Pastor's Blog

Surfer in wave

On Surfing and Discipleship

When I was eleven, after brief stints in several southern California towns, my family finally landed in the small beach town of Ventura, California, about thirty minutes south of Santa Barbara. In addition to traditional youth sports and other adolescent activities, as you can imagine in a beach town, surfing was very popular and cool!
I love the ocean! And during my days in Ventura, I was at the beach often, at least in the summer. And like any self-respecting Venturan, I tried my hand at surfing. I remember driving with my friends from high school on the northbound 101 freeway many summers, looking for the best waves between Ventura and Santa Barbara. And my bedroom walls were covered with pictures I’d cut out from my subscription to Surfer Magazine.
I loved the beach, and I loved surfing. But the fact is, I never got very good at it, unlike my brother, Mark, who moved to Maui after graduation and spent six months surfing amazing waves. Though I was a decent athlete and could hold my own in most of the sports I tried, I never really gained any proficiency in surfing, even though I played water polo and was on the swim team. 
I’m sure part of my surfing deficiency is simply a lack of natural talent. But the more significant issue is that I liked the idea of surfing and being known as a surfer more than actually doing what it takes to be a good surfer. I wanted the cool surfer reputation but didn’t have the drive to achieve it. 
In Southern California, the best waves are in the winter when more storms are out at sea. But that’s also when the water is the coldest, and Ventura is far enough north that the water is never that warm, even in the summer. I don’t care for cold water, and I can still feel my feet throbbing when I first step into the water on cold days. And I vividly remember shivering uncontrollably for a time when I stayed in the water too long without a wetsuit. 
In addition to cold water, surfing is inconvenient. Waves come and go as they will, not as you would like. You have to be patient and persistent, being in the right place at the right time to get the best waves. And when you are at school most of the day, and the days are shorter in the winter, you have to be willing, like some of my friends, to get up early and get into frigid water to catch a few waves before school. Did I mention that I don’t like cold water? Oh, and I’m not much of a morning person, especially when I was young.
When it comes to surfing, I am a believer but not a disciple. I’m a fan but not a follower.
Unfortunately and more seriously, this dichotomy can also describe our spiritual life. It is relatively easy to call ourselves Christians and to profess a sincere belief in Jesus; it is quite another thing to regularly respond to his call to take up our cross and follow him. (See Matt.16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). We often want the easy assurance of salvation without the costly call to follow Jesus in the way of sacrificial love. We want the moral high ground of calling ourselves Christians while avoiding the weightier matters of discipleship that mark the faithful followers of Jesus, as he makes clear to the religious leaders of his day in Matthew 23:23:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former,” (NIV).
To be a good surfer takes a commitment to the process and a willingness to sacrifice comfort, sleep and other opportunities to get to the beach when the waves are good. It also requires courage, strength and wisdom. It takes courage and strength to paddle out on big days, struggling through the powerful, churning whitewash of the waves that have just crashed to get to the set of waves that are right behind them. Then, it takes courage and wisdom in the face of a dramatically rising swell to paddle through it and take your chances on the next wave or turn around and attempt the steep drop into the wave.
Similarly, Jesus consistently calls those who claim allegiance to him out of our comfortable routines and secure positions to trust him as he leads us into risky acts of faith, hope and love. Jesus famously called Peter to get out of the safety and comfort of the boat and join him by walking on the water. And Jesus tested the faith of all twelve of his original disciples when he instructed them to pass out the meager loaves and fishes to the hungry crowd. 
To be a disciple of Jesus takes a commitment to his words and ways, even and especially when they are inconvenient and costly. To be a faithful follower of Jesus is far less about my reputation or comfort and more about my neighbor’s well-being and the consistency of my character. Jesus says disrupting things like love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44). Or, how about this: If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out (Matthew 5:29). If you are like me, this may be the time that you look at the size of the waves of commitment and the temperature of the waters of discipleship, and consider sleeping in or watching from the beach.
There is one big difference between surfing and following Jesus. When surfing, you are on your own; it’s do or die between you and the wave. However, when we paddle out into the waters of discipleship with Jesus, he promises us that we are not alone. In Matthew 28, when Jesus commissions the original disciples to take his message to the whole world, he clearly and comfortingly declares; and surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age, (Matthew 28:20). And in John 14, in preparation for his ascension back to the Father, Jesus encourages his disciples with these words: 
John 14:15–18 (NIV) — 15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—17 the Spirit of truth… he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.
In the 1970s, Jerry Lopez was the most famous surfer to consistently conquer what is known as the Banzai Pipeline, a surf break on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, that produces some of the most challenging waves on the planet. If I could somehow harness the spirit of Jerry Lopez to be with me, I might grab my board and paddle out with a new level of confidence regardless of the temperature of the water, the time of day or the size of the waves. While that is a pipe dream, having the presence and power of Jesus with me daily to enable me to follow him faithfully, is only a prayer away. Again, just before his return to the Father, Jesus assures his disciples that they will be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit – the very presence of Jesus himself – to enable them to accomplish the mission he has set before them (Acts 1:8). 
Maybe together, we can get off of the beach of comfortable Christianity and dive into the turbulent waters of daily discipleship as we worship and serve together for the Glory of God and the Good of Our Neighbors Near and Far.
Surfs Up!
—Pastor Scott