Lake Hart, SA, 2016

Brownie and the Pelicans

The Presence of God

I once woke up feeling I was being watched. It was quiet. Apart from tiny night noises there was not a sound -- no one was within 30 miles of us. The moon was bright. Without even moving my head I could see the beauty of the stark gums against the white sand. Their shadows were crisp and everything had a shine on it. But something not good was also there. I could feel it. Unease flooded through me. As I quietly and very slowly turned my head in the warmth of our swag, I saw it.

It stood a few yards away on the bank of the creek, about eight feet higher than us, tall and almost beautiful in the moonlight. Motionless. Watching. Wondering whether to come down among us. I felt the warm patch down by my feet move itself and tense slightly. She knew something was here with us too. She had felt it first. I made the kck-kck noise in the back of my mouth that meant "see them off", and the black and tan kelpie exploded off the end of the swag with a snarl, and raced barking across the sand and up the bank of the creek. The huge dingo fled into the night.

On another night I awoke from a deep sleep to an explosion of barking, the thudding of hooves and crashing of branches. The dog had wakened and hunted off a group of wild scrub cattle that had strayed close to us and our little water hole.

When we say that God will never leave us, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God, perhaps this might be a helpful picture for us. God is like Brownie, that black and tan kelpie I had. She walked across the desert with me wherever I went, and when I slept she lay on the end of my swag sleeping ever lightly, and awake to what was around me. Perhaps the Spirit of God protects us like this.

I find it a deeply attractive picture because I loved that little dog, and she did look after me. However, it's not quite good enough. I believe God is always with us, but the picture is not true to reality. There come times when disaster of some kind, what the Bible calls an evil day, bursts upon us. 

Let's take a recent (circa 1994) news story. Imagine us being above the sea in our helicopter and the crash that followed. In that kind of crash there is no fierce little Kelpie to protect or warn us. We are simply thrown into the sea. That's how life more often seems. Disaster bursts upon us and it seems there is no help to be had.

How are we to live in the face of such an evil day? Especially when it seems that in reality the Spirit is not there helping us. When it seems we are not safe on land, as it were, but that life has crashed and we are alone in the sea, with no protection and little hope, as the waves and storms of life rage around us, and threaten to drown us. Is it true then that nothing can separate us from the love of God? Or are those words of Paul just easy talk from times when life seemed good and safe and secure. When we are on the downside of life, are they really true?

It is interesting that the man who survived that helicopter crash near Whyalla has seen it in deeply religious terms. "Something made me go on that flight with him, and something or somebody made sure I lived," he is reported to have said.

The sea is one of the great symbols of the spiritual world (or what we sometimes call the unconscious). I think it's why we so often like walking along the beach. Perhaps we sense the city and it's hustle and bustle as a symbol of the material world on one side, and the sea as a symbol of the spiritual, on the other. As human beings we are made to live on the beach you might say. We are made to live in both worlds and living just one is dangerous to us. Perhaps this is why his story of survival is so intriguing to us, and attracted such attention. This man went down into the sea, where we are all supposed to be.

From the middle of the disaster and trouble we hear some true gospel words. The words of someone who was struggling for life and who is reported to have believed strongly in God. "You'll be right mate, slow and easy, he said. And, "No, go sideways with the waves, Steve" And Steve, the mate, made it to land because he went slow and easy, and sideways with the waves. He went with the flow, instead of battling fruitlessly into the wind and waves, and so he survived.

The message is that it's alright to tread water and just stay afloat. Jesus said "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." So often we have heard instead the message that we must always be in control. That we must power 'head on' into the waves at all times. We must always be triumphant and on top of things, and full of confidence and joy, we have thought. We must be somehow like the boys on their surf mats down at Brighton by the jetty on the stormy evenings, enjoying the danger and riding the tops of the waves. And we have heard that if we are not like that in life, then we are failures...as Christians and as people. No, sometimes we must swim between the waves being tossed around, and just plugging along to survive. And that's alright. Doing anything else will drown us.

Steve Francis, who survived the swim, said that when the wind dropped then he rolled over and was able to swim toward Whyalla. There comes a time when we may act. In the mean time we just plug along in our struggle. And eventually we will be comforted. But in the meantime we just keep going along. "I'm not sure if I will ever get through this," we may feel, "but it's lunch time, so I'll have lunch." And then, "I'm still not much better this morning, but it's Sunday, so I'll go to church." And on the next day, "It is still no better, but it's Monday, so I'll wash the clothes." That's swimming between the waves.

The man told how he abused his friend for dying. "I called him a miserable bastard for leaving me out there by myself with no one to talk to." We believe we have to be so polite. Blessed are those who mourn. Swimming between the waves means letting it all come out. Nothing will separate us from the love of God. And we will be comforted.

