Christ at the Beach

I was visiting a young family who lived two short blocks from the ocean. “You should go take a walk on the beach,” the wife suggested as I was leaving. I was pressed for time and rush hour was fast approaching, but it was a beautiful day, and I could smell the ocean breeze. “Why not, ” I thought. What’s an extra hour in traffic on a Friday afternoon anyway?

The beach was nearly deserted, a rarity in southern California. A few locals sunning themselves, a cross-country team out for a run, some people running their dogs. What is it about sand and surf that brings such joy to a dog?

I stood facing the ocean, surrounded by the sound of surf, the smell of the sea, the pelicans cruising the sky searching for fish. The temperature was a perfect 70º. A slight cooling breeze blew gently across the water. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

That’s my prayer word, the simple prayer I use to quiet my mind that always wants to race on to the next thing and not be still. I’ve been exploring the world of contemplative prayer. Martin Laird’s “Into the Silent Land” has been my guidebook. I picked it up on a whim at St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, a Benedictine monastery in the desert. Contemplative prayer stills my mind and spirit and has given me peace against the waves of anxiety and depression that often paralyze me.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

As I stood there quietly, I was filled with a deep and almost overwhelming sense of awe, wonder, tranquility, contentment, joy – what the Hebrews call “shalom.” It wasn’t the “I’m just a speck of sand, what is man that Thou art mindful of him” sort of moment that people sometime speak of at the beach. It wasn’t my insignificance but Christ’s significance that caught hold of me – intimate, present, focused, real, loving, forgiving, embracing.

“I am with you always, to the end of the days.”

As a Lutheran pastor, schooled in a sacramental, incarnational, objective way of doing theology, I am accustomed to seeking Christ outside of myself – in the Word preached, in the Bread and the Cup, in the water of Baptism, in the congregation of saints. I am naturally wary of anything internal, because I know my own heart, and I know that nothing good dwells in me. St. Paul said that in Romans, didn’t he?

“For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18)

Wait. Stop. Did I miss something? “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.” Paul didn’t say “in me,” but added “in my flesh.” In flesh born of Flesh, adamic flesh. But I am also spirit born of Spirit, born from above by water and Spirit in Baptism. I had stopped too soon in that sentence all these years. Paul wasn’t saying that nothing good dwelled in him but in his flesh.

The same apostle Paul fifteen years earlier wrote this: “I no longer live but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19). So nothing good dwells in my flesh, yet Christ lives in me! The same Christ who died on a cross bearing my Sin and Death. The same Christ who rose from the dead and reigns at the Father’s right hand. The same Christ who is in Word and water and Bread and Cup dwells in me. Abides in me as I abide in Him.

I’ve heard it said that Christ is everywhere present, but He is not present everywhere for you. That’s supposed to be an incentive to get you to go to church on Sunday. But Christ is always there for you. Always. Until the end of the ages and then for all eternity, He is there for you. Even at the beach!

I go to church to seek Christ where He has promised to be to forgive, sustain, teach, and nourish, and to have table fellowship with Christ and my fellow Christians at table with me. I’m a member of a body, not a spiritual soloist. “It’s not good for Man to be alone.” The Christ outside of me is certain and objective, present in a way I can experience Him in the company of my fellow sinner-saints, my congregation, my little corner of the Kingdom.

But He is also really present within me, assuring me, forgiving me, bearing the Spirit’s fruit in me so that I might be as Christ for those around me. That this isn’t more apparent is because I, that is, my Flesh, still get in the way. But Christ is really present wherever I am present – at the beach, in traffic, at home, asleep or awake, at work, at play, at worship.

And He is also really present in my brother, my sister, my fellow believers, especially the least among them. “For as often as you have done it to the least of these, my brothers, you have done it unto Me.”

Patrick, the great missionary to Ireland, wrote this hymn that says it best:

“Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.”

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”