My Prophet the Shark
 
            When I was a boy of about 10, my Boy Scout troop went fossil hunting.  Luckily for us, we had the official State Geologist for Oregon to take us places where fossils were most likely to be found.  We were taken up a fair-sized mountain somewhere south of Portland, and the geologist told us we could expect to find fossils, so we began searching as young boys will, kicking the ground with our tennis shoes.  Some of us wondered what kind of fossils we might find on top of a mountain, but we all hoped it might be something really large, like the dinosaurs we had seen pictured in countless books.  
            Surprisingly, instead of giant bones, we began to see fossilized snails and clamshells, and we became a bit more interested and careful.  Then one of my friends came upon a shark’s tooth about an inch long, clearly a fossil of something fierce and of great interest to young boys.  We all had a chance to hold the shark’s tooth, before we began looking everywhere for specimen of our own, and many of us found them. 
            It wasn’t until we began walking back down the mountain that the significance of a fossil shark existing on top of a mountain began to sink into my consciousness.  The mountain was pretty high, it was a long way from the ocean, and I knew that sharks liked to swim in deep water.  Suddenly my sense of place and time stretched way, way out.   The idea that water had once covered this tall mountain and creatures had swum over it, long before men even existed, was a big thought for a small boy, but it is a thought that has returned again and again. 
Sunday School teachers and preachers had been telling me that there was a God up there or out there and that this God was very concerned with us humans, to the point of creating everything in the universe just for us.  However, actually holding the evidence of history in my hand gave me a new insight:  science and religion were not always going to agree.  The image of God as a Big-Guy-in-the-Sky with a long, white beard and a stern expression (the Sistine Chapel deity) wouldn’t jibe with the discoveries of paleontology that I first made as a boy.   
            In a lifetime spent questing for God’s presence in my life, I have often yearned for God to get personal, to be as real for me as the fossil shark’s tooth.  God has rarely cooperated with this request.  This has left me to search for God in a variety of directions.  Like many folks nowadays, I sometimes looked backwards in time to a deity that was revealed in rules and propriety, who punished and rewarded us.  Sometimes I looked forward, seeing God moving mankind to a distant future when the world would be a far better place than it is now.  Unfortunately, neither of these directions would work for very long.  The Prior God became arbitrary and sometimes repugnant, concerned as much with proper costumes and rituals as He was with justice and freedom.  The Future God, a being of tough love and liberal heart, seemed a nice enough deity, but I had to finally admit his skills at improving the human heart were not keeping pace with the skills of very human scientists.  
            This has left me in my now late-middle years looking in a different direction – which actually means in no direction at all.  I have come to understand that God can be revealed in the present, as much by my ancient shark friend as by my family and my own inner heart.  He is mystical and spiritual, in us and out of us, everywhere and beyond “where” altogether.  “Out-of-Time” and “Out-of-Place” are phrases that have different meanings for me now, and while they did not comfort me at first, they can give me great comfort now.  I must be grateful to a fearsome creature from long, long ago for helping my spiritual quest, although I feel no desire to return to an unknown Oregon mountain to build a shrine.  I just feel comforted and fascinated by fossils of all types, and I pray that my own teeth may have something to say to a person eons from now.  God bless us all.