Favor is an Asthmatic Riding Pacific Waves

ocean waves

Dan has been getting some traveling in while on his academic sabbatical from teaching at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, so we thought it would be fitting to share this story he wrote on a trip to Hawaii in 2013. Here Dan writes about how the experience of nearly drowning moved him to reflect on the goodness and favor of God. This post originally appeared in January 2013.

What I see and what I feel is in sharp contrast. My body has endured a 10-week bout of a sinus infection that has migrated into a hacking, breath-stealing asthmatic cough. I awakened this morning with my left foot so sore I could barely walk—tendonitis. Apparently my foot and my sinus are inflamed; the two are hardly associated, but the result is that my body feels at war with my spirit.

As I write, my eyes feast on towering palm trees and roseate blooms that saunter between salmon, blush, and show-off pink.

All this glory frames the undulating Pacific that quietly roars with a splendid, unpredictable consistency. At first it appears flat with a gentle rise, but the wave pattern changes every 3-5 minutes with a wave set that rises from nowhere and curls out of the blue like a white cloud of thunder. It transfixes, mesmerizes. I sat drinking a green smoothie and watched a palm tree climber rise over 50 feet to hack away fronds. His feet were in a contraption that allowed him to slowly rise on the back of the towering beast without being thrown to the ground. He climbed slowly and surely, not to arouse the tree from its slumber. When he reached the top he pulled up his dangling machete and proceeded to cut the sagging fronds free from burdening the behemoth.

It did not take long before my heart began to thank God that my offending limbs and ailing body do not discount me, or call for a trimmer to cut me off from the life of Christ because I am dangling low with little to offer but the need for restoration. I am ill but I am surrounded by beauty, goodness, friendship, and favor. Favor: It is that word that has resonated day in and day out during this Hawaiian convalescence.

Yesterday I accompanied my wife and two dear friends to a beautiful resort where they were going to go out in towering waves on jet skis. Their guides were native Hawaiians and watermen who live and play on the blue all their lives. They are trained to drop surfers off on waves too big to access by swimming. They follow their surfer to the point when he crashes or completes his run and then fly to his side to pick him up before another multi-storied wave buries him in foam. To say the least, these acrobats of the waves are fast, elegant, and wisely daring.

I was going to lounge by the water and watch. My risk of the day came in putting on sunscreen to venture for a few minutes in the intense light of the morning sun. My friend had to run to the restroom. I stood on the beach surveying the mounting thunder a few hundred yards out. It was like watching an artist paint a curling stroke of white on an azure canvas, erase the line, and then paint it again. Each round was perfect, yet otherworldly in its ferocious beauty.

I was caught in the repeated erasure and recreation of the painting when a hand touched my shoulder and said, “I am Winton. Are you ready?” He handed me a life-jacket and said, “Let’s go.” I looked at my wife and she smiled, shrugged, and seemed to indicate, “You are safe.” Before I had a chance to explain I am asthmatic, sluggish, and slowly recovering, I had the vest on and his mates were turning the jet ski toward the ocean. He jumped on this sleek ocean sports car that had a huge, firm foam mattress to tow a surfer on the back. I was instructed to jump on the mat and then crawl onto the seat as soon as we made it past the waves hitting the beach.

I had no time to think or argue or explain; I simply followed. I was told how to hold on and lean into turns. Winton, with the ease of those who have learned not to fight water but to move in it like they are made of the same element, flowed in, through, over, and around the waves like a hawk gliding on the currents. At first my chest tightened and I could feel my air seize in my lungs. I fought to breathe; I coughed to clear my congestion. The first towering wave we turned to run down was like the first ride of the winter cruising down a long, steep hill on a red flyer. I turned to look behind me, and the glowing whiteness was like soft terry cloth robe someone was holding a few feet behind me for me to slip into. I touched the white robe and it was magically incandescent and warm. Just before the foam would have churned us into mayhem, Winton whisked us away and we flew down the side of the wave to the smaller rim and turned back to face the next wave set. My body surrendered to the brilliance of the beauty and the competence of my oarsman.

