Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

What The Ocean Tells Us


“Hurry is a form of violence practiced on time.” Eugene Peterson wrote these words in Answering God when speaking about language and prayer. “Mobs of words,” as he puts it, run out of our mouths nonstop, trampling the sacred silence. We stop only when breathless. Why do we talk so much? So fast?

What is needed is a recovery of rhythm. It begins by allowing God to have the first word. The best prayers—the right prayers—always begin with listening. We must hear God’s Word before we speak our own. And when we give voice to our thoughts, our words must be careful not to “murder the silence.” It is necessary to enter it cautiously and reverently, remembering the wisdom of the sage: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable” (Prov. 10:19).

Peterson refers to such prayers as “tidal.” When we shift to responsive speech, our prayers are oceanic, gathering much more beneath and beyond them than anything we are aware of from our place on the beach. We read God’s Word, journey into his depths, hear his voice, and reply with language we would never find on our own.

Spending more and more time at Arch Cape on the north Oregon coast, I am drawn into this rhythm. I have discovered a beach that beckons to me every morning. I walk a landscape that shifts and changes with the tides. It is as if God is painting on a new canvas every morning and every afternoon. It is never redundant. I find myself daily checking the tidal charts—aiming to walk when the tide is falling. I am developing a more pronounced devotional cadence. I walk the stretch of beach each morning peditating through Proverbs. Deep calls to deep. When I reach the point, I turn and spend the second half praying God-shaped prayers.

Reinforcing all of this is my growing relationship with the ocean. Growing up in San Diego, I spent a fair amount of time at the coast. In our years in Holland, our house was on the edge of the North Sea. Being near a beach is in my blood. Maybe this is why this new venture, this shift from the Washington wilderness to the Oregon coastline, feels like coming home. But it is different. Here, at Arch Cape, I find myself paying much more attention to these marine movements.

Walking near the surf is part of it. In his God Walk, Buchanan notes that we see things differently when we walk. We think more clearly and pray more deeply. In walking, we are moving at the speed of thought—maybe at the pace God designed for our souls. Buchanan finds in his walking that he is moving at the tempo God keeps. When God entered the garden, it says he walked in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). When Jesus came to earth, he called his disciples to follow and walk with him. There are times the apostle Paul chose to walk rather than go by sea (Acts 20:13). It may be that he wanted to get in rhythm and travel at God speed. Walking and praying have a way of helping one find one’s truest self and truest need.

Still, if I am not careful, my walking can slip into old habits. I have always been destinational. Have I finished in the time I set for this walk? Did I get my 13,000 steps in? Hiking the beach, the ocean tells me to pause and get back in step. The oceanic tides, as well as the solar and lunar, and seasonal cycles, invite me to get into rhythm. Twice a day, like a blanket pulled over a bed, the high tides cover the shore; twice a day the blanket is pulled back, and low tides expose everything to the sun. These become more dramatic with full and new moons, perigee and apogee. What the moon is, the tide is. This is how Jonathan White puts it in his wonderful book, Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean.

Every day I observe this all-embracing order, which I find mesmerizing. So much of life is about rhythm: inhale and exhale; activity and rest; high tide and low. Proverbs daily instructs me to give attention to how life goes—its times and seasons, its patterns and dynamics, its laws, its rhythms, and its pace. Life has an ebb and flow. There will be growth and decline, gains and losses, high points and low points, booms and busts, bull markets, and bear markets, high approval ratings and low approval ratings, youth and old age, health and sickness. Get in sync, for we are either strengthening this divine symmetry by our conduct or contributing to the forces of chaos.

And yet, in all of this rhythm, there is the occasional turmoil. Life can have its madness. Things can be disrupted and go wrong. Even the sea has its unpredictable and perilous ways. Common is the exhortation–“Never turn your back on the ocean. It may take you away.” There just may be a king tide. There is always a coming tsunami. Low pressure and high pressure. Storm surges and windstorms. Watch is the pivotal word.

Nonetheless, I believe writers like Peterson would urge us to use our best energies to keep in step. Listen, then speak. Pause and observe. Walk the beach and reflect. Just as the high tides daily remake the shore, so my failures and missteps recede as God’s daily forgiveness comes in to sweep my shore and carry them out to the bottomless deep. This is Christ’s rhythm.

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