The Surfer, the Sea, and Missional Transformation in the Small Church Environment: Chapter Three

Chapter III – Paddling Out is the Hardest Part

The Sea as a Life Metaphor

Learning to swim in the sea is a great metaphor for life in a fallen world.  In order to surf, you better be a strong swimmer first.   Right from the time that Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden we learn that life will not be without problems.  In fact, because Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3) and refused to take responsibility for it, we humans have been born into separation from God’s Will.  In Eden, our minds and hearts were directly connected to God’s Will, and so life was idyllic.  There was nothing to learn, everything was handed to Adam and Eve.  But with the Fall, the easy way of knowing was taken from us, and now life is a journey of learning and growing back into the knowledge of God’s Will for us.  In Eden, there were no problems.  Outside of Eden, problems come at us all the time, and spiritual growth comes from the discipline of facing those problems and learning to overcome them.  Like the waves in the ocean, problems come in all sizes and shapes.  If we aren’t prepared, the wave knocks us off our feet and leaves us scrambling to recover.  We get water up our noses, and sand in our ears, and we learn to pay attention and to deal with the reality of waves.  The next time a wave comes, we know to duck under it, dive through it, or paddle over it.  And we know that to do any of those things we have to know that a wave will definitely be coming and we have to face into it. There are breaks between the waves where we can catch our breath and prepare for the next one, but the next one is surely coming.

Our first time in the ocean we may very wrongly think that there would only be one wave and that that’d be it.  But before the day is over we realize that there is an endless supply of waves, one after another.  It is the rhythm of the sea. Or we may superstitiously think that if we manage to get through one wave with perfect form that God in God’s providence will reward us with perpetually calm seas.  Or we might offer up all forms of craziness to God in the hopes that if we please God the sea will go flat only when we paddle out.  We can even pretend that waves don’t really exist and are just figments of the imagination, and turn our backs on the surf.  But saying the sea is not the sea, doesn’t change the sea at all.  We will find ourselves wiped out and going over the falls if we try to pretend that waves aren’t real and act on that misbelief.  Waves are real.  So are problems. Problems are part of the nature of life in a fallen world – they are the hard way of learning now that the easy ways of Eden are no longer available to us.  If the purpose of this life is to learn to live with God forever in Heaven as the Bible indicates it is, then facing and overcoming problems is the means to that end.  We learn to navigate through one breaking wave, and that kind of wave is no longer as frightening as it was the first time.  And there is always another wave coming.  Life is a series of problems to be faced into and overcome.  There is grace in that we find time to catch our breath between the waves, but there is reality and consequence in that another wave is always coming; if not today, then certainly tomorrow.

The ocean has times of calm, and the ocean has raging storms.  And the ocean has everything in between.  On the East Coast, when there is an off-shore breeze, the surfing is perfect.  The wind sculpts the waves into perfect surfable works of art with a consistent rhythm. The waves come in predictable sets.   But when the wind shifts and comes from the Northeast with force behind it, the sea turns to chaos, nearly impossible to surf and very hard to even stay alive in.  Life has Nor’easters.  Life has times where problems seem to come from everywhere, some small and frequent and others giant.  The first time you paddle into a Nor’easter, it is frightening.  There is no rhythm to the sea in a storm, it is the Biblical chaos that was here before there was a “here”, before God breathed upon it and said, “Let there be Light!” (Genesis 1).  It can swallow you up.  It can carry you away.  Waves come quickly and erratically, rather than in predictable sets.  And yet, even in the midst of chaos and wind and rain, there is always both beauty and grace.  There is always a chance to catch your breath if you know how to swim and don’t panic.  You learn to work with the currents and tide, instead of constantly trying to fight them.  You learn that no matter what, you never let yourself get separated from the board.  The chaotic sea is a reminder that we are not in charge here, and that compared to the power of the One who controls even the wind and the waves, we are very small indeed.  That understanding of our smallness and powerlessness produces within us a sense of awe and a respect for the sea’s terrible beauty.  Storms are part of life.  They remind us that we are not in charge and that we must use the wisdom that God has given us, and have faith to rely upon God’s grace and mercy.  And, if you just stick it out, storms always end and calm always returns, and with the calm comes joy and gratitude and a greater understanding of God and God’s Will for us.  The ocean is a great metaphor for life in a fallen world.

