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Monday, March 26, 2012

Lessons from Almost Dying: Free Diving then Climbing up a Cliff



Anyone who has been in a major accident knows what I am talking about. So do those who have faced life-threatening circumstances where every odd was stacked against them. My experience isn't really all that unique, except I think that what I learned from it is extremely enlightening. This is the story of how I should've died, but didn't, and what I learned through the experience.

The day started off nicely. I snoozed my alarm 4 times before actually getting up, then spent some quiet time with God - always a good day when you begin the day with the person who loves you the most. I prayed for a while, and then got ready to meet my friend Erik (think Asian Survivorman meets Emeril Lagasse) who was going to take me free diving in Palos Verdes.

When I walked outside, the brisk weather made me question whether I should go in the water that day even with a wetsuit on. I started my car and my dad called me to pray for me, something he does when I travel, but not something he does when I am just running around LA for the day. I prayed with him and arrived at Erik’s place by 9am to find that we are taking a slow morning. I ate some hard-boiled eggs and cereal with granola at his house and we headed out. We stopped by a store to rent a wetsuit and diving equipment for myself and buy a fishing license.

When we arrived at our dive spot, we checked the spear guns to find that one of the bands on one was worn out and the trigger on the other was busted. We only had one gun now between the two of us. Then, we headed down a hidden trail about 300 feet to the bottom of the bluffs.

When we arrived at the bottom, Erik noticed that his wetsuit had completely split apart at the seams around his crotch area leaving his family jewels fully exposed. We contemplated returning, but he had a strap called a beaver tail that covered the exposed area. As I put my hood on, I noticed my circulation was significantly constricted, but since this was the first time I dove in cold water, I thought it was normal. I felt like I should pray for the day, so I said a quick prayer with Erik asking God to prevent the waters from overcoming us and to allow us to see his creation in a new light.

The water was murky with a visibility of about 5-7 feet. On our way out, there was an army of purple sea urchins – catch and eat the red and black ones, not the purple ones – that greeted you with warnings to stay away. My fins were only good for calm waters, not for choppy ones, and I was struggling to keep up with him as we got out 100 yards from the shore. On top of that, I was only given 10 pounds of weight, which didn’t allow for me to dive further than 7-10 feet below the water’s surface, which meant that I was practically an invalid as a spear fisherman that day. I tried my best to make the most of what I had, but after an hour, I decided that the day was unsuccessful so I told my friend that I was going to wait on shore for him and told him to catch something delicious for us to eat that night. He ended up catching a kelp rockfish that he pan-fried and six sea urchins (4 red and 2 black) that he made uni pasta with – delicious.

The Palos Verdes bluffs are like a series of coves – similar to Big Sur in many ways. They are crescent shaped plateaus that overlook the Pacific Ocean on the south side of Palos Verdes. The area we dove is made up of about 8-10 rocky coves that without shoes, is extremely difficult to navigate around. We started off on the third cove from the right. I thought we had swum to the second cove from the right, but we didn’t, so I passed the cove we started off at when I headed back. The problem is, the only two trails up and down these monstrous 300-foot bluffs were at the first and third coves from the right. I found myself being tossed and turned like laundry as I neared the shore. Because I was at a different cove than the one we had started from, I miscalculated the positions of all the reefs along with their spiny sea urchin friends. As the waves crashed down and tried to find their way to shore through the spaces between the reefs, I was simply an object to get through. Fortunately, as I bumped into two reefs with a cramped left calf, and low oxygen levels because of the hood on my head, none of the sea urchin’s spines penetrated through the wetsuit. When I made it ashore, I immediately took off the hood, unzipped my wetsuit and just sat for 10 minutes to allow my blood to circulate again.

I started to look around for our things and the trail as I started to feel normal, but everything looked different. First of all, the trail was gone. Second of all, I couldn’t see our bags and shoes anywhere. So I was standing there just scanning the entire cove for our things with a wetsuit, snorkel, knife, and 10 pounds of weight in my hands trying to figure out where our things could be. At first, I thought someone had stolen our things because we ran into ONE person as we headed down the trail to the cove. After thinking about it a little more, I assumed that we swam a little further than I had thought – since we were in the water for about an hour together and it took me only 15 minutes to get back to shore – so I decided to walk over to the next cove.

