I WONDER AS I WANDER . . . Praying While Observing Surfing

     One of the blessings of being able to experience a silent retreat is the privilege of allowing everything to become part of one’s praying.  Prayer is being with God to the core of our being, not just the words we say or think.  Late in August I had such a privilege for 8 days along the Atlantic coast north of Boston.

      Hurricane Bill was approaching offshore on about the second day, churning up the water in high waves at the entrance to the cove on which the retreat house is located.  A group of surfers had made their way to this setting, clad in their dark body suits and carrying their surfboards.  It was not raining at that time, but the wind was strong and the waves crashed against the rocky shoreline with frothy whitecaps.

      I sat for a time on a chair on the grassy area above the shoreline, observing the action of the surfers.  Although I do not know the science or art of surfing, it was apparent that these were risk-takers who were out on a day when the Coast Guard had recommended that no boats be out and no swimmers in the ocean, a day when they warned about possibility of dangerous riptides.

      I observed a rhythm in their actions. Paddling out to where the biggest waves began, choosing a wave and riding in.  They seemed to alternate between letting a wave move them up and down and forward, and being pushed down (or jumping off as the wave neared the rocky area, hidden by the tide).  Sometimes they lay down on the boards, as the wave carried them in.  Others stood up on the board, when they had chosen a wave to ride.  Those who stood sometimes seemed to lean back into the waves coming at their backs, and ride the top of the wave as it came in.  At one point, it appeared that one surfer seemed to face the waves as they came in, determining whether this was one to be ridden, or decide that it was one to float over top.  The riding of the waves always ended with the surfer in the water, finding the board, lying on it, and paddling hard with their arms back out to where the big waves began – at the edge of the cove.  That return trip looked to be tiring.  But some of the surfers did it time and time again.

      So where’s the prayer in observing that?  As I watched, with a desire to be alert to what God might be showing me, I thought of a book that I had recently read – The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, by Phyllis Tickle.  It is a short book that describes the tremendous changes in the Christian Church across the centuries, in an approximately every-500-year cycle.  The last great transformation was the “Great Reformation.” With examples from the past century and into the current one, Tickle describes the huge waves of change which we are experiencing, related to science and culture and international shifts.  The struggles we deal with at the local and annual conference and general church levels are part of a huge ocean of change of which we are part.  When we are so immersed in the ocean, it’s hard to understand where those currents and undertows are coming from.  Tickle describes some of the waves that have been part of this new transformation, which she calls “The Great Emergence.” She suggests where these waves are moving the church in the future.  And I sensed that she is inviting us to see where God is in the midst of this stormy time of change.

      There were several things that came to mind as I prayed while watching the surfing and considering the storminess we experience in the church, and the waves of change in this time of conference reconfigurations:

  • Face into the waves as they are coming, so that you know what you’re riding! Although I’ve never been on a surfboard in my life – and don’t intend to! – sometimes life in the church and leading in the church feels like a stormy day, where the waves are white and frothy and crashing in.  The waves of change and of difficult situations seem to come so frequently and sometimes furiously that the church or the leader must discern which are the ones most important to “ride in,” and which ones are not ripe, or would divert the attention from what is most essential or important.  Learning to read and understand those waves, and not just to react to them, is important.  Riding of the waves of change requires prayerful discernment, not just alone, but together with others.
  • The surfer depends on the board to carry him/her in, and to be the foundation for moving out into the next incoming waves.  For us, that foundation is our trust in God.  A prayer that I wrote in my journal that day was this:  “Christ, be my board, the one to whom I cling in the surfing of these uncharted waters.  Help me to cling to you, when that’s appropriate and necessary, and to stand tall in the assurance of your foundation when that is required.  Give me courage to rest on you and in you when paddling out to meet the next waves.  I trust you to provide the energy and strength for the journey.”
  • Be attentive to the waves coming in as you are paddling out again! But don’t get thrown off the board by them.  Some of the surfers seemed to be better than others, perhaps a bit more relaxed, in crossing over the waves coming in as they were on their boards and paddling out.  One surfer got thrown off the board and into the water in the process of that outward-bound journey.  Others seemed to navigate the incoming waves with relative ease.  That reminded me of how easy it is to become anxious about the reactivity that often comes as we deal with change.
      Do you ever feel as though you are surfing high waves in your congregation, in the annual conference?  In this year of transition, with many waves of change at many levels, we are not alone in our “surfing the waves.” God is ever with us.  We might even find the surfing enjoyable when we ask, “God, where are you in the midst of this?” We might discover that looking for God’s presence in the midst of the change might help us to survive rather than to get thrown into the rocks.  

By: Bishop Susan Hassinger On 9/23/2009
Topics: I Wonder as I Wander...