Thank God it is no longer February! That was a hard one. But it is still Lent; it is a pandemic. Despair in is the air, in the country and in the church. If you think you are drowning or barely keeping your nose above water, I have a little story for you after a few paragraphs.
Despair threaded its way through my feelings last week, too. A further reason, as if I needed one, was this: I kept encountering Christians hemmed in by the trash theology to which they were committed. I mean the kind of thinking that invited Trump, the unbeliever, to lead much of the Evangelical church as if he were Cyrus the Great now freeing Christian exiles. I mean the principle-based thinking that consigns devoted people to understanding the Bible as the end of faith when it is just the beginning. I mean the hierarchical thinking that constrains people to makes excuses for the church leaders who do them wrong, to the point where they can’t even feel their own loss or trauma without feeling guilty for having any and for not following the spin the leadership puts on their power plays.
Pollution in the ocean of grace
Maybe I am just despairing because I never seem to keep my mouth shut about these things and feel displeasing, as a result. I was in a class in which our teacher was giving a very effective presentation about being aware of power in a spiritual direction relationship. During the subsequent dialogue her students were sincerely self-aware of all the ways they might be at fault. They were ready to learn of any way they might cross a line that would diminish someone’s autonomy or impede their free choice. I thought controlling our little dyad with a commitment to “freedom” might be too small a context, reducing it down to something I could control might be a bit grandiose; it might betray some unprocessed philosophy. So I had to get in my two cents worth, as well, appearing a bit too passionate, I’m afraid (as passionate as one can get in a Zoom session, at least). I said something like, “Our teacher got interested in power because Jean Vanier was exposed for taking sexual advantage of his directees, among others. What’s more, an authoritarian president unleashed a wave of threat in the country and a return to unveiled white supremacy!”
My righteous anger kept simmering until I read a little news story that became a parable of hope for me. Even less-than-complete thinking might be a means of salvation for our miracle-working God — Lord knows I am not complete! So I want to share the story with you, along with my interpretation. You are probably clinging to some bit of trash theology in a sea of confusion, threat and chaos yourself. And I think we all probably feel very small in a very big ocean every day, even when there is no virus to fear.
Here’s the story
Before I start, let me remind you. While the legislatures rush to spend time on restricting rampant voter participation, the Pacific Ocean is quickly filling up with plastic. In 2019, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the Pacific Ocean was “crying out in despair.” Scientists warn the pollution crisis could leave more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish by 2050.
Those two more cents being offered, here’s the parable.
According to the Washington Post, a supply ship called the Silver Supporter left New Zealand on Feb. 8 for the 3,000 mile trip to the Pitcairn Islands (famously settled by mutineers from the Bounty in 1789). About seven days later, the crew discovered they were one member short. Their chief engineer was missing.
Around 4 am, during his watch on the night shift, Vidam Perevertilov from Lithuania felt hot and dizzy. He went out on the deck for some fresh air. Apparently, he fainted and fell overboard into the dark waters without a life jacket. He had trouble keeping his head above water as the sleeping ship steadily moved away. But he summoned enough energy to swim over a mile to a black object he could see on the horizon. The object turned out to be a detached buoy, a big piece of sea rubbish.
He was gone for six hours before someone sounded the alarm. The crew members studied Perevertilov’s work logs to try to pinpoint the coordinates of where he was last certified as on board. Distress calls were made to surrounding ships, and the French navy assisted in the hunt. A French meteorological service mapped a possible drift path. The ship’s captain continued to hunt for the missing crew member by steering the ship back and running various search patterns.
Despite his determination to pull through, as the hours slowly passed Perevertilov began to lose hope of ever being found. For sixteen hours he bobbed up and down in the cold and dark and then in the searing heat of the morning. He found himself using his final moments to reflect on his life.
Weak with dehydration, skin burning, and giving up hope, he was shocked to spot the Silver Supporter in the distance. He waved his arm and yelled for help. A passenger on board heard his cry, describing it as a “weak, human shout.” Everyone thought it was incredible someone heard a voice. The man’s ecstatic family thought the whole rescue operation was almost impossible to believe.
His son said his father’s will to survive was strong; even at 52, he was fit and healthy. When asked about the piece of trash he found, Perevertilov said he left the fishing buoy exactly where he had found it — just in case it was ever needed to save someone else.
I forget that God does a lot of good with “trash”
Don’t forget that he left the trash as he found it when he was found.
This story changed my mind about all the poor believers I lamented. Perhaps they had been overboard a long time and were about to give up. They swam toward some promising trash theology that kept them afloat. (I won’t go in to how relative my judgment of “trash” may be). They got spiritually dehydrated and often got burned, but it was better than drowning. In fact, the trash saved them until the big ship came and rescued them, brought them on board for healing and took them home. I can hear the Apostle Paul saying to me, “Would you despise the trash that saved your brother? Isn’t your sister’s life worth more than your estimation of goodness?” Well, no, I wouldn’t and yes, it is. Jesus is made known by a leaf in the forest, a small voice on a mountain or a Presbyterian sermon. A fine acquaintance from my youth started his journey of faith by pausing for a televangelist while flipping around the channels. God’s love is unrestrained.
I decided, once again, that I can afford to be a lot less critical of the dangerous debris floating around on the ocean of the collective unconscious. A lot of people have a will to live and not even trash Christianity can keep them from meeting God and growing into their fullness. I may be right to point out that the ocean of God’s grace is crying out in despair because it is polluted with a huge gyre of plastic, unnourishing, detrimental religious thinking.
But listen, there are all sorts of faint voices crying out and waving their hands for help. God sees. I should open my eyes, and my heart, as well.