The summer I turned eight years old I spent a day at the beach. It was supposed to be fun—a family day with my sister, mom, dad, cousins, aunt, and uncle.
I want to say there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sand was clean and white, and it flicked up behind our heels as we ran. I wish I could tell you that grit stuck to our legs, and we had enough sand throughout our shoes and clothes to build our own beach when we got back home. But I don’t remember any of that.
Maybe I was sweating and sticky and eager to cool off in the water. Maybe I lingered on the beach like I usually do now—only dipping in when my body can’t take the heat, and only long enough to take the edge off before getting out and sitting on the sidelines again.
I don’t remember that, either.
I remember the moments immediately leading up to what happened.
My sister and cousin yanked me up from my seat and told me we were going to play Crocodiles or Alligators or whatever name they had made up for the game that I had never seen them play before—a new game where they locked arms at the elbows and ran together into the water as far as they could.
I was younger and shorter, and my feet left the ground before theirs. I began to panic and told them to stop. They kept going. Just a few more steps. And then the current tugged at me. I knew how to float on my back. I did. But the only thing going through my head at the time was that I didn’t know how to swim and I was being swept away. I clung to my sister’s arm—clinched my nails into her shoulder—but they only dragged along her arm until there was no more arm left to hold.
I’m not sure how long I was under the first time, but finally I came up, sputtering and struggling to speak a single word—help. I wanted to yell, but it came out in a stifled whisper, not loud enough that even they could hear me. I reached my hand out to the two stunned little girls. And they reached their hands out to me. But as much as they would have given me life if they could, their hands were empty. They offered nothing—not even the words they could have spoken for me. My words were trapped behind gasps and swallowed by the fight for a single breath. Theirs were stifled by the terror of what was happening and bewilderment of why I was swept away.
And then down I went again. And I remember the rush of water in my ears as I tilted my head to look up. Tiny bubbles floated up from my hair and strands fluttered around and tickled my face and neck. And that’s when I saw it. The most vivid memory of that whole day—the surface of the water.
And I remember a moment of stillness in the panic. I stopped flailing and watched the light flutter on the surface. Even though water covered every inch of my body, the image above—of light and air—gave me pause. It was strangely beautiful—the source of breath—of life itself. It could have been inches or a foot away.
It didn’t matter.
In that fraction of a moment, I knew I couldn’t reach it by myself.
And then, a strong pair of hands wrapped around my torso and pulled me up. My uncle.
He saw me.
And when I reached the surface of the water, I sputtered and coughed and gasped for a while and then clung to him and cried. He wrapped his arms around me and carried me back to the beach and set me squarely on the blanket with my family.
We left soon afterward. Each family—mine and my uncle’s—piled into the two vehicles that we had driven there in. And when we were pulling out of the dirt drive, after my dad had paid the fee at the booth to get out of the park, we watched out the back window as my uncle’s car stopped. He talked to the lady at the booth and then backed up and returned to the park.
In the days before cell phones, we didn’t know why he decided to stay. We left anyway and went to my grandmother’s house. When my uncle arrived there, I was sitting in the yard with my sister and cousins. He got out of his truck and walked closer to my little circle in the grass, his red swimming shorts contrasted against the lush green background, and he pointed a finger at me and jabbed the air with each of his two words, “She’s lucky.”
I wasn’t sure if he meant the severity of his message for me or my parents who were sitting nearby. Nor was I sure what to do with his admonishment. I knew I was incredibly lucky. I may have been only a newly-turned eight-year-old, but I was fully aware that I almost died.
I heard the story later. My uncle returned to the park to help another child from another drowning accident—a boy about the same age as me. Having been trained in CPR for the work he had been doing with the fire department, my uncle went back to try to help, but this time, his hands were as empty as my sister’s and cousin’s had been. He had nothing to offer—as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t give the boy his life back.
Every time I think of that day, there are two things I remember—looking at the surface of the water from underneath it, how close and how far away it was—the way the light and ripples played with each other—the pause I had even as I knew I was drowning. And I remember that someone else died that day. And I wonder if he could see the surface like I could—if he knew how close it was—how within reach. I’m always grateful that I reached it. But I always mourn that he did not.
