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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Geestelik | Spiritual

Surfing for Jesus

Tiah Marie Beautement - 2010-02-17

“On your knees!” Marko yelled, as the wave hurtled fifty-six-year-old Grace toward the beach.
Her knees were as far as she got. As she fell into the water, her well-padded bottom hit the sandy sea floor. Heaven help her, she bounced. Twice. Toppling right over. She sat up just in time for the next wave to smack her face, sending her flailing backwards. As she lay fully submerged in the salty water, her mind flashed to the poor crab she had spotted earlier, at the mercy of the seagulls. Its legs had helplessly kicked in the air while the birds relentlessly pecked at its exposed underbelly. She was nothing more than that pathetic crab stuck in the sea.

This could quite possibly be the most idiotic thing I’ve ever done, she thought.

Suddenly strong arms plunged into the surf and brought Grace spluttering to her feet. Between the trickles of seawater running down her plump cheeks she could see Marko’s grinning face.
“You made it to your knees!” he exclaimed. A man hadn’t been so thrilled to see her on her knees in fifteen years.

“Let’s go back out,” he said. “Hop up.” And he patted the long baby-blue log of a surfboard sporting butterflies as decor. Grace suspected the entire monstrosity was actually a life raft in disguise.

Grace placed her hands on either side of the board and attempted to drag her short, admittedly overweight, body up. She now had sympathy for seals when they heaved their blubbery bodies on to dry land. Thankfully, Marko did not remark on her lack of finesse.

As Marko pushed her out to sea, the waves continued their unending siege.
“Hold on!” Marko yelled, as a big one lifted the board up into the sky. The board crashed back down, causing her ribs to curse her name.

Ruben, Grace thought, when I see you at Bible study tomorrow night, I’m going to have words with you over this.
An early Christmas gift. That is what Ruben called it when he pressed the rather bulky green parcel into her hands that Sunday after her nine o’clock service.

When Grace retired to the rectory she opened the parcel, noting the plain green paper with satisfaction. Only the week previously she had given a sermon denouncing Santa, reminding her parishioners to “keep your eye on Jesus” and toss out the trappings and paraphernalia that had nothing to do with Christ. And as far as Grace was concerned, a black and grey wetsuit had nothing to do with Christ. But a black-and-grey wetsuit was Ruben’s gift. The note with the parcel read: "You once asked me to give God a try and now I am asking you to surf." Below were details of a surfing course Ruben had booked on her behalf.

Examining the wetsuit, Grace’s mind bounced back to the day Ruben had arrived at Bible study with a tape measure in tow. She recalled his murmurs about nativity plays and hardly gave the matter a second thought while he scribbled down her measurements.

Grace had phoned Ruben immediately. “Ruben, I’m not doing this. I am a fisher of men; which, praise the Lord, can be done on dry land.” 

“You must,” Ruben said plainly. “God spoke to me a month ago. It was clear that it is God’s will for you to surf.”

Grace paused. Ruben was her greatest success story. When he first pitched up at her little sandstone chapel by the sea, he was a broken man whose past was littered with angry ex-wives and children who didn’t know his face. Nobody wanting to find him ever went to his flat, but to the tavern tucked behind Bland Street. The day he gave his heart to Jesus, Ruben glowed in a manner that reminded Grace of figures depicted in Catholic icon paintings. The congregation clapped and yelled, “Hallelujah” as Grace’s heart wept.

These days Ruben went to AA every week, ran the local soup kitchen and was the first to pitch up at Bible study every week. He was a new man. A man filled with the Holy Spirit who led other lost sheep to the flock. The community respected him, but despite her protests, he routinely told people, “I owe everything to Grace.”

“Ruben, I am not saying no, but I ask you to pray to the Lord one last time and make sure this is really what he wants me to do. Because I got to tell ya, Ruben, I’m not feeling the need to go swim with those sharks. Not one tiny bit.”

“Grace, please. Even if you don’t do this for Christ, please, do it for me.”

Ruben. Oh, her dear, dear Ruben. When she preached from the pulpit, she preached for him. None of the other parishioners took notice of what she said anymore. They came. They left. Like factory workers clocking in and out, punching in their timecards. She could not refuse Ruben. If she did, what would she have left?

