Death, Surfing and Jesus

Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” C.S. Lewis

I started surfing at age 10. Surfing soon became a core aspect of my life, identity and raison de vivre. Years later, Jesus entered my life and all my priorities changed. But surfing has remained a large aspect of what brings me joy. This has been true even though I have lived most of my life two hours from the sea.

Yesterday I had, for me, a major – life-changing – surfing accident. I was surfing small waves, at age 64, in very shallow water. On a clean wave, I fell forward and landed on my head – with the full weight of my body driving my skull into the sandy ocean floor like a pile driver. I immediately knew that I was in serious trouble. I thought that I would die. My life literally flashed before my eyes. I witnessed my own funeral, thought of my poor widow and saw the headline “Surfer Dies After Breaking Neck”.

I screamed out in pain, “Oh God! I’m not ready to die. I don’t want to die. Save me!…”  

Grasping that I was still alive, I put my feet on the sea floor but realized that I could not use my arms. They were not working at all. Another wave of panic struck me. “I’m not going to die. I’m going to be paralyzed.” Again, I thought of my family and the burden that I would be to them. In terrible physical pain, my soul streamed out to God again “I don’t want to be paralyzed!” 

But my feet were working, so I swam and finally walked out of the surf and toward the shore. My thoughts then told me that I would live and survive all this – but that I may now be too old, too weakened and too physically broken to ever surf again. I was now on the beach, in great pain and in real whole-body shock. Mary found me. I told her what happened. I began to cry – really cry.

I sobbed like a child in front of God, Mary and a host of surfers coming and going. I couldn’t stop crying. But I didn’t care. First, I was grieving for what believed to be my accidental death. Then my face contorted in fearful tears as I thought about a life of paralysis and its impact on others. Finally, I convulsed in sobs of heartsickness for the thought that I may never surf again. What struck me as weird was that I was as genuinely grieved at the thought of never surfing again as I was about losing partial use of my body. My tears were uncontrollable. They still are, as I write this now. I want to live! I want to be healthy and whole! I want to live next to the sea and surf until I’m 84! I don’t want to die yet. I don’t want to age. I don’t want to decline in any way.

  • But, of course, death, our enemy, is approaching all of us. I will die. I am getting older. I do not have the physical skills of the young surfer I once was (I Corinthians 15:26).

This has been a challenging season. About six months ago I was expelled from our home church. That was painful. Thankfully, our Jesus Outreach Team has survived that blow. But a dear friend asked me if I thought that our church connections had been an idol to me. I thought and prayed about his question and ultimately agreed with him that yes, it was true. Since my conversion to Jesus, local church relationships, connections, service,  have sometimes had an inordinate place in my life. So, I am retaining my commitment to God and to His gathered people and I am simultaneously repenting for asking church family to fill a gaping whole left in my soul by my biological family. Only God can fill my soul. No person, institution or ministry can satisfy my soul. Only Jesus. 

Earlier this month I got the most scathing letter from a family member excoriating me for being a bad Christian. I was so hurt by her cutting words. She told me to never speak to her again. Another friend eventually asked me, “Do you think that your family has been an idol to you?” I had to agree with her. Yes. A bone-deep longing for the love of family is something that has been a false god for me. Jesus warned me not to love my family more than Him. Jesus has taught me that I will be hated for His sake. I know this. The problem is that I don’t like it!

Last night, as I lay in bed, imobilized, crying yet again for the pain of my (head, neck, shoulder, back…) injury, the loss of my youth, our distance from the sea and the prospect of never surfing again, I shared with my wife an even further and deeper fear. What if the current war in Israel widens into an even more significant regional or world war? What if the wars in Europe and Asia expand…? What if this is it?

Mary was blunt with me. “You are a Christian, a minister… and you seem as or more concerned about your own life as you are about the lives of others…” The “the idol question” came in again… “Do you think that it’s possible that surfing, coastal living and your own vitality may be an idol to you? Mary is right. Yes. It’s true. With another wave of tears, I confessed to her, and out loud, again, to God, that all three – ministry, family and the sea – have all misplaced, at times, my commitment to Jesus. 

And it’s even worse than I am sharing here. I also confessed to God, with fear of His righteous judgment, that I have guarded anger toward Him for not making my will, my pleasure and my happiness the absolute center of His Divine global focus! I confessed to my wife and to God that I am a full-on, messed-up sinner in need of His great mercy and grace. 

Okay, how does this apply to you? Well, like me, whether you are 29 or 79, you are dying. You won’t get everything you want out of this short life. War will change you. Family may desert you. Money will be insufficient. Church people will fail you. Age will weaken you. In a very short time, we will stand before the white-hot purity of Jesus. His love is our immediate future – if we are repenting and really trusting in Him. And, until this final transition (death and judgement) overtakes our earthly plans, the only thing we can do, here, now, is compel others to forsake self and prepare to attend The Great Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19). That is all, ultimately, that matters. 

POSTSCRIPT: I wrote the letter above on October 19th, 2023, one day after the surfing accident. Later that day, I was evaluated by the MD’s at Scripp’s Health in San Diego. I had a full CAT Scan, tests, X-rays…, The physicians reported that I did not break my neck, as feared. I’m still in pain, a week later, but I should, gradually, make a full recovery. I am glad to be alive, grateful to not be paralized and perhaps, in time, I will surf again. Regardless of my circumstance, the life-lessons from this experience remain. I am dying. I’m self-absorbed and I shape idols of my own making that hurt my relationship with God. I must turn from my false gods and put all my confidence in the mercy of Jesus. Thank you for encouraging me to keep doing that!

“for they themselves report what kind of reception we had from you: how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” I Thessalonians 1:9,10 csb

The video below is of now 82-year-old Skip Frye at Tourmaline Surfing Park, where I was when I got hurt. – (“The Skipper” would have been about 72 when this video was filmed.)