The rocks on these coves are not made of pillows and cotton candy. They are randomly placed and are no friend to bare feet. Add a cramped calf, a strained knee from hiking, 20 pounds of equipment, and a blazing sun to the equation and you have a recipe for misery. Trying to keep balance as I hopped from rock to rock with nothing, but 3mm neoprene socks on (which I am grateful that I had because it absorbed all the cuts my feet should’ve gotten), was miserable. Each cove is between 100-200 yards, which almost every football player could easily run in less than a minute on turf. But barefooted, with imbalanced equipment, it took me about 20-30 minutes to get from cove to cove. Add to that the even greater challenge of actually making it past each v-shaped point that connects one cove to the next, as you have to either climb boulders or get back in the cold water. I walked 5 coves, then came back one to make for a grand total of six – something to the likes of 800 yards or so.


As I approached the end of one cove to anticipate the next one, which I thought would be the cove that had my 1. shoes and 2. exit route, I realized that something very real was going on in my soul. The first cove was difficult, but my assumption was that just around that cove would be the trail that would lead to my salvation. I sang praise songs, thanking God I was even alive as I realized how constricted my circulation actually was, assuming that just around the corner would be my place of rest. After walking a hundred yards to the end of the cove and turning the corner, I was elated to see what looked like our bags. However, when I looked upward, I did not see the trailhead as these bluffs we’re a straight shot up. I thought maybe the trail could only be seen from certain angles. When I approached what I thought were our bags from afar, I realized that it was a dark rock in the shape of a duffel bag. I thought to myself, maybe I really did swim a lot further than I had thought to begin with and continued my trek to the next cove.

The entire way, I kept asking God to help my feet from hurting and slipping – both prayers that he didn’t answer. In fact, the neoprene socks, were now full of holes from walking on the rocks. As I made it to the next cove, one painful step after the next, I was discouraged to find that there was a sewage pipe in this cove. This meant that I was not yet at the cove we launched out of. I felt like everything I had hoped for was just destroyed. I was certain that our bags and the trail was going to be at this cove, and instead, was discouraged to realize that it wasn’t. I asked God over and over how I could bring Him glory in circumstances like these and my thoughts narrowed down to two: 1. If Jesus were my hope, then I would be ok losing my life today, and 2. If Jesus were my hope, then I would be filled with peace and joy. I stopped, stared out at the beautiful ocean and simply asked God to help me to embrace the truth of the Gospel. I tried calling up to the people walking along the tops of the bluffs, but they could not hear me and even if they saw me, they ignored me because my spastic arm waving was incoherent to them. This entire process of hope to disappointment repeated to the next three coves. My feet hurt more and more, the exhaustion from being hungry made each step harder to take and balance almost an impossible thing, and the sun setting made me wonder if the water would consume the coves at high tide (they don’t). I started to plan for a night in the coves as no one had found me after 2.5 hours of being missing. I knew I could sleep with my wetsuit on and stay warm through the night so I debated if I should put it on then, but realized that I would dehydrate from all the sweating as the sun was still out. It was about 4pm.

I didn’t actually think I was going to die, but I had no idea if I would really live. I didn’t know if Erik had died himself, or if he had been looking for me and couldn’t find me. I didn’t know if the helicopter I saw twice was a rescue helicopter and they just couldn’t see me. I simply didn’t know. My hope was placed in finding a way back up so that I could live, but around every cove, that hope kept getting demolished.

To be honest, when you are that exhausted and in that much pain, you want to give up. A part of me was ready to go to Jesus, but not because I was in despair and hated life. There are situations – usually where there is injustice and oppression – that people are justified in their despair and hatred of living. I didn’t have anyone pointing a gun at me, I was not enslaved, I was not fearful that someone was out to get me, and by no means do I equate my experiences to that, but I simply felt ok with the idea of death. Sure, I was utterly exhausted because by the time I had reached the fifth cove, it was 4pm. I only had a bowl of cereal and a couple of eggs in the morning, and with the sun blaring down at me, my energy levels had depleted to next to nothing. But I sat there for a 20 minutes asking God if it was my time to go. This last year with God has been the most incredible yet. It’s almost like the aftermath of what people experience during retreats and Christian conferences, but sustained for a much longer duration. I compare it to getting plugged in. If Christians are all called to reflect the light of God to others, then the only way we can function as lamps is if we are plugged into the power source. No lamp can generate power itself, and batteries can only last so long. We must completely rely on a power source that is greater than us in every way. This experience of being plugged in has revolutionized the way I experience life.

