Tumu Herenga Waka and the Fishers—a Pacific Kōrero

It’s been a long, fruitless night’s work. We know this lake, its rivers and springs and tides; its moods, the rocks and channels. It’s the largest lake in this land, so it’s often called a Sea. It’s not a huge lake, but it’s our livelihood; its shore our turangawaewae. Here, we mend tā kupenga, our nets. When its waves crash, we comfort our tamariki and tell tall stories, of the biggest catch, of the ones that got away.

But tonight, they pretty much all got away. Faces roughened with spray, hands chaffed by ropes, we catch each other’s eyes across the boat, and haul in the nets. The few trapped fish were pīwekeweke: thin, in poor condition. We threw them back. Reluctant to go home empty-handed, to expectant wives, pestering kids and rangatahi (that’s a joke: our small fishing nets, our young ones), meddling or sickly mothers-in-law and I-told-you-so aunties, or worse, to a lonely whare and our own cooking, we hang about on the shore, mending our nets, spreading them to dry, not hurrying—glad for the mateship, the whanau-ngatanga: the kinship of shared experiences and working together.

We don’t say much. Too bad, bro. Tangaroa wasn’t looking out for us. Better luck tomorrow, e hoa?

Along the beach a way, one of those wandering healers has been entertaining the crowds. We try to ignore them, these charlatans, these self-anointed prophets with their wild eyes and Messiah complexes. Some of the aunties have wandered from the village to listen to this one; no doubt they’ll have us laughing over dinner, with their whakatoi, their mocking. Any more nights like this, and the aunties will suggest we use our boats as ferries, if we’re no good as fishermen.

Then, while we’re not paying attention, this fellow appears, and without even asking, gets into Simon’s boat! First he asks Simon to row him out from the shore a bit—maybe he thinks we are ferrymen—and then he keeps talking to the people crowding onto our bit of the beach, getting in the way, mocking our poor catch. Ignores our tikanga, but seems to know boats—and thinks he knows about fishing.

When he’s finished talking, and the aunties and nosey-parkers and unemployed have melted away, he tells Simon, “Row out further, into the deep water, and drop your nets for a catch.” He tells Mr Know-it-all, Older Brother, whakaputa mōhio, Smart Alec Simon what to do!

“Let down your nets,” he says. Hasn’t he noticed we’ve hardly finished mending them? “You’ll have a good catch. I dare you!” Ah, that’s the hook for Simon. Dare him to do something, and he’ll do it; bet him he can’t, and he’d try to walk on water if he thought you’d pay up.

He acts like he knows this lake better than we do, this wandering preacher with the keen, dark eyes—the far-seeing eyes of a ship’s captain or a mountain climber—and his undeniable aura of rightness, perhaps even righteousness. And his voice, charismatic, spell-binding. He talked to those people in our dialect, he told our stories to make his point, he knows how to get their interest—and keep it. We felt it, too, however reluctantly—he was in one of our boats—he has a gift for whakamāhorahora; putting people at their ease, making them feel at home.

“Let down your nets.” And we do. It’s crazy, but we do it. And the fish! This is surely a story for the mokopuna, this night of frustration, this morning of The Big Catch. We strain to haul the nets over the side of the boat. He helps us. The boats are so full of fish, they nearly sink.

He fits in easily. He fascinates and terrifies and charms. We’re spellbound, like the crowds on the shore. Simon’s so overcome by someone so much more confident, so good at convincing people to do what he wants, so much better at fishing, even, that he thinks this must be a god or a chief. Brusque with whakamā, bashful for the first time in his life, Simon says, “Get away!” The stranger looks at him; although by now he feels like whanau, not a stranger. “Ariki!” says Simon, “I’m not worth it. I’m hara, I break tapu, offend people.”

“Don’t be afraid, Simon. Kei runga noa atu koe!” Simon’s mouth falls open, but no sound comes out. Has this new friend just told him, “You’re great at your work! You’re the bomb!” That’s just what Simon needs to hear. He turns to all of us, this ahorangi who we’d figured out by now was Jesus, from Nazareth.

“You’re all great fishermen!” he says, “but how would you like to try catching people?”

* * * * *

Our scripture readings show us word pictures of a creation and a re-creation story, as well as tale of Jesus catching his first fisher-folk, and co-opting them to his mission.

