The salts of the Pacific dried on their skin as they huddled together at the hospital, still clothed in their beach shorts and hoodies grabbed in a hurry. They spanned the ages of 13 to 30.
Inland children, every single one of them raised among rolling fields of wheat and low-lying acres of watermelon. The sort of kids who poke fun of their cousins come from Portland to drive the hay truck, or combine. City kids can’t tell the difference between an irrigation pipe and a culvert. They have to be taught.
We farm around these parts. Perfect circles that nudge up next to each other, as if God scooped up earth and dropped it from a cookie scoop and baked it all under a just right summer sun. There is one big body of water from which farmers water these fields — the mighty Columbia.
Inland kids know better than to mess with the Columbia. She is a bitch of a river. This is the mother who slaps you when you least expect it. The one who says, “Mess with me and I’ll take you down, boy.” On the days when the wind doesn’t rile her up, when she looks like a shard of God’s hand-held mirror fallen from the heavens, even then, Inland kids know better than to trust her. Nothing about the Columbia is tranquil. She will suck you under in a heartbeat. Smother you up against her belly until the only thing left are the echoes across the water canyon of your loved ones calling your name.
Not to say she’s not nurturing. She does feed us, after all. So much salmon our bellies can’t hold it, and the asparagus stalks that fill the fields are rooted in her. She cares for us like a mother on crack, in her own willful way, generous one minute, threatening our lives the very next.
But Inland kids, raised with such a respect and fear of the river, often consider the ocean as God’s giant water-park. How could a body of water that comes ashore in the foam of a car-wash be dangerous? There are few months during the year when the Pacific’s waters are warm enough to body surf without the wet suits. July is one of ’em.
This was the week the youth made their annual trek to the coast for a time of fun and fellowship. Hot dogs and s’mores cooked over the campfire. Early morning runs and light night walks. Reflective moments, sitting on a prayer log talking with God, away from laptops and iPhones, where the only electricity is what’s coursing through your own body.
Nobody, not the seniors or the incoming freshman, nor the youth pastor, whose heart is strong and good, saw anything remotely dark gathering underneath that mid-afternoon sun.
They were just having fun, body-surfing, laughing, calling out to each other, “Hey, watch this!” And congratulating each other with “Whoa! That was sooo awesome!” after the wave carried them forward through bubbly foam.
Until it didn’t.
By the time the rip-tide came, they were already tired and further out than they realized, further than they should have been, maybe.
A riptide is a devil with a foot-noose, it grabs you from below and yanks you under quicker than you can call out “HELP, PLEASE!”
He drowned there among the midst of them, as they all struggled together, soldiers on the foam front. One of our own boys, on a youth trip meant for fellowship and fun.
The news reports called him a 20-year-old man, but to all of us, he was Mike and Laura’s boy, Zach and Lexi’s brother.
Smart. Funny. Caring. God-loving.
Last week he was helping out at Vacation Bible School.
This week we are burying him.
The grief comes in waves, knocking us to our knees, threatening to yank us under.
Pray for us, will you?
Pray Zane’s death won’t be in vain but for God’s glory, his granny said.
She’s the woman we all turn to at church when it is the prayers of the righteous we need.