I’m a Hoosier boy, born and bred. I love the hills and fields; the creeks and rivers; even the fickle weather – most of the time. But when I get a chance to go on vacation, if I have my choice, I head for the ocean. Maybe it is looking out from sandy beaches to an endless sea instead of the fields or wooded hills of home; maybe it is hearing the power of the pounding surf and seeing the waves crest as they crash toward shore; or tasting the salt on the breeze coming off the water; or feeling the sand between my toes and the spray as the breakers rush across my ankles at the water’s edge – I don’t know, but it is almost as if I am drawn there. At the ocean, more than anywhere else, I get lost in the majestic power of God’s creation. I wonder at the untamed vastness of all that God is and has created. And in the face of that I begin to wonder what difference I, one puny person, can make in the grand scheme of things.
Last time we were there we walked the beach as we always do. My wife, Joyce, put us to work picking up shells and rocks for grandsons back home. Going about our task looking for perfect specimens in the sand I saw things differently. For a moment the majesty of the ocean was forgotten. As I scoured the sand for shells I realized I was sifting through millions of broken shells in my search for whole ones – the remains of sea life that had not survived the terrible power of the ocean that was the “world” in which they lived. As the tide rolled in Joyce saw something unusual in the water being pushed toward shore. The waves carried it as if to present it to us at our feet, and the receding tide left it there. It was a fish unlike any I had ever seen - brightly colored with spikes on it body – and although not strong - still alive! I watched uncomfortably as it gasped for air and flipped its fins in a vain attempt to dislodge itself from the beach to find life giving water. I didn’t know how to help it. I had no tools with me – no net to scoop it up and cast it back or even driftwood to flip it into the water in hopes that it could catch the next wave and allow the undertow to carry it out to swimming depth. I was afraid and unwilling to touch it with my hands. I could not bear to watch it struggle. So I turned and walked away – leaving it to live or die on its own. I felt like a coward and a heel. I didn’t care enough to fight the anxiety of the unfamiliar in order to touch it; I wasn’t willing to risk being “stung,” cut, or bitten to save it. I walked away and rationalized my action by thinking, “It is the way of the universe – the cycle of life. Fish live and die and the tide rolls on.” I returned to our grandparental duties: gathering shells for little boys’ collections but my thoughts stayed on that fish gulping for air with eyes that seemed to look right at me begging for help….
That fish, pleading for help, “visited” me in the dark of my bedroom that night and early the next morning. My thoughts turned to who I am, who we are, as the church of Jesus Christ. We go through our days walking along the “shores” among the tragic remains of others like us struggling to live. The jagged shards of their lives tell of the pain they have experienced. And if we have eyes to see, we find people who are struggling, gasping for the breath of life and for someone to help them find it. The problems are many: 1] we focus on other things and fail to see them; 2] we do not possess the tools to help them in their need; 3] we are unwilling or afraid to risk pain in order to enter their struggle and help them find that life giving breath for which they are gasping. We comfort ourselves by rationalizing the dilemma away – “it is the way of the universe – the cycle of life….” But the fact remains that if we don’t act those who struggle almost certainly will flounder in their pain until they are starved for hope and their lives ebb away.
There is a story of an old man walking the beach, [I’m beginning to fit that description more with each passing year]. As he walks along the shore he sees a boy ahead of him stooping down again and again at the water’s edge, picking something up and tossing it into the ocean. After watching this ritual repeated over and over again the old man finally overtakes the youth. He sees now what the boy is doing. He watches as the boy bends down in the foam, picks up a starfish that the tide has washed in, and flings it as far as he can into the sea. The old man interrupts the ritual as he calls to the boy and asks, “What are you doing?” The boy replies “I’m finding starfish that have washed up on shore and I’m throwing them back before they die.” “Don’t be silly,” the old man said. “There are millions of starfish washed up on this beach. That’s the way the ocean is. It’s useless! No matter how many times you walk this beach – no matter how many starfish you throw back you can’t make any difference! Give it up!” The boy stoops down to pick up another that the breaking surf just deposited at his feet. He rears back and hurls it as far as he can into the tide, turning to the man he answers, “I made a difference to that one.”
My pilgrimage to the shore ended – as it always must. But I come back chastened by the image of the gasping fish pleading to me at some primal level for assistance: He can’t tell me what he needs – he, himself, probably doesn’t even fully know, but his eyes beg me to reach out to somehow save him. I return to my beloved Indiana and the life God has placed before me with a renewed awareness that all around us there are people who have been pushed along by the overwhelming tides of life. Too many of them get “stranded on the shore.” I know there are so many that I/we can’t save them all. But with the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ “we can make a difference to that one…..” God, give us your eyes to see and Your heart to love those gasping for hope. We offer ourselves to You to be Your hands to make a difference, even if it is only to one or two or three…….