One of the problems of being a Religious Person is that upon occasion you have to look ridiculous. Occasionally you have experiences that overwhelm you with the majesty and providence of God, but when you recall them afterwards or tell them to others, you feel foolish.
The most important such event that happened to me was at noon on Sunday, 12 March 1967, on the east coast of Florida near Daytona Beach. I was a teenager at the time. My mother had decided to take us all to the beach, and I had permission to bring along a friend named Ronny (whom I have not seen in the years since, by the way.)
Ronny and I went into the water together, but we decided right away that because the water was so unseasonably cold we really didn’t want to go in much further than waist deep. We just stood there in the water and chatted. There were a lot of waves that day, so as each wave came, we just floated up over the top and came back down on our feet. We were good friends and we got so involved in our conversation that we stood there for a long time. We didn’t even notice that each time we floated over a wave, we were farther out, until after one wave passed by, there was nothing under our feet! We looked and saw the beach as a distant white line on the horizon.
Ronny said we should go back, and I agreed. Then Ronny shouted something to me, which I couldn’t hear, so I stopped swimming and began to tread water so I could talk to him. At that moment, a wave came and slapped me in the face!
Now I spent my entire childhood at the YMCA attempting to learn to swim, but the only strokes I could master were the backstroke and the sidestroke, because if I get any water into my nose, I get all clogged up and can’t breathe. So I couldn’t do the Australian crawl or the butterfly stroke or anything else for more than one lap. I had to swim with my head above water. When that wave slapped me in the face, my breathing passages filled up and I had a hard time breathing! I began to cough and choke as I was treading water. While I was struggling to regain control, a second wave slapped me in the face. It was all I could take. I couldn’t breathe very well, so I couldn’t swim. All I could do was tread water as the waves pulled me farther and farther out. I became alarmed, because we were farther out than any of the other swimmers that day, and the coast line was receding fast! Adrenaline shot through my body, I tread water furiously, but I couldn’t get up the strength or catch enough air to make any progress toward shore.
Then I became very depressed, because it was obvious that I would never make it. There was no one in sight; I couldn’t even see Ronny or the shore anymore. All around me was 360 degrees of water! I was very angry and upset, because I was only fifteen years old. I had never driven a car by myself. I had never done anything particularly good or evil, and I regretted that I hadn’t been wilder. I was going to die at the age of fifteen, and my body would never be recovered. I screamed to God, in whom I did not believe, in an incoherent cry for help. Then fatigue set in as my limbs grew tired. I became euphoric, and I longed for death. I was dying, I was crying, but it felt very good. As my arms and legs became starved for oxygen, they began to go numb and gradually refused to move. I was very contented when I passed out and slipped beneath the water.
I don’t know if a second passed or a few minutes, because I was unconscious, but suddenly I became awake again. I was floating lifelessly beneath the surface of the ocean. My mouth was open and filed with the bad taste of the sea. My eyes were open, and I could see a distance school of fish in the murky green water. I was immediately angry, because I had been cheated my painless death! I thought I had died, but now I was alive and had to die all over again! But when I realized that my arms and legs would obey me now, I decided that I would break the surface one more time, look around, take one last breath, and then because the situation was so very hopeless, I would deliberately breathe the water and get it over with.
So with a great effort and an even greater gasp, I broke the surface, knowing from the pain in my limbs and my lungs that it took my very last ounce of strength to do it. I could see nothing but sky and water. The water lifted me to the crest of a wave, and for that split second, it made me visible to Ronny, who was very far off, and in that split second, I saw him start to swim to me. I was very angry with him, because it meant that we would both die. I shouted to him to go back, but he persisted. I needed to stay above the surface so that his efforts would not be in vain, but I didn’t have the strength. At that moment I had the very distinct impression, which I carry with me to this very day, that a man stood in the water behind me and held me up! I could even feel his hands! It sounds ridiculous now, because no one was there, but at the time, I was too involved in what was going on to notice how odd it was that I was able to stand waist-high in the water, without touching bottom and without moving my arms or legs!
Finally, Ronny reached me. My grasp was so weak that he had to grab me by the arm and pull. My arms and legs were like the empty sleeves of a garment. They would not obey me at all. In the process of swimming towards me, Ronny convinced a man on a float to paddle out my way, and he held on to me and the raft as the man paddled us in. When our feet hit bottom, we stumbled in to shore where we collapsed and slept.
It took a long time for me to realize all the things that happened and what they meant and how weird and impossible they were. How could I float like that? Who was holding me up? Why was I so certain that a third person was there, whom Ronny did not see? My entire life depended on two very wild coincidences; first that the waves would make me visible to Ronny, and second that they would make me visible again to the man on the float to give Ronny’s claims some credibility.
A few weeks later, Ronny invited me to his church. It was okay I guess, nothing strange or unusual—until they sang this hymn:
I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more
Then the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry
From the water lifted me, now safe am I!
Souls in danger look above, Jesus completely saves
He will lift you by His love, out of the angry waves!
He’s the Master of the sea, billows His will obey,
He your savior wants to be, be saved today!
Love lifted me!
Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help,
Love lifted me!
At that point, you could say I was completely undone! It was a revelation that tingled up my spine and over my head, overwhelming me with joy and tears at once! I was ecstatic and terrified all at once! That hokey nineteenth-century hymn, which was written by a blind woman, became and remains my favorite song, even though everyone groans when I request it.
All of a sudden, I knew who the man was who lifted me out of the water, the man whom no one could see, but whose presence and strength I felt—because suddenly He was standing next to me! My whole life became unraveled as I was overwhelmed by the love and grace of God.
Please read Psalm 69!
So it was on that day that I realized that I had died in the Atlantic Ocean and had been given a whole new life that I did not deserve. I vowed to use it for the man who lifted me. Later that year I had myself baptized by immersion—I am sure you will appreciate why I wanted to be baptized, and why I wanted to do it by immersion. In the twenty-five years since, I have lost sight of that from time to time, but His presence has never left. I am as convinced of my unworthiness as a servant as I am of my Master’s grace and providence.
So you will understand how the Bible becomes for me a pop-up book when I read a passage like this:
That day when evening came, [Jesus] said to his disciples,Let us go over to the other side.Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him,Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves,Quiet! Be still!Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
He said to his disciples,Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?
They were terrified and asked each other,Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!
—Mark 4:35-41, NIV
Yes, that’s the guy who was there on 12 March 1967. I couldn’t recognize Him better if you showed me a photograph.