In John Elderdge’s The Journey of Desire the allegory of a Sea Lion dances between chapters as the reader explores the depth of their own hearts’ call to something more. Reminiscent of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, he writes simultaneously with simplicity and vivid imagery:
Once upon a time there lived a sea lion who lost the sea. He lived in a country known as the barren lands. High on a plateau, far from any coast, it was a place so dry and dusty that it could only be called a desert. A kind of coarse grass grew in patches here and there, and a few trees were scattered across the horizon. But mostly, it was dust, and sometimes wind, which together make on very thirsty. Of course, it must seem strange to you that such a beautiful creature should wind up in a desert at all. He was, mind you, a sea lion. But things like this do happen.
How the sea lion came to the barren lands, no one could remember. It all seemed so very long ago. So long in fact, it appeared as though he had always been there. Not that he belonged in such an arid place. How can that be? He was after all, a sea lion. But as you know, once you have lived so long in a certain spot, no matter how odd, you come to think of it as home.
There was a time, many years back, when the sea lion knew he was lost. In those days, he would stop every traveler he met to see if he might help him find his way back to the sea. But no one seemed to know the way.
On he searched, but never finding. After years without success, the sea lion took refuge beneath a solitary tree beside a very small water hole. The tree provided refuge from the burning rays of the sun, which was very fierce in that place. And the water hole, though small and muddy, was wet, in its own way. Here he settled down and got on as best as he could.
Had you journeyed in those days through the barren lands, you might have seen the sea lion for yourself. Quite often in the evening, he would go and sit upon his favorite rock, a very large boulder, which lifted him off the burning sand and allowed him a view of the entire country.
There he would remain for hours into the night, silhouetted against the sky. And on the best nights, when the wind shifted to the east, a faint smell of salt air would come to him on the breeze. Then he would close his eyes and imagine himself once more at the sea. When he lay himself down to sleep, he would dream of a vast, deep ocean. Twisting and turning, diving and twirling, he would swim and swim and swim. When he woke, he thought he heard the sound of breakers.
The sea was calling to him…
The sea lion loved his rock, and he even loved waiting night after night for the sea breezes that might come. Especially he loved the dreams those memories would stir.
But as you well know, even the best of dreams cannot go on, and in the morning when the sea lion woke, he was still in the barren lands. Sometimes he would close his eyes and try to fall back asleep but it never seemed to work, for the sun was always very bright.
Eventually it became too much for him to bear. He began to visit his rock only on occasion. “I have too much to do,“ he told himself. “I cannot waste my time just idling about.” He really did not have so much to do. The truth of it was, waking so far from home was such a disappointment, and he did not want to have those wonderful dreams anymore. The day finally came when he stopped going to his rock altogether, and he no longer lifted his nose to the wind when the sea breezes blew.
The sea lion was not entirely alone in those parts. For it was there that he met the tortoise. Now this tortoise was an ancient creature, so weathered by his life in the barren lands that at first, the sea lion mistook him for a rock. He told the tortoise of his plight, hoping that this wise one might be able to help him. “Perhaps” the tortoise mused, “this is the sea”. His eyes appeared to be shut against the bright sun, but he was watching the sea lion very closely. The sea lion swept his flippers once against his side, gliding to the end of the water hole and back.. “I don’t know” he said, “It isn’t very deep.” “Isn’t it?” “Somehow, I thought the sea would be broader, deeper. At least, I hoped so.”
“You must learn to be happy here” the tortoise told him one day. “For it is unlikely you shall ever find this sea of yours.” Deep in his old and shriveled heart, the tortoise envied the sea lion and his sea… “But I belong to the sea. We were made for each Other.“ “Perhaps but you have been gone so long now, the sea has probably forgotten you”. This thought had never occurred to the sea lion. But it was true; he had been gone for a long, long time. “If this is not my home, how can I ever feel at home here?” the sea lion asked. “You will in time.” The tortoise appeared to be squinting, his eyes a thin slit. “I have seen the sea, and it is no better than what you have found here.”
“You have seen the sea!”
“Yes. Come close” whispered the tortoise, “and I will tell you a secret. I am not a tortoise. I am a sea turtle. But I left the sea of my own accord many years ago, in search of better things. If you stay with me, I will tell you stories of my adventures.”
The stories of the ancient tortoise were enchanting and soon cast their spell upon the sea lion. As weeks passed into months, his memory of the sea faded.
“The desert” whispered the tortoise, “is all that is, or ever will be.”