The Sea as a Metaphor for the Mission

Surfing is a great metaphor for following Jesus into the mission.  In fact, even though Jesus never actually referred to himself as surfer, his experience on earth as related in Scripture would indicate that he deeply understood the nature of the sea.  Let me give you an example that takes place after the disciples have participated in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, and immediately after Jesus explaining the Parable of the Sower to the disciples.  Jesus intends to head across the Sea of Galilee to cast out demons in the Gentile region of Gerasenes (Luke 8:22-26).  Jesus knows what he is going to do.  Satan knows what Jesus is going to do.  But the disciples are so amazed at Jesus’ miracles and so confused about his teachings about seeds and soil that they have forgotten about the realities of life in a fallen world.  Jesus sends the disciples across the Sea in a boat.  He sends them into the mission.  Do not miss this point! Jesus sends the disciples into the mission.

Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).  And there is a lost soul possessed by demons  and in need of Christ’s redemption living just across the water in the graveyard in Gerasenes.  The disciples must cross the water in order to get to the one that Jesus seeks to reach.  The only way is through.  I think that the disciples get into the boat naively thinking that their crossing will be uncontested like so many people do.  That will not be the case.  As soon as they are away from shore, the wind rises up against them and their small boat, and the sea begins to rage.  The mission for them has just gone from exciting to terrifying like it does for so many people. And like it is for so many people, the problem is in the disciples’ unrealistic expectations of what the mission will be like.

None of us should think for a second that if we go to plunder the Gates of Hades (Matthew 16:18) and steal souls away from Satan, that Satan is going to let that happen without a fight.  Satan will put huge waves in our path and chaotic seas before us in an effort to either scare us so badly that we turn back, or he will make every effort to outright drown us.  Jesus who is sleeping in the back of the boat knows that it is just the wind and that all seas are navigable by the grace of God and with the faith and wisdom that comes from experience.  The disciples are panicked having thought that the mission would be easy and safe.  Jesus opts to calm the sea, but Jesus also ribs them a little by saying, “Oh ye of little faith.” Had their faith been greater, they would have known that it is the One who commands the wind and the waves that sent them into the mission to begin with.

Paddling Out

I think that hardest thing for a community to overcome in its transformation to mission is paddling out into the sea, paddling out into the mission. And I think that what makes it so hard to overcome is that many churches have been conditioned with unrealistic expectations of what the mission is really like.  We are conditioned by well-meaning people to believe that if we only follow Jesus then things will be easy for us.  That’s just rubbish!  When I first started surfing, I was pretty naïve about the power of the sea.  I’ll never forget the first time I looked out into the surf off the coast of South Carolina, a surf that I had been swimming in since I could walk.  I saw these little two foot and three foot waves and naively thought, “No problem!” I had seen these guys surfing down here for years and it didn’t look that hard. I had my little Lightning Bolt 6-footer across my body in front of me as I waded out.  The first wave broke just as it hit my board which then hit me.  The physics of such things is something that I should have studied harder in school.  Wham! The force of that little wave spread out over all six feet of that board and that board came up and hit me in the chin like a truck. The water in that six-foot section of that little wave probably weighed a couple thousand pounds and that wave was probably traveling at fifteen to twenty miles per hour. You get the idea.  It split my chin wide open, and the only thing that kept me from blacking out was the thought that I was bleeding for sure and blood in the water attracts sharks.  This was the summer after the movie “Jaws” had come out, and the abject terror that went through my body at the thought of bleeding into the ocean had me running out of the water at a sprint with my now-dinged board still strapped to my ankle. That must have been quite a sight! The best part of all of it was that the guy who had invited me to come surfing with him was now rolling on the beach laughing at me, and the sight of the whole thing had drawn the attention of every cute girl on the beach that I had hoped would notice my new-found surfer-cool. So much for cool.  Dude, it was ugly!

My friend helped to clean me up with a couple of butterfly bandages from the lifeguard stand, and he showed me how to at least get past the first breaking wave without getting killed outright. Sympathy came only in the form a knowing look and a pat on the back.  No coddling, just an invitation to get back out there.  His reaction to my misfortune told me that getting your face bashed in is just a normal part of the process.  Later on that day, I noticed that my friend had several scars on his face about the same size as the cut on my chin.  No victims out here.  Occasionally, stitches are part of the gig.  Surfers surf.  It’s what they do.  More importantly, it’s what they are.

