Some of the most beautiful beaches in the world circle the continent of Australia like a gleaming, oblongish halo. Don’t be fooled. Those waters can be filled with dark, surging devils that form what they call a riptide. Only because God and man willed it have I lived to tell about them.
Only two days into a long-planned adventure with friends at “New South Wales Big Camp”—a spiritual festival organized by the Adventist Church in Oz—I finally got my body into the exhilarating surf. For a decent swimmer, the waves of Grassy Head Beach toss people about just enough to be fun but not so roughly as to cause any kind of fear.
Before I go any further, I should tell you a little about the trip. Days at Big Camp meant forays into the rugged natural surroundings, meals with friends, and lots of darting in and out of the cabin that housed two couples, three kids, and me. Come evening, we’d pilgrimage to the “Connections Tent” for meetings. I’d been asked by my friend David Asscherick to speak for about half hour each night. My friend Nathan Renner would follow with preaching, and live music would weave throughout the evening. I felt honored to be part of the experience, and doubly privileged to be blessed with “working” vacation time with fun people in the Oz rain forest near a glorious beach.
As a group of us walked the shore, David, Nathan and I decided to swim. Someone said something about the “swim between the flags rule,” but considering ourselves above such things, we left it unheeded. My ocean swimming experience in the states had acquainted me with undertow, which could be endured as long as a person could get back to shallow water to stand, which I did between waves to catch my breath. We dove deep under curled waves to slice down to placid water, making our way out to the cresting barrels we could body-surf back to shore. The ocean floor stabilized the whole experience, making it possible to stand, breathe, then return to the weaving, diving, and bobbing required to outsmart the ocean.
But we didn’t outsmart the ocean. The flip from wildly fun to insanely frightening came so suddenly I missed it. The only change I remember perceiving was that I couldn’t find the ocean floor. In reality, we’d been caught in a rip tide and swept out into deeper water than we’d bargained for. But the water was more than deep—it was going the wrong way. To grasp the horror of a rip tide, imagine the surge of water toward the shore suddenly reverting to push water back into the ocean, creating a hollow in the ocean floor in the process. Then add the fact that the surf pulls an oblivious swimmer sideways a couple feet every few seconds, and you have an ocean kidnapping from safe water into the demon domain of the riptide. A swimmer can be splashing happily one minute and fighting for her life the next.
In fact, I was.
My intense focus on surviving the next wave kept me from any awareness of my peril. The one evidence that registered in my consciousness was David shouting, “Jen! Just relax. Hold my hand.” I kept hoping he would pull me back to where I could stand and catch my breath, but in reality the riptide was dragging my very athletic friend further out too. David may have made it out if he’d been alone, but he wouldn’t leave me. As my strength drained away, I found it harder and harder to dive deep, placing me more and more at the whim of the surf. A double wave slapped me in the face; I took in water, started choking, lost my breath, and surrendered myself to the frothy, chaotic water as the possibility of death swelled before me like—well, like a wave.
David began to flail his arms and shout to the surf patrol lifeguards, who I learned later had the legal right to let us drown for our disobedience (Fortunately, kinder impulses prevailed.) A buff, beach-tanned girl appeared with a surf board, which I immediately draped with my exhausted body. A boy followed her with a board for David. The boards quickly sped us to shallow water where we could stand again, and terra firma has never felt so good. But the second I felt safe my mind raced to Nathan. Was he out there? Did we lose him?
David and Nathan are very special to me—like somewhat-aggravating but deeply-loved younger brothers. About 10 years ago I wrote a biography about their joint transition from punk culture to faith, called Twice Upon a Time. During that writing process we went cliff jumping in Northern California. We all love risk-taking, outdoor adventure, and life itself. We don’t talk often, but when we do, we pick up where we left off.
Thankfully, Nathan had made it to shore on his own, having felt the riptide before David and I, and having wisely moved parallel to the shore rather than perpendicular. I could never have forgiven myself for surviving if Nathan hadn’t.
We initially thought to keep the event secret, returning to the meeting tent that night rather sheepish that the dumb Americans had underestimated the power of the Australian surf. But the first comment someone made about my downcast eyes—Matt Parra, a surfer himself—made the story tumble out. It was then that I realized that in order not to have a post traumatic response, we should process. And so we told our story. The matter swept through the camp, becoming part of the narrative of the event. I even shared it as a life lesson during one of my talks.
And this is what I said: Love is a wild surf. It will beckon you out, but given the wrong circumstances, drag you to your death. Love is simultaneously the most exhilarating and dangerous thing we do as human beings. But truth be told, many of our love-scars have come as the result of failing to swim between the flags. Should we stop swimming to stay safe? No, for living without love is the greatest peril of all. We should stay in the waves, but ride them out more wisely than before. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
The next day I swam again, determined to face and cast out my fears—this time between the flags.