This is what I felt God was teaching me. How I react and respond to things matter, that in every circumstance, I could place my hope in God, or I could place my hope in anything else (including myself, my family, my skills, my social networks, my career, my resources, etc.). God was showing me that if I became disappointed, fell into despair, wanted to give up, or got angry because I wasn’t getting what I wanted, that my hope was not in Him, but in something else. I think we all do this in varying degrees with relationships, careers, success, and reputation. It becomes difficult however, when your life is on the line and you need God to help you get through the challenge. Through my diminishing hope around each cove, I experienced a little more of what it meant to place my primary hope in Jesus. When I got to the fifth cove, I contemplated on going to the next one, but instead, sat on a rock to think and pray. At this point, I was almost certain that I had swum further than I should have and passed the cove that the trail and my glorious Teva’s (sandals) were on. However, I couldn’t be a hundred percent sure and debated rounding just one more cove to be certain. I passed a lighthouse and was now certain that my salvation from this mess was now six coves behind me. I had to make a decision.

I didn’t want to put the wetsuit back on as it really made it difficult for me to breath and with the exhaustion and low levels of energy, didn’t think that I could swim against the current with limited circulation. My feet were murderous as I agonized over each step trying to find ways to ease the pain, sometimes going fast and falling and at other times taking it slow to allow the pain to really work its way into all parts of my feet. I asked God to give me strength, and began to head back, but this time, I didn’t feel hopeless. I felt that everything was okay the moment I surrendered my desire to find a way out to God and allowed Jesus’ reality to define my own. I honestly wanted to just sit there until the coast guard picked me up because I remembered this one joke about how a woman refused the help of a neighbor who warned her of a coming flood, a man in a boat escaping the flood, and the coast guard who came to rescue her as she was standing on the roof because she only wanted to be saved by God. When she went to heaven and asked God why He didn’t rescue her, He told her that He sent the neighbor, the man in the boat, and the Coast Guard, but she refused His warning/help every single time. I was okay waiting for the Coast Guard because I wouldn’t deny them if they came. I was at a place where peace filled my heart and joy began to flow through my veins. It came in the form of being restful in soul, but understanding that I could exhaust myself to the end and I would be just fine as it would bring glory to God through my short time on this Earth. My hope was no longer in living, but in the fact that I have already received eternal life. This allowed me to look beyond my physical pains, my exhaustion, my wants, and my struggles. This allowed me to be filled with the hope of Christ when I honestly felt like there was no hope in the world – even if I thought the Coast Guard would probably show up at some point.


I felt like I was being a bit selfish and putting God to the test expecting Him to send the Coast Guard for me, so I looked around to see if there was another way out, even though it would be a bit more challenging. I double backed one cove to analyze the cliffs. This one wasn’t a 90-degree straight shot up. It was more like a 70-80 degree incline the entire way up. I calculated what seemed to be the shorted distance up – still about 300 feet – and the pathway with the most angles to be able to leverage myself upwards. I was not going to attempt to be Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 1, 2, 3, or 4. The first 20 feet were fairly easy and I thought I was making good progress until every rock and protruding surface I grabbed onto either fell downwards or crumbled in my hands. At this point, I was determined to go up, praying to God every single second for help, while thanking God for the great lesson of singular hope in Christ I had just learned.

With every movement, I had to wedge by body against the surface of the hill, burrow my feet into the clay like terrain, apply pressure to every limb on my body, and keep moving forward. As I made it to 50 feet, I was breathing in entire clouds of dust that I kept kicking up as I tried to grab for a branch that would break off or a rock that would fall loose. Around my waist was an extra 10 pounds of weight, with fins, a snorkel and a knife in one hand, and my wetsuit tied around my neck like a person I was piggybacking would.

In my pathway, I encountered, tree branches that had broken off and somehow gotten lodged in the dirt, loose gravel, and an endless supply of twigs. There were two areas which I could only use my arms to climb with absolutely no certainty that it wouldn’t crumble as I clenched onto it at 60 feet, then again at 280 feet. I was sweating profusely, and the dust started to cake around my face and then run into my eyes as I kept climbing. I felt like I was climbing a sand mountain in the middle of a dust storm.

