Unnecessary beauty

High Bridge Trail, depot in the distance.

One blistering, humid, high 90s day in the middle of the summer, I hiked a couple of miles on the High Bridge Trail with my family. The trail is a converted railroad bed and the bridge is a very high passage trains once made over the trickle of the Appomattox River far below. Until you get out into the middle of the bridge where you can peer down and see that trickle, you walk level with treetops. At intervals across the bridge, there are train-depot-style platforms that jut out slightly from the rest of the bridge, with off-center-peaked roofs sloped over benches facing out over the drop. As we hid from the baking sun, eating our picnic lunch on one of the benches, I noticed how much detail went into making the depots.

Fed, watered, and cooled down a bit, I examined our depot from all angles. It could have easily, predictably been nothing more than a bench with an unadorned roof. But these were made of bolted metal and grooved tin roofing, with gentle arched supports underneath that lit up all the train depot recognition areas of my brain – areas I wasn’t aware of until those delightful sparks of recognition.

Gorgeous.

The depots could have been merely utilitarian and expedient, enough to provide rest and shade. Instead, someone decided to delight. Someone opted for unnecessary beauty in a place where relatively few will see it and where you have to work to get to it – a place where rest and shade are the only necessities or expectations.

When the latest bad news spreads, I hear people say, “Fight back with beauty.” I know what they mean. I appreciate the battle cry but I am weary.

I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

When my grandfather was old and blind and my grandmother was still cooking in her own kitchen, I was trying to help set the table for lunch. With my grandmother, even a simple un-cooked lunch of sandwiches involved ten full minutes of table preparation. I was trying to speed things up and wash fewer dishes later, so I grabbed the empty glass from beside my grandfather’s chair in the living room where he sat listening to the television. When she saw me putting that glass at my grandfather’s place, tears welled in my grandmother’s eyes as she replaced it. “I always give him a fresh glass with his meal.”

Maybe a clean fresh glass doesn’t normally count as beauty but it did then. It was as unnecessary as the delightful depots on the trail – his previous glass wasn’t dirty and he would never see the difference between the two glasses. But she knew – she could see – and the fresh glass was one in a long line of her simple, daily, loving acts of unnecessary beauty.

I keep saying “unnecessary.” When you swim two miles and get out of the pool growling for food, it doesn’t matter whether the table is set properly or the food is a balanced meal. You need calories, plain and simple. Calories are necessary; gourmet is not. I can think of other similar but less obvious routines in my life when I opt for the utilitarian and expedient.

But is beauty an option? Is delight really “unnecessary”?

After the presidential election last fall I re-watched the entire West Wing series. I also decided it was time to purchase my own clergy collar shirt. Beauty, fantasy. Beauty, calling.

There is so much to do and sometimes I choose the crappiest way to do it. Once, when friends asked to use our ministry’s fellowship hall for a birthday celebration, I hastily dumped a bag of ice into a cooler and threw the cooler up on a table next to the drinks. The elderly mother of the birthday guest looked at my attempt and asked if there was a nice bowl we could put the ice in instead. In the kitchen, I grumbled to a friend about how unnecessary that was and wasn’t the mother being a little too much – my friend looked at me as if I were an idiot and told me I was being an idiot. Of course the ice should go in a bowl.

Beauty is relative. It’s still beauty.

I haven’t written much since the election. I want to hide constantly. I mostly don’t.

Here’s what I know: The day we hiked High Bridge Trail was brutal, even for a Virginia summer day. The food and water would have been enough to make the hike and make it back to the car. But the delight of the depot – detailed, intentional, unnecessary beauty – is what has stuck with me. Maybe it had more to do with making it than I thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos © Woody Sherman, used with permission.

Swimming at the JCC

As I’ve mentioned, I’m determined to keep up my physical-mental-spiritual-emotional practice of swimming my butt off this winter. As I’ve also mentioned, I’ve had to make special arrangements to swim while out of town for work, something I often do with the help of this handy guide for finding a pool wherever you might find yourself.

