“Forward two. ALL DOWN! Up. All forward! Rest.”
These commands were shouted. My family raced down the river. We were whitewater rafting on a day when the river was high. Very high. At 3000 cubic feet per second, rafters are not allowed to ride the middle Ocoee. It becomes too dangerous past this point. This was 2700 cubic feet per second. The water rushed around us. It had the power to completely topple a boat of six people. It could so easily pull us under. We pretended to control it. With paddles and fancy unified tugs on the deep, we gave it our best. But it was obvious who was in control.
For the first part of the rafting trip, I sat alone on the last inflatable bench. My dad was paired with Hannah. They guided us in the front. Rebekah was beside my mom to save her from any trouble, which she did with all of her almost twelve year old might. Our rafting guide told us to lock arms with the person next to us should we feel the need. If the water rushed, you had a partner to hold. I looked to the empty spot next to me. I thought no one saw my slightly nervous glance, but the guide said, “I won’t let you fall out.”
We had to do what the guide said. It was crucial to staying atop the rushing river. It was crucial to staying alive. Sometimes, we couldn’t hear the guide. That rushing river drowned out all but the emotions it evoked within us. Other times, we let those emotions, that fear, distract us from a voice that shouted loud in our ear. I focused on the rocks, waves, and water in my face. Still the guide kept giving directions. He was experienced. He knew this river well. And at one deep wave, I felt myself sliding over to the other side of the bench. But the guide held onto my life jacket and kept me from falling in.
Still, our guide was only human. He made a few mistakes. But even drifting so quickly along the river, I realized how similar the whole thing was to life. The river of life rushes and tosses us. It has its peaceful lulls where you can get out, enjoy yourself, and swim for a while. But it also has its terrifying waves when the water rush is almost unbearable and the rocks spin close (Of course, there can be enjoyment in these times of rush too). Through it all, listening to the Guide is crucial to staying above the water. It is crucial to life. The Guide knows the river. He designed it. And He swam it. Jesus Christ came down to life as a simple baby so that He could experience every one of life’s river bends. He even allowed the power of this earth to pull Him under; He died so he could conquer death.
And God, the Guide, patiently offers instruction. The world tries to drown out His careful teaching. My own fears drown him out even more powerfully than this world. I look at the rocks. I see the waves and the heights before me. I feel the water rush over my head and wonder if I will ever breathe again. This keeps me from hearing His calm voice. “Forward two. You can do it. I love you, my child.” He catches our worries and our fears and says, “I won’t let you fall out.”
The ocean was closed. For forty two years, Geils have traveled to Emerald Isle, North Carolina. And for forty two years, not a single Geil has ever seen a sign like this.
We had played in the ocean all week. We built castles, read novels, collected shells, played bocce, and walked to the water tower and back. We rinsed the sand off by playing in the ocean. But the water was rough. We had all been lectured twice, three times. People had been swept away by the rip tides just weeks ago. We did not go out deep. Waist deep was plenty deep enough. Yet when the waves came, they had the power to knock me over and send me flipping through the water. They exemplified strength. They stole breath and left me exhausted when I finally made my way back to the warm sand. I delighted in them and we all had fun jumping waves, falling into waves, and ducking under waves. But it was obvious that the water was in control.
And then, the ocean was closed. Sixteen of us made our way to the other side of the narrow island. Emerald Isle has ocean on one side and what is called the Sound on the other. It’s a bay that is smooth like a lake. My dad, the birthday boy, had a brilliant idea. We would find rafts in my grandparent’s attic, supplemented by ones purchased from the Dollar Tree, and form a massive flotilla. We linked arms and floated. But first, we walked to the Sound. Everyone carried their own raft, even the three six year olds. We sang and laughed along the way, a sight to behold I’m sure. I looked out at the ocean as we passed it. Lauren and I had walked along the beach that morning, but I still couldn’t resist another glimpse.
But instead of fixing my eyes to the waves, I saw a red flag blowing in the wind.
“Daddy, see that red flag. What does it mean?” I asked. The not yet floating flotilla stopped suddenly. Everyone turned their head to look.
“The ocean’s closed.” My dad said. Shock waves as big as the ones that made the ocean so dangerous swept through us all.
The water was too powerful. It had taken the lives of too many. And so we were warned. In many ways, that red flag was like the rafting guide. It warned us of dangers lurking in the deep that we couldn’t easily see. It kept us from being foolish and getting swept away. But it was just a flag. The rafting guide was just a guide. Neither actually kept us from experiencing the water, from tasting danger. We were as free to go into the ocean as we were to stay on the edge of the boat instead of ducking down.
Somewhere along our two hour tour of the Sound, the armada of Geils floating strong, someone started to hum “White Flag” by Christ Tomlin.
The battle rages on
As storm and tempest roar
We cannot win this fight
Inside our rebel hearts
We’re laying down our weapons now
We raise our white flag
All to You
All for You
We raise our white flag
The war is over
Love has come
Your love has won
Here on this Holy ground
You made a way for peace
Laying your body down
You took our rightful place
This freedom song is marching on
Like I wondered floating down the Ocoee, I wondered again. Do we raise our white flag of surrender because Jesus ignored the red flag? Or maybe, He raised His white flag and it love dyed it red.
Water falls from the sky. Flags still wave, but this time they are red, white, and blue. It’s the Fourth of July. Water has cancelled thousands of plans and parties on this Independence Day.
This is the first holiday I have ever experienced alone. My family sends me texts that delight me and I will see a dear friend later. But, as of now, I have only said “Happy Fourth of July” face to face to a cat. And the cat was asleep. The same strand of fear that haunted me in the waves of the Atlantic and in a river in Georgia haunt me here in Nashville.
There are the practical fears (although is any fear practical?). I am scared of driving unfamiliar highways in the rain. I am worried I might not make it to the celebration. I am afraid I might not find my friend. Or what if I find my friend and we get abducted? My fears run as deep as the Atlantic. And the deeper they go, the less rational they become. What if this begins a pattern to my holidays, this being alone? Is this what growing up means—loneliness?
And then I listen to the Guide’s voice. My Flag’s voice. He tells me again that I am never alone. That He is the freedom. He is my liberty. He loves me and I can rest in His arms tonight. Rain or shine, He created them both. He created the river’s waves, the ocean’s currents, and the storm’s power. He controls all water. He lets the same water that has scared me wash me clean.
I again raise my white flag. I surrender and allow this freedom song to march onward.
You’ve read to the end of this. I guess you’ve been water blogged. Get it? Here’s an Indepence Day joke to celebrate:
What Dance was popular in 1776?