The incredible thing along the way was that as the majority of branches and rocks I grabbed onto kept breaking off or loose, there was always one that I could rely on. I spent a lot of time during each movement upwards to test and re-test the strength of every upward step I would take and as much as I was disappointed that the rocks and branches that seemed the most sturdy and stable were actually the flimsiest and loosest, I found great joy in knowing that there was at least one I could rely on. Just after learning about hope, I was now learning about faith.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, frequently states that it isn’t the strength of our faith that saves us, but the strength of the object of our faith that saves us. He uses the analogy of someone falling off a cliff – how ironic – and seeing a branch and grabbing onto the branch. He says that if the branch is weak, then no matter how much you hope and wish for that branch to be able to save you, it cannot. If you grab onto it, it will simply break and you will plunge to your death with a broken branch in your hand. However, if the branch is strong, then no matter how certain or uncertain you are of that branch being able to hold your weight, by simply reaching out and grabbing onto it, it will hold you up. I experienced this first hand grabbing onto rocks that fell loose, jutting surfaces that crumbled in my hands like sand being poured between my fingers, and literal branches and even entire bushes that broke loose because they were not rooted deeply enough. However, as I kept trying, I kept finding the one branch, the one rock, and the one surface that could hold me up, even during the times that I had absolutely no faith that it would. In fact, there were three times I lost my balance and almost slipped to fall back and grab onto a protruding rock that stayed lodged in and a branch no thicker than an inch in diameter that didn’t break from the tree. I knew that as long as I grabbed onto something that was able to hold me up, that I would be fine. What I didn’t know was, what would actually hold me up?

As I started getting to the last 50 feet I started to see patterns in the rocks, branches, and surface areas that were reliable to hold me up. I didn’t have to test every surface area as I was able to make snap judgments based on my former experiences as I was climbing. Instead, I could simply look for the indicators of a reliable rock or branch. When I was in Panama with the Peace Corps, I went hiking with some of the people in my village who were about my age. One time, we went on a 7-hour hike to a waterfall through one of the muddiest areas I’ve ever been. Later, I found out that it was actually not mud, but a mixture of mud and cow poo because there were a ton of cows. I fell face first into it as my rubber boots got stuck and I fell thigh deep into it, but that’s a different story for a different time. This was all unfamiliar terrain for me. I had never hiked in mud, especially mud that acted like quick sand. As we started the hike, everyone, even the 13-year-old girl that tagged along was faster than me. They simply didn’t sink into the mud poop like I did. They had learned at an early age which spots they could step on so not to sink that they glided across the terrain like Kim Yu Na skates across the ice. Not me. Every three or four steps, I was knee deep in crap (literally). However, after a while, I started to see which dry areas were credulous for me to put my weight on and which ones were deceiving. I made it to the waterfall, rinsed off like it was the most glorious shower I’d ever taken, and then headed back. Because I became familiar with the terrain, I made it back faster than everyone except one guy who I needed the help of to navigate home – otherwise, I would’ve been lost.

This experience made real to me that faith is really minimally about us. It is actually about the thing we place our faith in. This makes sense if we come to grips that all things are created for the glory of God and sin is the act of taking that glory and attributing it to yourself or to something else besides Him. It’s easy to think that our faith is the thing that saves us, but it’s really just a means by which grace is dispensed to us. Faith then, is something for us not to boast about, but to remain humble in. The minute I started to believe that I could hoist myself up on a rock was the minute I lost my balance and the rock fell loose. No matter how well I positioned myself and no matter how strong I was, if I placed my faith in my own abilities then the Coast Guard would have scraped me up from the base of the cliff. If I didn’t respect the rock that could hold me up, then I wouldn’t be able to humbly submit to it.

I know a lot of people that think they do these great things for God because of their great faith. They quote Hebrews 11 and scour through the Old Testament for stories that would validate their claims. This is dangerous because God becomes a means to a different end. Truly honoring God comes in the form of great humility, something I am still being worked on, which only comes from seeing that it is His grace that allows us to have faith to begin with. The beauty of faith is that it is the substance that makes up our relationship with God. It is, in other words, our way of saying Thank You to the God who saved us. It is a response to something He did on the cross for us. It is trusting that there is no greater hope than the hope He offers.


When I neared the top of the cliff, I was faced with a major challenge. My head was less than 5 feet from the top; however, the only way up was to completely rely on a branch to hold me up. The edge of the cliff crumbled in my hands every time I put a little pressure on it. Below me was a near vertical decline of 80 degrees that if I slipped now, would plunge me to my death. I needed to either trust in a branch that seemed reliable based on the measures I had learned throughout this journey, or turn back without any certainty that I would survive. I threw everything I was carrying atop the ledge with my wetsuit almost falling back twice. I nearly lost my balance and almost fell with it. Fortunately, I was lodged in deeply enough to the dirt that it held me in place.

