Friday, April 22, 2011

No Escape from Death

On Good Friday, the Rev. David Smith woke up, put on his swimsuit, donned his regular clothing over it, stealthily left the house, and drove three hours to the beach. He knew his wife would assume he’d gone to his office for some early morning meditation on this high holy day. His secretary would assume he’d lingered at home this morning for the same reason. His cell phone was off.

Smith had grown up on the beach, another beach on another coast. He always missed it but rarely visited anymore. Today was different. Today he wanted to escape Good Friday’s rituals of suffering and death.

He found a coffee shop right on the beach. By now, the place contained just a few tables of retired men, out from under their wives’ feet. He bought a tall Kenyan blend, grabbed a thick newspaper, and settled down by the window.

There’s no place I’d rather be right now, he thought, rifling through the paper. He pulled out the Culture section, scanning the photos of art exhibits and authors. He set down the open paper and looked out the window. Dotted up and down the waterline, several men were surf casting. A group of young people, two in wetsuits, toted surfboards.

It was a rough day. The surf thundered as it tumbled to the shore. His eyes went out further, over the water, to the horizon. It seems to go on forever into the unknown, yet there is another side. He tried to conjure the image from his study wall of the world map, to picture what country lie directly across the latitude of the Atlantic.

Back to the newspaper, Smith read a review of Rob Bell’s controversial book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Several of his church members had asked him about this. Christians were lining up militantly on either side, charging at one another with words as bullets, grenades and bayonets, looking down on each other with disdain. His standard reply was, “I have not read the book.” He hadn’t.

He had addressed the issue indirectly last Sunday in his sermon from Galatians 5:13-15: “But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” The sinful nature, he explained, is pride, which often surfaces as a need to be right.

Just then there was a commotion at the shoreline. People—the fishermen and young people—ran back and forth, yelling, pointing. Smith hurried out to the front deck of the coffee shop, peering out to see what was wrong. There it was. A surfboard shot straight up into the air, suspended for a moment, then fell back onto the waves. Where was its owner?

Smith descended the several flights of stairs and headed a few hundred feet down the beach to the lifeguard stand. Yanking open the supply box, he picked up the binoculars and climbed up the stand. He instantly spotted the surfer’s head bobbing on the water beyond the breakers. The young man struggled to keep afloat, his arms flailing.

Smith jumped off the stand, pulled out the rope from the supply box and sped down the beach to the distraught group. He ripped off his shoes, shirt and jeans. He tied one end of the rope around his waist. He handed the roll to the strongest looking man in the crowd, then dove into the surf.

As a lifeguard in his youth, he’d been a strong swimmer. He’d tried to maintain that strength at the local pool by doing laps several times a week. It was not the same as ocean swimming but now he hoped it was enough. Where his strength ended, adrenalin took over. He made it out past the breakers and looked around. Nothing. He looked toward the group on the shore. They were still and silent.

Smith kept swimming back and forth, searching. After about 15 minutes, he was joined by several lifeguards in a rescue boat, who pulled alongside him, hauling him into the boat. He was tired. Back on shore, the four young people wept, hugged Smith and thanked him for his efforts to save their friend.

Driving home, Smith could not rid his thoughts of death.

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