Artificial reefs

“They don’t know that it isn’t real.” This was the reply from Rodrigo, the man who took our family snorkeling on his little boat, the ship’s name painted in blue letters on the side: Flaquita. I had asked him about the artificial reefs we’d seen on the ocean floor, dome-like concrete structures covered with round holes where the fish blissfully swam in and out of.


We had seen a few natural reefs down there, too, but these concrete versions were all over the place, and I was curious about them. I figured Rodrigo might be able to answer my questions. Short and round and wearing a tank top and shorts, he would slide off the boat and into the water gracefully in spite of those awkward flippers. Then he would dive down deep, his back nearly resting on the sandy ocean floor so that he could take pictures of us as we mostly hovered at the surface with our snorkel staying above the water, each breath coming out forcefully and noisily. Considering the amazing length he could hold his breath, I began to wonder if he was actually part fish.


At the end of our underwater adventure, the six of us sat across a makeshift table constructed from a foam boogie board and ate the ceviche prepared by Rodrigo’s friend, the man who drove the boat and therefore was just referred to as Capitán. We drank sugary Mexican sodas and used homemade tortilla chips to scoop up chunks of the tender pieces of Mahi-Mahi cured in lime juice and tossed with cucumbers, red onions, and tomatoes. As we ate, I asked Rodrigo about the artificial reefs. “Do the fish like them right away, do you think? Or do they see them as something that doesn’t belong down there?”


“They don’t know that it isn’t real,” he answered. Maybe he thought my question was silly. They’re only fish, after all. One fish identical to the next one, their only goal to survive another day and avoid being a tasty lunch. But we humans at least claim that we crave authenticity. We scorn the pretenders, expose the counterfeit, mock the phonies. I’d like to think that if I were one of those striped beauties swimming in the clear water, I’d see those artificial reefs and know they weren’t the real thing. I’d recognize that they were out of place and go looking for the natural ones not made from concrete. Oh, no. They wouldn’t fool me!


With all that’s troubling around us, I think we’re all looking for shelter from something trusted and real. Real relationships. Real information. Something and somebody we can count on and understand when the craziness swimming past us in a blur seems unrecognizable and often pretty scary. The sand is shifting beneath our feet, so we crave something sturdy, something real. At that moment, it’s time to be reminded of our Great God. There’s nothing artificial about Him. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging….The Lord Almighty is with us.” (Psalm 46)


We are the champions

Last weekend, our youngest son’s soccer team played in a tournament in Gatlinburg. Back in August, when they first listed it among the other scheduled games, I thought, “Outdoor soccer in the Smokies in December?! Brrrrr!” But in true Tennessee fashion, it was weirdly warmish, with the main precipitation coming in the form of pea-soup thick fog on Sunday morning.


I’m an introvert by nature, preferring to avoid the spotlight in favor of watching others somewhere along the fringe. And whether you’re there for a sporting event or not, Gatlinburg is a prime people-watching location. Actually, it’s stimulus overload. But with all that we saw over the two days we were there (this includes the hordes of visitors traversing the main strip of shops and restaurants and a big black bear which wandered right up to the window of the cabin), it was the faces of the players and their parents which I was most interested in.


As I’ve been writing fiction for several years, I’ve become fascinated by learning what makes people tick and using this unscientific data to influence the arc of my storyline and the backstory of my characters. Anytime a person stands in front of you, presenting himself in some particular way, there are actually thousands of experiences at work in his words and actions and choices. The smile which doesn’t quite meet his eyes or that tiny twitch in the corner of his mouth or his fingers tap-tapping on his leg. People are just so complicated.


At a big tournament like this one, you see what Jim McKay, the late ABC sports announcer, would call “…the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat…the human drama of athletic competition…” The thing I realized about myself as I watched a nearby game conclude on an adjacent field to the one where my son was warming up with his team, was that I was actually more interested in the faces of the losing team than those of the winning team. The winners jumped and cheered and hugged each other as they celebrated a hard fought victory. Not much variation there. But the losers…that’s where you see the range and depth of emotions. Some boys dropped to the ground and pounded the dirt with their fists, some offered a hand to help those teammates up on their feet, some cried unrestrained tears, and some stood motionless in despair. Then there was one 11 or 12 year-old kid who approached a player from the opposing team to congratulate him. He extended his hand in a friendly handshake, then he went along and continued shaking the hands of the rest of the team. His teammates noticed and joined in. No doubt this is his coach’s customary instruction after a game, but he did it with maturity and grace.


It stinks to lose. Even someone like me who never played sports and usually shies away from competition can own up to the fact that it’s no fun being on the losing side. But when we teach our kids about integrity and good sportsmanship and perspective, and they can be consistently honorable in the face of winning and losing, they are true champions no matter the final score.

Firm foundation

Going on a cruise for Spring Break sounded like such a good idea. Just think of all the places you can go and all the things you can see! Everyone tells you about the all-day access to food and the fun excursions and the swimming pool on the ship but no one tells you about the post-cruise misery.


I’m not talking about the piles of laundry or the unavoidability of going back-to-work/school. Nor am I discussing the fact that now that we’re home, no one is coming in my room while I’m at supper to turn down my bed and leave cute animals made from hand towels and washcloths. No, my problem is something else. Days after the cruise has ended, my brain still thinks I’m on a boat.


Though on dry land, the floor still slopes and slants. I have to reach out and lean against the wall to steady myself when I walk down the hallway at home. My head feels heavy and my feet shuffle slowly. My own mixed-up body betrays me.


I’ve been told that I’m waiting for the motion sickness medicine I used throughout the trip to wear off. Ironically, the medicine that kept me from feeling nauseated on the boat is now making me feel nauseated on land. Go figure.


This seasickness has got me thinking about what’s underneath me, where I find my footing, and what gives me the most stability. I think of Jesus’ parable about the wise man who built his house upon a firm foundation.


Jesus tells this story at the end of his famous 3-chapter long sermon in Matthew. He tells the people how to be blessed in Matthew 5. Then He continues with practical rules about how to treat others and how to live a holy, fulfilling life in Matthew 6. By the end of Matthew 7, I wonder if the minds of the people were swimming in all these instructions. It’s hard to remember that this may have been brand new, unprecedented information for Jesus’ audience.


So in His wisdom, Jesus gives the people an object lesson. He tells them that all of these practices He has given them can be like the foundation of a house. When (not if) the bad times come, the house will stand because the foundation is solid. On the contrary, hearing what Jesus teaches but not authentically living them out loud leaves them with shifting sand beneath them.


Somewhere in our mixed-up brains, we say that freedom in Christ is the permission to live any old way we want. The teachings that made our salvation possible look irrelevant or old-fashioned. But Jesus offers a practical guide to home-building. He says, “Give to the needy. Don’t worry. Love your enemies. Store up your treasures in heaven.” Make these the bedrock for your life so that the storms won’t topple you.