The atoll of Ontong Java is composed of a long, L-shaped oval of islands, laying together like a string of beads tossed into the Pacific by some petulant giant. Luaniua is the biggest, roughly the size of three football fields placed end to end. Each island in the string is connected to the next by the reef, whose roots are deep on the ocean floor, and which stretches almost to the surface. Some parts of the reef have grown higher than others, and are so close to the surface that at low tide, only a foot of shallow water covers them.
Luaniua is connected to its eastern neighbors by such a reef. At high tide, water floods with dangerous force from the ocean side of the reef into the lagoon side, pushed by the combined millions of tons of pressure in the vast deep. But at low tide, the waters recede and a person can walk with ease from Luaniua, out to the smaller, plate shaped islands to the east. Assuming your feet have thick enough callouses to withstand the razor sharp rocks, that is.
On Sundays, after hours of church service that culminated in eating the body and blood of Jesus Christ, groups of kids would migrate off of Luaniua and onto its neighboring islands. Armed with a pot of rice, some matches, and a machete, we would pick our way across the reef, skirting tide pools and stopping to gather clams as we came upon them. We'd all gather at the furthermost island in the string, the one right before the deep passage in the reef that ships use to cross into the lagoon. We'd spend the day playing on the white sand, singing, swimming, basically reveling in the freedom all kids enjoy when there are no adults around. Then, after the tide had come in and gone out again, we'd cross back home before the second high tide came and evening fell.
I was making my way home from one such excursion, tired, wet and hungry, having eaten nothing but a shared pot of rice and some shellfish boiled in coconut water. We had pushed our luck, taking our time going home, so that by the time we reached the final stretch of reef between Luaniua and its immediate eastern neighbor, the water had already risen to chest height.
There was nothing for it but to cross. We started in together, a tight little group. The migration back to the village was ongoing, and there were other groups of kids in front of and behind us. My friend settled the pot and matches on her head, while another held the machete safely up out of the salt water, and we waded in. It wasn't so bad at first. The waves in the middle of the passage weren't choppy yet, so we had hope that the tide wouldn't pull too strongly. We kept going, and the water began to rise. First to our calves. Then to our knees. Now it was pulling at our skirts, and we could feel its tug increasing as the proportion of our submerged bodies grew greater.
My lava lava swirled madly against my legs, getting tangled in them as I moved quickly out into deeper water. Now the water had reached my waist. I stopped for a minute to secure my skirt more tightly around me, knotting it against the tide. The water pushed at me, and I stumbled to my left.
"Come on, Danica!" my friends called.
I pushed on. By now the oncoming water was up to my ribs, pushing incessantly against the right side of my body. Each step I took became a struggle not to yield to the pressure and list to the left. The water was at my chest. We must have misjudged the water's level, or taken longer to get out into the passage, because we weren't at what we knew to be the deepest part yet. Now keeping a straight course was no longer an option. The pull of the onrushing tide was too great. I struggled on, hoping to keep my diagonal trajectory on course enough to not miss the point of Luaniua. As long as I could make it to dry land.
The water was at my armpits. Now each step I took was an utter yielding to the current. Take my foot up. Be pushed to the left. Put my foot down. Take my foot up. More push to the left. Put my foot down. I watched desperately as the point of the island in front of me came parallel to my line of vision, then moved to the right of me. There was no way now I'd make it to land. I was on course for the deep waters of the lagoon. And I was tired. So very, very tired. The current was even pushing the breath from my chest. My toes bounced on the tips of coral, and my arms waved ineffectively against the onslaught of water. It was up to my neck.
I thought about resting, just for a minute. Just letting my body go limp and my head submerge just for a minute.
Then, out of nowhere, a boy, tall and strong, was in front of me. He stood with his feet firmly planted, the tide buffeting his torso, but amazingly, withstanding it. He stretched his hand out to me, his arm brown, muscled, impossibly long. So long that it reached me. In desperation I lifted both feet from the reef, propelling myself forward toward that saving hand. As the tide claimed my body, my feet dragging in surrender to it like a windsock in a cyclone, I felt his hand grip my outstretched one.
And just like that, he pulled me through the water. Pulled me through the impossible surge, while his eyes looked deeply into mine and held my gaze. He set me, dripping and panting, in the calm shallows, where my friends came running over the white sand to me. All I could do was stumble up the beach and collapse in the shade of a coconut tree, gazing out over the passage where the water still flooded smooth and treacherous.
I was talking a few days ago with my dad, and he said that the Christian walk is like that. In our helpless, hopeless, overwhelmed state, Jesus reaches out in Grace. And we, in Faith, reach towards him. And he pulls us out, while we hold firmly to him and he holds firmly to us.
Can we have Faith without works? If we don't act on our Faith, if we don't reach out, we are left floundering and in danger of being swept away. The Faith is dead without works. But Grace is needed too, the compassion of someone outside of ourselves, a Savior, one who will be our strength and guide. He reaches down to us in our lowly state, we reach up, and together walk out this thing called life.
So next time a flood comes, whether internal or external, be it a hurt followed by unforgiveness, or a frightening diagnosis, or the loss of a job, or even simply the temptation to lash out due to anger and frustration ... remember that you don't have to wade through it alone. You're not supposed to wade through it alone. You don't have to struggle to just be stronger, stay more positive, be better, forgive harder ... the flood is real and threatening. But Christ, through the Holy Spirit in you, is reaching down in Grace to help you get through it. In Faith reach up to grasp his hand, keeping your eyes fixated on his, and you will find yourself operating in a power outside of your own. Together, as you walk, you will have the strength. You will find the forgiveness. You will experience the peace regardless of diagnosis or finances. And, eventually, you will overcome. You will overcome, when the gates open and you find yourself sitting on the golden shore, looking back over the flood that was life, safe, secure, breathless, and basking in the Son.