When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.
and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.
Our lives are tidal. We all experience ebb and flow through days, years, and over the course of a lifetime. In any group of people you meet, and you’ll find some whose life is ebbing away, while others are experiencing the incoming flow of new found life and purpose. C. S. Lewis writes of this experience in The Screwtape Letters, describing the ebb and flow of life as the law of undulation, which Lewis defines as,
. . . the repeated return to a level from which [we] repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. . . . As long as [we live] on earth, periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. . . . You must ask what use [God] wants to make of it. . . . Now it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favorites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else. . . . Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best.[i]
Jonah’s life was ebbing away. Humans do not live underwater for long, even inside the belly of a great fish. For you, the ebb tide may be going out with a loss of your health, a loss of a job or a career, the grievous loss of a spouse or a family member, the loss of a marriage through divorce or estrangement, a loss of love, a loss of personal freedom, a loss of memory, the loss of faith, or the loss of purpose. Though we all face losses, we all face losses differently.
Today, I went out for an afternoon beach walk at low tide. Today’s low tide was a negative 1.5 tide, exposing many sea creatures who live much of their life underwater. I walked down into the low intertidal zone, among barnacles, mussel beds, blue-green seaweed, scallop and clam shells, limpets and oysters, with crows and gulls scavenging food, while bald eagles called from the treetops along the shore. Each of the intertidal sea creatures I saw have adapted to the ebbing away of the life-giving sea, confident in the law of undulation, and the return of the high tide.
When Jonah’s life was ebbing away, he prayed to the Lord.
I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.
Too often and too easily we forget God and forget to pray. Our lives get so filled with busyness, with demands, with family, with careers, with worries, that we forget we are designed by God to enjoy daily intimacy with God. When God is fully present to us, too often, we are absent or absent-minded with God. The ebb-tide times in our lives can be a gift from God to recall our inner longing for God. When we are feeling empty, low, in the mudflats, God comes beachcombing.
In my beachcombing today, I found a golf ball with the word “practice” printed on it. About 150 yards away, I spied a beach-front lawn where some golfer likely was practicing his swing. Prayer also takes practice. How do you pray? When do you pray best? Jonah teaches us to pray the Psalms, as he regularly puts bits and pieces of the Psalms into his prayer from the belly of the great fish.[ii]
Often the Bible describes prayer as rising to God, as though God lives above us. This picture of prayer is of incense burning in the holy Temple, with the smoke rising up into the upper realms of God’s dwelling place, as Jonah prays, “my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” We ascend by descending, rising up to God by kneeling down in prayer and humbling our souls before God. God is not far away, but very near. “Do you not know that you yourselves are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit lives in you?”[iii] When our life is ebbing away, we do not need to give up hope, but can pray with confidence, as Paul writes:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.[iv]
Haystack Rock at Ebb Tide, by Thomas Robinson.
[i] C.S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters, HarperSanFrancisco, ©1942, Harper edition 2001, pp. 37-38. See The Screwtape Letters on Amazon.
[ii]Jonah 2:7 contains phrases from Psalm 77:11-12, Psalm 11:4, and Psalm 18:6.
[iii]1 Corinthians 3:16.
[iv] 2 Corinthians 4:16-17.