This approach to the disaster or the evil that has come upon us is not the same as giving up. I'm not saying we turn into a lump and just lie there. If we do that we will sink for sure. We need to stay alert. Steve Francis said, "All the time I was swimming there were three pelicans circling above me, and I remember thinking they were probably Don and a couple of angels looking after me." He had a sure instinct...the mother pelican is one of the oldest Christian symbols. It was believed in earlier times that she feeds her chicks from her own blood, just as Christ's blood feeds us.

Even alone in the waves God will be with us. Even out there in danger of drowning he was alert enough to his surroundings to find something that spoke to him of the presence of God. And if we are alert to our surroundings...if we will look... we will see God there in the waves on our evil day.

Because he stayed alert I am sure he could see the hills, and later, the lights of Whyalla. He swam between the waves, but he didn't just wallow. He stayed alert so that when the time came, he knew it was time to act and where to go.

Don Urquhart didn't make it. Evil came upon him and he did not survive. He encouraged a friend. Probably he enabled a friend's survival, but was left behind. What if we don't make it through the evil day? What if the disaster drowns us? Is God still there with us in that? Is it really true that he will never leave us or forsake us?

It says in Hebrews 13:5 "Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, 'I will never leave you or forsake you.'" This verse challenges us to really fly in life. It's saying, "Don't be so bound up by the desire for material security that you miss the excitement of real life with God." If you like, "Don't be so scared of the chance of a crash that you never get to fly!" That's often our fear. We won't fully embrace the promises of God because we are scared God will leave us or forsake us.

Well, what happens if we die? Rather than simply speak easy words from this present moment of safety and heath, let us be honest........ We don't know. We can only put faith in what we have heard in the witness of the Scripture and what we have felt in our lives. Let us be honest that at times we are afraid, and even sceptical.

But let us put faith in what we have felt, because those who trumpet nothingness after death, have no greater inkling than we. For myself I have been struck by the reality of what is happening at funerals sometimes. As the minister I have to keep my emotions pretty much under control...I am doing a job. My time for mourning comes later. But every now and then something sneaks in...perhaps it's truer to say forces its way in...past my artificial detachment.

Recently, for example, I took a funeral at Mitcham Cemetery. The cemetery is high up. You can see the sea and the city. It is removed from the noise of the traffic. And this was one of those days when the wind was hissing in the pines, and there were black clouds scudding across the sky. We were not sure if we would finish before we were rained on. It was a 'cold air, hot sun' kind of day. The kind of day when it is not pleasant outside, but it is good. The air was clean...I remember that song..."on a clear day you can see forever."

As I read the liturgy and said the prayers, the power of the words hit me. "This is real," I thought. "We are really doing something. Out here wrapped in our coats in the wind, but with the sun burning our faces, we are tapping into the reality of all things. These are not just words. We are somehow being linked into that all encompassing reality of God who goes on forever. " It was more than just a ceremony. And at that moment this very twentieth century man with a science degree, who knows all the arguments against life after death, was a true believer. Or rather, I didn't believe...I knew. I knew that nothing could separate us from the love of God.

When I think of Steve Francis letting Don Urquhart go and his body sinking down into the water, I need to be cautious. Who am I to speak? It has never been my pain. Yet from all I have felt swimming out in the waves in wild weather, and despite the fear I have felt when they have rolled over me, I have to say, "No, he was not just dying and lost. He was sinking back into the womb-waters of God, from whom he became in the beginning."

Song Of The Soul

"Love of my life" I am crying;
I am not dying, I am dancing,
dancing along in the madness;
there is no sadness,
only a song of the soul.

And we'll sing this song;why don't you sing along?
And we can sing for a long, long time.
Why don't you sing this song,why don't you sing along?
And we can sing for a long, long time.

What do you do for your living?
Are you forgiving, giving shelter?
Follow your heart, love will find you;
truth will unbind you; sing out a song of the soul.

Come to your life like a warrior;
nothing will bore you; you can be happy.
Let in the light, it will heal you
and you can feel yourself sing out a song of the soul.
Cris Williamson

How do we find peace in the face of the threat of an evil day? I don't mean an unreal freedom from fear...that's denial. But the kind of peace which can face its fear and go on because it feels very deep down, that nothing can separate it from the love of God.

We have to sing a song of the soul. We have to walk along the beach. We have to take the risk, and fly. These are all poetic ways of saying that we have to risk God's way. We have to give up our security and the things of earth and put finding God first. Not just serving God and being busy in the church, but finding God.

Steve Francis found God. He saw three pelicans flying above him. "Don and two angels looking after me," he called it. They were not fine, educated theological words he used-- and that's the secret. Instead he took his own words to describe what he felt and saw.

The gospel and its promises...promises like nothing can separate us from the love of God, nothing in all creation... The gospel has become real for me as I have dared to take what I saw and use my own words, talking about kelpie dogs sleeping on the end of my swag, and swimming between the waves. When I do that God becomes MY GOD, and the promises 'work.'

I encourage you to do the same. Enter into your grief. Face your fears. Talk to God about them. And take your experiences and put them into your own words, trying to find God in them. And you may find that nothing can separate us from the love of God........ "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Amen
Sept 28 2001


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