I’m a native Floridian, so when northern kids were learning how to survive if you got stuck out in a snow storm, we were learning how to get out of a rip current at the beach. I’m sure those in the Midwest were learning about tornado safety or what to do if you got stuck in a corn field, but the beach was my playground, so safety first. Rip current awareness, it was.
A rip current is when the top of the water is naturally flowing into and onto the shore but the water under the surface flows vigorously out to sea. Key word there is vigorously. Rip currents can be very strong and if someone is carried out against their will it is usually due to a rip current. We were cautioned about it at school, there are flags on the beach telling you if they are strong that day, and the news reported on it when someone drowned in the ocean. It was and still is a very serious phenomenon.
I’m no oceanographer so I don’t know why some areas have a rip current or why they pop up other places or some days they are stronger than others. But I have been caught in them plenty of times, and it can be very scary if you aren’t expecting it and don’t know what to do. Knowledge and a calm reaction are key.
First, you panic.
Our natural tendency is to try to fight it and walk back in but if you’ve ever tried this, even in thigh deep water, it is next to impossible. The pull is so strong that it sucks the sand out from under your feet and drags you out further.
The once enjoyable time jumping the waves turns into fear as you realize how far out you are and that you can’t get back on your own. Your work is just pulling you further out at a fast rate.
Our Christian walk is a lot like that. If we are out in the water, enjoying our ministries and the people in them and successfully jumping the little waves that are coming our way, we become more and more confident. And let’s be honest, sometimes the daily ministry duties can cause us to become lackadaisical in our pursuit of God. Then all of a sudden, we get stuck in a rip current. It comes in the form of a family leaving the church, or a sinful fall of a trusted friend, co-worker, or ministry leader, or maybe it is your own marriage struggling or difficulty with your kids. Just like our initial reaction to the rip current, we struggle, we fight the situation of the moment head on. It is exhausting and all we do is get pulled out further and farther away from shore and from the security of knowing we are on solid ground.
Our foundation is coming out from under our feet but what God is calling us to do is to trust his ways, not our own, to find our way to that security of packed sand and draw closer to him in the process.
Training is key.
Why do kids learn about rip tides? Why do we hear sermons about how to remain close to God, or read books about the spiritual disciplines? Why does God put trusted friends in our lives and command us to have discipling relationships?
This is all done in an attempt to prepare us, to train us in the inevitable event that we get stuck in a bad current in the ocean or we come across hard times in our ministries and lives. We are promised both by the ocean and by God’s Word that dangerous waters are all around us.
We are not promised safety in the ocean (have you seen JAWS?!) and we are not promised an easy walk with God (have you read JOB?!).
But we do have tools and people in our lives to prepare us for these difficulties. Our job is to use the knowledge we’ve been given instead of letting panic take over.
The easy path is to remain on the beach. It isn’t as fun or refreshing as being in the water, but it is much safer. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines of ministry and not get wet, not get into the murky water of people’s lives. The flag on the beach may say that there is a high probability of a strong current, but it can’t tell you exactly where they are. In discipleship we are called to enter people’s lives and love them and lead them. We are warned that it will be hard, but we don’t really know where those challenges will pop up or how far out we’ll be pulled.
Because I know you all travel to the beach—and I want to complete my PSA—you have to swim parallel to the shore and every now and then put your feet down and test how strong the current is. It may mean swimming 10 feet or a quarter of a mile, but when you put your feet down, you will feel like you are on solid ground (well, sand) and you can walk back in to shore. Now you can be safe at the beach, and in another segment, I’ll share the lesson and funny story of the northern kid that cried shark.
Once I lost enough sleep to really flesh out the analogy that God was trying to show me, it really hit home how much self-control and leaning into “what you know works” it takes to stop fighting the challenges of ministry and life and start working with God to grow my self-control into perseverance. He wants my heart to lean into him when I’m hurt or disappointed or without a clue as to what to do. All of which has literally happened in the last 24 hours. It means knowing and practicing the disciplines of fasting and prayer, study, solitude and silence. Gratitude and joy need to be so enmeshed in my daily life that when I’m hit by discipling and ministry woes, my first response is swimming parallel to God’s ways instead of panic. If I find myself still getting sucked out further from the Father, then I need to find a trusted friend who can remind me of the path back to shore, to solid ground.
…which develops persistence.
The disciplines of our faith—practiced even when we don’t feel like it, and even when we don’t see ourselves making any progress towards the shore—are what get us through these strong currents pulling us away. The 100-yard swim may feel like 10 miles when you don’t see an end in sight. But the disciplines call us to be steadfast. This is countercultural and not intuitive to our “get it done,” “fix ourselves,” “don’t sit in pain” attitudes and actions of our society. God challenges us in these times to learn how to listen, how to lean into him, how to persevere.
Sometimes God has me in that rip current for a reason. I don’t always see it until the end when I’m safely on the shore. And many times I don’t know the why, but when I fix my eyes on my Maker and am willing to enjoy the fun of the waves even if there’s a chance that the sand will start to come out from under me, I get the thrill of knowing that God has still got me and has prepared me for the journey.
Peter tells us,
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).
When I think of those challenging times, I’m reminded in this scripture that I am first to be prepared for the challenges that come with the goodness of following Christ and equipping others to do that too. To prepare means to have knowledge that the dangerous currents are there but also how to react skillfully when they arise. Then when I’m in these inevitable challenges, I have enough self-control to do my part. By taking special care of my emotional and spiritual health, I am able to put my knowledge to practice and persevere in the trial, even when I don’t feel the immediate relief of the solid sand under my feet. I keep swimming parallel to the shore until I’m able to wade back in, exhausted but triumphant.
God is evident on the sturdy shore, in the refreshing water. He is also evident in the exhaustion of the struggle and the fight back.
He has given us all the call to disciple others, to be in their lives, good times and bad. He’s given us his Word and his people and most of all the Holy Spirit to lead us continually through the rough waters as well as the smooth seas. I pray that you find joy in the adventure.