My dad taught me to love the ocean.
The smell of salt water is synonymous to me with the smell of his skin, despite the fact that 358 days of the year we were hundreds of miles away from the shore. That one week left an impression that lingered long.
My most memorable moments with my dad, other than long talks on our stiff living room furniture away from the hub of activity in our house, were of the sun setting on our freckled bodies, clinging to the raft that kept us afloat. The waves were as tall as he was in my memory.
The ocean was the ball field of my childhood.
“One more, Daddy! Just one more wave!” kept us thrill seeking right up until dinner.
Though fear crept into his perspective in other areas, my dad taught me that the ocean was safe. The beach wasn’t just a sandbox. It was a place to dream. My dad came alive at the ocean, that one week of the year, and he spent the other 51 weeks planning for the next trip.
He left me a legacy beyond sand castles.
My dad introduced me to the concept that small things can teach great things.
In between those years, when I spent a week with my bathing suit bottoms filled with sand during beach trips that were weeks of play in the midst of a life of play, and my adult life, my focus shifted. I met Jesus, personally. He moved from a figurehead to a heartbeat; it was enough of a shift in understanding that I began to reorient my life around Him. Or, rather, I began to reorient my life around my understanding of Him at that time.
Jesus became, to me, an amalgamation of mysterious, intriguing love — and the One who held the playbook for life. It was easier, at that time, for me to conceptualize a coach assigning positions and calling out plays than it was for me to wrap my mind around an affectionate leader, so I became a player.
I learned the plays. I took cues and worked to perfect my game. I studied Him and I evaluated myself against His likeness. I had enough moments of brushing up against His mystery to fuel the fire of love … which kept me working.
And I worked hard.
He was a good coach, a strong leader. I didn’t want to fail Him. In fact, I believed that He needed me to not fail Him.
All the while, the beach trips kept coming like a metronome, a respite I could expect.
They were my annual inhale.
After years of working towards being His star player, my legs started to give. When I was fifteen, He had been the answer that filled the obvious void my teenage heart felt; He was my stop gap. At 19, and 21, and at 24, that gap began to resurface and widen and I found that my version of Christianity translated into a mad sprint away from that empty void.
Had I had words for it at the time, I would have said the treadmill was turned up too high. But I didn’t have time to gain perspective, then. I was too busy running to keep up with the ideals I’d set for myself and away from any sign of the mess on my insides, all penned as if in His handwriting.
But this one particular year at the beach, fatigue had set in.
This was the one week I gave myself permission to turn off — no ministry this week, no output. We took long bike rides and sunk our chairs in the sand and read books until the tide came up underneath us. We walked the beach for hours and spent our nights on rocking chairs listening to greying thirty-somethings relive their youth as they sung their own renditions of the Beach Boys in harbor-side cafes.
It was in the midst of this inhale that I took note of the state of my heart.
I was dull.
I filled my weeks with hours of talking to people about a Jesus that, in my mind, kept turning up the treadmill on me just when I’d hit a stride. I was “living for Him” — and bone-dry on the inside. The God I’d constructed from pieces of scripture and teachings and personal experience was not easily satisfied and years of prancing around trying to get him to not only notice me, but approve of me, had worn me thin.
This can’t be right, I processed with Nate.
Simultaneous to realizing my own oil was empty, I’d had my path cross with a few others who wore a brand of Christianity that was attractive, but foreign to me. They acted as if they believed He didn’t just tolerate them, but that He enjoyed them — and yet their mess was seemingly more visible than mine. I couldn’t understand this combination, but it intrigued me.
These people liked to pray and the adventure I felt those summer nights, just after I said yes to Him, where I devoured my Bible under His canopy past midnight, was the kind of day-to-day experience they referenced. What this random smattering of friends had (that I didn’t) was expectation. They approached their days with a confidence that God had something for them — not just one big something, but lots of interludes of little somethings.
They were hungry and I’d had my fill of the version of God I was following.
These were the seedling days, when I began to pray the prayer that has since become my anthem: God, if there is more of You than what I’m understanding, please show me. Open the eyes of my understanding.
On one particular bike ride, towards the end of this week of processing with Nate this lack, the sun began to set on our conversation. These were the everyday moments my dad taught me to ponder and even years of narrowing my focus to only that which I called “impact” and “intentionality” in faith hadn’t broken that habit.
We stopped to watch, unknowingly. And when I saw the sun’s final rays painting the water an electric amber before it hid itself behind the island across from our island, something lifted in me.
I felt. This moment was more than my transactional normal.
The word glory dropped into my mind as I caught my chest in my throat. Glory wasn’t my typical Christian vernacular but this event, which happened every single day of my life up until now, was laced with something new.
Beauty had me spellbound.
God was in this sunset.
He was near.
And before my fingers could find Nate’s to squeeze and signal this is His pause the sun-stained water exposed another display. A group of baby sharks — sand sharks — formed a ring, cresting and falling below the water line over and over again. In all my years at the beach I’d never seen sea life like that. It was if their movements were conducted.
They were on display.
And no one was absorbing this … but us.
That early evening at the beach, He was on display. The testimony that day spoke louder to me than dozens of stories years prior of telling people about Jesus and reaching across my life into theirs. For one of the first times, I saw that God wasn’t just involved in my output. He wasn’t investing in me so that I would invest in others. He might actually reveal Himself to me independently from what I might produce as a result of it.
The beach wasn’t deserted that night. Others pedaled their bikes past our display, pointing and smiling at what caused us to put up our kick-stands. What was worthy of a nod from them is an event we still reference, here a decade later.
That small moment was great. I didn’t earn it or win it. It wasn’t a prize in the traditional sense. But I could own it. There were no strings or expectations tied to it; it was free. He infused just a few minutes with His glory, at my most undeserving time — I was at the height of naively pursuing religious perfection — all so that I might notice that He noticed me. And in turn, notice Him.
Isn’t that glory? Seeing His reflection across our sin-stained existence and, in turn, looking long at Him with our life.
Could love be simplified to just looking long?
And what would a life of overflow look like if we truly looked long … at Him? Not our perceptions about Him or our fears about “what we’re not” in light of Him, not our westernized version of Him — but the God of the Bible who has depth, unending.
I think it might then just turn me radical. In love.
We were intended to be world-changers whose platform originates in the lowest place … at His feet. If we’re attempting to change the world — or even just the heart of another — and that drive isn’t originating from those long looks at Him, we’re in hot pursuit of an imitation.
My dad left me a legacy, one he didn’t fully comprehend before he died, but one I’m glad to be certain that he’s beholding right now.
At the ocean I was introduced to glory. Unconventional glory. His glory.
He has impregnated our simple moments with greatness. And it’s when we behold Him here that we get initiated into His world-changing glory.
The rocks will cry out.