If I grabbed the branch with all my weight, which I would have to do in order to use it to climb up like a rope, it meant that if it broke, I would fall back, but if it didn’t I would’ve put my life in the hands of a branchy bush. Of course, since you are reading this, you know that the branch was able to support me and I survived, but to be honest, as I grabbed onto it with two hands and completely depended on it for 20 seconds, I spent 18 of those seconds praying for those I loved and asking God to console them if I died. Fortunately, the object of my absolutely weak faith was strong enough to bring me to safety.

As I made it up and put my arms on the last ledge to climb over, I saw something that baffled me: people. Standing there by a whale watching station only 15 feet away were 30-40 people who were staring at me like I was Sponge Bob Square Pants - dirt made me even more yellow and all the scratches put a few holes in me. As they stared, I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t come to help me. I clearly needed it, and as I threw things over, they knew someone was trying to make it up the cliff where a sign about how dangerous it was, was posted. When I was contemplating holding onto the final branch that brought me to safety, I threw a snorkel set, two fins, a pair of gloves, a knife in its holster, a wetsuit, and weights; there was no way they didn’t see these things plop onto the pathway like fish jumping out of the water. But they all just stared, not one person asking me if I was ok as I was scratched up, dusty, and bleeding at the knees. I felt like instead of whale watching, they were Ray watching and I was unlike anything they had seen in their lives.

When I walked away abashed, I was speechless, yet enlightened by how their posture and expressions were very much like mine in my own faith. How often do I walk around ignoring all the signs that people are lonely, hurt, in need of help or a friend, struggling to provide a meal for a friend, needing support to fight an addiction, or just in need of someone to show them that they care? I walk by so many people on the streets of Los Angeles, and when I am in Chicago or New York or San Francisco, the same is true there. I wonder what would happen if I started to look for signs in them that demonstrate the desperation for some good news to break into. I wonder what would happen if I stopped seeing rude people and annoying people as nuisances or menaces and instead saw the place of pain they were coming from. I wonder what would happen if I simply decided to become even more inefficient with my life, to throw my schedule aside so that I could help the wounded person on the side of the road who smelled and was cursing away at everyone because they kept on passing him by. I wonder what would happen if all of us who call ourselves Christians did that once a year, once a month, or even daily. I wonder what would happen if people saw my hurt and my pain when I feel far from God because I chose to believe that something else would complete me. I can’t help but imagine how the world would then begin to see that Christians are not the problem, but they bring the solution, which isn’t simply justice or provisions, but something so much greater: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


This Gospel is not advice about how we can become better people. It is not a series of steps you can take to become more liked by people, or more successful in life. It also is not a manual for how we should live our lives so that we can gain a status in this world that makes us respected or admired, or people worth taking note of. The Gospel is the news about a God who loved us so much that he gave up the thing He most loved so that we could experience that love for ourselves. It is the news that what we once had with God, which was peace, acceptance, joy, and intimacy could be fully restored free of charge to us because He paid the bill himself. The only thing required by us is that He actually took care of the bill.

Jesus came down, relinquishing all that He had so that He could make our reality His own. This is love. Jesus came down, replacing all we deserved and took it upon Himself so that He could give us all that He gave up. This is love. Jesus came down, relinquishing his title as King to become a pauper so that He could make us heirs to His Kingdom. This is love. Jesus came down to give up His life as a ransom for our own so that we may live with Him throughout all eternity. This is love. Jesus came down forsaking a perfect state of existence and unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit so that we would never be forsaken. This is love.

Love is the foundation for everything worthwhile. Apart from love, nothing is of any real value. Love should transform the way we spend our time, spend our money, and spend our energy. It should motivate us to serve people not to fix them, but to show them the beauty of Christ as we come to see it. It should fuel our lives in a way that gives us vigor to live and to share life with others. It should help us to forgive fully, seek always to understand, and to seek justice around every corner. As God is love, we must never depart from Him. In Him, we look to the pains of others and carry them ourselves. In Him, we withhold condemnation and judgment on others. In Him, we look to find ways to demonstrate love and to serve those around us. In Him, we are always humble, empathetic, and aware of our utter weakness.

Without love, faith and hope would be self-help tools to get me from one destination to the next. These tools would one day become dull, as they would never allow me to realize that I have everything that I could ever need from the very place I am standing; and that is love. It is because of love that living life brings joy and the idea of death has no sting whatsoever. It is because of love that we can celebrate in times of plenty and in times of poverty, in times when we have many friends and in times when we have none, in circumstances where injustice is being done to us and in circumstances we are being condemned – it is because of the love of Jesus Christ, demonstrated on the cross, that we can find freedom from every circumstance of this world. The question is, will you choose to believe it and keep believing it?

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