Friday, April 8, 2011

Soul Surfer:The Movie and Reflections on Kauai

Some scenes and spring surf from Kauai and Oahu

I just recently saw a screening of Soul Surfer, a new movie that will be premiering tonight April 8 about Bethany Hamilton’s story. Hamilton went from rising surf star to shark attack victim. She had her arm bitten completely off by a tiger shark while surfing on Kauai’s North Shore and had to endure an intense recovery from such a traumatic event. Learning to surf again with one arm, as well as going through the trying process of understanding how bad things can eventually be conquered and overcoming severe adversity, it is inspiring to see someone overcome such a serious trial in their life.

On another level the movie stirred a lot of reflections for me since Soul Surfer was actually shot on the island of Kauai itself, where my own uncle lived and where I was first introduced to surfing and gave it a try. It brought on some vivid memories of days there in Kauai:

I was just a little guy around our son’s age when I was eating lunch with my family at The Waiohai, a resort on the South Shore, and noticed some kid out there ripping up some waves. He looked about my same height and age of about ten years, so it caught my eye. My aunt said: “You could learn if you gave it a try. I think your uncle has an extra board in the backyard somewhere.”

My uncle was a surfer but had gotten more into windsurfing over the years so the board had been abandoned in some bushes in the backyard. I dug around and found the board and cleaned it up. It felt like it weighed a thousand pounds, so my dad had to help me carry it down to the beach.

I’d heard you needed wax for surfboards so we got some out of my uncle’s garage, but then I was perplexed: “Where does it go? Probably on the bottom like skis.” I said. As I waxed the bottom of the board some guys coming down the beach yelled out: “Hey haole, you waxing the bottom, what you a potato-head from Idaho, you some kind of kook ehh.” Well, those sure were some encouraging words, but it did lead us to the conclusion that the wax goes on the deck, not on the bottom.

I tried paddling out but didn’t get far trying to go through the soup with that heavy barge. So back to the beach, where we found a little cove with some micro waves that seemed more fit for a first try. A few paddles and pushes from Dad and I was up and riding some six to ten inchers on the islands.

Stoked from just those little waves, I got my first board shortly after getting back to the mainland and persevered through freezing water and harsh conditions, wearing only a beaver tail wetsuit, enduring endless wipeouts, crashes, and dings to the head and body, to actually finally learn to surf.

The transition from warm water Kauai to freezing water in California, and from a 10-foot log to a 5’10’ shortboard, slowed the progress a bit, but somehow I pushed through and kept going.

This was the time before the plethora of today’s surf schools and soft boards when “we did walk in the snow both ways uphill to school.” Back then you literally froze if you wanted to surf in California--wetsuits were just not that warm in those days--and learning was up to you and wasn’t always encouraged by other “local” surfers. We only had the regular hard boards in those days so when you fell, which is a regular occurrence while learning, and the board hit you, it was often a painful experience with actual blood oozing.

I spent time on Kauai on numerous surf trips over the years, hanging out at my uncle’s and surfing pretty much most of the spots the island has to offer.

The thought of the shark attack Bethany Hamilton experienced couldn’t help but stay in the back of my mind while surfing the very same spot on Kauai’s North Shore on a recent trip. It was a windy day so I was out there all by myself, which always adds to that eerie feeling. It was enough trying to avoid the long hold downs by some macking sets, but while I was paddling up a big wave face I was bumped hard by something large from behind. I nearly jumped out of my skin and didn’t really want to turn around and face what it was. Once outside I turned back and was relieved to see only a huge sea turtle—I could wipe the sweat off my brow, even while wet in the ocean, after that one. That definitely got my blood pumping.

Her story, as heavy as it may be, and its connection with surfing, has opened up numerous opportunities for Bethany to share her faith and be a bridge to others about Christ’s love.

God has also used surfing in our lives not only as a sport to stay healthy but to speak into our own lives as well as using it as a bridge to reach out to others:

After getting out of the surf on Kauai one day we went to grab some hamburgers. We happened to start talking to the girl taking orders at the burger stand and one thing led to another and we ended up sharing Christ with her. She told us that others had been talking to her a lot about “this kind of stuff.” Well, God had us there to explain a little more about what others had been trying to share with her. After talking a while and explaining the gospel to her, we asked if she would like to pray with us to receive Christ as her savior. Well she agreed it was time for a change in her life and we prayed right at the burger stand and a new believer was born again into God’s kingdom—Hallelujah!!

It turned out that one of those who had been sharing with her before us was headed off to Surfing The Nations that day—the same place we had just come from ministering a couple days before—wow, God really has a way of making things intersect!

The film Soul Surfer can be used as a tool for outreach. Hamilton, with God’s grace, has come back from one of the most traumatic and intense accidents a person could suffer. Recovering from injuries, accidents, serious illness, traumatic events, and the like can be a daunting task, pushing you beyond any resolve you may have on your own. Through my share of a long string of injuries, I have learned that drawing deep into God is the only way to move forward. Even though we may not understand all the why’s at that particular moment of some personal tragedy, it is still possible to let God minister to us and work in and through us. God worked in Bethany’s life through all the difficulty of recovery and readjustment, and can do the same for anyone who will open the door to His grace.

Last time I was on Kauai I was getting out from surfing some double to triple overhead surf at Hanalei Bay. I happened to walk right into Bethany Hamilton while heading to the car, meeting her briefly and talking with her a bit. It hit me while driving away that the challenge of surfing those large waves that day was enough in itself, and yet she was out there, going for it and charging those big waves, with only one arm. That’s something truly impressive.

Ministering with Surfing The Nations in Oahu