I am not sure if I have ever written about this event in my life, but I feel a sense of it being relevant to where life seems to be for us as we observe life that seems quite storm-tossed at the moment. Everything seems to be in transition, and changes loom and break over us like waves. What better way to process that than calling to mind a moment in my life when the waves threatened more than just my sense of well-being and confidence, they were actually taking my life away from me.
I was on a mission trip with a Diocesan Youth delegation to my home Diocese's companion, the Diocese of Guatemala. We have traveled around the country, and participated in several projects during our stay-working with a school to develop a dental care program, visiting with congregations and learning more about what it means to be an Episcopalian in Guatemala.
After a lot of work and witness, we had a day off. The leaders took our group down to a small resort on the Pacific Coast. We had to travel down out of the clouds of the highlands, through coffee plantations and small farms.
Getting to the coast, we found a cozy hotel with small huts clustered around an open-air restaurant/gathering place. Changing into our swimsuits, we walked out over a black, volcanic sand beach to where the waves were breaking....and were they breaking.
6-8 foot swell on the smaller waves broke onto a steep banking of sand thrown up by the tide. The most we could do was wade into the foamy wash left by each wave's departure. Of course, as we got more accustomed to the drama of the surf...and as we got careless...we started to venture out further into the water. Soon, we were in up to our knees, and the waves would come and toss us up, higher onto the beach. Great fun, and we thought we were being careful...
...until a single, larger wave took us by surprise. Now, that is a cautionary tale in and of itself, and perhaps worthy of a "lesson learned" posting. Watch out for rogue waves, except that wave caught me from behind as I was pulling someone out of the surf and onto their feet. It knocked me and that other person over and into a couple of other people, prompting two things: 1) I fell over and tumbled across my own arm, dislocating my shoulder and 2) the people around me were distracted as they reached into the foam to pull the people knocked over by our tumbling up and onto their feet and out of harm's way. They stood up, but I was unable to use my now useless arm (out of joint and blindingly painful) to get up and out of the water.
The wave pulled me out and into the undertow, and as wave after wave crashed over me I was tumbled under the water. I couldn't take a breath. I couldn't use my arm and I was slowly being pulled out, and deeper, into the ocean. In that moment, through the pain and the panic, I realized that I was dying. I knew instinctively that I could only hold my breath for so long...and I knew I lacked the strength and ability to stand up, swim or do anything to physically change my current state. I began to drown. No joke, no hyperbole. No drama. I was dying and I was aware of that reality.
These were all things I felt, rather than thought, because all I could think were, "I'm sorry" to Laura, my wife for dying here and, "God, here I am," as I began to make my peace with my life ending there and then....
And then, I felt a pair of legs wrap around my chest from behind, and a voice in my ear said, "Don't worry, Father Marshall, I have you. The wave may take us out, but the two of us will get back together." It was one of the youth from my church. He had run into the wave, seeing me in distress and had been able to get to me and then weight us both down just enough so that the water was forced to give us up and over to the sandy bottom. With others, he was able to get me up onto the beach, and I was able to get my shoulder back into joint. The only "loss" was a pair of prescription sun glasses, an expensive price to pay in terms of the reality of this world, but the thing I learned that day was that God really is with us, even at the gate of death...and by the grace of God there were people of faith and strength there to help me when I couldn't help myself.
I got my life returned to me that day by a young man's heroism and by God's loving grace. I was also given a chance to allow God to transform my priesthood in the wake of that moment of near-death into a ministry that, I pray, points to how God is with us, even when storms or waves threaten to overcome the boats of safety and comfort we rely on to carry us across the perilous waters of life. I have seen God at my beginning, in my living and at my end...and now I see God at work in my life after it was returned to me. I offer that as a testimony that faith in God really does sometimes come to us at the very moment when it seems the world is doing its best to cast us and our memory into oblivion. Thanks be to God who stills the storms....particularly the ones that are IN me, as well as the ones that from time to time surround me on every side!