We had our very own pew in the church my family went to when I was a child. Well, it wasn’t really ours, but it may as well have been because we sat there every single Sunday—the very last one closest to the door. If we weren’t on time to leave for church in the morning, my dad would holler, saying that all the seats in the back would be taken. We liked it in the back because when the service ended, the whole family would high-tail it out of there, splashing the holy water on our fingers and doing the Sign of the Cross so fast that we probably splashed the people behind us, who, I’m sure, also wanted to get out of their as fast as we did.
My parents made me go to catechism class on Wednesday nights. I remember the heavy smell of still air as I entered the sanctuary. The only windows to the outside were stained glass windows behind the altar—one of them depicted a goblet of wine next to a communion wafer. During the day, light would shine through the colored glass and the cross at the center of the wafer would glow white and the wine in the goblet would shine a crimson red. At night, darkness shrouded the stained glass just like the mystery that shrouded God himself. As I tiptoed through the sanctuary on Wednesday nights and slipped past the statue of Mary mounted to the wall, the only light came from the window of my classroom which opened directly into the sanctuary and was used as the cry-room during the service.
My notion of God was a bit misconstrued back then even after my catechism teacher took us through the sanctuary, stopping and explaining in hushed whispers each station of the cross. As sacrilegious as it might be for me to say, I hated going to church. And I hated catechism. And I remember praying as a little kid asking God if he was real and why couldn’t I see him and wouldn’t he show himself to me and if you’re really there, why won’t you prove it, God?
But I would say my Hail Marys and Our Fathers before going to bed every night, even after I was old enough that my mom stopped tucking me in. Until I stopped. And then there was nothing. Except for a few utterances of “Help me, God” when my social life was imploding or when my heart was floundering in usual adolescent drama.
And then as a senior in high school, I made two new friends. They were the first people I heard pray a prayer that wasn’t a mere recitation. Their prayer sounded like a conversation—like they were talking to this guy—God—that they actually knew. And as they spoke, I couldn’t help but to think, “You can’t really know God like that—that’s the most ludicrous idea I’ve ever heard.” And yet, they made it seem so real.
The most unusual thing about my new friends was that an inexplicable joy and peace radiated from them, even though they were normal teens who dealt with the same social issues and drama that every other teen dealt with. Now I believe (as preposterous as I know it sounds to a non-believer) that I was recognizing the Holy Spirit in them. But back then I didn’t understand anything about the Holy Spirit. I had no idea what it was that intrigued me. But even back then I knew the “something different” was inextricably linked to their faith in God. I look in my journals from back then, and the words I wrote were jumbled and confused. But when I described them, I always said the same thing, “Whatever it is, I want that. But I have no idea how to get it.”
Selfish drive toward lofty goals consumed me, and teenage angst whispered curses in my ear reminding me of my imperfections and failures. But somehow, even as pride antagonized me, I stopped thrashing. I paused. And in the fray of it all I looked up to see light fluttering above me. And I realized I was drowning. I could see breath and air—it was in the trust and peace that radiated from my friends, in the hints of goodness and joy in the world, and I somehow knew it came from that blurry and beautiful source of light. It was there—so close.
But it could have been inches or miles away. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t get there by myself. I had no idea how.
And I talked to my two new friends. They watched me struggle and grapple with the questions and doubts I threw at them. They held out their hands, but they were always empty and out of reach.
I didn’t know how to cry out to God back then, so I gave God a weak and awkward prayer—“God who are you? I want to know. But I have no freaking idea how to find you. This is so stupid. I’m going crazy.”
But in that feeble attempt—that breathless gasp of air when I cried out in a weak whisper I was sure no one could hear—He saw me.
Later on another high school friend would tell me that my family didn’t understand what had gotten into me—that they thought I had joined a cult or something. I hated church and had been thankful that my family had finally stopped going every Sunday like they did when I was little, but suddenly and without explanation I stopped sleeping in on Sunday mornings, instead asking my mom if she wanted to go to church with me.
