Creeks, rivers, lakes and oceans make their way into conversations with directees when they speak of their experience and images of God. Perhaps that’s intuitive, given the life-source nature of water. After all, we begin life in a bag of waters from which we emerge at birth, and our ancestors--if we go back far enough--surfaced out of that wild-vast-salty-life-giving-oxygen-rich wet home we call ocean.
We drink water, bathe in it, wash our clothes, dishes, cars, and dogs with it. We irrigate crops, flowers, and lawns. We recreate in it, and create features that cause water to fall, flow, and trickle in cascades that soothe and quiet our sometimes rumpled spirits. We depend on water to rise from the ocean to rain upon us, and to burble up from springs and wells that all these things might be accomplished.
It is no surprise then, that images of God connect to water. Here is one such story, of Rachelle, whom I’ve been meeting with for about five years. We have traveled a long way together through occasionally calm and often stormy seas.
“I imagine being on a boat,” Rachelle said, early on in our time together while reflecting on her image of God. “God is in the ocean, and I’m on the boat, being held. God is the ocean in a way. So, I’m safe. Even when things turn stormy, God holds me safe.”
Things did turn stormy. George Floyd stormy. As an African American in a predominately white context, when the reverberations of a national wake-up call shook her community she was expected to be the spokesperson, to help educate white members and be a balm to wounded BIPOC community members, to keep things from shattering. To do all the things we unreasonably ask of leaders who are BIPOC.
During that season she told me, “The whole God-is-the-ocean-and-I’m-safe isn’t working anymore. I’m hanging onto the mast while my boat is being tossed and tumbled in a raging storm. Waves are pouring over the boat and hitting me in the face, filling my mouth with water. If God is the ocean, it’s God filling my mouth with crashing waves, and capsizing the boat. I can’t breathe.”
She knew I’d know the reference.
We sat with the image of that kind of God. We grieved together her sense that God, once experienced intimately, now stood outside, watching and letting the storm do with her what it would--flooding her boat, taking her down. She found it easier to imagine God standing outside observing than to hold to her image that God was the ocean that raged and threatened to drown her. I wept quiet tears with her, honoring her experience of feeling abandoned, crushed by the one she thought would protect her.
A year or so later Rachelle brought up her image again. She said, “I’m making peace with the ocean thing and God. I’m beginning to imagine that I belong under the water, that I’m made to live under the water. I can function well enough on land, but I belong in the ocean.”
We spoke of that some, its implications, and her journey from there, to here. “At some point,” she continued, “I realized that when I’m washed overboard, and at last have to gulp for air, I’ll breathe the ocean, and I’ll be inhaling God, who is everything I need. I’ll be able to get oxygen from the water and live. God is in the ocean, is in the oxygen, is in me.” She paused, and then added, “I know this a messy metaphor that breaks up in the telling, but even my fear of a real death by drowning is less than it was. If I die, I’ll be okay.”
I noticed a gentle peace in Rachelle. A peace beyond understanding, beyond sense-making.
Storms still rage, but Rachelle knows she can access a place where she can breathe. Sometimes when storms rage Rachelle imagines sinking beneath the surface for a reprieve, to breathe God’s life-giving ocean-rich oxygen for a few minutes. She remembers that another reality runs parallel with the one above the surface and wants to live above the surface drawing on the depth beneath it.
This image didn’t change Rachelle’s life circumstances. She lives in a boat often visited by storms, and she can’t access the depths as readily as she wishes she could. We talked about how Rachelle might practice engaging her image when all is calm that she might more easily access it when storms rage.
Companioning with Rachelle, and others, has inspired me to expand my image of God’s hold on me, and to practice engaging it when all is well that I might better access it when storms rage. I’m grateful for the gifts that come from offering spiritual direction. May we all, officially or not, companion and be companioned in ways that pursue invitations that broaden and deepen our attunement to God’s loving presence.