In both January and February I spent most of a week in Richmond, and I’ve swum at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center each time. I didn’t grow up in towns with JCCs and had never been to one before my first January swim there. I asked my friend Jake if there were any cultural things I should know about being a good guest in the space and he patiently explained it would be pretty much like using the YMCA – not everyone at a JCC is necessarily Jewish and I wouldn’t stand out immediately as the obvious Christian in the mix.

From the membership coordinator I spoke with on the phone to set up my guest pass, to the front desk guy ready with a “Good morning” and a dry wit, to the concierge-style lifeguard, this is a place that does hospitality well. And I’m not kidding about Pete the lifeguard. He greets each swimmer by name when they enter the pool deck (he knew mine by the second day and remembered me when I showed up again in February) and gets off his chair to assist swimmers adding into lanes when they are all full. Seriously, he motioned and directed me to my lane, as he walked over to the swimmer already in the lane, saying, “I’ll let him know you’re joining him,” and then he tapped the other swimmer as he approached the wall to let him know he’d have company. It was like being shown to my table at a fine restaurant. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, necessary, since swimmers mostly work these things out on their own. But it was oddly nice – especially standing there, vulnerable, in only a swimsuit and my weak-prescription goggles – to be treated like a valued member of the pool community and offered a particular place within it.

“Love your neighbor” has resonated more than any other goal or descriptor of our life and ministry at Wesley this year. Not because we are doing it well all the time, but because we don’t know a better way to respond to hate and xenophobia than with this simple, all-encompassing, daily reminder from Jesus (Matthew 22: 36-40). I’m here to tell you that being welcomed as a guest, greeted by name, and offered a place in the pool is a fantastic embodiment of loving one’s neighbor.  

In the first weeks of the New Year, before I swam at the WJCC the first time, a rash of bomb threats began at JCCs around the country. They are still happening. The first day I navigated my way to the unfamiliar pool in January, in the dark early morning on nearly empty streets, a pick up truck followed closely behind me for several blocks before I arrived. It went its own way before I got there but in this time of threat and hate, I noticed and briefly worried. By my February visit, I’d seen news reports of JCCs being evacuated during bomb threats, and I considered what to have ready in my poolside bag in case we had to evacuate in the middle of my swim. I didn’t consider not going.

This past week, the lobby was full of preparations for Purim celebrations, the Hamantaschen-laden holiday when Esther’s story is remembered and humorously re-enacted. It’s a short book and worth the read, if you don’t know it or if it’s been a while. Esther ends up in a position to make her voice heard and influence a king. She needs a little convincing that sticking her neck out is worth the risk. She’s told her silence won’t guarantee her safety and, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this?” (Esther 4: 12-14).

My neighbor-loving neighbors at the WJCC know how to stick their necks out. Given the national climate and current threats, I wouldn’t have been surprised or angry if they had closed ranks and temporarily stopped offering guest passes to unknown non-JCC members just passing through town. But they know Whose and who they are, and what they have to offer at just such a time as this.

Frankly, even if the Swimmers Guide showed me a closer pool somewhere else, I’d choose to keep going back to the WJCC when I visit Richmond for work. Not just for laps or for the kind and gracious lifeguard, but because these are my neighbors.

 

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photo credit: “Lifeguard jumping into action in Ocean City, Maryland,” © 2007 by flickr user dbking, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Swimming as resistance

Friday morning I finished the Advent devotional I started in December – and with Ash Wednesday just under 3 weeks away! In case it isn’t already clear from that statement, I’ll be more explicit: I don’t have it all together. Last week, because we had company coming, we cleaned. I am not exaggerating when I say I can’t remember the last time we did that. (But if I had to guess, I’d say it may have also been in December, right before we invited students over for a meal before exams started.)