“Okay, start to paddle,” Marko called out. “Now! On! Your! Knees!” 

The wave thrust Grace forward as the beach closed in at an alarming rate. She shut her eyes tight and tipped over like a teapot while seawater pushed its way up her nose.  “Tip me over and pour me out …” This was awful. She was going to have to break Ruben’s heart.

The next day she ached. As she made her way to Bible study, the weight of the Bible in her right hand was almost too much to bear. When her eyes caught sight of Ruben’s dark curly head she said what she had to say: “Ruben, it’s too much. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to let you down on this one.”

Sitting in the dilapidated wooden chair on a frayed and formerly red cushion, Ruben did not bother to look up from the book he held in the palms of his hands. “It is not me that you will be letting down, but yourself.”

Grace slowly ambled over and eased her aching joints into a velvety green armchair that boasted bare patches in the arms and whose cushion had more lumps than her now aging body. “Ruben, I’m fifty-six years old. Hey, what’s this about? You think if I take up surfing it will swell our youth numbers?”

Ruben dragged his eyes from the book and turned his gaze towards her. His face was expressionless. “Why do you assume that this is about others and not yourself?”

Grace laughed nervously.

Ruben turned his gaze back to the book. “I spoke to Marko this morning. He said you had a solid first day. But if you must give up, then you must. I was only trying to help.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Then there is nothing to discuss,” Ruben said as he turned to welcome a fellow member of their Bible study straggling in.

That Sunday Grace took to the pulpit after the motley youth choir had concluded their opening set. She allowed her gaze to settle over her congregation, which, much like the choir, was composed of the people nobody in the town wanted anymore, or never had wanted. They were the social misfits: the damaged, the slightly odd in the head, and the people of the town that did not fit into the rigidly defined cultural categories. Even Ruben, blessed Ruben, was respected by the greater community only because he made it clear he understood his place. Redemption on earth had a ceiling for those who openly sinned.

“Have you truly given your life to Jesus?” she asked her followers, with a benevolent smile carefully attached to her face.

Only Ruben in the small crowd nodded.

“Have you truly put your life into God’s hands?” she persisted, like a mother to her children. 

Again, only Ruben nodded. Grace gripped the pulpit harder.

“When my husband died, I was very afraid. ‘Who could fill his place?’ I asked the Lord. I had a job. I had my responsibilities. This was not my church. This was my husband’s work. It was he who was called before the Lord. It was he that built it up like a bricklayer, bringing people in brick by brick.”

A child tossed a toy car into the aisle. A teenage boy picked at a scab. A father checked his watch.

“But the Lord told me, ‘It is you who must finish your husband’s work.’ You see, I had my job, my responsibilities, but they were not the Lord’s. I had not given my life to Jesus. I had not asked God what his plan was for me. I had my plan, and as far as I was concerned, I was doing fine.”
As she glanced over the congregation, Ruben’s eyes locked with hers, and Grace’s grip eased as her sermon began to storm forward.
Marko was already there when Grace pulled her aging Citi Golf into the near empty parking lot. His tall and exceptionally lean body lounged unselfconsciously against his VW kombi. Grace figured the young man couldn’t be a day older than twenty-five. 

“I see you haven’t given up on me, hey?” she called out.

An easy grin slid over Marko’s handsomely tanned face. “I was going to say the same about you.”

“I’m not giving up,” Grace said, with much more determination and cheerfulness than she felt.

“Great, because I think we’re going to get you to your feet today.”

Grace glanced down to where her feet should be, but only her toes poked out from under her belly.

Like a gentleman, Marko carried the board as they made their way to the beach.

“Did you have a good week?” he asked.

“Oh yes. Busy. But very blessed. And you?”

“Ja, the waves were great. Especially on Sunday. I was out there for over three hours.”

Grace stiffened at this admission. “Don’t fancy yourself a churchgoer, then?” she asked, keeping her voice upbeat.

Marko glanced her direction with that easy smile still adorning his gorgeous face. “No, not really my scene, you know. I mean, Ruben told me you were a preacher and all, but I guess I’m just more of a spiritual kind of guy.”

Spiritual. It was one of Grace’s biggest pet peeves, this trend of considering oneself spiritual. But if the Good Lord told Ruben to put her life in this young man’s hands, then she supposed she'd better tread gently for now. Or at least until the surfing lesson was concluded.

