Years have passed, yet the roar of angry waves and crashing breakers still explode in my brain on quiet nights when my world is still and I am all alone.
A group of twelve volunteers from across Canada and the US was stationed on the coast of Liberia. Located along a nine-mile stretch of golden-white sand on the North Atlantic. A mission station served as a support base for workers working throughout the country. Volunteers assisted in a variety of areas—teaching, medical work, construction and electronics.
The final day of our three-month assignment had arrived. At 6:00 a.m. With mist shrouding the ocean as seven friends greeted me at my front door to say goodbye. We planned to celebrate with a farewell body surf in the foaming ocean. Like board surfing, only without the board: the body surfer waits for a strong wave and then swims vigorously ahead of it until overtaken and transported on its crest.
The rising sun silhouetted white breakers crashing onto the shore. The ocean seemed angry, as if she had tossed out of bed on the wrong side of the world. We stood silently in thought, prayer and admiration. Her deep thundering voice challenged our spirit of adventure.
I lingered on the shore, reminiscing with friends. It hurt deeply to be leaving so much behind, including a close Liberian friend who had walked ten kilometres from Monrovia to say goodbye. There was so much to be said and too little time to talk. Three months ago, we were a group of strangers, but now we are a family and we agonized at the reality of parting.
It was almost time to leave, but I longed to have one final surf. It was to be my farewell challenge to another summertime companion, the ocean.
I swam out checking the waves, but they were not high enough. I swam further, despite warnings of a strange violence this morning. The waves seemed perfect, cresting over a metre. I waited for the right crest and started to swim. Something was wrong! My strokes were barely enough to move me along at all. I felt the straitjacket constraint of muscle cramps. Why? Was it the emotion of the hour or the fatigue of a late night?
A wave came and I strained, but failed to swim ahead of it. I was sucked under for a few seconds before resurfacing. I tried a second wave and then a third—but my fear brought no magical surge of adrenalin to motivate my paralysis gripping my arms and legs.
I had been in the ocean for more than twenty minutes and was out nearly half a kilometre. I could see my friends on the bank—helpless figurines on a mantel-piece of sand—clustered around the broken carcass of an old dugout canoe.
My lungs were beginning to feel as if they would explode! With each successive wave I was pulled and twisted like a towel in a washing machine. I no longer knew which way was up. I might never see the sun again. It was much more difficult to surface each time I went under. The sound of the ocean's fury was so loud thinking blurred. Any hope of getting to shore disappeared. How does one's life end? Do you just give up and drift naturally into the cold depths or do you deliberately swallow water? My mind was numb.
In a desperate effort to keep my nose above the surface, I forced my head back and gazed upward. The morning sky was a perfect blue and the peaceful clouds were billows of white. There, amid the violence, I understood the reality of faith.
Alone and helpless, I heard the Master's voice whispering comfort and His heaven welcomed me. If I had any doubts about what we possess in Christ, they vanished in that moment. I now understood Paul's confident mind. The peace and joy that overwhelmed my soul were greater than the waters that were overtaking my physical life. The lyrics to the old classic, Softly and Tenderly echoed on angels' voices through my tumult as the ocean attempted to steal the fatal few centimetres and submerge my nose the final time. Had I been able to, I would have raised my hands in praise from this chapel in the sea.
Then out of nowhere, I heard a human voice. The sound shocked me. It was my friend, Dennis, his curly black hair bobbing well above the surface next to me.
I pleaded with him to return to shore. Why had he come out? I could not possibly make it back. “Please leave me and go back!”
He refused and shouted above the raging wind, “God is not finished with us yet.”
His inclusive statement hurled a javelin into my heart. If I were to drown, would he remain until it was too late to save himself?
Dennis could see the oncoming waves and shouted when it was time to try to ride one.
“Now!” I struggled but the cramps had become more severe. My lungs were bursting and my heart thudded against aching ribs. Water went up my nose and made my brain feel as if it were on fire. I went under and was twisted by the undertow. I hit something! Was it a shark? At this depth we were in the centre of his dining table. I wanted Dennis to be far away when I surfaced—if I surfaced. Then I could escape. Not a suicidal wish, just a recognition of my fate.
No, there he was at my side. “That one was no good. Here comes a better one.” I saw him looking upward and knew he was praying desperately. Then I got another glimpse of the distant shore and outlines of my friends huddled in prayer.
The wave thundered toward us and I tried to swim. My effort failed. But then there was the sensation of someone grabbing me from above by my shorts and lifting me to the top of the crest. I strained to look but could only see my friend beside me, moving at the same speed. Suspended from above, as if by the lines of some parachute, I rode the ocean like some lightweight jockey!
Seconds later, I crashed into the beach, my open mouth crammed full of sand and seaweed.
Friends rushed to help and pressed on my ribs. Sand, brine and seaweed spewed from my mouth. They helped me to stand, and together we stumbled the short distance back along the beach toward my house.
As I glanced back across the angry ocean, I praised God for the sand under my unsteady feet, the feeling of safety and the warmth of friends guiding my wobbly steps. The pain in my chest lessened as I lurched along to the security of my room. My friends eased me onto a bed, where I slept deliriously for more than an hour. As reality faded, I whispered a weak thank you to Dennis who stood at my side.
Today when I consider God's deliverance from the horror of that forty-five-minute ordeal, it is the truth that moves me most. He proved that the death of a Christian can be a time of amazing joy and peace. I know that I have not believed in vain. I know that He is alive and that we will live with Him forever.