Wednesday, January 23, 2013
I have a healthy fear of the ocean. It’s the darkness of it. The enormous depth. The multitudes of creatures that swim beneath the surface – all capable of killing you instantly.
I don’t mind the shore. In fact, I love going to the beach and walking barefoot in the sand. I love the feeling I get when I hear the ocean waves and take in the endless horizon where waves and sky blur into one. My soul feels refreshed on the shore. I am safe. The dangers are few.
But if I go deeper I risk pain, and death. The riptides have the power to thrust my body out to sea. The jellyfish and the urchin threaten me with their sting. The shark and the eel and the sea snake can end my life with a single bite. Even the gentle whales terrify me with their immense size and power.
One of my earliest memories is of riding on my father’s shoulders as a young boy. He was walking out into the ocean with me on his back. “Are you touching the bottom, daddy?” I asked every few steps. “Yes,” came the answer. “I’m touching the bottom.”
Eventually we were far out to sea. My mom and my grandmother were small specks on the horizon. “Are you touching the bottom, daddy?” I asked again in disbelief. “Yes, son, I’m touching the bottom.”
But then the wave came. It hit us from behind as I was looking back towards the shore at my mom. One moment I was riding on my father’s shoulders in the warm Florida sun, and the next I was swallowing salt water, tumbling over and over again in the blinding foam.
I don’t remember how long I was under. But then I felt my father’s hands grab my arm and pull me to the surface.
My father and I sputtered and coughed as we bobbed on the waves. He was holding me tighter now. Tighter than I can ever remember him holding me before. I looked into his face and saw the fear. The panic subsiding, slowly replaced by pure relief. He started to laugh as his emotions shifted. He had his son back. But in my little heart his laughter sounded like a mockery.
“You lied,” I shouted. “You said you could touch the bottom, but you lied.” Then I started to cry. He pulled me closer and tried to comfort me, but if I could have I would have swum away from him in my anger.
Maybe that’s part of why I fear the ocean? At a young age I tasted firsthand how unpredictable it could be and how quickly it could snatch you from blissful serenity and thrust you into an unexpected encounter with mortality.
Last night I had a dream about the ocean. It threatened to swallow me alive. I felt that same taste of real fear just before I woke up. Then I lay there in the darkness and heard the voice of God in my ear. “I’m calling you into the depths,” He said. I knew that there was danger, and suffering, and pain, and even death beneath those dark waves. “This is not a metaphor. This is not a spiritualization. The pain and the suffering and the death are real.”
For nearly half an hour I lay there and considered these words. I admitted my fear. I confessed my preference for the shoreline, for the sand beneath my feet. I kept hearing the voice of God urging me to follow Him deeper into the dark depths.
The danger is real. The suffering is real. The pain will be real. The death will be real.
“Follow me,” came the voice again.
I got up from my bed and wandered into the den. I dropped to my knees and kept listening. How could I agree to this? How could I refuse? My decision to follow Christ was made a long time ago, but now it was being challenged again.
What if my cross was really about dying? What if following Jesus actually meant letting go of everything; my wife, my sons, my safety, my own breath? What then? What now?
I can tell you that my response was not immediate. I can tell you that the answer wasn’t automatic. My one request was for my sons. I wanted to know that they would continue to walk with Jesus after I was gone. I couldn’t ask the same for my wife, because I didn’t know if my decision was something we might experience together or not. But if she remained behind, my prayer was that she would be comforted.
It is God’s mercy that I do not know exactly what I am saying yes to. If I knew exactly then there is a very good chance that I would never agree to following Him that far. All I asked was that Jesus would go with me and that He would meet me in person when the ocean sucked that last lungful of air from my body.
This time I know that my Father has me in His grip. I know He will never let me go. I know that He can be trusted to carry me all the way home, safe at last to that other shore.
One last breath…