These are statements of fact, not self-flagellation. I hope they’ll engender some trust so you’ll hear what I’m saying as one thing I’m doing that’s helping me. One thing in the midst of many many undone or poorly done things. One thing that requires planning, fortitude, discipline, and commitment – in the midst of a poorly tended house, spotty devotional life, and slapdash weekly meal planning “regimen.”

It’s important to me that you get this, that you understand I am not the kind of person who has issues of “Real Simple” magazine fanned out on my dust-free coffee table while the kitchen timer goes off on our baking dinner, just as my husband arrives home from work and I am finishing up my at-home Pilates workout. (And all the bills are paid and thank you notes written and volunteer work scheduled, with plenty of “me time” in the mix.)

Got it? Good.

Because I’ve been kicking ass at swimming. I haven’t set a formal goal for the miles I hope to cover this year, but I have been tracking my swimming and so far in 2017 I’ve swum 40.45 miles.

Screenshot of my Go the Distance progress from the US Masters Swimming fitness log.

At the end of January I had to be in another city for most of the week at a denominational gathering whose schedule ran from 8am until 10pm with no breaks or free time, and I called around in advance to find a pool I could swim in that week. It required getting up at 4:30am, to overlap with their lap swimming times and the only free-time available to me, but I did it – every day I was there. I did not get enough sleep that week and most days I only swam a mile, in order to have enough time to get dressed and eat breakfast and be back by 8am. But it was a life-saving move on my part, to get up and move before a day of prolonged sitting, to spend those first few hours alone and focused on myself before being with and focusing on other people the rest of the day.

More than I would like, these days feel rushed and anxious and overfull and underdone. Too much, too fast, and the constant, demoralizing news from Washington, D.C. The word with the most resonance in my circles is “resist.” Resist the administration’s overreach. Resist racist, xenophobic, unjust policies. Resist and refuse to believe this is normal.

Since my time at Standing Rock, I have signed petitions and called and written letters and closed bank accounts. Since the inauguration, I have signed petitions and called and written letters and preached sermons and forced myself to read more news – and to get away from news and offline. I want just about everything to change right now and it’s tempting to spend all of my time and energy in a frenzy of against-ness, an anxiety ball of activity and worry and strategic next-stepping.

This is why a crucial part of my own resistance is swimming. I am resisting the notion that it’s all up to me so I can never stop writing/calling/posting/protesting. I am resisting the notion that a well-lived life amounts to unceasing work and external and recognizable products/results. I am resisting the idea that resistance itself is one thing.

A friend posted on Facebook yesterday that he was cooking a slow-roasted tomato soup, with the comment, “Sometimes #Resistance means cooking!” Yes!

This is not a call to retreat. It’s a reminder that resistance is a long-term activity and we are in need of more sustenance than just the fast-burning fuel of outrage and anger. We need the parts of life that remind us why we bother resisting.

I need swimming. It literally makes me stronger. It literally forces me to breathe. It focuses me and quiets my mind and spirit. It makes me feel fierce. More than once, on the way home from the pool, I have thought, “Take that, Donald Trump!” And while the defiant attitude feels good, what feels even better is giving myself a healthy, anxiety-tamping way to mark my days and my progress. Some swimmers sing songs to themselves as they swim. I usually don’t, but lately there have been a few times when I’ve pictured the iconic scene from Casablanca when the French resistance drowns out the Nazis by singing “La Marseillaise” at Rick’s, “Allons! Enfants de la Patrie!” echoing in my head at the flip turn, pushing me to keep going.

The Advent devotional I finally finished includes this beautiful sentence: “A baby had been born, they were told, who would show people a way out of their small pinched lives, a way to abandon themselves to the ever-present, unstoppable current of Love that carries all things to radiant wholeness” (All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings, Gayle Boss). If resistance is only about winning on Twitter or SNL or even in the actual law, it’s possible we are still living “small pinched lives.” Cooking, listening to and making music, observing Sabbath, reading novels, watching movies, making pottery and art, running, hiking, and swimming…these are resistance, too. These are life-giving fuel for the long road ahead, and they put us in touch with that “ever-present, unstoppable current of Love.”

