“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” This is a quote from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” written by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798. That line kept coming to me the past two weeks when we were dealing with constant rains. It echoed loudest and clearest in my mind the morning we came in to find the church basement flooded, not from the rains, but from a combination of a clogged sewer line and a malfunctioning toilet valve that ran all night.
In the poem, the water is the endless expanse of sea surrounding an ill-fated sailing ship that is blown off course into all kinds of trouble over a few months. After nearly being crushed by ice in Antarctic waters, the ship finds itself stuck in equatorial doldrums where there is no breeze to fill its sails. A key event in the epic story is the Mariner’s killing of an albatross who had led them in their escape out of the ice. He regrets this crime against nature and spends the rest of his life doing penance. As an old man, he travels from place to place telling his story and the lesson he has learned:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
As I dumped another trash barrel full of water onto the lawn, I found myself repeating my theme line, “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” and I felt as Ancient as the Mariner. Then a funny thought occurred to me. Five months ago I was baking in the summer sun during the fifth year of the California drought, fantasizing about what raindrops look like. At that time, some different poetic words kept running through my mind. They came from a song from a B-Western that came out when I was two years old and was later recorded by Gene Autry. It describes a cowboy’s struggle to oversee the herd through an overwhelming dust storm on a baking hot day:
Dust, dust, dust in the skies
Dust on the trail, dust in my eyes
Dust, dust, can’t see the sun
Can’t find my way, the dust has won
Oh Lord, please ease my pain
Oh Lord, where is your rain and sunshine
Dust, dust, must it be, can this be eternity?
So, within five-month’s time my complaint went from “Dust, dust, the dust has won,” to “Water, water everywhere.” That’s Southern California! No, that’s life! Life’s full of ups and downs: it’s too hot; it’s too cold. It’s too wet; it’s too dry. You’re too close; you’re not close enough. I’m feeling down, so I need a stimulant. I’m feeling anxious, so I need a sedative. There’s a new problem around every corner. As Johnny Cash sang in another Country and Western song, “If the left hand don’t get you, then the right one will.”
What I like about both the “Water” poem and the “Dust” poem is that they show how the extreme events in our lives give us perspective on how small and powerless we are. They also help teach us that we only have meaning in the context of God’s purposes. The Ancient Mariner’s “Water, water everywhere” experience brought him to the profound understanding that “God who loveth us” also loves “all things both great and small,” that is, his entire creation.
And Gene Autry’s admission, “Can’t find my way, the dust has won,” leads him to cry out, “Oh Lord, can this be eternity?” This brought him a step closer to seeing the sunlight of God’s true eternity through life’s dust storms.
Just think, in a few months I’ll be singing “Dust, dust” again. Help me to embrace your lessons, Lord, in all my life’s extreme challenges.
— Pastor George Van Alstine