© 2012 by William R. Mistele
Pastor Bob and the Mermaid
(from Story from the book, Mermaid Women)
Bob has been the pastor of a Baptist church for twenty years. It is a small stone church near Wheaton, Illinois that seats no more than 150 people. Pastor Bob has a quiet charisma, and there are a few people who never miss attending church on Sunday—oh, maybe once in four or five years.
The church has a small choir, which Pastor Bob would sometimes direct when there were no funds for a choir director. But there has always been someone who volunteers to play the piano.
Pastor Bob gives his sermons with the tone of voice of a grandfather sitting around a fire in winter recalling his experiences as a railroad conductor or a Great Lake’s ship captain. Some of the events he describes have genuine drama, but mostly the story line is routine.
Pastor Bob likes to retell the stories in the Bible. He sometimes fails to remember which stories he has already told. And no one bothers to point this out to him. Sometimes the congregation themselves do not remember.
For the last five years, Pastor Bob has not had a vacation. On his salary, a vacation is not always possible.
But in 1994, the mother of Howard Davis, a member of the church board, died. Howard had put her in a good nursing home. But he rarely visited her.
It turns out that the mother left Howard six hundred thousand dollars in her will. This was a surprise because she had kept stock certificates in her bank box. Some of the certificates were worthless. The companies had gone bankrupt. But the thousand shares of Rockwell that she had bought for five thousand dollars back in the sixties had turned into gold. Over thirty years, Rockwell had had numerous stock splits and had spun off companies like Boeing Airlines.
To ease his conscience for rarely visiting her when she was alive and yet being reminded of how much he had received from her, Howard wanted to do some good things with the money. The first thing he did was to pay for his pastor’s vacation. He booked for the pastor and his wife, Judy, a cottage at Kawela Bay, the most isolated and perhaps beautiful beach on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. And this is where our story begins.
It is Saturday morning, the last day of their stay in the cottage on the bay. As he had done each morning, Pastor Bob has gotten up before dawn to walk the beach, his feet among the waves, the first purple light staining the horizon, while the birds were only just now beginning to sing their songs.
Pastor Bob sits down on the sand, five feet from where the water in dancing spray reaches out with glistening fingertips feeling every grain of sand—fingers as sensitive and quick as a concert pianist playing a great concerto, yet one never heard by human ears.
It is just then before sunlight even touches the waves that the mermaid appears. She is sitting right next to him on the sand. At first bob sees a woman half human and half fish.
He can see right through her, so naturally he thinks his imagination is a little overactive. Bob blinks, and then he sees her bending and wrapping her arms around her knees. At this point, she looks real enough for you or for me.
She has black hair and sharp, shining, blue eyes. Her skin is pale, and she is wearing a thin, caftan shawl that leaves little to the imagination.
“I should not be talking to you. You are not in the Bible, so you are either not real or else you are evil.”
The girl replies, “You do not know how to read your Bible if you cannot find me in it.”
Pastor Bob says, “Well then, tell me where—what chapter and verse?”
The girl says, “In the beginning, verses and chapters were never there. You have come from a tradition where men study and memorize the written word. But what you see in front of you is the living word.”
Pastor Bob asserts, “If it is not in the Bible, I have no need to
The mermaid counters, “It is written: ‘He showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the Throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the city.’
“Those words are written, and you can read them aloud and think on them. But I am this river. It flows through my soul. We have the same taste; we are the same divine grace. In me, sight and sound are alive. And like that river I exist to assist those who bring healing to the nations.
“And these words also,” the mermaid continues, “‘Out of his belly shall flow streams of living water.’ This is impossible to miss—the written word speaks of something living that shall come to be.
“In me these words are fulfilled—the essence of my being is an innocence that gives all of itself in every moment and brings new life to whatever it is near.”
The mermaid stops speaking and sits silently next to Pastor Bob. He gazes at her for almost a half hour. Thoughts, when they arise in his mind, quickly dissolve. Like the sea that lies before them, she embodies a timeless sensuality in which thoughts tend to disappear.
After the half hour, Bob turns to her and says, “How do I become what you are?”
The mermaid replies, “Gaze on the sea until the sensations and images change into feelings and the feelings change into ecstasy. In the sea, there is no time: past, present, and future combine. Take your human desires and needs and unite them to what we dream: a love that is forever one and forever free.”
It takes Pastor Bob a few months to come to terms with this experience. There are some things that defy analysis, and sometimes the best choice is simply to accept them.
But one Sunday Bob does something different in church. Previously, he has always started the sermon with a Bible verse and that leads to a story or two and then he returns to the verse and what it means for our lives.
But this time he begins in this way:
You know. Since the invention of the train, car, and airplane, we sometimes become so involved with our machines that we take nature for granted. Yet we are surrounded by the beauty of world. To the north of us are the Great lakes. Each has its own weather conditions—the winds and waves are slightly different. And if you get out on those lake waters, you notice they each have a different feeling.