The bathrooms at my house need cleaning again. There is a fresh pile of crumbs around my stepson’s place at the dining room table. We are almost out of coffee. I haven’t yet read today’s Bible passage for our Bishop’s challenge. I have a sermon to work on and the day’s news to digest. Some of that will get done today.  I will definitely (defiantly and deliciously) swim.

This summer I went swimming

swimming in lake george_2016

Almost anything can be a spiritual practice, if you let it. It’s about the practice – the routine and prioritization of it, the days upon weeks turning into months of it – in the presence of an open spirit, willing to learn and be led. Molded, over time. Swimming is like this for me. I’ve written before about how swimming helps keep me focused on the present moment, and how flip turns are teaching me about energy, rest, and resilience.

Well, this summer I went swimming. A lot. A very few stormy days I swam inside at the gym, but most of the time I swam outside. I was a regular in the lone roped-off lap lane at our neighborhood pool, I practiced with a group in a lake in Richmond, and I competed in my first open water swim in another lake near Charlottesville. (And came in third in my age group. And got a medal. But who’s keeping track?) When we visited family at another lake in New York, I recruited my husband to kayak alongside me as I swam so boats wouldn’t run me over. In South Carolina, I swam in the bathwater warm ocean, but the best swims were in the outdoor lap-swimming-only pool that was cooled. (Yes, they “air conditioned” the pool and it was so scrumptious I don’t really care how non-environmental that may sound.)

To throw yourself into something you love is, simply, delicious. Giving yourself over to its rhythms and routines, watching yourself with curiosity to see where the love will unfold and take you. Allowing yourself to be unreasonable and devoted, depleted and good-tired. This is what I did this summer, when there were very few rules and obligations, the expansiveness of summertime and sabbatical overlapping. I absolutely organized my days around my swims.

And it was worth it.

Part of what sustained spiritual practice teaches you is how much you need it. I am not the same swimmer I was in May. I am not entirely the same person.

pre race cgl_july 9 2016

It may surprise you, but the open water swim was not the most daunting thing I did this summer. It was the open water practice swim I joined a couple weeks before that in Richmond. I had to drive over an hour away to a place I didn’t know, to meet up with people I didn’t know, to try out swimming in a body of water I’d never seen, while wearing my bathing suit in front of complete strangers. Buttons were pushed. I almost bailed. I woke up that day feeling nervous about it, uncertain about whether I could keep up, whether I’d be able to site the buoys, how thin and athletic all the other swimmers would likely be. I wasn’t sure I’d even like open water swimming, so wasn’t this kind of a waste of time and money?

I talked myself down. I recognized all those demons and agreed they could even be right. And I agreed to go to this one practice session anyway and just see. If I hated it, fine, no obligation to continue or do other open water swims after that. But I was not going to bail based on fear, anxiety, lack of confidence, and what ifs. (During the academic year, it would have been much easier to bail. The time and money concern trolls would have had a lot more sway if that evening’s jaunt to Richmond had been sandwiched in between meetings and a buzzing phone.)

I was glad I went. Not everyone there was athletic and skinny. I was not the slowest. I loved it when we swam straight out into the middle of the lake to make a loop around an instructor standing on a paddle board. I loved it even more when the complete stranger I got paired up with said to me after one lap, “You go first and don’t worry about me. I could barely keep up with you.”

Spiritual practice involves repetition and new territory, ritual and change.

I was never particularly worried that I might have drowned, but when I heard Lucy Kaplansky’s “Swimming Song” for the first time late this summer, I recognized my own bravery and playful pride, swimming my way up and down the waters of the east coast. Kaplansky sings, “This summer I went swimming. This summer I might have drowned, but I held my breath, and I kicked my feet, and I moved my arms around.” Sounds simple and it kind of is, but simple can also be hard.

