The Alphabet of Grace: B is for Breathtaking

[Borrowing the title of a Frederick Buechner book, I’m posting a series of reflections on grace, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, ranging across such topics as sex, food, church, film, literature, work, and mission. I hope you enjoy them]

Newcastle is an industrial city about 75 miles north of Sydney. Its port services the mining industry and on the morning of June 8, 2007, over fifty bulk carriers were moored in the harbor or just off the coast waiting to load coal destined for export.

But this wasn’t to be any ordinary day.

A low-pressure system had formed overnight, whipping up a storm that struck with such fierce intensity it would later be declared a natural disaster. For 36 hours, gale force winds buffeted the city and torrential rain caused extensive flooding.

Early that morning, the port authority radioed the waiting ships to warn them to move out to sea to escape the approaching storm. Ten of them, including a huge Panamanian carrier called the Pasha Bulker, ignored the warning. As the storm intensified, Pasha Bulker was swept toward the coast. The captain didn’t radio for tug assistance, and kept his anchors stored in the hawespipes, thinking he could ride out the gale.

But he failed.

At 10.00 am, Pasha Bulker ran aground at Nobbys Beach, not far from the city center.

As the storm continued to rage, helicopters airlifted the 22 Filipino and Korean crew members from the vessel, but the 85,000 ton ship kept being pushed further up the beach. Afraid it might careen into the city, salvage crews loaded the ship with ballast to sink it deeper into the sand, trapping it firmly between the beach and a rocky reef.

And there she sat, ignominiously, for nearly a month while the owners figured out a way to refloat her.

But what began as a disaster soon turned into a tourist attraction.

Crowds flocked to Nobbys Beach to see the stranded vessel. The streets became gridlocked as motorists slowed down to get a glimpse of the stricken behemoth.

Ice cream vans plied their trade. Coffee carts were set up. Local restaurants were packed. The city’s mayor, John Tate said Pasha Bulker had precipitated a minor economic boom.

One radio station promoted a song called “Blame it on the Pasha Bulker”, set to the tune of, “Blame it on the Bossa Nova.”

Some joker even advertised the ship on eBay for a short time, with bids reaching $16,000,000 before eBay closed the auction.

Thousands of people were drawn to the sight of a towering ship resting quietly in the sand.

Greenpeace jumped on the opportunity and used Pasha Bulker as a giant billboard by beaming messages like, “Coal causes climate change chaos” and “This is what climate change looks like” on the side of the ship.

I visited the site myself, making my way through the thronging crowd to get an uninterrupted view. The whole beachfront was packed. Video cameras were perched on tripods sunk precariously in the sand. People peered through binoculars and camera lenses as they observed every last detail of the salvage attempt. Children played on the beach. Strangers introduced themselves to each other. Everyone had a theory. Some blamed the captain, others had some tidbit of information from the harbor-master.

It was a spontaneous and quite delightful display of community.

We miss out on that sense of connectivity in the regular conduct of our lives. It usually takes something bigger than ourselves to draw us together.

Awe and wonder are in rare supply these days. As G.K.Chesterton once said, “The world will never starve for wonders but only for the lack of wonder.”

If a beached hulk can do it for us, imagine the impact of a collective encounter with God’s majesty.

We feel drawn to observe sunsets or full moons, to laze by river bends or sit on mountaintops, because the majesty of nature reminds us that there is a force in the universe greater than us.

Pasha Bulker was living proof that the wind is stronger than the biggest ships on the seas.

Elie Weiel tells the story of how the famous conductor Toscanini, on his first tour of the United States, was taken to the rim of the Grand Canyon. As he stood looking into the extraordinary abyss created by the Colorado River, he paused in silence for a time before finally bursting into dramatic applause.

So magnificent an example of creation was this that the most reverent and yet enthusiastic response Toscanini could muster was applause.   

I feel that sense of wonder whenever rare southern right whales swim past Sydney. These magnificent endangered creatures bring out the best in the otherwise busy, cynical city. Watching them meander by the coastline releases a huge collective sigh.

We need our breath to be taken away. We need experiences of awe to elevate us from our jaded, self-centered belief that we are the masters of the universe.

Lani Shiota from Arizona State University is an expert on the emotion of awe. She defines awe as something that “involves encountering a stimulus, something very large, very vast or with very vast implications that doesn’t map onto knowledge that we have already interpreted about the world around us.”

Like a canyon or a whale or a beached cargo ship.

“Anything that challenges our conception of the world,” she adds, “or presents us with something new and complicated and difficult to take in, but valuable.”

Observe next time you visit a zoo, which animals are the most popular; almost without exception they are the great and frightening creatures, like the big cats, the elephants and bears and giraffes. This is because we need to observe a creature that reminds us of our inadequacy. It gives us the message that we are not the ultimate power, that there are forces bigger and stronger, creatures we didn’t make and which are not always subject to our control.

The irony is that they are caged and docile in a zoo. But our souls often crave that sense of awe, that encounter with grandeur that helps us find our real place in the universe.

In her lab, Lani Shiota has been able to measure people’s physiological response to awe. She has found that, unlike other positive emotions that cause arousal — increased heart rate, dilated pupils and other such symptoms — awe appears to have a calming effect.

“It is one indicator that when people describe their body feeling suddenly calm and soothed in this experience, that there’s something biologically real about that,” she said.

That’s grace, friends.

Awe is such a delicious experience of our true position in the universe and the grace of an awesome God who has so generously lavished us with opportunities to encounter beauty, wonder, and joy.

Ironically, in a city surrounded by beautiful green hills and empty beaches, the community of Newcastle needed a shipping disaster to get them together on the foreshore. And there they were comforted by the knowledge that there’s a force stirring in the ocean and the skies that’s far greater than all their tankers and tugboats.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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3 thoughts on “The Alphabet of Grace: B is for Breathtaking

  1. I just decided to pray for a sharpened awareness towhat should fill me with awe.

    1. What a great prayer.

  2. What an exquisite post! Looking Lani Shiota now!!!

    Can’t wait for C-Z

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