How I learned forgiveness through surfing.
The ocean does not discriminate. It does not care what color you are, how old or young you are, how much money you make or don’t make, where you live, if you own a house or a van or a grocery cart. The ocean does not care if you are big or small, if you’ve been promoted or fired, if you started a non-profit or if you steal for a living, accomplish much or accomplish little. The ocean does care if you recycle or waste, eat healthy or McDonald’s, been divorced or hate divorce, are gay or straight, religious or spiritual, are trying to co-exist with everyone or if you hate God and people and kittens and puppies. The ocean does not care. The best and worst human in the world stand before the ocean and they are on the same playing field. They have no advantages over the other. They are equal. The power of the ocean wipes away all social status. The power of the ocean wipes away all differences and similarities between people. The power of the ocean wipes away all identity, which is to say, the ocean is incapable of being bias.
I find this to be both a beautiful and terrifying fact about the ocean. I want the ocean to favor me because I quite fancy it, but the ocean doesn’t seem to care how much I love it, I am given no favors, neither are the lifeguards, the coastguards or even the Navy. Build your ships as big as you want, the ocean can still sink you. Ocean beats rock, paper and scissors.
One of the mysteries behind the ocean is how it can so easily make you feel alive and yet so quickly terrify you with its might that you find yourself standing on the shore, watching its power, both admiring and hating it because you feel so weak before it. I don’t mean wading in the pools that form at the ocean’s edge, or even boogie boarding in the “safety zone” of the shallow white water, if there were to be a “safety zone” in the ocean; never assume to fully understand the ocean (just when you think you can read it, it switches up on you). When I speak of the terrifying power of the ocean, I speak of the place past the white wash, where the people on shore look smaller than your finger nail, and getting past the break is more than half the battle, at least for me. If you can get past the break there is a whole different sort of ocean than the one that washes up on shore; there is a whole different sort of world. Past the break people play on top of the ocean, and people playing on top of the ocean is practical magic at its finest.
Surfing takes faith, and I’m sure some surfers wouldn’t say so, they’d maybe boast about their skill, but the best surfers I know are the ones who boast about the power of the ocean and how humbled they are before it. The best surfers I know have faith, and it shows in the risks they take riding on top of the waves and the humility they have to get back up after getting knocked down. (The best surfers I know also have fun and are nice to kooks).
I’m still trying to figure out how to work with the waves instead of thinking they are working against me. With surfing, I’m finding out what I am made of, and the sum of my parts are not as pretty or confident as I often charade them to be. It’s scary to not only face the ocean but to face your true self, to find out what you are made of. “It’s like squeezing a sponge,” my friend said to me, “that’s how you find out its contents.” Learning to surf is like being squeezed and finding out what you are made of. And so it is with how we handle the tough stuff in life, things not going our way, being beat down, rejected, or simply forgotten; how we act or react to the tough stuff in life will reveal what we are made of… being squeezed will reveal our contents.
I will be the first to say that I haven’t always acted or reacted well to the tough stuff. Accuse me of being the first to wave my angry fist at God and reject Him for not giving me what I want, or more specifically who I want. When someone breaks your heart, your contents get revealed real quick. Really sane people turn out to be psycho when their hearts get broken. Really brave people turn out to be cowards and really happy people turn out to be depressives. True stories, one of them being mine. But with surfing I’m learning that my past doesn’t have to define my present, and my response doesn’t have to be the same that it has always been. I don’t have to give up on me just because someone else did.
“You’re not good enough, JJ” I hear in the white wash as I tumble under water. I get back up, I paddle back out. “He didn’t want you, JJ” I hear again as I’m held under. I get back up, I paddle back out. “You’re not worth it, JJ.” I get back up, I paddle back out. “Get serious, JJ, give up.” I get back up, I paddle back out.
“Not giving up” hasn’t ever really been my pattern, I’ve given up on many things, all too easily, but surfing is giving me the chance to not repeat my patterns and to develop a character that isn’t just confined to the ocean but lived out on land.
Sometimes I wonder if the ocean is trying to reject me. Sometimes I wonder if God is trying to give me a tutorial about not being lukewarm and allowing me to see what it would feel like to be spit out of His mouth (Revelation 3:16, trust me, you don’t want to be spit out of God’s mouth). And sometimes, when I can remember that God is good and He is in fact in control, I wonder if God is allowing me to grow, to be shaped and molded into the woman He has created me to be, no matter how much the growing pains hurt. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get it, and sometimes I do, sometimes I catch a wave and for about four seconds I’m convinced I could go pro. And while they don’t last long, those four seconds feel like forever, and those four seconds are sometimes all I need to keep trying no matter how many times I get knocked down. For as harsh as the ocean can be, it can be three times as much magnificent. The power of the ocean is not just something to fear, it’s something to marvel at.
When things start to click I gain a little confidence and just as I am about to say “I think I got this,” a new day comes with new waves, and the ones I learned to ride yesterday aren’t the same waves today. Apparently God’s mercies aren’t the only things that are new every morning, so are His waves. On these awkward new waves (of course I blame the waves), I feel stupid for ever thinking four seconds of bliss was going to earn me a sponsorship of some sort. I feel as though I am back to square one: I suck and I’ll never get any better… at anything. Maybe he was right, maybe I’m not good enough… for anything.
I get back up, I paddle back out.
