Tumbling in the Undertow

I’ll never forget the first time I went body surfing.

Desert-grown children trying Pacific surf for the very first time.

Only a tiny part of a much larger set of events, it remains vividly stamped upon my mind

  • Ten years old!
  • Traveling – on a plane for the very first time that I could independently remember!
  • On a trip with my swim team and without my parents – also for the first time!
  • Coco Beach, Florida – a truly different world from where I was growing up!
  • My very first Shirley Temple, with a maraschino cherry, even!

Yet something about the white sand, the shimmery rolling waves advancing on the beach, the seabirds soaring and squawking far above, the relentless sun, the brilliant blue sky and a still-to-this-day lesson learned (although not always well- learned)…  I occasionally dream of that afternoon, still.

My parents had forbidden me to play in the ocean. They understood much better than I the power of the waves and recognized my ignorance of that power as well as my arrogance in my capacity to handle myself well in the water. I wasn’t to do anything more than wade in the ankle to knee deep froth along the beach.

I’d promised to obey, but didn’t keep that promise and God was still faithful to teach me an invaluable truth.

One of the team chaperones offered to carry me out on his shoulders. TECHNICALLY, my feet and ankles were all that was in the water while Mr. Staten bore the brunt of waves splashing onto his chest and face. It wasn’t long, however, before I pleaded to try out the waves on my own. Conceding, he finally lifted me down (I don’t think he was aware of my parents’ restriction), turned me loose – although he also stood right there beside me, and laughed as I learned to jump and float through the swells and then made my first attempts to actually body surf in those gentle, rolling waves. I’d never done anything so exhilarating or fun, until…

Until the first time I didn’t quite catch the wave and ended up tumbling (or at least feeling like I was) like laundry in a front loading washing machine, scraping my chin and then my legs on shells or sand or something and then totally clueless once I stopped rolling as to which direction, and more importantly – air, were up. Then Mr. Staten grabbed me by the arm and yanked me up out of the water. Shoulder aching and with a much more realistic respect for the ocean, I, my bleeding chin and my wounded pride were through body surfing…  for that day.

I lived an important principle in those moments. (There was also a corollary I later learned when I got home, although I don’t remember if I actually told my parents about my infraction or if they discovered it some other way the way parents tend to do. They did realize that I’d disobeyed them. )

What was that foundational reality?

20140128IMG_0058God commands us to be strong and courageous, but He doesn’t typically intend for us to be brave all alone.

I probably would have been just fine even if Mr Staten not been there to help me regain my footing – but my tumbling in the undertow did mark me. In fact, it terrified me. If he’d not been there to help me… or if he’d not ventured back out into the surf with me the next time… I don’t think I would have ever given it a second try. I would have been too afraid.

That’s a lesson to which I still cling, today, over thirty years later…

…for there have been many times when, working internationally, I’ve felt all alone:

  • when I climb on a plane and I’m terrified of flying;
  • when I can’t understand what people are saying to me;
  • when I can’t make people understand what I’m trying to say;
  • when I don’t feel good and just want someone to come and take care of me, but no one does;
  • when I’m in labor on one continent, my husband is on another, and there’s a huge ocean and a desert in between;
  • when someone says things about me that aren’t true and the only thing I can do is stay silent and hope;
  • when our mission organization collapses, begins a legal dissolution and we are left on the backside of the desert wondering how to survive and what’s next;
  • when I long for authentic accountability, but it comes in a form that only makes me chafe;.
  • when terrorism creeps ever closer, ever nearer, and the security checks everywhere never lets my husband forget it;
  • when God tells us it is time to start over all over again, in a new place; and…?

It is a list which could continue for a very long time.

Every international worker reading that list can probably come up with an even more exhaustive list of their own “all alone” times. But that’s not the point. Neither is the fact that we are never alone if we’ve placed our trust and hope in Jesus, even though that is a beautiful truth that often brings comfort and confidence when enduring those alone times.

The point is this:

When I look back at those so lonely moments, I can also now see at least one, if not many, flesh and blood persons that God had placed there with me… Mr Staten’s, if you will, who were there and ready to grab my by the arm, yank me up and set me back on my feet when I felt like I was tumbling in the undertow of this missionary life.

Without fail, they were always there.

So what was the problem? Why did I feel so alone?

Often I declined their help… simply refusing to acknowledge their willingness to be there and to do what they could. Other times, I insisted I could handle it on my own – just me and God against the world. My pride and I wouldn’t let me admit any weakness or need. Then there were those times when I was taking myself and my own problems way too seriously. And who knows how many times I made the excuse that they just couldn’t understand.

I’m finally coming to an understanding on that last one.


True enough – other people may not be able to understand. And that reality really doesn’t matter.

Equally valid?  Those with whom God has surrounded me absolutely might not be who I’d choose to rely upon for help or rescue, given my druthers.

Yet neither one of those facts prohibits a brother or sister or colleague from being willing, available and able to help stop my lonely tumbling. Neither one means someone else is not God’s provision to set me back on my feet… regardless of my preferences or what I think.

When I stubbornly refuse to acknowledge or accept this provision:

I’m the one who disqualifies.

I’m the one who denies someone a God-gifted opportunity to serve.

I’m the one who blindly refuses grace proffered.

I’m the one who needs to admit that I don’t have it all figured out and that I’m still learning


As an international worker, do you find it hard to rely upon and trust other people during challenging times? Why or why not?

Look back. Can you see times when God “pre-surrounded you” with exactly the people you’d need? Did you accept or refuse their support? Will you please share your story and what you’ve learned as a result?

– Richelle Wright, missionary on home assignment from Niger, W. Africa

blog:   Our Wright-ing Pad    ministry:   Wright’s Broadcasting Truth to Niger     facebook:  Richelle Wright

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Richelle Wright

Disciple of Jesus, lover of God's Word, wife to one great guy, and mama of eight, Richelle has spent the past 13 years in Niger, West Africa. She and her family are currently in the throes of transition as they begin life and ministry (teaching, audio-visual production) in the Canadian province of Québec. |ourwrightingpad.blogspot.com|

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