My childhood summers were shaped by our beach vacations to Cape Cod. Grandpa rented a handsome cottage, and graciously welcomed one-and-all.
The adults studied tide patterns religiously, folding the newspaper length-wise as they scrambled for their readers. High tide times were loudly proclaimed as the women stacked coolers with peanut-butter sandwiches, potato chips, and fruit, completed by multiple thermoses of sun tea and lemon wedges. Aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents herded us toward the cottage steps, screen door banging as we marched toward sand and tide, inhaling the blissfully salty air, fresh upon our sun-kissed faces. We had hours until hightide diminished the sandy shoreline, and were ready to make the most of it.
There were a few understood rules: No swimming at high tide, and no swimming at night. The pull of the deep waves made my grandparents antsy, plus they had lived through enough years to remember plenty of after-dark drownings. So as the tide encroached, we flung our damp and sandy towels over the back of our necks, packed up the chairs and coolers, and flip-flopped our way back to the cottage. The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it (Proverbs 27:12).
By day, I was a fish in those waters, and spent hours swimming in the crashing waves, water cold and salty-clean. I could see the ocean floor beneath me, and feel the hermit crabs scuttling across my toes. We netted fish and dug for clams and collected bucketfuls of irate crabs, returning time and again to the depths to swim.
I noticed, after a bit, that my brother and cousins and I had drifted away from our parents and grandparents, who remained stationed in beach chairs in the sand. They were not difficult to spy, all floppy hats and obsidian sunglasses; zinc oxide pasted across their noses. Occasionally they would stand and stretch and stroll the beach, or partake in a quick dip, but their chairs remained anchored. As children, those beach chairs were our North Star, and after drifting, slowly pulled down shore by the tide, we tromped back to the familiar striped canvas designs and returned to swimming.
One summer I signed up for intermediate swimming lessons. By this time, the crawl, breaststroke, and butterfly, had become second nature. I had enjoyed clusters of swim lessons at our tiny town pond where the water remained still and predictable. But these ocean waters? They were a different beast altogether, and I could not believe how difficult it was to successfully swim against the tide, moving through those magnificent white-capped waves, exerting energy while building endurance, an act of the will which required the grit of repetition. I felt both accomplished and bone-tired after those ninety minute lessons, which carried on for two solid weeks.
Our instructor’s oft-repeated wisdom? When you grow tired, and you will, look for the safety of land and swim towards it. Land does not move, water does.
Less than a year after these swimming lessons, our family vacationed in Florida. We arrived at Daytona Beach with our towels and masks and buckets and shovels. This was different from our familiar treks to Cape Cod: this southern sand was hard and hot, the waves were smaller; the shoreline overcrowded with people.
Beach folks warned us, eyebrows raised, of the wicked undertow in these waters.
My parents shrugged. My brother and I were experienced and competent swimmers with years of lessons under our belts. So, hands shielding the sun, they studied the waters from their chairs and pronounced them safe.
We dropped our towels, kicked off our flip-flops and ran, scorching the bottoms of our feet as we raced each other to the waves. We laughed and splashed in the water before practicing our famous underwater flips and strokes. Some ten minutes later, I glanced towards shore, looking for our parents in their striped chairs. Try as I might, I could not find them.
Where are they? I asked my brother.
We treaded water, and kept looking. They had vanished.
I felt panic rising, which only increased as I suddenly realized that the people on this unfamiliar beach were passing by, and quickly. And then my little-girl mind understood that they were not moving, we were.
Let’s go, I told my brother, remembering my instructor’s advice: swim toward land.
We were horribly unprepared for the fierce undertow. The harder we struggled toward shore, the firmer the waters gripped us back and down the beach, clutching us in terror. Years later, I understood that we had been locked in a riptide, waters which seldom appear dangerous, but trap and pull and drown even the strongest of swimmers.
I desperately tried to pull my little brother toward me, while simultaneously propelling both of us toward shore. I could see the safety of land directly before us, but I could not beat this current. Our struggle was futile, and we were now bobbing up and going under, bobbing up and going under, trying to hold our breath then breathe, all of the while being sucked down the length of the beach. I froze, and watched my mother running towards us. She jogged into the water, where the undertow quickly sucked her in, now leaving the three of us thrashing. She screamed and my father appeared, standing firmly in the waves, not swimming, but reaching and yanking us to safety, one by one. I actually felt the grip of the waters fight to keep me as he jerked my arm toward shore.
It was a terribly long walk back to our beach chairs. We had drifted so far.
It was foolish to enter those waters.
It did not matter that we were competent swimmers.
It did not matter that the water appeared safe.
It did not matter that we were accustomed to ocean swimming.
It did not matter that we were swimming together, not alone.
We had been duly warned, cautioned by local beachgoers with greater experience and wisdom, yet had willfully chosen to ignore their advice.
In April of 1912, the Titanic, a ship deemed unsinkable, crashed into an iceberg, sinking into frigid North Atlantic waters. Over 1,500 people died. While many blame the iceberg, it is not so hard to see the fault lines which appeared before the ship even set sail.
A deckhand on the Titanic was reported to have boasted: God himself could not sink this ship. This brazen arrogance was supported by more foolishness: a lack of life preservers, a lack of lifeboats, and the lack of an exit strategy should something go wrong.
But worst of all? As the Titanic moved through the ocean waters, Captain Smith failed to appropriately respond to the warnings from other ships, who cautioned him multiple times about the dangerous ice floes.
If he had only paused, heeding the warnings from other ships, he might have stopped all forward motion until daybreak, when visibility would improve. Just imagine, with one pulse of humility and caution, so many lives might have been spared.
Pride (and isn’t all sin a form of it?) sends us adrift with the tide. We want our own way, stomping our feet like sulky children, captaining our own lives, blatantly disregarding the damage our foolishness causes.
In wisdom, we must continually examine our heart’s posture against the sharp, straight-edge of Scripture, asking ourselves: Am I returning in confession and repentance to Christ, seeking to obey his Word, and humbly accepting correction and instruction from fellow believers? If the answer is no, then according to the Bible, God regards me a fool.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).
Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future (Proverbs 19:20).
One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless (Proverbs14:16).
Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored (Proverbs 13:18).
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice (Proverbs 12:15).
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is (Ephesians 5:15-17).
And God’s instruction for us when we encounter a fool?
Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge (Proverbs 14:7).