The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


A thin place

The Celts believed that heaven and earth are only 3 feet apart—in a "thin place"—with the distance between them like a veil, which when lifted allows us to glimpse the face of God. In 10 years as an underwater photographer in the world's oceans, I've been up close-and-personal with highly poisonous sea snakes, a blushing cuttlefish, 50 inquisitive blue sharks, giant stingrays, moray eels and humpback whales. But on only one occasion could I say I crossed over into a thin place, where time becomes irrelevant and the heavens burst open to reveal God. It was Christmas Eve 1992.

Lady Elliot Island is in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park off the eastern coast of Australia. This 100-acre speck in the ocean, said to be 3,500 years old, was discovered in 1816 and named by Capt. Thomas Stuart after his ship, which itself was the namesake of the wife of Hugh Elliot, the colonial governor of India. Since 1985 there has been a small diving "resort" on the island, a resort without telephones, television, radio or air-conditioning. Electricity, which didn't replace kerosene on the island until 1953, is used sparingly. What attracts visitors then? Excellent scuba diving opportunities are afforded by crystal clear waters. Fifty species of birds nest in numbers of 100,000 in the summer (our winter). Loggerhead and green sea turtles lay their eggs here from November to March, and eight weeks after incubation the hatchlings make their slapdash race to the sea.

I went to Lady Elliot for a diving holiday while working in Australia. On Dec. 24, 1992, after a tiring day in the water, I headed for the coral shoreline about 10 p.m. and plopped down next to the surf. The nearest city lights were 50 miles across the ocean in Bundaberg, Australia, and there was a new moon that night so the skies were pitch black. The only sounds came from the surf lapping at the shore.

Suddenly, splashing and dragging noises pulled me back to reality. I could make out a huge form emerging from the surf and aimed in my direction—a sea turtle coming ashore to lay her eggs. Knowing that for half an hour any sounds or lights can spook a turtle and send her back out to sea, I quietly scooted a few feet away and kept perfectly still so she would commit to a nest. After a while she began to use her flippers to fling away sand and larger bits of coral.

Just then there was more splashing at the surf line as a second turtle made its way ashore and to my new position. I slid yet another few feet to my left to accommodate this newcomer and remained silent for still another half hour so she, too, would commit. At that moment I felt part of a process that has spanned millennia, dwarfing me and all my trivial cares. Around midnight, after both turtles were finally committed and still digging, I flip-flopped my way back to my cabin for the night.

I woke at sunrise on Christmas Day, picked up my camera on the way out the door and hurried back to the spot where I had spent the evening. The turtles were long gone, their nests barely perceptible now. However, about 20 yards farther up the beach was another green sea turtle still in the process of burying her freshly laid eggs. She allowed me to watch and photograph her for the next 15 minutes as she labored to finish covering her nest using her hind flippers. Satisfied that all was well, she lumbered back toward the surf in sheer exhaustion.

As she disappeared below the surface, her mission achieved, I cheered through misty eyes. That Christmas in that thinnest of places, God showed the complexity of creation to me. God showed God's face, and we both beamed.


This week's front page features:

cover5Will our children be generous? : (right) Here's how to help them 'get' giving.

Going home for Christmas: If we get lost in the question, we'll miss the way.

Christmas light: In it, I find God's love.

Eye on population: Researcher wins kudos for family planning study. 

Also: Prepping for 'Earth Year.'

AlsoChilean pastor to head LWF.

Also: $1.49 million for malaria work.

Read these articles at our front page ...

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February issue


Embracing diversity