“Well, sometimes our spirituality becomes more defined as we age. Get into your thirties and married, and perhaps church will seem more your kind of scene,” she mused lightly, while the tide reached out and licked her feet as they walked along the shore.

Marko turned towards the sea and shrugged. “Oh I don’t know, already turned thirty and am hoping to be wed in the next couple of months.” Then he gave the board a pat and gestured to the water. “Come on, let’s go get wet.”

“On your knees!” Marko called out, and his words carried with Grace as she struggled to pull her body up.

I’m too fat for this, Grace thought as, once again, she toppled into the ocean’s embrace.

But Marko pushed her board out once again, as she moved her arms in a useless paddle motion.

“On your knees,” he ordered.

She heaved her bulk with all her might as she felt the wave hoist her up. This time the soles of her feet brushed the surface of her baby-blue life raft. In an instant she felt on top of the world and closer to God than she had in years. In another instant her bottom hit the sandy ocean floor, and heaven help her, she bounced again.

I’d better give up, she thought. 

Her board came sailing by and gave her a good knock on the head.

Marko rushed to her side.

“You okay?” he asked, holding her by the shoulders while anxiously peering at her head.

“Oh, no need to fuss.” 

“No blood.”

“Well, be thankful for small mercies, that’s what I say,” Grace said, finding amusement in all the attention. She hadn’t spent so much time in direct contact with a man in years. Well, except for Dr Botha, but the man was pushing seventy, at least.

“Should we go back out?”

No, Grace thought. But her feet moved forward. She wasn’t stupid. The knock on the head was a sign. Why God had decided she needed to make a complete and utter fool of herself was anybody’s guess, but clearly she must.

“On your knees,” Marko called.

Grace pulled herself forward and found her feet once again. Her legs buckled.

"Fall on your knees," Grace’s brain sang as her knees cracked against the board and her body pitched forward.   "Oh, hear the angels; voices!" her heart replied, executing a perfect face plant into the salty water, only narrowly missing a passing jellyfish. “O’ Holy Night …”  

“Maybe we should take a break,” Marko said, looking down at her with concern.

Grace did not protest, and allowed the young man to lead her back to the beach.

They sat there, side by side, in matching wetsuits. Marko looked as if he had stepped out of an advert in one of those glossy magazines. Water dripped from his short spiky hair, which was bleached out at the tips. And then there was Grace, round and aging Grace, looking like melon wrapped in rubber. There were cats who looked more dignified while bathing.

She was attractive once. Now she told herself she didn’t mind. Vanity was a distraction from the Lord, and she had her eye firmly locked on Christ. But heaven help her, she did miss sex. Fifty-six. May seem old when one was a child, but once you got there … goodness. And if her husband was watching her right now, what would he think? Actually, Grace knew exactly what he would think: disgraceful.

“How you doing?” Marko asked.

“Give me another few minutes,” Grace said, squinting at the sea. Then chiding herself for not being more chatty, she said, “So tell me about your bride-to-be.”

“Oh,” Marko laughed. “It isn’t like that.”

Grace was confused. She never tried to be down with the kids, but she always tried to talk to them. Talk to anybody. Hoping the Lord would work his work through conversation, even if she no longer had the ability to lure them to the pews.

“Mind if I go out and surf a few while you rest?” Marko asked.

Grace nodded, still puzzling over his response. Marko ran out with the board as easily as a child carries his blanket. Her son had done that. Hauled that blanket around until it was nothing but tatters. Drove her husband to fury. “He should not have such strong attachments to material things,” he had thundered. But her boy had been so young. It seemed mean to take it away. So she had indulged him. Maybe that had been the problem – she’d indulged him too much.

Marko caught a wave as if it had been rolled out for him and him alone. He was graceful, like a dancer. Then he hopped off, as if he had merely descended off the last step, turned the board, and paddled back out with ease. He caught another, effortlessly, and as he skimmed along the water his arm reached out and ran along the wave, like a caress on a baby’s cheek.

Then he was back, looking down at her. “Are you ready to try again?”

Grace turned her head up and examined his exquisite features. “For a young man so gifted at your craft, you display admirable patience with an old duck like me.”

