God in the Thunder by Shirley Patton
Twenty years ago my husband Bill, my mother and I were on vacation in Kauai. We had visited Princeville before and were always delighted with this small, beautiful island town. We loved the softness of the air, the scent of tropical flowers, the foliage, the beauty of the people, the cliffs and of course the sea.
One afternoon while Mother was engrossed in her novel, Bill and I decided to go swim in Hanalei Bay. We’d been swimming laps for years, five days a week, at the college pool. Vacations, however, gave us a change of scene. Swimming in the surf was fun!
It was overcast that day and windy. It looked like rain, but it was warm. Who cares if it rains when you’re going swimming? You’ll be wet anyway!
After we got to the Bay and found some rocks to hold down our towels, we noticed we had the beach to ourselves. Thinking nothing of it, we rushed toward the water and dove in and started swimming parallel to the shore. I’d go a certain distance and then turn around and go in the other direction. The water was choppy and as I stood to adjust my goggles, I heard Bill call, “Come back!” in that sharp tone reserved for times he didn’t think I was taking care of myself. I began to swim back to him, but in a few strokes I realized I was making no forward progress. “Come back!” he yelled again. Couldn’t he see that’s exactly what I was trying to do? But I was being pulled out further and further. My feet couldn’t find the sand. I think I called “Get help!” but it may have been only a thought, for by then I was struggling to find times to breathe amidst the churning waves. I kept trying to go toward the shore but quickly tired. I knew I didn’t have the strength to succeed.
My efforts were useless. I would have to surrender to the strength of the sea. My best bet was to float for as long as I could. I turned onto my back, grabbing quick bits of breath when I could. And I thought how easy it would be to be a brief notice in the Garden Island newspaper: “Tourist drowns off Hanalei Bay.” No. Make that “Stupid, Non-Observant Tourist drowns off Hanalei Bay.” Out there, buffeted by the waves, trying to relax and conserve my energy, I thought of the people who mean so much to me and how deeply I would miss them and the lives we shared.
About this time I felt a warm contact against my side. I flipped over and it wasn’t a dolphin. It was Bill. He had our little boogie board and pushed it toward me as he shouted, “Hang on!” I started to cry. “I can’t kick,” I gulped. “Just hang on,” he repeated over the noise of the churning water. Then a large wave swelled beneath us. Buoyed up we were rushing to the shore on its crest. The wave retreated and we were left on the sand. Weak in the knees, we couldn’t stand up. We crawled up the beach to where our towels lay under those solid rocks. We held each other and cried in the rain on the empty beach.
God was there. God is always there. And here. If the story hadn’t had a happy ending God would still have been there. Welcoming me, a foolish woman who didn’t realize there was something wrong with the picture of a popular beach with no people, no life-guards. God would also have been there to comfort those who would miss me.
I believe it was my sense of God that kept me from panicking in the surf. I was in trouble, lacking strength and skills, but my assessment was calm in a turbulent place. I think it was God who told me to float, to stop the struggle and rest on the sea. And when I did, my salvation came that day in the person of Bill.
And when I asked him, “Why didn’t you go for help?” He answered “I’d never leave you.” And that’s an echo of Jesus, isn’t it? “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:10)
This experience sharpened how I look at nature. I have a keen respect for the oceans of the world, and earth’s lakes, and rivers—particularly in times of high water. I realize that large rocks may dislodge and come plummeting down into fields or onto highways, sink holes may open up and avalanches cascade down mountainsides. Volcanoes send molten lava down their slopes or high into the air. There is an awesome beauty to these acts of nature and an implicit danger as well—-a danger present equally to the just and the unjust.
I am humbled at the wonder of God revealed in nature, in the beauty and complexity of all creation. And I am also in wonder and awe of the part of creation that was revealed to us through the life of Jesus. Foremost Jesus taught us to love God wholeheartedly and to love and care for each other. He showed us how to take down barriers and invite others to the table. Whether God speaks to us in the thunder or the wild surf or the still small voice, may we open our hearts and minds and ears to hear the voice of peace.
This was originally a reflection during worship at First Presbyterian Church as part of a Lenten series “Gifts of the Dark Woods.” Shirley Patton has lived in Ashland for 58 years. She is an actor and the voice of JPR’s “As It Was” history series.
The above article was published in the Ashland Daily Tidings on Saturday June 4