A Surfer's Prayer

I write this post in a state of disbelief. Last Friday, a group of us from the Well went to the library at Princeton Seminary to find resources for our liturgy and worship. While we came across a lot of excellent guides, ideas, and traditions, we also came across some embarrassing examples of Protestant worship gone awry. I will post two examples, one today and one tomorrow, both of them are prayers which were written for a series on "ventures in theology," a kind of experimental liturgy resource for Methodist churches in America. They condemn themselves, but I am compelled to offer my own remarks as well. But, first, here is "A Surfer's Prayer," reprinted exactly as it appears. I challenge anyone to read this out loud without laughing:

God, we pray for surf.

If it be your will

Let the swells roll
Over a sea of glass.

Dark in the distance
Let me see that ribbon of perfection,
Signal of the big wave.

Lord, let me catch this wave.
You know I've paddled hard to get here,
Waited long to find it.

Help me judge it, Lord,
Just right.
Not too soon . . .
Not too late . . .

When it starts
To drive me along
Down the mountain of water
Let me get up quickly

Cutting neat
And balancing trim

Give it the power to take me all the way.

Hearing the coming tear of the wave,
Feeling the kick of the surf,
My whole body throbbing with the thrill of it

I am at my best:
Clean, strong,
Carried by your wave

This is where you want me,
Isn't it, Lord?

But, Lord, if the surf is down
Help me to be up anyway,
Not tempted to trade an ocean of love
For a puddle of lust.

Not exchanging the long ride of life
For the quick and easy lift of drugs.

Don't let me misjudge the big wave of life and
Be carried along to the second best.

Help me to help others,
To keep my eyes open and my board under control,
To watch out for bathers.

And while I'm at it, Lord,
I'd better say a word about the fishermen:
Help them keep their lines off my back,
And help me be big enough
To keep my board out of their lines.

When it is time for me to leave the water,
To go home, or to school
Or maybe to war,
Help me to go responsibly
And with dignity.

God, don't let me wipe out
In the muddy waters of selfishness

But keep me honest and clean
Until that day comes
When I may hang ten
In the kingdom of heaven,
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

What I can say about this prayer? I simply cannot imagine someone praying this out loud in church, not even in a youth group. Whoever wrote this couldn't help givin into the temptation to turn surfing into a metaphor for life in general, even though at the start it is clearly about the actual experience of surfing. What do the bathers represent? And what the $!?#*! do fishermen have to do with anything?! More importantly, what is to prevent us from writing the golfer's prayer, or the baseball player's prayer? Nothing, of course. The problem, however, with any such attempt is that the analogy between sports and the life of Christian discipleship breaks down almost immediately, or at least it should.

American Christianity is stuck on the idea that victory and success characterize the life of the true Christian. We need look no further than to "The Prayer of Jabez" and the "Purpose-Driven Life." But finding success and purpose is not the example we see in Scripture. The life of discipleship, as Bonhoeffer put, is a life of "costly grace," a life centered on the suffering of the cross. Christianity is not about success in life but about losing one's life in order to find it again. Sports analogies cannot cope with the scandalous paradox that losing is actually winning, according to the gospel. When we die to ourselves, we actually find that we are new persons. When we submit to carrying our crosses, we find that we can truly have faith in the promise of the resurrection. Those who are first are actually last, and those who are last are actually first.

The gospel is an affront to human logic and experience. Those who are first in the eyes of the world remain first, from our perspective. Power, money, fame, and prestige all appear to win the day. But the Lord does not judge appearances. God determines what is truly first. The God of the gospel is the truth of life, and that truth is the "word of the cross." The surfer's prayer is nothing more than the health-and-wealth pseudo-gospel clothed in the appealing (relevant?) garb of Cali youth culture. This is "cheap grace," and we must reject it. As Paul wrote, and I echo, "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2).


Shane said…
this made me think of the song surf wax america by weezer.

Ben Myers said…
"Lord, let me catch this wave. You know I've paddled hard to get here, Waited long to find it." Sounds like this guy's a Pelagian surfer....
Anonymous said…
Hey, D.W., didn't you know that there is a golfer's prayer? A guy whose wedding I conducted gave it to me back in the eighties, asking that it be incorporated into the service. I duly obliged - as foil, in parody! Here it is in full:

O God, in the game of life you know that most of us are duffers. We all aspire to be champions, with plenty of birdies and eagles. Help us to be grateful for the course, both for fairways and rough.

Thank you for those who have made it possible for us to tee off. Thank you for the thrill of a solid, soaring drive; for the challenge of the dogleg; for the trial of the trap; for the discipline of the water hazard; for the beauty of the cloudless sky, and for the exquisite misery of the rain and cold.

Above all, thank you for Jesus Christ, our Pro, who shows us how to get the right grip on life, to slow down in our backswing, to correct our crazy hooks and slices, to keep our heads down in humility, and to follow through in self-control. May he teach us to be good sports and accept the laws of the game, the runs of the green, the penalty for being out of bounds, the reality of lost balls, the relevance of par, the dangers of the 19th hole, and the authority of our special rule book, the Bible.

And, Lord, when the last putt has dropped into the last cup of the last open, and the light of our last day has faded into darkness, though our trophies be few, our handicap still high, and the hole-in-one still only a dream, may we be able to present to you, our Permanent Director at the Great Club House in the Sky, an honest score card.

Lex orandi, lex credendi: you could call it strokes-righteousness! Still, full marks for sheer extension of metaphor.

Halden said…
I just threw up a little. In my mouth.
I really tried hard not to laugh. Needless to say, I failed.

And kim, thanks for the golfer's prayer. As someone who's lost many balls, I'll make sure and thank God for growing me through times of such great sorrow.
Anonymous said…
"The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of majesty hath thundered, the Lord is upon many waters..." Psalm 28:3

at least they pray...perhaps you could write one better?
Anonymous said…
What's so funny about this prayer? Is God not in every life experience? Does he not show up in the cleansing element of the sea?

Only a fool closes his mind to the greater experiences of God in everyday life.