God tells me not to fear, but I take one look at the ocean and I find myself bathing in fear, loofah and all. The book of Matthew tells a story about Jesus in which He rebukes the wind and the waves and they listen. The wind and the waves were raging, people were freaking out, Jesus tells everyone to chill, including the wind and the waves, and everyone does… including the wind and the waves. The storm took a chill pill because Jesus said so. “Who is this man that even the wind and the waves obey him?” is also what I would have said should I have seen Jesus calm a storm (Matthew 8:27). While as humans we’ve got nothing on the power of the ocean, the power of the ocean has got nothing on the power of Jesus. Dang. That’s a lot of power. Do I live like I believe Jesus has that much power currently in this day and age? Honestly, not really… and I’m tired of talking about a Jesus I sometimes don’t believe.
There’s this other part of scripture where Jesus says “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father” (John 14:12). I’m gonna level with you, in my mind, if I have faith, be it the size of a mustard seed, I too can rebuke the wind and the waves and make them chill out, in the name of Jesus, right? Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe. Is it for the good of others or myself? Truth be told, myself. And yes, I tried it. I tried to do what Jesus did and I told the wind and the waves to calm down in the midst of being terrified while paddling out. I wasn’t even nice about it, I simply commanded the waves to chill out in the name of Jesus. And then I got knocked out. Not literally, I was still conscious, but the ocean must have found my attempt at being like Jesus so cute that it mustered up a big hug for me and wrestled me to the ocean floor until I screamed “UNCLE!” Uncle being Jesus. I ended up screaming for the guy I was trying to imitate. Funny how life works like that. We’re called to be like Jesus and we’re told to call upon His name. When your attempts to be like Jesus are out of selfish ambition, you’ll end up calling upon His name real quick.
And the same goes with healings and raising people from the dead. Jesus did it, I can too, right? I think I think so, but is it for my good or the good of others? If I’m honest, some people I’d like to heal (for my own good, because I love them), and some people I’d like to curse (for my own good, because they hurt me, and my flesh still wants revenge when my spirit says no). And if I were to selectively heal people due to my own personal bias, that’s abusing Jesus’ name, right? And hasn’t Jesus’ name been abused enough, misused and misrepresented enough? People hate other people in Jesus’ name and it’s heartbreaking.
And so what is this verse about doing greater things than Jesus? Maybe it is about healing and raising people from the dead and rebuking the ocean, but maybe it’s about something even greater than those things. Maybe it’s about really loving people, showing kindness and grace and mercy, even when it’s hard and we don’t want to. Maybe it’s about forgiving the people who have hurt us instead of cursing them. Truth be told, I’d rather have the power to rebuke the ocean than forgive someone who has hurt me. I was betrayed. But so was Jesus. Jesus knew He was going to be betrayed and He still sat at the same table with the guy who betrayed Him.
Many of us want to be like Jesus when it comes to miraculous signs and wonders, but not so much when it comes to the miracle of forgiving someone who has done wrong. Maybe I should just speak for myself. Jesus Himself posed the question, “For which is easier to say, ‘your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘get up and walk’?” I’d rather heal all sorts of people than forgive that one person. But that one person matters. True forgiveness is hard. But Jesus did it and He said that we would do the same works and even greater ones than He. He forgave people and then He healed them. I don’t know the theology behind it all, all I know is two issues came up when people needed to be healed… having faith and forgiveness. I think Jesus was quicker to forgive than He was to heal, and as a result of having encountered such forgiveness, people were healed. I think Jesus touched people’s hearts more than just their physical bodies.
Forgiving someone means you are loving them, even when you don’t really like them, and loving them might do just as much for you as it does for them. Giving and receiving love changes people. I think that is why forgiveness is powerful. It heals. It changes people.
Saltwater heals too, which is initially what got me out into the ocean, wanting to surf, wanting to take my mind off of things, wanting to heal from past hurts. I started to surf to face some fears and live my life and learn some lessons along the way. My faith has increased, as has my awareness of my need for Jesus… I scream for help a lot, in fact I scream “JESUS, TAKE THE BOARD!” the way Carrie Underwood screams “JESUS, TAKE THE WHEEL!” It just doesn’t sound as pretty. “Help” is one of the most powerful words I know; it solicits a response, sometimes in the form of a friend and sometimes in the form of a lifeguard. Yes, I have a story about that.
The ocean is dangerous and beautiful. It’s not at all safe and at the same time hosts children of all ages with great care. It’s powerful and capable of anything. It welcomes everyone without discrimination and will just as quickly humble anyone who thinks they stand above another. The ocean is a mystery to me and I have a reverent fear of it. I love the ocean, mostly because I think the ocean was created in the image of the One who created it. Scripture comes to life when I am in the ocean and in that sense I feel like I get to know God more and more each time I come out of hiding and face my fear, face my true self and the contents of which I am made.
It’s funny, what I have learned the most in surfing is not yet how to pop up faster or duck dive accurately (my last attempt gave me a slap in the face and shot me back about ten feet), and I still haven’t learned how to muster enough faith to rebuke the wind and the waves. What I have learned the most in surfing is that trying to be like Jesus doesn’t mean trying to produce visible miracles; trying to be like Jesus means loving the very people who hurt and reject you, which might not mean doing life with them, but certainly forgiving them. That to me, is a miracle. In the same way we stand before the power of the ocean on equal grounds, we stand before God, no matter what we’ve done, on equal grounds. All have fallen short. All of us are called to forgive just as we have been forgiven.
I simply wanted to learn how to surf, but I learned that no amount of saltwater will wash away the pain if you don’t forgive the one who has hurt you.
And much like learning to surf, or even life for that matter, forgiveness is a process. If you find you can’t do it right away, that’s okay, start there by saying you can’t. You gotta start somewhere and I think honesty is the best starting point. You can only change that which you are honest about. So start with “I can’t,” ask Jesus to meet you there, and never, ever, ever give up.
Get back up, paddle back out.
It’ll change you and you’ll change the world if you love like Jesus (or at least somebody’s world, and that somebody matters, even if that somebody is you).