Midwife to the Sea

At a time of catastrophic climate change and oceanic collapse, the Book of Job offers a vision of hope. (Listen.)

Today is Ocean Sunday: and if the preaching helps are any guide, then I should be telling you to care for the sea. But I think that would be a waste of breath. Some of us here have protested and spread the word against drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight. Some of us have written to politicians, objecting to the Adani coal mine and the catastrophic effect it will have on the Great Barrier Reef. Some of us have created stunning pieces of art which highlight the prevalence of plastics on our beaches and in our oceans, and which challenge us to change. Some of us have spent hours on hands and knees, picking up nurdles from Shelly Beach; most of us come home from any beach trip with other people’s plastic in our pockets; and many of us are planning to be at the local climate rally on 20 September. So no, you don’t need me to tell you to care for the oceans.

But what comes up again and again is that, even as we do all these things and more, most of us feel utterly overwhelmed. Most of us can see that we are living through the early stages of catastrophic climate change; and most of us have an acute sense of the futility of our actions. We can spend our lives picking up nurdles; we can write to politicians and make prophetic art and ban plastic drinking straws. But to what effect? The seas are rapidly acidifying; seagrass meadows are dying; the Great Barrier Reef is bleaching: yet governments keep subsidising the coal industry; factories keep pumping out carbon dioxide; banks keep funding destructive projects; and none of us can avoid using plastic. It’s absolutely overwhelming, and it seems that there’s nothing we can do.

In the face of all this hopelessness, I suggest we need to take a deep breath, then read the Book of Job! So let’s set the scene. As you probably know, Job has experienced suffering beyond comprehension. Despite being a good man – the best man on earth, in fact – he’s lost his children, his wealth and his health. He’s overwhelmed by his losses, and he demands an explanation from God. ‘Why is this happening to me?’ he asks, ‘Where is justice?’

It’s into this context that God speaks. The reading we just heard forms part of God’s response, which, as you may notice, completely sidesteps Job’s question. Yet I find in this reading hope for our current situation. It’s not a comfortable hope, nor a human hope; but it is hope enough for me. So let’s take a look.

The first thing to notice is the complete absence of humans from God’s response. We heard just a little bit, where God rhetorically asks Job, ‘Were you there when I planned the earth? … Were you there when I stopped the waters, as they issued gushing from the womb? when I wrapped the ocean in clouds and swaddled the sea in shadows? … Have you ever commanded morning? Have you seen to the edge of the universe?’

It’s just a snippet from a grand discourse in which God delights in the wild and free. Whether it’s the deep oceans or the wild donkeys, the birds of the air or the beasts of the forest, the rippling rivers or the roaring winds: God creates and delights in them all. And God creates and delights in them for their own sake. For God has a relationship with earth, sea and sky, and with everything that grows and dies, creeps and leaps, flies and flows and scuttles and swims: and this relationship is not centred on humans.

We are part of the creation, certainly; but our petty human demands for reward or retribution are not going to be met by this God. In this creation, things suffer for no reason; things are born, and live, and suffer, and die, and there is no merit in any of it. And yet this world, so much more vast and wild and harsh than humans can possibly imagine, is beautiful and good. Stars sing; Leviathan romps; rivers clap; forests dance; hills erupt with joy.

This is not a world of accounts and balance sheets. It’s not a world in which bad people lose out and good people are showered with prosperity. It’s not a world in which our earnest efforts count for anything. Instead, this is a world of infinite grace and infinite freedom and infinite joy. And it is into this world that Job, and we, are invited to live.

But to live fully in this world, the Creator’s world, we must let go of our striving, and our expectations of reward, and our longing for things to be fair. Instead, we must simply live wholeheartedly into the ‘heartbreaking suffering and heart-stopping beauty’ of the universe, joining our voices with the song of creation; singing in harmony with our God.

But what does this have to do with the current crisis? First, notice that, in the picture painted in Job, humans are not the centre of the world: and so, as impossible as it seems, we don’t need to be overwhelmed by the disasters being visited on our seas. For we are not the centre of the universe; we are not in charge; not one of us can save the world. Saving the world is God’s business, and with or without us, God will again and again bring life out of chaos; through Christ, God will gradually gather all things to God’s own self. We can trust God in this: and so we must not let ourselves be overwhelmed; we must not despair. This great reconciliation might not happen in our lifetime, or even in the Anthropocene; but it will happen, and we will be gathered up, just as all things of heaven and earth, living and dead, are being gathered up through Christ.

Paradoxically, however, this future hope doesn’t mean sitting on our hands now. For we are made in God’s image. We can, of course, deny this image within us. We can turn a blind eye to what’s going on; we can stay silent while corporations wreak havoc and destruction, and while governments continue to subsidise them. Or we can seek to live ever more fully into the image of God.

And here we see a God who plans, measures, builds, midwives, swaddles, nurtures, tends, sets limits, explores and celebrates creation. As creatures made in the image of God, we are invited to become more like this God: the one who is intimately involved in creation: the God who cares for the sea.

For most of us, this probably takes us back to the beginning of this reflection: for it probably means more of the same. More letters; more lobbying; more campaigning. More art; more words; more rallies. More wildness, more freedom, more joy: for any worthwhile revolution requires dancing. More working with each other, more inspiring each other, more listening, more imagining, and more building coalitions across the wider community. More humility, more decentring ourselves. And, of course, much more prayer: for unless we listen to and are guided by the Spirit of Creation, our efforts will be in vain.

But we can do all this with a difference: with less sense of being overwhelmed, and with more confidence. More understanding that it is not all up to us. More sense that each of us must do our bit, even as we know that the oceans are all already in the hands of the one who midwifed them and wrapped them in clouds and swaddled them with shadows: the one whose Spirit is infinitely creative, and nurturing and wild and free. Amen. Ω

A reflection on Job 38:1-18 given to Sanctuary, 1 September 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. I quote from Stephen Mitchell’s stunning translation, The Book of Job (HarperCollins: 1979, 1987 rev. ed.); and am indebted to Kathryn M Schifferdecker for insights and a choice phrase, found here. Image credit: Matteo Kutufa on Unsplash.

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