Parancanthurus hepatus. The surgeon fish, or the royal blue tang, or the regal tang. Pick any name you want – the truth is that the now-famous “Dory-fish” is pure gratuity.
Finishing out the summer for the Tygrett clan meant a trip to downtown Chicago. More specifically, it meant at trip to the Shedd Aquarium. Balanced on the edge of a landmass that juts out from an area called “the Museum campus,” the Shedd offers a tremendous array of aquatic life.
We watched penguins dive, twist, and of course waddle. They looked like small, drunk old men. Sharks and larger fish glided along behind floor-to-ceiling glass walls.
Living their lives in full view of humanity, but with zero concern for all of us onlookers.
Walking through the various wings we moved from light areas to dark, the overhead lights adjusting to the needs of the wildlife present in each exhibit. Just outside, shielded from the August sun was a large pool filled with stingrays.
“Lay your hand flat and put it in the water,” the staff instructed. The silky-slick wings of the stingrays brushed against my palm, piercing the thin layer between wild and man.
Though before and after contact with the rays we had to wash our hands. There is still a danger of crossing that line. What an amazing thing to connect with a world that exists every day, somewhere far from my comings and goings.
The dings of my calendar and the stresses of driving and construction were far, far from the minds and attentions of these deep-dwelling creatures. They moved and searched without a care for a world they couldn’t know.
Yet on this day, it was paracanthurus hepatus that caught my eye. Gratuitous.
The blue of the regal tang is ridiculously blue. It is “hurt your eyes” blue, electric blue – the kind of blue that we could reproduce, but never reduplicate.
“There is no other color like that in the world,” I whispered. The girls nodded in unison. Our eyes open. The rods and cones of our sight doing their best to keep up. Gratuitous.
“They don’t have to look like that, you know,” my wife Holley noted.
I nodded. Gratuitous.
Our way of seeing the world is often truncated down to finding what’s necessary. Nothing wrong with that. Work requires tools, communication requires effective means and measures, and soul work begs for boundaries and parameters.
We all succumb to the tidal waves of need, utility, and function from time to time. There are things that need to get done. Kids need fed, clothed, and raised. Bills need paid.
But if we live only within the realm of utility, our souls will die from a lack of gratuity.
God is amazing not because of his practicality, although that is wonderful. It is the realm of the unnecessary where God’s life truly shines. The color of a fish does not need to be as it is, though it may have utility. The color is excessive, gratuitous, or beyond what is necessary or appropriate.
This is what grace is – gratuitous. God is the God of the unnecessary.
The grace that gives us life and energy is gratuitous. It is beyond, over and above. Rather than meeting the needs of our souls and communities, it saturates us beyond absorption. We cannot hold it or fully comprehend it.
One of the spiritual disciplines we often miss out on is to be swept up in gratuity.
There are reasons for our missing out on gratuity, of course. We get caught up in fights over doctrines and boundaries. These are functional and necessary but the fights we wage often rob us – in doctrine specifically – of the ability to grasp the gratuity of the Trinity, eucharist, or baptism.
We don’t need three persons in one being, honestly.
I have met soaking wet sinners and bone-dry saints, so baptism becomes…what? Unnecessary?
Eucharist is bread and wine shared via our traditions and customs. But should we miss a day, do we die where we stand?
Of course these things aren’t necessary, but that doesn’t make them worthless.
It is in the gratuity, the “more-than-we-need-ness” of our life with God that we truly discover His character, identity, and the core of hope.
Is it possible that our formation is driven primarily by that which is unnecessary rather than those functional, utilitarian pieces of our life with God? In other words, is grace actually gratuitous?
So I watch the “Dory fish” glide through the water. Graceful. Elegant. Gratuitous.
We see the Australian lungfish, the paddlefish, and the gilded yet lethal lion fish. Gratuitous.
The God who swept the seas into churning, bubbling reservoirs of life is the artist at the helm. That God is gratuitous.
To be honest, these days I would much rather live in the gratuity of God than in the utility of my own images. So I think on the royal blue tang, and in remembering the unnecessary world that God has made I find my own way.
The way of living and thriving in God’s gratuity. Over and above. Unnecessary, yet delightful.