My earliest memory is of my mother’s hypocrisy. “Stay on the beach,” she insisted. “The water’s not safe!”
I dutifully obeyed her, spending my days building castles on the sand, naïve, oblivious of the evil that lapped at the water’s edge. My mother, on the other hand, plunged recklessly into the forbidden waters, cavorting wildly, lost in unspeakable rapture. It was only much later that I learned to recognise the sense of shame and sorrow that invariably transformed her countenance as she returned to dry land.
It was Bernie Sullivan who finally seduced me. He led me trembling to the water’s edge and dared me to prove that I wasn’t ‘chicken’. Gentle waves tickled my toes as one foot tentatively followed the other. Sudden unbridled pleasure overwhelmed my senses. I remember saying to myself, “This can’t be wrong. It feels terrific!” Yet somewhere, somehow, in the midst of all the elation, I lost my childhood innocence.
The sands of time flowed on relentlessly. By the time I was ten years of age, I could always be found splashing in the shallows, laughing, giggling and making a nuisance of myself.
It wasn’t until I reached seventeen that I first realised how truly dangerous the waters could be. I had swum out far from shore, confident of my own abilities, egged on by the boastful taunts of my friends. I don’t know if it was the cheeseburger I’d eaten just before. But all at once I was seized with cramps along my left side. My head bobbed under the surface and I swallowed brine. Coughing violently, I was suddenly terrified by the precariousness of my situation. Somehow, I managed to lie back and allow the waves to carry my floating body whither they would. By the time the cramps had passed, I couldn’t even see the shore line.
I made it home safely that day but the experience tempered my passion for the water. Several of my friends disappeared that summer, lost to the depths. Yet, in unspoken complicity, none of us made much mention of their passing. We had all been tainted by the waters.
Perhaps it was a mid-life crisis; I don’t really know why I did it. Maybe I was yearning for the illicit pleasures of my youth. But my 45th birthday found me once more out of my depth and far from shore. Death came for me silently, a box jellyfish that snared me in its deadly embrace. Poison-laden tentacles wrapped round my upper body, venom penetrating my skin and paralysing both of my arms. I kicked frantically, gasping for air, yet knowing I was but delaying the inevitable.
Strong arms grasped me. “I’m here to save you,” said a comforting voice, “Lie back and I’ll take you safely to shore.”
A madness came upon me. “I can help,” I thought. “We can do this together.” But my own efforts only pulled me further under the water.
“I know what I’m doing,” he assured me. “Put your trust in me and I will save you.”
Sanity returned. I surrendered my life into his care. To this day I don’t remember how long it took to get back to shore. I recall sitting on the beach, wrapped in a towel and drinking sweet tea, as he poured soothing vinegar on my wounds. What I do know is that I changed – completely, irrevocably.
I have never returned to the water. That would be to deny everything I have come to believe. Instead I now spend my days trying to warn others of the danger. Some listen with interest but most people joke that I have been out in the sun for too long. They have given their lives over to pleasure and are blind to their peril. Often times a man has to come to the end of his own strength before he can recognise his need for a saviour. What is truly remarkable is that it doesn’t matter how far out a man is from the shore: the moment he cries out for help at his point of need, the lifeguard’s strong arms are ever ready to save.
“For you have spent enough time in the past doing what godless people choose to do … They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation and they heap abuse on you.” (1Pet 4:3-4 NIV)
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