Spiritual practice takes trust and bravery, allowing yourself to be held up by something you are participating with but that’s not you. This is also one of the “tricks” to open water swimming, especially when you get scared or unnerved by the vastness and the murky depths. The key is to remember, “The water wants to hold you up.”

1-mile medal_cgl_july 9 2016

Today the cicadas are singing summer towards the door. We are experiencing an unusually temperate and humidity-free start to the week and we got to open up the windows again yesterday. It won’t last long. By Friday it will be sweltering, but that won’t last long either. Fall is on the way.

I’ll get in a few more swims in the neighborhood pool before it closes for the season. And I have designs on a quarry, where a new friend swims as late into the fall as she can. I’ve started wondering about open water swims for next year. In the meantime, after a summer of peripatetic swimming, I will log a lot of miles in the gym, same place each day, but never the same “river”—or swimmer – twice.

 

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Photo credit: Photos ©2016 by Woody Sherman. Used with permission.

Adding the flip turn

Practicing open water swimming in the lake. No flip turns required.

Practicing open water swimming in the lake. No flip turns required.

Flip turns have a mystique about them. Walk up to any pool and watch folks swimming laps. Your eyes will immediately go to the swimmers who do flip turns at the walls. It doesn’t matter if they are faster than the other swimmers, they will look fiercer because of the flip turn. Conversely, if, instead of doing flip turns, you saw Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps sticking their heads up at the walls, gulping air, turning awkwardly half out of the water, then plunging back in for the next lap, they would seem significantly less fierce.

On swim teams in junior high and high school I did a lot of flip turns. Even with the flip turns, I never looked particularly fierce but they were a regular part of my swimming. When I started swimming again a few years ago, I gave myself permission not to include flip turns. It seemed like a good deal: expend my limited energy on the strokes and the laps themselves and give myself a little extra breath and time at the walls. I made this decision intentionally and unapologetically. The goal was more swimming, not “perfect” swimming. During these past few years, I have reserved the occasional flip turn for special circumstances, like the time I felt strong and energized hitting lap number 100 and joyously flipped at the wall to celebrate it.

Lately, I’ve been adding the flip turn back into my freestyle laps. I’m not entirely sure why. I’m considering an open water swim this summer but flip turns are completely unnecessary in lakes, so that’s not it. This most excellent and inspiring ode to the flip turn encouraged me but didn’t push me over the edge. I think it’s just time. Like it was time to get back in the pool a few years ago. Back then, I gave myself permission to swim without flip turns. Now, I’ve given myself permission to flip again (and sometimes, not to flip – as with the earlier deal with myself, I’m not after perfection and I’m not requiring all or nothing).

One of the things I hope this summer’s sabbatical will show me is how to distinguish between the need for rest and the need for persistence. How do I know when I’m hitting a groove I should explore and stick with, versus knowing when to back off, versus knowing when to go harder even though I’m already losing steam? Maybe I’m seeing part of the answer in swimming.

When you hit the wall you have several choices: 1) call it a day, stop swimming, and hang on for dear life, 2) grab as much air as you can every single second your head is out of the water while you turn around inelegantly but practically, then push off and carry on as best you can, or 3) make the turn as smooth and seamless a part of your stroke as possible, flipping around and using the wall itself to propel you in the next direction. They are all valid choices. I’m thankful for my unapologetic miles logged choosing #2. And really curious to see where #3 sends me.

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Photo credit: Screen grab of video shot by P. Chambers, June 2016. Used with permission.

Leftovers and Champagne

champagne for all_meathead movers_sa2.0_c2012

Yes, that’s right. It says “meathead” right there on the picture.

We have a dry erase board on our refrigerator, where I write our menu for the week. Last week, with plans to cook several other nights and plans to stay in on New Year’s Eve, I wrote “leftovers and champagne” in the dinner spot for that night. It represented the perfect combination of industry and relaxation – cook enough on other evenings so that dinner won’t be a production and we can just sip and enjoy.

