On Ship Building
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I don’t remember a summer when my family did not take a vacation to the beach. The sugar coast of Florida and her brilliant blue-green waters have been a sanctuary for me for my entire life. When I was dating my husband, his family introduced me to the Golden Isles of Georgia, and we spent part of our honeymoon biking under live oaks draped with Spanish moss and collecting shells on deserted beaches.
Today, my favorite place in the world is the point where the marshes of St. Simons Island meet the dark and vast Atlantic. My yearly pilgrimage is to paddle my little red kayak to Pelican Point where I can take my place among the birds and crabs as I turn my face to the sun for blessing. Then, back in my boat, I cross the shallow sandbar where current meets tide, and if I am lucky, my boat rolls over in the surf and I am baptized by salt water and light.
Naturally, my husband and I have made sure that our children share our love for sand and sea. Our oldest learned to crawl on the soft sand of the Gulf Coast, and our youngest took his first steps on the screen porch of a rented beach house. They, too, cannot recall a summer when our family did not spend time by the ocean. To celebrate, to meet friends and gather with family, to flee the rush of regular life, to find calm in crisis – our family finds its way to the coast. We swim, sail, float, skim, paddle, and stroll.
My mother-in-law tells the story of going to the Eastern Shore of Maryland with her other grandchildren last summer. It was the first time four-year-old Clara encountered the ocean. Early each morning, Clara and her brother Levi would wake their grandmother for breakfast and a walk down to the beach. Clara immediately took to building sandcastles at a safe distance from the waves. Every now and then, my mother-in-law would invite the two to walk down to the water to put their toes in the lapping surf. Clara would hold tightly to her hand as they got closer to the edge. The water was dark and mysterious. The waves were loud and relentless. She wasn’t going in for all of the coaxing and promising in the world. So, day after day, she and her grandmother would sit in the sand and make trips to the water’s edge. Clara held tightly to the safety of her grandmother’s hand every time. After nearly a week of these mornings, Clara looked up from her castle and said, “I’m ready to go down to the water.” Grandmother rose and extended her hand, but the little girl refused it. “I don’t need you to hold my hand this time.” And a love of the ocean was born.
Our coffee shop community began as an attempt to build a new kind of church and a new community of faith for men and women, young and old. Together we are learning that some of us have been swimming in the warm seas of God’s mysterious love for a long time. Others are making our first trip to the beach and feel a little overwhelmed and even suspicious of the ocean’s depths. There are also some among us who, having been pummeled by waves or attacked by jellyfish the last time we ventured into the waters, are wary of ever trying it again. It’s important for us to take our time with one another and remember that the ocean isn’t going anywhere. Its constant rhythms will wait for us as we work up our courage.
We are sensing that the great sea that is God’s grace is big enough for all sorts of vessels too – from giant cruise ships that hold a boatload of people to quick and efficient Pangas perfect for exploring the marshes and reefs that brimm with fish and flora. I suspect over time some of us will get together and start to imagine the shape of a vessel that will carry us to new parts of the ocean of God. As we do, we will begin to gather building materials and start spending time crafting the ship that will serve us. Some of us may decide to board a boat that is time-tested and strong. Still others may choose to hook up with friends and together paddle sleek kayaks that allow us to explore a cove on our own every now and then.
Whatever the vessel, the building of it will be fueled by the love of the sea, not the desire to build a ship. Those of us who have been diving in the ocean’s depths for years need the patience of a grandmother who is willing to make the trip to the water’s edge as many times as it takes for our companion to decide to wade in deep. Slowly, our friend’s trust in us will become trust in the goodness of the water itself, and we will have the gift of watching a new sea-lover splash in an endless experience of mercy and grace.