladly pay lip service to the central doctrines of the Christian faith. But here’s the rub. Somewhere along the line we’ve distanced ourselves from those truths. We haven’t let them, or the God who revealed them, invade our reality.
Striking off for the deep
So many of us live what one writer called “lives of quiet desperation.” We’re bored to death of living but scared to death to really live.
What if what’s really missing are the deep things of God?
What if it’s not that next accomplishment or superficial thrill? What if only a ravishing vision of God’s grandeur will make the difference? Maybe that’s what it takes to make you want to crawl back into your life.
Maybe only the deep will do.
If we have access to the deep things of God, why would we ever be bored? Why are we so often spiritually complacent?
I don’t think it’s because we lack faith or are more sinful than anyone else. And it’s certainly not because God is boring. But over the years, we slowly lose sight of how strange and splendid God truly is.
My friend Margaret Feinberg wrote about this tendency:
Many of us say we want to experience God, but we don’t look for his majesty. We travel life’s paths with our heads down, focused on the next step with our careers or families or retirement plans. But we don’t really expect God to show up with divine wonder.
Slowly, subtly, God becomes ordinary, commonplace. As our view of his grandeur dims, our spiritual lives become dull. Instead of striking off for the depths, we never leave the beach. We’re like marine researchers, equipped with all the tools and resources to explore the deepest fathoms of the sea, who instead opt to build sandcastles on the shore.
Speaking of the sea, something strange happened next time my son saw it.
The day after swimming in the resort we went down to the water again. Not to the man-made lagoon but to the wild sea itself.
This time my son’s reaction was different. Rather than turning in fear from the pounding waves, he was mesmerized. Craning his neck to see past me, he looked out at the majestic swells.
He wouldn’t stop staring.
THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM YAWNING AT TIGERS: YOU CAN’T TAME GOD, SO STOP TRYING. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE!
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