All week when I passed that reminder I felt clever and satisfied. “Leftovers and champagne” seems almost a lifestyle statement, beyond New Year’s Eve. Be simple and frugal in some places and splurge in others. Be down to earth and no frills, but with an occasional side of frills. Be willing to combine things that aren’t normally thrown together…I could go on, mining the poetry and deeper meaning of my dry erase title-lifestyle.

But I won’t. At least, I won’t be quite as satisfied and smug about it as I tell you how the meaning morphed.

This morning in the pool, I started to wonder if God was drowning me again. I was annoyed at the many schedule changes and inconveniences during winter break, forcing me to go to the campus pool I don’t like, and to find a half-lane to squeeze into in the whopping four lanes leftover after the swim team takes all the others. I was annoyed that things like that still annoy me, even when I can see how small, fleeting, and ridiculous they are. I was feeling stressed out by the unintelligible emails I was receiving from our ministry’s web host and the glaring error message I found when I tried to visit the website earlier this morning. I was mad at myself for running a yellow-then-red light on the way to the bad gym’s ridiculous hours and getting a ticket for it. And I was feeling anxious, that chest-tightening short-breathed worry that’s never any fun and makes swimming notably more difficult.

As I swam, I noted the annoyances and my annoyed posture in response to them. I mentally calculated the days of the month in case I could determine whether any of the anxiety was hormonal, in addition to the situational variety. I kept swimming. I acknowledged how most often, if I’m honest, I want to feel good and have an easy time of it. I felt myself resisting the anxiety and frustration of the morning. Go away! Everything about me was saying No! to all of it.

Suddenly I remembered a time of deep grief after a hard break up, the first time I’d countered loss with compassion and patience rather than anger. In my twenties, my go-to method for break up recovery was to get pissed off, catalogue all the grievances, and eventually convince myself he’d been a jerk anyway. But after this break up in my mid-thirties, I was sad, not angry. And I didn’t want or need to get angry. For the first time, I knew it wouldn’t help me or change the situation. So whenever the sadness welled up and threatened to overwhelm me, I just said to it, sometimes aloud, I see you. I didn’t indulge it, but I didn’t fight it either. I let myself sit with it and, eventually, I could ride out the feelings, which approached and receded like waves.

No, I didn’t become beatifically calm and beautiful as I glided through the pool and glowed from within.

But I kept swimming. I thought about Job and how I don’t really believe God puts obstacles and tests in our way to make us stronger/more faithful/thankful/obedient/whatever, but how I do think God is ready and willing to show us something better and healing in every single moment, no matter where and how we find ourselves. I didn’t get to the I see you stage in the pool, but I tried to stop feeding the beast. I swam and thought about the school crossing guard who was a half block away when the police officer stopped me this morning. The cop was white (and so am I). The crossing guard was black. She looked over several times while I was stopped there, waiting for my ticket. I swam and wondered if she’d been keeping an eye out and how the whole thing might have felt less annoying and a lot more threatening if I was black, too. I thought about my momentarily poor driving behavior, which resulted in a whiny rant and some inconvenience, but not my arrest or worse.

I stopped to squint at the large digital clock. Not enough time for the final 20 laps I was hoping to do. So I did 10 more and didn’t castigate myself for missing the mark.

Afterwards I checked my phone, and the emergency help email I’d sent our tech support alumnus had been answered and the website was back up. I texted my husband about the ticket. I drove home more carefully. I’d been feeling alone and anxious all morning but when I emailed and texted, help came. When I reached out, someone was there to reach back.

I would rather have written about being down to earth with occasional frills thrown in – so clever! I would rather not divulge what a seething mess of vulnerability and bad attitude I am sometimes. But if God can work with this, then who am I to complain or cover? The truth is, it’s New Year’s Eve every day, the same old familiar leftovers sitting right there on the microwave-hot plate, next to the champagne flutes. Futile, bratty splashing and self-centeredness, paired with a robust grace.

