“What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
-James 4:14b (NIV)
American evangelist Billy Graham (1918-2018) was asked what the biggest surprise in his life had been. He quickly replied, “The brevity of life. Almost before we know it, the years have passed, and life is almost over.”(1)
My life has flown by. It seems like just yesterday I was out surfing San Onofre with Dad on my Corky Carroll “Super Mini” surfboard. Before I know it, heaven will soon be calling! In the meantime, I try and put my trust in God to help me navigate the peaks and valleys on the road ahead. Finishing strong in God’s eyes is my goal. I am preparing for a life with him forever in heaven.
A surfer who rides a wave to its proper completion with a successful kick-out has a similar anticipation of finishing strong. The kick-out enables you to surf your way out of the wave with a true sense of completion to the ride you were on, leaving you in control of your destiny for your next ride. The kickout transitions you from the wave you were riding to paddling back out. It is not a simple maneuver in surfing. Especially if you are riding a longboard.(2)
Before the advent of the surf leash (and subsequent shortboard revolution) in the late 1960s(3), knowing how to kick-out was a fundamental requirement for serious surfing. You could judge a surfer’s ability solely by the effectiveness of their kick-outs. The better the kick-out, the better a surfer they are (almost without exception). The more skilled surfers had figured out that a good kick-out got you more waves, as you were quickly back out into the lineup.
Kicking out is nearly a lost art in surfing today. I rarely see a surfer cleanly exit the wave they are riding to go over the lip with momentum in the right direction for a quick paddle back out (while checking for any waves coming).
With surf leashes ruling the lineups today, it is more common to see a surfer end a ride by simply diving or jumping off their board into the white water without concern for losing their surfboard. It works, but it would be more likely to score points in a diving competition than in a surfing contest. The term “kook cord” (for the surf leash) can be attributed partly to those types of kick-outs. The style and finesse of surfing are completely lost.
Competing in the San Onofre Surfing Contest in the 1960s taught me the proper technique of the kick-out. The judges rewarded surfers who could properly execute a clean and controlled kick-out. Kicking out at the right place and time of a ride demonstrated good judgment while controlling your board to exit the wave cleanly. Extra points could be attained for a high degree of difficulty when exiting with your board from a wave which was closing out or breaking in a critical section. Kicking out was your final act to demonstrate your surfing abilities to the judges. A missed kick-out could involve a time-consuming swim back to the beach and paddle back out. At San Onofre, that would usually spell disaster for your chances to advance to the next round.
Kicking Out in Life
Finishing strong in the life we have been given here on earth means seeking God to the very end.(4) That is God’s idea of a successful kick-out. He wants to see a life well lived, denying self, and trusting in Him. When we get to the end of this ride on earth, the love of Christ that awaits us will surpass all knowledge. We are truly unable to form a mental image of how good it will be. So, we carry on in this life, longing to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” at heaven’s gate.(5)
I was working at Trader Joe’s on May 9th of 2020 when a fellow crew member told me that a 26-year-old surfer had been fatally attacked by a shark while surfing at Sand Dollar Beach, just south of Manresa State Beach (near Santa Cruz). My son Matthew and I surf at Sand Dollar, and I knew he had been there the day before. I immediately called Matt’s cell phone. It went to voicemail. I then called his work. After what felt like an eternity on hold, he picked up the phone and greeted me.
The victim was a local Santa Cruz surfer and shaper, Ben Kelly. Thinking it was my son, even if just for a minute, gave me insight into the unimaginable pain that Ben’s family and friends were going through.
I soon learned more about Ben and was deeply touched by his story. Ben was a seasoned surfer and board shaper who started his own surfboard company in Santa Cruz (Ben Kelly Surfboards). He graduated Summa Cum Laude from Vanguard University in Southern California, where he was awarded the McNaughton Award, its highest honor for business and management students. He had recently celebrated his third wedding anniversary with his wife, Katie, whom he met at Vanguard.
