Updated: Oct 1
A few years ago, my 13-year-old son and I headed out of town for a long weekend of scuba diving off the California coast. We planned to explore the great kelp beds of the Pacific, practice our underwater photography, and maybe chase a lobster or two. Driving down the dust blown highway, eagerly anticipating a father-son adventure, we never imagined that our getaway would have violent, unintended consequences.
With the sun settled behind Catalina Island, we set about reviewing our dive plan and preparing our gear for the first dive of the night. Jacob and I both prefer diving at night. In the darkness, the sea becomes a stage. As you glide through the kelp, the beam from your dive light falls on a ubiquitous cast of creatures; underwater actors performing for the spotlight. Within that shaft of light cutting through the black sea, your vision focuses on the small circle of life immediately before you.
Once on the boat and out to sea, we moved to the back rail of the dive deck to see where we would be entering the water and to get our bearing to the kelp beds. Bright halogen lights lit the dive deck and the patch of the blue-green ocean surrounding the stern of our boat, The Great Escape, (a name which would soon appear somewhat ironic). Just as we turned to collect our gear and don our wetsuits, we heard the sound of rhythmic splashing behind us. A school of flying fish had arrived to chase the plankton and other prey that was being illuminated by the deck lights. Like new players entering the stage, the fish leapt from beneath the darkened waves, soaring into the spotlight.
In preparation for a flight from its watery home, a flying fish will whip its tail up to seventy times per second, reaching speeds of 37 miles per hour. Once airborne, the fish spreads its pectoral fins and angles them upward to provide lift. Using updrafts created by the waves, their flights can cover 1,300 feet. Yet for all of this power, speed and effort, their movement appears simple, elegant and breathtaking. Nearly everyone on deck stopped to watch the fish’s seamless transition from submarine to aircraft and back again.
Flying fish are highly attracted to light. While this attraction created a beautiful spectacle for the audience that evening, it is a weakness that has been exploited throughout history. In fact, some anglers used to launch their canoes under the dark blanket of a moonless night, light a lantern, and wait for the fish to fly right into their boat.
As we delighted in this particular school approach, a new visitor arrived; an actor who hailed from a bit higher on the food chain. As the sea lion drifted into the spotlight, the flying fish scattered in a frenzy. One fish dashed madly toward the back deck of The Great Escape. Just as it generated enough thrust to become airborne, we felt a thud reverberate through the deck rails. The escaping fish had flown directly into the stern, a few feet above the waterline, and fell back into the water. We leaned over the rail to see what happened and let out a collective sigh when our friend quickly regained his bearings, turned tail and began to swim away. Our sighs of relief were barely released into the night air when suddenly, from below the boat, the swift moving silhouette of the sea lion appeared. Just when our dazed friend began to accelerate and escape the scene, the sea lion made its dinner selection and dove beyond our view.
We never intended for this to happen. We came to this patch of sea to enjoy the aquatic life surrounding the coast of Catalina Island. But on this night, our mere presence (and our spotlight) changed the course of history, at least for one flying fish and a sea lion.
As you and I move through life, we are instructed to watch our step, to make the most of the brief moments we are given, and to consider the needs of others before our own. We are called to shine a light in the darkness where we can. However, despite our best intentions, we may find ourselves hurting others, making mistakes and causing unintentional pain. When this happens, do our good intentions - or lack of any intention at all - mean that we are innocent? Is "I didn't see that coming" a sufficient excuse to let us off the hook?
In ancient Israel (Leviticus 4) the answer is, in a word, "no." Sins committed unintentionally are still considered sins. Mistakes are still mistakes, regardless of the intention. The pain is still real, the consequences still follow us, and regret can be palpable. Despite our best efforts, we will bump into each other in unintentional ways.
So then what do we do? Never make a new friend? Never explore the unknown? Never point our dive light in a new direction? Never go out of the house? (Sorry, too soon?) If we decide to do nothing, what good will be left undone? What lonely stranger will be left friendless? What kind word will go unspoken? What act of compassion will be lost forever?
We can’t save every flying fish. Mistakes will happen. In life, sometimes we are the boat, and other times we are the fish flying into it. And in the end, it really doesn’t matter which one we are. In the words of parents across the world, "I don't care who started it.”
For His followers, Jesus taught us that fixing mistakes and repairing brokenness is to be proactive. Instead of waiting for an apology or admission of guilt when someone bumps into us, we are instructed to forgive, intentionally and proactively. (Matthew 5:23-24). And, I imagine that we would hope for the same from those we bump into. Repairing the world begins with us. Regardless of who started it, the work of making it right, as far as we are able, is ours to finish.