I once spent several long and happy afternoons among 10-foot waves that were challenging world surfing champions such as Shaun Tomson and Anthony Brodowicz. I wasn't actually out there on a board. I was body-surfing in shallow waters, reporting close-up for television on an international event near Durban, on the southeast coast of South Africa.
Despite the entourage of bronzed fans who engulfed the surfers as they traveled from event to event, I had no difficulty reaching the top competitors and discovering a side of them that doesn't often make the headlines.
Most of them were effortlessly polite and cooperative, and they were clearly too busy preparing for each day's events to live it up in ways often associated with young men (and women) on the international circuit.
I soon learned that many of them consider mental fitness to be as essential to their sport as physical conditioning. This includes the development of such qualities as courage, wisdom, persistence, vigilance, intuition, and patience.
In his book "The Present Future," Reggie McNeal, who teaches leadership development in churches, colleges, and para-church organizations, says that he's never seen a surfer plan a single wave. But he has seen them prepare to ride the waves when they come.
Using this observation to make a point about people's spiritual progress, McNeal writes, "God does the planning; we do the preparing.... He does not say, 'I am waiting for you to develop plans I can bless.' "
This emphasis on preparation is a prime focus of the study of Christian Science. Its Founder, Mary Baker Eddy, called on students to pray daily. She urged them to "prepare for the reign of Spirit, the kingdom of heaven, - the reign and rule of universal harmony, which cannot be lost nor remain forever unseen" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," p. 208).
As I see it, that "universal harmony" - peaceful, unifying, healing - is not on the far side of the next wave. It is on the cusp of every wave - sparkling and transparent, waiting to be ridden triumphantly.
However, I have learned that champion surfers don't just wriggle to their feet at the approach of the first promising wave and passively let the surging water carry them back to the spectators on tiptoes on sun-drenched beaches. Surfers don't even get within splashing distance of the prize-money without years of training and commitment.
That kind of dedication is also an essential part of the core beliefs, practices, and virtues of the Christian life, all of which demand extraordinary preparation. Repeat: preparation, not planning.
This doesn't mean that people of faith won't encounter some unpredictable waves during their spiritual journeys - both the dumping and the uplifting kinds. But I have found that those who get to ride these waves are almost invariably Truth-seekers who are prepared to "get in on what God is up to," as McNeal puts it.
I have also found that even when you feel a bit like Jonah in the Bible, with waters encompassing you "even to the soul," you can call to God "with the voice of thanksgiving," and find firm footing on dry land (see Jonah 2:3-10).
Through prayer, spiritual ideas are revealed to us at precisely the moment we most need them. And this happy coincidence is in proportion to the thoroughness of one's preparation - to the receptivity of one's thinking.
Increasingly, I love entertaining fresh ideas - even ideas that at first may seem unorthodox. I'm learning that it's important to seize the adventure of faith and ride it with exhilaration all the way to a deeper understanding of the divine Mind's plans for us, which are guaranteed to be thought-stretching and good.
The surf is always up in the realm of Spirit. We just have to be mentally and spiritually prepared to select the right waves and ride them fearlessly with God.