And then came the hard part.  Once I got into deep enough water that I couldn’t stand up, I had to paddle against the surf.  You stroke really hard between the waves because even when you duck-dive under the wave correctly, every wave pushes you backwards. Paddle hard, pushed back.  Paddle hard, pushed back.  Paddle hard, pushed back. Do that for a couple of hundred yards and see how tired you are.  And all that work’s just to earn the opportunity to catch one wave one time. That’s just the way it is.  There is no other way.  It is what surfing is.   It is an amazingly exhausting process to simply get off the beach and out into the line-up before you’ve even had a chance to get up on your board and catch a wave.  Of course, once you accept the reality that that is what surfing is, and you have done it a couple of hundred times, it gets easier.  Before long, in the midst of what was once torture, you find a rhythm and a peace in paddling out.  And you get in some seriously good shape.

What if I had quit because my chin hurt?  What if I had quit because surfing sometimes means getting bruised and cut and scraped?  I would never have found the joy of the pure moment.  I would never have even found the rhythm and peace that comes with simply paddling out.  And what if I had quit because paddling out meant three steps forward and one step back? Or two steps back?  What if I had decided that a successful paddle out meant that it was an easy cruise on a flat sea?  If I had quit because the going was hard and very much contested by the very waves I intended to ride, then I never would have seen the seen the Kingdom come to life in that one pure moment, that one perfect ride.  And, for the record, that one perfect ride didn’t come for a year.  That’s an awful lot of effort for one pure moment.  And it was worth every second of it.  It’s what surfers do.  Surfers surf.  And surfing means paddling out.

Once a community decides it’s time to follow Christ into the mission, every move it makes towards the Gates of Hades will very much be contested.  You may not know where you’re going, but Jesus knows where you’re headed because Jesus is the one who sent you out into the sea to begin with. And Satan may not know exactly where you’re going, but he certainly knows why you’re going and who sent you. Once you decide that you are called to tie Satan up (Matthew 12:29) and steal people away from him, every move you make from that point forward will be pounded by waves and heartily contested by chaotic winds.  Satan is not threatened by awesome worship services that feed believers. He has already counted them as lost to God anyway.  Satan benefits from people who already number themselves among the saved locking themselves away from the world to sing some cool tunes and get “challenged to think” by an interesting sermon,  and then calling that the totality of faith and practice.  On the other hand, Satan is very threatened by people with the courage and commitment and maturity of faith to venture out into the sea to rescue lost souls and lost people. If your community begins to take seriously the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19) in the mission field right outside its doors, your community is going to have everything including the kitchen sink put in your path to keep you from doing what Christ himself sent you to do.  Your community is going to experience every kind of spiritual conflict and craziness that Satan can throw at it.   If you don’t believe me, try it and see what I mean.  You will be paddling out into big surf and rough seas.  Even small waves if mishandled can cause you serious damage.  And if you are serious about the mission, you won’t just be facing small waves.  You will, from time to time, be facing monsters!

Everybody gets dinged up.  It’s just the mission.  There is no other way.  It is what the mission is.  You may not literally get your chin split open, but you will have your heart broken more than once.  And you will feel the pain of betrayal and the hurt of harsh words spoken against you.  You will have your character attacked, and that hurts when it happens.  You will have your hopes crash down around you at least once.  You will be bruised.  You will find yourself going forward three steps and falling back one or two.  Paddle hard, pushed back.  That’s just the way it is.  So many times in churches we have been conditioned to think that if we meet resistance there is something wrong with what we’re doing.  If we run headlong into a giant wave, we are conditioned to think that we should stop because what we’re doing is too dangerous. That’s rubbish!  Resistance is often evidence that you are on the right track.  Surfing is dangerous.  There is no other kind of surfing.  Mission is dangerous.  There is no other kind of mission.  Your mission threatens a power stronger than you.  But it is not stronger than God, and if you will just have the faith to stick it out even when it’s three feet forward and two feet back and your chin is busted wide open, then you may one day have the opportunity to walk on water with Jesus across the face of raging resistance, snatching people out of the clutches of Satan’s own hands, in one pure true moment as the Kingdom of Heaven comes to earth right before your eyes.

You will get hurt.  You will get bruised.  The mission will wear you out.  It’s really hard to see progress and it often feels like you’re going backwards more than you’re going forwards.  If you’re bleeding and tired and looking for sympathy, and you look into the eyes of the people who live the missional lifestyle every day, you will get sympathy only in the form of a knowing glance and a pat on the back…and an invitation to get back in there and try it again. If you look closely at them, they have many scars about the same size as your wounds. There is no other mission.  There is no other way to surf.  They are what they are.  But if you want to be a surfer, surfers surf.  And if you want to follow Christ, Christ-followers follow Christ into the mission.  Paddling out is part of surfing.  Paddling out is the hardest part.

Max Ramsey (Copyright 2-1-10)


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