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photo credit: “Champagne for All,” © 2012 by Meathead Movers, CC BY-SA 2.0

Drowned by God

I was swimming along just fine, regularly going for a mile or more, several times a week.  I felt strong and sleeker than usual.  Then, one day, I just didn’t feel like it and had to argue myself into going to the pool.  I felt bloated and stressed and harried, and in my convincing conversation with myself, I reminded me that this is exactly the kind of time when it’s important to go ahead and get moving instead of eating half a cake in front of the TV.  It’s probably a result of watching too much TV and too many movies, but on the first lap I kept waiting to start feeling better.  I’m moving now.  I complied.  Kick in the soaring inspirational montage music and I’ll feel sleekness return.  I’ll be out of the funk.

That’s not what happened.  I don’t remember how long I swam that day – maybe a half mile, if I made it that far – and every single stroke was a struggle.  There was no montage music.  There was no lightening of my load.  I never hit my swimming stride to feel sleek and smooth, gliding through the water.  I felt like I was thrashing around, slapping and splashing, struggling to breathe.

I was praying the whole time.  Praying as I convinced myself to go.  Praying as I got into the pool and started thrashing.  Praying for my stroke to even out.  Praying for God to be with me and lift some of the burden I felt, weighing me down.  I thought I was struggling with myself – with self-doubt and that strangely stultifying combination of physical laziness and overwork – but as I doggedly kept slapping the surface of the water, gasping for each breath, I started to think maybe it wasn’t me.

I started to wonder if I was in a wrestling match with God.  And, since I was in the pool, I also wondered if God was trying to drown me.  That feeling didn’t go away for the entire swim, and I wondered why God would want to wrestle me right then, on a shaky day to begin with, in a particularly vulnerable location.

I love the story of Jacob wrestling all night with the angel/God (Genesis 32: 22-32), refusing to let go or give in until he’d received the blessing he was after.  I love the idea of God as one who’s willing to get this intimate with us in our struggles, but until my own wrestling match I always thought of the wrestling itself as merely a metaphor.  I preferred my actual experiences of God to be in more in the comforting metaphor variety – Good Shepherd, mother hen (John 10: 11-18, Matthew 23:37).

That day in the pool, I was face-to-face, breath-to-struggling-breath, with a very present but not so comforting God.   I don’t know why and I am not sure I know yet what blessing I wrangled that day, but God was definitely present in the pool with me and it wasn’t the comfort I thought it would be when I started swimming and praying.

Months later, when I’d pushed that episode to the back of my mind, it came pouring back to the front during a conversation with my students.  We’d been singing the David Crowder Band song “How He Loves,” which includes this line:  “If grace is an ocean we’re all sinking.”  I told them this doesn’t seem like grace for me, that I like the metaphor of grace as an ocean but it needs language like  “floating” and  “buoyed up” to describe it.  Do we really want grace to sink us?  Isn’t that like being drowned by grace?

Then I remembered my wrestling match.  Maybe Crowder’s got it right after all.  Maybe we do want grace to sink us.  From our watery beginnings in baptism, death for Christians is as present as life.  When we join the tribe, we enter through a “watery grave,” believing it holds the promise of life.  And it does, but we go by the road Christ himself traveled, as Charles Wesley wrote (United Methodist Hymnal, p. 302):  “Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!/ Following our exalted head, Alleluia!/ Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!/ Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!”

I don’t know why I thought God would stand back in my vulnerable moment instead of jumping in with me.  I don’t know why I thought metaphors were enough.  Don’t get me wrong:  I don’t want a rematch, at least not in the pool.  But maybe part of the blessing I received that day was the experience itself, of being taken hold of by God in a desperate and vulnerable moment, and being held onto no matter how I struggled and resisted, no matter how much I begged for a mother hen instead of an underwater sumo wrestler.