An afternoon of helpless standing by as the power of nature was displayed for the world to see in a town in Middle America. Death and shattering devastation seem to defy words of comfort and explanation. And later, a few moments of fear and relatively minor destruction in our own little town this evening left all of us in the dark, both figuratively and literally. When the dark closes in, we begin to realize what is true and what is lasting.
A Safe Place
“Help me, Daddy!” the terrified young boy screamed. The family was spending the afternoon at the beach, but things were not going as planned. The young father had made sure that all of his children learned to swim, at least enough to get out of most normal circumstances they would encounter in the water. This, however was no normal circumstance.
As Mom and the older sister waded and looked for sea shells, the boys and their dad had opted to swim in the breaking surf. It was an incredible experience for the boy of nine or so. He and the others walked out twenty or thirty yards through the breakers; sometimes letting them hit him on the bare stomach; sometimes jumping up in the air as they approached, watching them go past with the white water swirling around his legs. Deeper and deeper the water became as the shore was left behind. Chest high, it would reach and suddenly, he would stumble as the ocean floor underneath him rose quickly and he was only knee deep again, yards from the shore. And the waves! One after the other, they came incessantly; water piling over on top of water. Wave after wave pummeling his body, again and again, until he tired of it and just wished for it to stop for a moment. But, more waves came, wearing the young boys and their father out.
They were spread out a little distance when the father called out to them to head in. Normally, the call to quit playing would result in a bit of cajoling and coaxing to stay for just a few moments more, but there was none of that this time. The tired boys headed for the shore. And then, just feet away from the shore it happened. The youngest of them suddenly felt the motion of the ocean stronger than he had felt it before. He couldn’t stand up any longer as he was drawn away from the shore ahead of him. The beach at South Padre Island is famous for its “rip currents” or undertow, and he was caught in one of those dreaded waves, moving under the surface much faster than it appeared. The terror was instantaneous. Along with his brothers, he had learned to swim and was pretty good at it. Even at that, he was no match for this kind of power. As his father attempted to swim toward him, he realized the now all-too-apparent phenomenon that accompanied the rip current. To either side of the outgoing current, the water was still moving strongly toward the shore. It was immediately clear that he couldn’t reach the boy in time, so he did the only thing he could do. He yelled! “Swim! Swim to the side! Swim toward me!” It made no sense to the scared little boy, who was trying to swim directly into shore against the current that was pulling him away from that safe haven, but he turned to the right and swam for all he was worth. It seemed an eternity that nothing happened, except that he was drawn further out, but stroke by stroke, inch by inch, the lad pulled out of the current and into calm water and safety.
Standing on the firm bottom and shaking from the experience, the only thing he could think about was that his father hadn’t saved him. All the time he was sure he was drowning, the only thing his father had done was to yell at him. “Why didn’t you try to pull me out?” he asked accusingly. The father, no doubt terrified himself, didn’t try to explain his actions, but picked up the little fellow and carried him to shore and his mother. It would be a long time before the boy understood what had happened that day. But, he never forgot the experience.
I’ve heard the poem and the song based on it, entitled “Footprints In The Sand” for years. It’s a tear-jerking piece of poetry that talks about a dream of seeing two sets of footprints and the explanation that they were God’s and the writer’s walking beside each other. But all of the sudden, there is only one set of footprints and the writer accuses God of leaving, only to learn that at those times which represented troublesome events in life, God carried her or him. All very beautiful and romantic. And wrong. You see, what actually happens is that throughout life, God is imparting his wisdom and knowledge specifically to equip us for the difficult times. And, as harsh as it seems, when those times come, He knows that we have the tools to face them and get through them. Truly, we often wonder where He is when the night is darkest, when we fear the worst that can happen. No, I don’t believe that He leaves us to “sink or swim”, but we’ve been trained in the good times, learned the lessons, and His strength is adequate. We can face the challenges before us and come through just fine.
As I write tonight, I’m grieving for families who have lost loved ones, suddenly and unexpectedly. My heart is torn apart for them, envisioning the pain they are feeling and even possibly, the sense that God has left them in the riptide. Right now, they may be drowning in their loss and emptiness. My prayer for them is that they will recover with the strength and courage that He has already provided and prepared them with. His strength is perfected in our weakness. A Father’s love never fails and never deserts us.
I have never forgotten the terrifying experience in the waves, but sometimes I still need a jolt to be reminded of the real lesson there. We are safe wherever we go, led by our Father’s strong and able hands.
“…Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
“Comfort and prosperity have never enriched the world as much as adversity has.”
(Billy Graham~American evangelist)