Throughout the Bible, water is a potent symbol: a meeting place for humans and their gods. Not only is the ocean the place of generation, but the rivers and lakes are invested with a spirituality, common to many cultures and religions, as places of veneration and healing. In the Bible, the term river is used to refer to all kinds of watercourses, including wadis and permanent rivers. Rivers were places for prayer, for ritual washing and baptism, and boundaries—natural and spiritual. River is also used symbolically to refer to things which threaten or overwhelm people and nations, such as invading nations, the peace of God and the Holy Spirit. In the Hebrew scriptures, the sea is often a symbol of chaos, and in our hymn tradition, a metaphor for despair. The ocean paradox: source of life – and place of danger.

Ecclesiastes 1:7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.

As inhabitants of an island nation, we in Aotearoa have sun, sand and sea in our veins. Our forebears came here via waka and sailing ship, and our celebration of the birth of Jesus brings a special gift to our summers, which for many are characterised by holidays at the beach or near bush-clad riverbanks.

But there’s a paradox at the heart of our readings, a tension between the Garden with its four rivers flowing throughout the known lands, and the City which John describes; between our urban sensibilities and the island people who are our Pacific neighbours.

When looking for ideas of a Pacific Theology, I found several interesting perspectives, including an essay on “The Politics of the City and the Sea” by Richard Davis. Referring to the image of the new heaven and the new earth in Revelation 21, Richard asks:

“But what about those who dwell outside the city? Some of those people are island or coastal people, for whom this text might be read as a text of terror… because in verse 1 we read that the sea was no more… But without a sea there can be no island people or any coastal people…

The peoples of the Pacific should not be defined by their small landmasses; they can be defined by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. The sea has permitted their migration over the vast waters, making Pacific peoples the world’s best navigators. The sea is a source of food, a pathway to other places, and intrinsic to their identity.

So when those of us who live on or near the sea and depend on it read that the sea will be destroyed, we ask: Why does the sea have to disappear? Can the relationship between the city and the sea be reconciled too? Will the new city include the sea? Richard finds a glimmer of hope, in Revelation 21: 6 which mentions the water of life that flows from a spring. This is not sea water, but as everyone knows all water eventually flows into the sea. Perhaps then, even the sea is not completely forgotten here after all as God’s eternal living water fills the heavens[i].

At a symposium on Shaping an Oceanic Spiritual Theology, Kiwi Fr Michael Gormly[ii] presented a South Pacific perspective:

“A vibrant mission spirituality will be about the way things are, who we are, how we belong, and what we bring to our world. Past, present and future will come together with a sense of harmony, acceptance and belonging. An oceanic spirituality will take shape amid signs of our times and the issues of the day…

A fresh creative imaginative attitude is crucial. Every authentic cross-cultural journey needs to be an exercise of re-enchantment about God, creation, life, evolution and religious experience. This involves awareness and imagination about people, faith, gospel and church; about society, religion, morality, economics, science and technology; about family, home, neighbourhoods, work, food, clothing, welfare, trade, debt, climate change and so much more.“

* * * * *

Well, we left our nets and followed him—not immediately; not before we’d taken our catch to the village to be prepared for market, not before we’d gone home to our whanau and talked, and talked, and talked… our kōrero lasting long into the night and over the following days. And finally, we invited him to our marae to talk with our elders and our wives and our tamariki who’d have to support themselves if we went off into the desert, into the cities perhaps, into an unknown future. Of course, he won them over.

He was iwi whenua; he knew us and our people and our whakapapa—and we came to know, or suspect, his.

We had our own name for him: the words have come to mean a notable, charismatic, highly respected leader. But it’s first meaning, its literal definition, is a canoe mooring post: Jesus, our Tumu Herenga Waka.

And it wasn’t forever. When we went home to visit the whanau and rest between journeys, we told and retold the tale of the Big Catch—and other stories—and we urged our kaumātua to tell our mokopuna and their mokopuna: to tell how, somehow, Jesus had caught us in the net of his manaakitanga.

How he became our mooring post.

And that there’s room in his waka for everyone.

© bronwyn angela white (2016)


[i] Dr. Richard A. Davis is Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands. He occasionally blogs at http://radiescent.wordpress.com/ and tweets at @rad_1968.

[ii] Fr Michael Gormley of the Columban Mission Society, Shaping an Oceanic Spiritual Theology: A South Pacific Mission Perspective— 2015 symposium in Seoul

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