“I found myself on the verge of panic….. I immediately started praying…”
My senior year in college my husband and I went to the Florida Keys for Labor Day weekend and decided to go scuba diving by ourselves – just renting tanks and heading out on our own. We had a general idea of where the reef was so we loaded a rental boat and headed that direction.
It was a beautiful day with blue sky and puffy clouds, but there was a good bit of wind and about 6 foot seas. We motored out to where we thought the edge of the reef was, cut the engine, dropped the anchor in the sand and made sure it was set. Since the water was murky we decided to descend down the anchor line. I remember seeing the line above the water and reaching for it, but just as I went under the surface it disappeared and my hand closed on nothing. We were only in about 30 ft of water, so I knew we’d see it when we got below the waves and the water cleared.
When we reached the bottom I was disappointed to find that we’d completely missed the reef. We had known we were dropping our anchor in sand, (we didn’t want to hit the reef with the anchor), but it was ALL sand and seagrass – no reef in sight. This was my main focus for the first few moments. Meanwhile, my husband was looking for the anchor but couldn’t find it. He signaled to go up, and when we reached the surface the boat was nowhere in sight.
I immediately found myself struggling with a profound sense of fear. In the 6 ft seas, we could see nothing but water towering above us on both sides, except for the brief instants when we reached the crest of each wave. Then for just that moment we could see the boat – which was surprisingly far away considering how short a time it had been since I had reached for that anchor line. We were about 3 miles off shore, so that was also visible at the crest of each wave, but I had no idea if we could swim that far. And if we were caught in a current, which I didn’t know how to determine, we would have to swim faster than the current to make it to shore, in which case we might just exhaust ourselves and get swept away.
My husband was much more calm than I was and decided that since we were responsible for the boat, we should swim for that and try to catch it. So we started. I quickly felt hopeless. We were digging through the water, unable to see anything except more water, so it felt like there was no forward progress. And whenever we did crest the top of a wave we had to pause in our swimming to look for the boat. It was farther away each time we stopped – the wind was pushing it faster than we could swim.
I found myself on the verge of panic – I’d never really known what that was before, but surrounded by ocean I felt that if I didn’t keep complete control of my thought, I was going to tip over a precipice where I would just be screaming and thrashing in the water. That terrified me more than anything else – that sense that I was about to lose control of myself.
I immediately started praying, but it was a challenge because I didn’t seem to be able to think clearly. Two ideas came to me though, and I held to them. The first was a half-remembered quote from Adam Dickey’s article, “God’s Law of Adjustment,” which says: “If a man were drowning in mid-ocean with apparently no human help at hand, there is a law of God which, when rightly appealed to, would bring about his rescue.” I couldn’t remember the whole thing, just the sense of it. The second thought was a few words of what Paul said to the Greeks in Athens (Acts 17:25): “…he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things….” It was just a snippet, but it was the snippet I needed. I clung to those two ideas, especially the second one since the loss of “life, and breath, and all things” seemed to be what was threatening.
At one point we passed a stationary buoy and I suggested we swim to it and hold on till somebody came by in a boat – which might take days, for all we knew – but at least then we would know we weren’t being swept away in a current. My husband had a very strong sense that the right thing to do was to swim for the boat because we were responsible for it. But I thought the buoy might be our last chance, and I was utterly terrified to keep swimming into the ocean after a boat that was moving faster than we were. So I faced the choice of sticking together and following my husband’s highest sense of right, or breaking apart and following my own sense of terror. I chose my husband.
And I kept praying, “He giveth to all, life and breath and all things.”
I swam the crawl stroke, because it was the most efficient, but the unremitting walls of grey waves were so dispiriting that I sometimes flipped over and did a backstroke so I could see the blue sky. I remember thinking how out of place it seemed – I was utterly filled with terror, and here was this glorious, calm expression of beauty from wave top to wave top above us. I clung to it as an expression of God’s presence, and just kept reminding myself that “He giveth to all, life and breath and all things… “
Finally at the top of one wave, the boat had changed position. Every time we had looked before it was broadside to the wind, getting shoved further away. This time it had swung around with its bow toward us, so we knew the anchor had finally caught. We kept swimming and now every time we paused to look, the boat was a little bigger. There was no physical guarantee that it wouldn’t come lose again and sail away before we reached it, so I kept turning to God for our guarantees: there’s a law of God that can rescue even a man lost in the ocean; and He giveth to all life and breath and all things.
The boat did stay put; we finally grabbed the anchor line and pulled ourselves onboard. I was unspeakably grateful. And in the years since, as the challenges of work and marriage and parenthood have arisen, I’ve been especially grateful to have had this demonstration of God’s “very present help in trouble” to look back on and realize that no matter how humanly helpless a situation looks, it is never out of the reach of God’s care.
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