Ben was stoked about the life God had given him. He was active in the Capitola Village Business Improvement Association, Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, and Calvary Chapel in Capitola. At one point he was selling surfboards to support missionary work he was involved with in Africa.
The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors declared that May 21 (Ben’s birthday) would be “Ben Kelly Day.” The proclamation stated:
“Ben practiced his belief that surfing was so much more than just catching waves — it was about the people he met and the continuous grand adventures that made it fun while blessing others along the way.”
Walking the Talk
I had never met Ben, and only came upon his story through surfing. Yet, he rose for me as the modern day equivalent of “the greatest generation”(6). Ben’s love of Jesus was front and center in the life he was living. He had that surfer’s “stoke” about him, which some called his good vibes, but those close to him knew it was fed by his faith.
Ben did not just talk about his faith; he exemplified it through his character. In the words of a close friend, “Ben lived the way Christ wanted us to live.” His opening line on his LinkedIn account boldly demonstrated this (“About”):
“Hello my name is Ben Kelly. Some of my life passions include: a love for my Savior Jesus Christ …”
Ben was not hiding whom he believed would save him on his day of reckoning.(7) He finished strong. In the book of Matthew, Jesus spoke about the importance of doing God’s will to reveal His love and presence in the world:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.”
―Matthew 7:21 (NIV)
Jesus called us to embrace the words of Scripture, so they are central to our day-to-day living. He said true wisdom is all about actions of love, mercy, and peace(8). It is not enough to say “Lord, Lord.”
Ben Kelly has both inspired and challenged me in this respect. Though he never saw it coming, Ben Kelly kicked out of this life with full control over his destiny. He had hope in a God who created the heavens and the earth. He wanted to live his life honoring God, knowing his rewards would be in heaven. His future was secure, and his kick-out was perfect. I believe God gave him a ten!
Ben has motivated me to finish strong. I look forward to the day I can paddle out with him.
This is the last chapter of this book!
The process of writing Surfing in Heaven over the past year has been transformational for me. My views on life have been altered, and as you can surely tell, I am looking forward to heaven. There is a song that captures this feeling best for me called “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”, written by Helen Howarth Lemmel in 1918. It states that, “when you turn your eyes upon Jesus, the things of the earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.”
Please contact me with any comment or questions that this book may have triggered (at: surfingforbalance.com). I would love to speak with you.
- Source: Just as I Am: Autobiography of Billy Graham by Billy Graham
- Longboards are generally considered to be surfboards over nine feet long. The difference in navigating a successful kick-out is dramatic. For example, dad rode a 10’9″ Bob Simmons Plywood Foam surfboard (called a “Foam Sandwich”) at Malibu in the late 1940s (see: surfingforbalance.com). To effectively kick-out on that board, dad learned the technique of dragging a foot over the side of the board to act as a rudder (as you would with a paddle on a kayak). It didn’t just turn out of the wave on its own.
See: 19. Surfing Without a Leash at:
Philippians 3:14 (TLB):
“I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ Jesus did for us.”
Matthew 25:23 (NIV):
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
- See: 1. Malibu and “The Greatest Generation at:
- One tribute read at Ben’s memorial service stated:
“The most memorable thing about Ben was his unashamed, unrelenting passion for his faith and his relationship with Jesus. I don’t say this to somehow selfishly reassure myself or others that he’s passed on to Heaven. I don’t have to wonder whether he knew Jesus, or whether his faith was secure. It was. Everybody knew it. He truly lived his faith out. In nearly every conversation I ever had with him, he tied God and the redeeming love of Jesus into it.”
James 3:17-18 (NIV):
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
Well done, Mike. Good use of footnotes. I was a little confused in the paragraph about the surfer dying at Sand Dollar. When you said that you called “him” I wasn’t sure if you meant Ben or Matt. I know. That’s pretty picky. All in all, pretty darn good. 😎
Excellent Jack. Surely you will not be the only one confused. Even if you are a hodad! 😉
Just fixed it!