I knew it had been too long since I’d been to the beach when I stood on the sands of Mustang Island, looked out at the Gulf of Mexico, and thought, “Now THAT’S an enormous wave pool.” To understand my complicated relationship with oceans, you’d need to know that I had a most unfortunate encounter with a jellyfish in the waves off of Galveston when I was ten. And when I lived in California, the few times I made it to the beach I usually refrained from getting in the water—and not because of my jellyfish phobia. I don’t recall ever seeing a jellyfish washed up on a California beach. The water’s probably too cold for them, as it certainly was for me.
So, because of warm, jellyfish-laden water on one coast, and jellyfish-free, frigid water on the other, I’ve spent most my life in artificial swimming environments—safe, sanitized, and just the right temperature. But walking into the Gulf with my children, I realized what I’d been missing—salt, beauty, and a hint of danger.
The danger came from waves that weren’t programmed by a machine to achieve a precise height and velocity for ten minutes at a time. It also came from the stingrays swimming in schools around our feet. Perhaps I should have felt more frightened than I did, but it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed.
We’re a culture of control freaks—and it’s the church culture I’m talking about. We carefully program worship, spiritual formation, and ministry to maximize positive feelings and, presumably, outcomes, but how does that compare to what Jesus called his first followers to do? He told them to go on mission trips without immunizations, spare cash for emergencies, or even an overnight bag. He asked them to leave behind secure livelihoods to become itinerant preachers. When Peter was trying to judge the relative merits of the bottom of the boat and the top of the waves, Jesus encouraged him to try the waves.
J.B. Phillips was right in saying that our God is too small, but it’s also true that our God is too safe—and not worthy of the capital G that sets the Creator of the universe apart from the territorial micro-gods of the Bible, who functioned somewhat like local sports franchises. We certainly experience grace in the chlorinated pools that are too often our churches, Bible studies, and ministry projects. But what about wonder? What about the trust that only becomes mature when jellyfish and stingrays are a real possibility and salt water keeps smacking us in the face?
We’ve all heard that we’re supposed to “fear not.” But while we’re on the way to that ideal, facing our existing fears moves us in the right direction. With a little practice we learn to glance at our human frailties, gaze at the un-tame goodness of God, and joyfully accept the adventure that comes.