The same still, stagnant air hovered in the sanctuary with the same hushed voices bubbling quietly in the stillness before church started. I couldn’t feel God there like I could in the hands and feet and words of my new friends, but I would go and sit and ask, “God, where are you? Why can’t I see you?”
I started reading my Bible. Though I didn’t understand most of what I read and though my reading usually led to more questions than answers, I couldn’t stop. When I made it through every verse on every single page, I flipped to the beginning and started again. There was this new drive in me that I didn’t understand myself.
I have friends who can point to an exact date and specific year when they became a Christian—when they made the conscious and deliberate choice to follow Jesus.
I can’t do that.
I remember my first prayer of genuine desire for God as a jumbled mess of confusion. It had nothing in it that acknowledged sin or asked for forgiveness or expressed gratitude for the cross. It was a desperate fit asking God for God Himself and a frustrated protest that I had no idea how to find him.
I recently heard an analogy from a talk given by Alpha that learning about the Bible is like doing a crossword puzzle. When you first start, you have a page full of empty squares that look like a jumbled mess of nonsense. And you have a list of questions, most of which you don’t have a clue how to answer. But you start with the first question and if you don’t understand it, you move on to the next, and you go down the list that way, and as you begin to answer questions and fill in the boxes, all those other questions that you skipped begin to make sense and you realize that it all fits together, just like it’s supposed to.
That’s how it was for me.
As much as I loved reading the Bible, it was not a pretty picture of me nodding my head all the way through and saying, “Yes, Lord!” every other line. Instead, I found myself shaking my head at all the troubling stories. For someone just starting out, it seems like the Bible is filled with more blood, scandal, and judgment than healing, peace, and forgiveness. I wanted the healing, peace, and forgiveness part. Not so much all that other stuff.
But the more I sought God, the more questions I got answered, and the more I realized that not only did all the words and boxes match and fit together perfectly, but the puzzle was much more complex than I had ever imagined—that the Bible not only explained the enigmas contained inside it, but it explained the whole world and all its hope and brokenness.
And at some point, I came to know God as life itself—as breath—that anything apart from him was death and drowning. A vague craving somehow transformed into constant need. Anything less would have been like falling back into the water and seeing him only as blurry shafts of light I couldn’t reach—a terrifying thought.
This summer, my son was playing in the sand and quite unexpectedly, completely of his own volition, he approached me and said he had decided that he wanted to be a Christian. It surprised me and prompted a number of conversations. I believed he was still too young to understand what Christianity even meant, but in talking it over with my husband, we decided that just like we couldn’t force Christianity on him, we also couldn’t deny him it if he said that he was ready. We agreed that as much as his six-year-old brain would allow, he understood and wanted Jesus in his life.
A couple weeks after my son’s baptism, at a Bible study that was taking place in my home, not knowing he was my son, one of the ladies asked, “Did you see that baptism in church a couple weeks ago. That lad—such a young fellow—getting baptized? What could he possibly know of sin.”
I look at my children now, so innocent and sheltered. As their mother, I don’t want them to experience the pain of our broken world. But at the same time, I know that seeing the brokenness allows us to see the light shining through. We usually find God at our lowest moments. At any other time we often don’t see the need cry out to him.
I don’t know how long it will be before my own children will understand God the way I do (or if they even will). Right now, I treasure the moments when I look over at my daughter sitting on her daddy’s shoulders during church, bobbing her head to the music when we sing songs like this.
“It’s your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise to you only.”
My son might not understand just how powerful that breath of God really is. He might not completely understand how dark and scary it is when we only see him in blurry shafts of light.
But as my son was baptized, my prayer for them was that they’d both know that Christ will never force us to love him. After all, that wouldn’t be love. He’ll never force us to trust him. That wouldn’t, after all, really be trust.
But he’ll hear you—even the tiniest whisper. And he will see you. Every single day, he sees you.