When the sun grew fierce and burned his skin, the sea lion would hide in the shade of the tree, listening to the tales woven by the tortoise. When the dry winds cracked his flippers and filled his eyes with dust, the sea lion would retreat to the water hole. And so the sea lion remained, living his days between water hole and tree. The sea no longer filled his dreams.
It was in May that the winds began to blow. The sea lion had grown used to wind, and at first he did not pay much heed at all. Years of desert life had taught him to turn his back in the direction from which the wind came and cover his eyes with his flippers so that the dust would not get in. Eventually the wind would always pass.
But not this time. Day and night it came, howling across the barren lands. There was nothing to stop its fury, nothing to even slow it down. For forty days and forty nights the wind blew. And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it stopped. The sea lion lifted himself to have a look around. He could hardly believe his eyes.
Every single leaf had been stripped from his tree. The branches that remained, with only a twig or two upon them, looked like an old scarecrow. And I do not need to tell you that there was no longer any shade in which to hide. But worse than this, much worse indeed, was what the sea lion saw next.
The water hole was completely dry.
Three weeks after the wind ceased to blow, the sea lion had a dream. Now as I told you before, there were other nights which he had dreamed of the sea. But those were long ago and nearly forgotten. Even still the ocean that filled his dreams this night was so beautiful and clear, so vast and deep, it was as if he were seeing it for the first time. The sunlight glittered on its surface, and as he dived, the waters all around him shone like an emerald. If he swam quite deep, it turned to jade, cool and dark and mysterious. But he was never frightened, not at all. For I must tell you that in all his dreams of the sea, he had never before found himself in the company of other sea lions. This night there were many and they, round about him, diving and turning, spinning and twirling. They were playing.
Oh, how he hated to wake from that wonderful dream. The tears running down his face were the first wet thing he had felt in weeks. But he did not pause even to wipe them away; he did not pause, in fact, for anything at all. He set his face to the east, and he began to walk as best a sea lion can.
“Where are you going?” asked the tortoise…
“I am going to find the sea.”
This story, which I first read ten years ago, summed up my thoughts, longings and desires. I wept aloud in my dorm room as I read the tale of this nameless yet heroic sea lion. His muddy little water hole, which he had settled for (though he in fact knew not only was it “far from perfect,” but it was simply a shadow of the sea from whence he came) drying up was the last straw. My journal entry is still etched in my mind from the day I finished the book,
“I’ve sat in the pew for 21 years. I’ve kept my mouth shut when I knew things weren’t right, and have listened to the stories woven by tortoises weary of the sea. I cannot sit in the pew any longer. Something must be done. Things are not as they should be.”
I expressed these misgivings about the state of the institution called the church to many, who seemed only to be content with the status quo. Fooling themselves as they’d been habitually taught to do, they’d say, “Well, it’s far from perfect, but it’s the way things are.”
It is worth noting that Eldredge doesn’t have a final chapter to the story of the Sea Lion. There’s no happy ending of him discovering the path to the ocean, no closure with him joining his sea lion friends in a crystal blue sea to live out the remainder of his days. He simply set his face to the east and walked “as best a sea lion can,” which I’d imagine isn’t very graceful. Still, he is determined to be dissatisfied with anything less than the sea. He won’t be persuaded or distracted by the by the tales of the tortoise. His water hole is empty and dry, and the tree that had for so long provided shade from the burning sun no longer had leaves and offered no more protection.
“I’m going to find the sea.”
This swelling in my soul is not new.It is not a fad I’m pursuing because I think that it is popular. It is not something that has just now caught my attention and has me mesmerized and has somehow caused my brain to be incapacitated. I’m not seeking something more or something different because what “is” hurts too much. I pursue this ‘ocean’ of a new kind of Christianity because it fits what my thoughts and my heart know to be…(brace yourself)…true. True Christianity. Genuinely following in the footsteps of our Master Jesus Christ in an attempt to love God and love others. How could I reject that which resonates so strongly with what has been brewing in my heart for over a decade?
I do not believe any particular movement to be in and of itself the “sea.” There are multiple methods for implementing transparent faith community. Yet I am convinced that this exploration of what it really means to follow Jesus Christ in authentic relationships is the beginning of something needed–and that is the radical reform of the Christian faith and the institution of the church, which is rendering itself irrelevant in society, particularly in the West; something I’ve been saying for a long, long time.
What do you think? Is such a change needed? What does it look like in your neck of the woods? What do you think setting your face to the east and walking “as best you can” looks like?