Marko’s eyebrows knit as he reached out a hand and hauled Grace to her feet. “Hey, I enjoy this. Making a living doing what I love to do. Besides, who says you’re old? I go out on the surf with plenty of guys much older than you.”

“Men don’t age as quickly,” Grace mumbled, as she began to march back towards the sea.

“What?” Marko asked, but Grace refused to repeat it, hopping on to the board without being told, and began to make her useless paddle motion.

The following Sunday Ruben took to the pulpit. He was doing it more and more these days. At first people didn’t pitch up if they knew she wasn’t preaching. People don’t like change. Like to know what they’re getting, regardless of whether they enjoy it or not. But bit by bit, Ruben was gaining acceptance. This week, Grace noted, the numbers were the same as last. This is good, she told herself, this is good.

“Seek and you will find,” Ruben began.

Grace nodded.

“Ask and you will receive,” Ruben continued.

Grace nodded.

“Many of us were lost, but now found,” Ruben added.

Grace paused, wondering if Ruben was going to have anything more original to say. 

“But what about us that do not know what to seek? But what about those who don’t know what to ask? But what about those sitting here today who are unaware of what is lost and needs to be found? Why? Because they already believe their eyes are firmly locked on Jesus Christ.”

And then Ruben’s eyes found Grace, lurking in a rear pew. His eyes remained there while his voice carried on, causing Grace to squirm.

Monday morning was to be her third and final surfing lesson. But Grace could not bring herself to pack her beach bag, let alone set it in the car. Ruben’s sermon still swirled around her head. She tried to read the Bible, but the words blurred. So she had set the Bible aside to pray; only her mind wouldn’t focus. 

She needed to cancel. Trouble was, she couldn’t find her cell phone. Didn’t have a landline. She looked in the car, under the bed, even sifted through the debris in her beach bag. Nothing. Desperately she began to search all the places it would never be: the vegetable drawer in the fridge, inside her three pairs of shoes, her sock drawer, and that random cupboard holding this and that under the sink. Her phone was not there. And then she spied it, her cell phone, spinning round and round inside the washing machine along with her weekly load of washing.

There was nothing to be done. Being a minister, she could not stand someone up. The message it would send. So she reluctantly packed her beach bag and set off for the beach.

“Hey, you made it!” Marko called out with a grin, as she slid into the parking spot next to his kombi.

“Sorry I’m late, my phone’s in the wash.”

Marko tipped back his head and laughed. “Done that a couple times myself. Front loader?”

Grace nodded.

“That’s the trouble with those machines. I’ve always managed to save the sim card, though. Yours?”

Grace shrugged. “The load was on spin by the time I realised. Figured there was no point in waiting to see. In God’s hands now.”

As the pair walked out towards their usual spot, Marko pointed at the sea. “This water is perfect for you today.”

Grace turned to face the ocean – it was virtually flat.

“I know you are getting to your feet today.” 

Grace wondered if he’d be terribly disappointed if she didn’t.

She managed to hop on to her board with a bit more ease, although admittedly Marko was holding it steady at the back. She paddled her useless paddle, but as they headed out, the few waves that smacked the board no longer seemed as daunting. As Marko turned the board around, she adjusted her arms and braced herself for the wave to pick her up.

She felt the tug, and then the push, and was already shoving her bulk up as Marko’s voice called out, “On your knees!”

And she was – on her knees; and miracles of miracles, she was still steady. She brought a foot forward and … she was standing. Really standing. The board carried her forward and it felt … She laughed. Grace laughed and laughed until her bottom hit the sandy ocean floor and she bounced.

Yessssssssssssss!” she heard Marko holler as a wave rolled by and smacked her in the face. 

Back in the parking lot Grace looked at Marko. “Thank you.” She meant it. It had been an exhilarating experience. The three times she managed to “pop up”, as Marko called it, had been … inspiring – although she doubted she would ever touch a surfboard again.

Marko grinned while towelling dry his hair. “Hey, it’s a pleasure. Not everyday I get to teach a preacher. And we got you to your feet. I can now move to Cape Town with a clear conscience.”

Grace paused in the middle of assembling her beach bag. “Moving? Is this because of your fiancée’s job?”

Marko looked at her thoughtfully. “Not exactly, but something like that.”

“But it’s so lovely here. Nice small towns are a perfect place to raise a family.”