An hour drive from here is Lake Michigan. An off shore wind in the morning from Milwaukee, Wisconsin forms patterns of ripples as the wind first touches down a few feet from shore. Thirty minutes later those ripples are building into waves. Gusts of wind catch the spray of the white caps hurling drops of water like lateral rain over the waves’ troughs. And even if the wind dies down later in the afternoon and the sky is calm, large swells continue rolling on.
If the next night is overcast and there is no moon, you may not be able to see, but you can hear those waves with their distinctive roar as they break on the beaches of Saugatuck, Michigan—like a woman at night when you lie close to her, you may feel you can hear her heartbeat. But with these waves the roar becomes quiet before another wave rises into a crest and then falls again breaking the silence.
I remember one night taking the ferry from Milwaukee. After the lights from the shore vanished, I felt I was on the open sea. You could not see anything if you looked out the porthole, except the play of moonlight stretching out across the water.
Lake Superior is laid out East West rather than like Lake Michigan which stretches North South. Lake Superior is completely different. The gales of November sometimes come early with hurricane West winds like the one that brought an end to the ship, Edmund Fitzgerald. A wave beginning in the Grand Maralis can build for four hundred mile before it breaks on the shores by Michipicoten in Canada.
Lake Michigan is perhaps for sportsmen who fish and race sailboats. Lake Superior, on the other hand, is like a strong man who is a little too wild to become tame enough to enjoy sports or to hunt game.
As you cross east of the Mackinaw Bridge, you find Lake Huron—not as long but it is wider than Lake Michigan. As you follow down the glove of Michigan, you run into Thunder Bay. There with bleak, grey clouds on the horizon, you may experience that form of lightning called St. Elmo’s Fire. Your hair may stand up and if there is any metal nearby you may hear a buzzing as if you are near a bee hive with that its sound of zzzzzz.
The winds of Lake Huron are more capricious and playful than those of Lake Michigan where the winds tend to blow steady. Calm one moment, twenty minutes later you may see thunderstorms forming on the horizon. You can smell and feel the increase moisture in the air and the temperature falling from the squall at the leading edge of a line of storms.
Below Lake Huron, St. Clair River flows from Port Huron south toward Lake Erie. But first the water passes through Lake St. Clair. It is a small lake where on a good day you can see all the way across. Lake St. Clair has more sailboats and motor boats on it per square mile than any other lake in the world. Not a “great” lake, still if you live on its shore you might conclude that after a year the winds and waves of that little lake have over three hundred different moods.
Continuing down the Detroit River which lies below Lake St. Clair, you pass Grosse Ile and enter Lake Erie. A shallow lake, warmer in temperature, the waves can kick up with the wind. With the right sailboat and fair weather, you can ride the same wave from one end of Lake Erie to the other.
There was a winery among the islands of Put-in-Bay that used to have the best grape juice in the world. But it is long since gone.
To the Northeast of Lake Erie is Lake Ontario. A fourth the size of Lake Superior, it is called the “Lake of Shining Waters.” Mostly on the Eastern shores of Lake Ontario, there is turbulence in the water after the waves break due to the prevailing winds and currents. Here sediment of sand and gravel turn into sand bars forming lagoons and protected harbors.
Lake Ontario has a different feel from the other Great Lakes. It has the feeling of a small inland sea. Lake Ontario was in fact after the last ice age a bay of the Atlantic Ocean; but the land began to rise as the glaciers receded so that now it is fresh water.
I once knew the captain of a freighter that ran up and down the Great Lakes. His home was in Cleveland, but he was gone for such long periods that sometimes his wife would drive from Ohio over to Milwaukee just to spend the weekend with him during his break.
It used to be that when the freighters passed in a narrow channel they would blast their horns: one blast meant pass to your port and two blasts meant pass to your starboard. But that has all changed with GPS and computers talking to each other. The rivers and lakes are now quieter.
But you know, when I looked into the captain’s eyes, even after thirty years of running freighters up and down these lakes during day and during night, I did not see the Great Lakes looking back at me.
Instead, I saw the pilot’s house on the ship, the navigation equipment, the mess hall, the cargo bay, and the schedule he had to keep. I saw him talking to his crew and on the radio to other ships.
What am I trying to say? I do not think the captain ever stopped long enough to behold the beauty of the world that surrounds us. Sometimes all you need to do is to put your thinking off to the side and just gaze at what is in front of you if you want to taste wonder. And this is very important to know how to do because there are times when the Bible speaks of something of great wonder.
And now Bob finally returns to the actual sermon, “Our scripture reading for today: ‘He showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the Throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the city …”
Thereafter, members of the congregation occasionally commented on Pastor Bob’s changed demeanor: “Do you think it was that trip to Hawaii?” And the response is sometimes, “Can’t really say, but he acts so relaxed and at peace like he is standing on a beach with the spray of waves splashing on his feet.”