An orange life-preserver was tied with a bow around my neck, its little white belt looped through the D-rings at my scrawny waist. I was young – probably no older than 5 – and thin as a stick. I had, in fact, jumped off the boat dock and had the life-preserver completely slip off my body.
We were living in Panama at the time and water was ever-present. Jostling over the waves was sometimes rough enough to lift me entirely off my seat and made me wonder if a particularly big wave might bounce me over the edge of the boat.
Young as I was, I still have lots of memories of Panama. I remember long walks on the beaches searching for shells, having coconut trees in the front yard and the occasional iguana in the car port. I remember swimming in the oceans and Gatun Lake, but I remember one thing more than any of those: sharks.
I clearly remember swimming in the ocean, seeing the shark nets hanging around 50 yards from the shore and wondering if they’d really keep a shark out. I pondered how often nets were inspected to see if they broke or if sharks were smart enough to wiggle their way through the loose, sandy bottom and the net itself.
Probably didn’t help that I’d seen Jaws.
Nor did it ease my fears when I saw fishermen dragging sharks from the water only a few yards from where the nets ended. They were small sharks. I touched them, running my fingers along their coarse skin.
My fascination grew. I had magazines that talked about shark attacks, complete with photos of stitched-up survivors. In one there was a photo of a woman in a bikini holding a shark in one hand a club she’d beat it to death with in the other. Apparently the small beast swam too close to her child.
I even had a shark necklace. Not just a single tooth on a cord, but a chain necklace holding an entire shark jaw. Over the years that jaw drew blood from many curious fingers.
So any time we were in the water I had a little fear nagging at me.
This particular day we were in the ocean on my dad’s boat. It was a thrill to pump the gas bulb to prime the engine, the smell of gas and exhaust mingling as it revved to life. Walking to the bow barefoot, lying on my stomach, I touched dolphins as they jumped in the bow wave.
But there was no bigger excitement than seeing a shark.
I remember so little of the day because the sight of it seems to have blocked out memory of everything else. I just remember I had my life-preserver on and was facing the back of the boat and there it was.
I think many of us have sharks in our lives in some form. At times they sharks are breathtaking, but I suspect more often than not we lend them more thought than is worthwhile. In religion I see this happening most often with the devil or hell.
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them,” said C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters.
Obviously people don’t disbelieve in sharks, but the recent Shark Week movies about megalodons and the giant great white of urban legend, Submarine, lets me see how people crave a bigger, more fantastic shark than really exists.
Similarly, I’ve grown up in communities were preachers were quick to talk about hell and bring its fire and brimstone to the table constantly. It seems an easy trap to try to instill fear instead of focusing on reality. One of my friends played Dungeons & Dragons and his church saw this activity as someone clearly partaking in satanic practices.
To me it seems absurd a church would make a kid playing a game stand before the congregation and confess that he was under the influence of the devil, lest his family be asked to leave the church, but there it was. His church had created the bigger shark to boost the ratings instead of admiring things for what they were or simply studying what Christ had to say.
And I have faced the biggest shark of all.
Our boat wasn’t large – especially by ocean standards – but the mouth of the shark was wider. I imagine it could have taken in the entire stern in its mouth had it wanted.
I knew instantly it was a whale shark. It never broke the surface, but I could see the unique dotted pattern of its skin.
It was a beautiful sight that I can still see today. A sheet of water ran over its head without the shark ever breaking the surface.
But this big shark was real and I could appreciate it in the moment. It didn’t need any exaggeration or fabrication because it was perfect for what it was. Keep an eye on the devil or hell if you wish, but don’t build it into something that overshadows Christ, for his words are more rooted in the beauty of what’s around us.