“Sure,” Marko said, tossing his wetsuit into a bucket he kept in his kombi. “But not the kind of family I’ll be having.”

Marko cocked his head to the side and studied her. Grace waited. That was part of her job description after all, to wait. To hear what people needed to say. It was clear Marko had something to say, and Grace was prepared to hear it.

“Listen, I’m gay. I know you are a preacher, but  … well, anyway, I’ll be better off in Cape Town. There isn’t a place for people like me here. ”

Grace willed her face not to betray her shock. “Well, I suppose you are right. This area is more traditional, I suppose.”

Marko nodded. “Exactly.”

Grace placed her beach bag into her car and then lowered herself into the driver’s seat, unsure how to say goodbye.

“Hey,” Marko said, coming up to her door, “Merry Christmas.”

“Yes,” Grace said, and, making a decision with herself, she stood back up and gave Marko a hug. “Merry Christmas.”

On her way home she stopped by and sorted out a new phone. These modern times, they could transfer her number, just like that. Then she went home, going directly into her cramped study. She fetched the old biscuit tin and pulled out a stack of postcards, lining them up one by one, till all fifteen were on display. One for every year he had been gone. The message was simple: his e-mail address. 
Picking up the latest card, which bore a Canadian moose on the front, Grace opened her laptop. She connected the fancy gadget Ruben had set her up with, insisting a preacher of today could not be without the internet. She had no idea what to write. What could she say? After an hour, all she had written was her cell number and the words: “Call me.” It would have to do.

On Christmas Day Grace looked at her congregation and her heart filled with love.

“Merry Christmas!” she said.

“Merry Christmas!” her congregation shouted back.

“Did you all get presents?”

Children squealed and held up toys of various shapes and colours.

“Good,” she said. “Because I got one, too. A phone call. A phone call from my son.”

The congregation went quiet.
“Today is the day we celebrate our Saviour’s birth. But what about when he became a teenager, hey? What about when he started running off to the temple, not telling his parents where he was going? What then?”

Her congregation blinked.

“Over the years I kept reaching for the Bible, consoling myself with the story of the Prodigal Son. I told the Good Lord, ‘I will be here, with open arms, when he is ready to come back.’”
Grace paused. Nobody was checking their watch. Nobody was picking at scabs. It had been fifteen years, but she had long suspected that everyone still talked about it. Her son revealing his seemingly terrible secret. The argument. Her husband roaring “Satan get behind me” as he tossed their son out. Then the fatal heart attack.
Taking a deep breath she willed her voice to remain steady. “I kept waiting for him to return. I had you, my people, to take care of. God’s work for me was here. To carry on what Satan tried to destroy. And my son … well, to him I sent my prayers. But it has become clear that it is not enough.”
Grace reached out and took a sip of water. Her congregation waited.

“My people … My beloved congregation. Today on Christmas Day I give to you your church. I see that I am no longer needed here. That this is no longer my place. Five years ago the Lord sent us Ruben and it is only in my own neediness, my refusal to see the gift the Good Lord had put before me, that it has taken till now to realise I am now free from my husband’s ministry.”
Not a single soul moved. Grace felt herself grinning, knowing that nobody had listened so intently to anything she had said in years.
“People, I don’t know what the Good Lord has in store for me in Canada. I don’t know exactly what it is I am going to find. But I am going to try to open my heart up to Jesus and really listen … Maybe I’ll gain a bit better understanding. Perhaps … perhaps I’ve been wrong. Fifty-six. Kept telling myself I was too old to change. But now I am seeing that I am too young to stay the same. It will all be fine, because I’ve got Jesus, and so have you. Ruben is here to help you from going astray … Merry Christmas.”
And that was that. Grace looked out. But everyone stared right back. She had nothing more to say. The congregation blinked, so she glanced at the choir, but they, too, only stared back, some with mouth agape. She gazed further back till her eyes found Ruben. His face was aglow. Locking eyes with her, Ruben stood up and began to clap. 



This piece contains many references to the following: The Bible,the Christmas hymn “O’ Holy Night”, and the nursery rhyme “I’m a little teapot”. The title is a play on words to the children’s song “Fishing for Jesus”. In addition, I’d like to express my personal thanks to Billeon Surf & Sand for their exceptional patience.