The next 45 minutes can barely be described. It is not enough to say we did it again and again, many more times over. The ocean is never the same in its apparent sameness. Each move brought a slightly different complexity to an experience one could name merely as we jet skied on waves. And then we came in.

Winton gave his machine to Hunter, a young man of 19 who took my wife out to the wild for her baptism. I told Hunter that our 36th anniversary was in two days and I wanted to celebrate with my wife. He smiled, “You should have no fear, you will celebrate with her.” He is a waterman as well, who has grown up developing wisdom from the waves and a father who knows the one who made them. She was in safe hands.

Winton and I stood on the beach and talked for at least half an hour. It was not a casual conversation. I had nothing in me for politeness. Winton is a man who knows what it is to live in the excess of privilege, beauty, and favor. I gauge him as a man of extremes, who often tests the boundaries between the plausible and the possible. I suspect it is mercy and calling that he is still alive given his entry into realms that angels fear to tread.

We spoke about favor. What it means for a moment of utter goodness to come, to open our heart to receive all the life we can bear and then to drink just a little more than we imagine we can hold.

I don’t know how the segue occurred, though I know the current we were following. Conversations, like waves, follow patterns. But there is always the uncertain, unexpected rumbling of a turn that takes you to a place that is both unexpected and full of the presence of the living God.

Winton told me that he used to work for a company that required extreme deep sea diving. He and his wife Carrie were 120 feet deep and he was following her. He veered to tell me that his wife, a native Hawaiian, has had more ‘odd’ experiences in the water than anyone he has ever known. A famous oceanographer used to take her with him simply to see what ocean life would come to visit as the result of her entry into the water. Winton took me back to the dark blue deep water of the story and said that all of a sudden his wife stopped. He could tell she was poised and looking or hearing something that he could not see. He waited behind her, motionless.

Out of nowhere a dolphin sentry swam up to his wife. Apparently dolphins send out sentries to see what is ahead before the family, usually a pod of 20-60 dolphins with babies, the elderly, teenagers, and parents, progresses.

From 10 feet away he saw his wife slowly reach her hand toward its melon. The dolphin didn’t move. It turned its head slightly to look her in the face and take in her place, her presence. They hung in silence for several minutes. The dolphin then clicked its tongue communicating something to the pod. Two minutes later, a mass of dolphins—Winton estimates around 200—ripped by at speeds that were dizzying. They were not ambling and playing in the bow wake of a boat; they were screaming by at 40 miles an hour. And they flew by feet from Laurie and Winton.

The dolphin sentry waited motionless as the pod roared by. When it had passed, the sentry held its ground for another few seconds and then moved away with a turn of its tail.

I could barely hold myself in the conversation I felt so overwhelmed with wonder. I am stuttering to put words to the bright tailed fluorescence of the glory of God. To feel awe, wonder, goodness, glory is to but try and put one stone on another to mark the spot for someone else to pass by and say: I wonder what happened here. Stones on stones mark glory. It is that foolish to mount word after word; but to not do so is to become silent in the presence of love. All deep gratitude is meant to feel foolish in our inability to speak what we most long to say.

The experience is Winton’s and Carrie’s—but now it is mine. I will never purposely be 120 feet deep in the ocean, nor will I ever be face to face with a sentry dolphin that is both protecting the pod and the creatures that surprised it in their movement from one point in the deep to another. But whatever wonder I experienced on the back of that jet ski is of the same skin as the wonder of being face to face with a playful, protector dolphin. The heavens and earth will one day be so free of blight, heartache, and sin that the creation will come to play with the kings and queens of creation: you and me.

One day waves will laugh with us as we laugh and touch their face. One day the creation will come to play and say to us: “We knew God because we were not of our own accord alienated from him. But now that you are fully restored we can come fully to marvel that you came to be as humbled and believe as deeply as you did.”

The creation waits to offer us the play we can only taste now as an appetizer of the coming banquet. And our labor—mine at least for today—is to take in and bless the favor that is mine—relish and hold the goodness that springs forth and rises up from the kindness of Jesus. I don’t need to deny the brokenness of my body, but I also don’t need to lose hope that wholeness, holiness, all the goodness of God is waiting to play with me today.