My grandfather was drafted into the navy during WWII. He saw action in Pearl Harbor and in the Battle of Manilla in the Philippines. “Papa JB” had one of the more daring jobs on the ship. His fellow sailors would lock him into a full iron diving suit and then drop him into the sea to look for mines and repair damages to the ship suffered in battle. The kicker: My grandfather couldn’t swim.
Imagine being dropped in the middle of the ocean and not knowing how to swim.
How many times in our own lives have we found ourselves in a life situation where we metaphorically don’t know how to swim: Grief, parenting, marriage, health issues, and finally, death.
One minute we are safe and dry on life’s shore, the next, we are flailing in mind, body and spirit in the middle of an ominous dark sea. We panic. We look out from our life, to the right and to the left, internally treading water and secretly afraid we might drown.
I experienced this terrific fear the day New York’s Twin Towers fell five blocks from my apartment and a few short months later in the doctor’s words, “Your son has cancer.” Years later, I was sure I was going to drown the day I wrote and delivered the eulogy for my friend who tragically took his own beautiful life. I could barely get the words out as his wife and family wept from the front pew. Every time I have to watch someone I love struggle or I struggle myself, I am faced with the incompetence of my spirit’s swimming skills.
You would think after 40 odd years on this planet I would be an expert swimmer. Sadly, the reality is that life never truly prepares us for the heartbreak, the disappointment and the grave loss. One minute, we are sure we could cross the English Channel, the next we are afraid we’ll drown in a spoonful of our own tears.
I’ll never forget the time I was on Spring Break my senior year in high school. I don’t remember whose bright idea it was to go swimming on a dark, starless night but trust me I’ll never do it again. It was black all around and suddenly we were not sure which way was the shore. I was kicking my feet furiously under the water to stay afloat. Never the best swimmer, inside I was panicking that maybe I wouldn’t be able to last.
St. Peter, Jesus’s most promising disciple, experienced a similar “soul shock.” If you remember, Peter was fishing and Jesus called him out of the boat to walk on the water toward him. He started out strong until the strong winds came. Peter panicked and began to sink. He cried out, “Save me.” Immediately, Jesus reached out his hand.
Take heart, Jesus also found himself in a situation where he could not swim. In the Garden of Gethsename and hanging from the cross at Golgotha, Jesus experienced that awful “heart” dread that only one clothed in the flesh knows. It’s called despair. The fear prickles up and down your spine and you truly believe you might not see your way through.
Jesus wept. He literally sweat blood. He lost his courage. He begged God to make it go away.
It must have felt like a lifetime of breaths that Jesus treaded water in life’s dark sea. He endured the ultimate in fear, true physical and spiritual pain, and I daresay, doubt, shameless and scary doubt in his Father’s powers. Jesus found himself on the edge of hopelessness struggling to swim.
But we know how his story ends. How every one of God’s “love stories” end.
Open up the Bible to any story and you’ll find the proof that God has never once allowed one of His own to drown. Abraham, faced with the murder of his own son, Moses and the treacherous Egyptians, Daniel in the fiery furnace, David and Goliath, Lazarus and death, Mary Magdalene and the Pharisees, the adulterer saved from being stoned, the prodigal welcomed home by his father, the broken man saved by the Samaritan, Zacceaus, the tax collector, invited into Jesus’s circle, the two criminals on either side of Jesus on the cross promised heaven, even Jesus, experienced that miraculous moment when God extends a hand.
It doesn’t mean a day (many days) we will not hurt, doubt, struggle to tread water, even experience that awful moment of complete despair. But the promise is that if we call out, call out again and keep calling out for God, we will not drown.
As soon as Peter found himself safe in the boat Jesus’s first words were, “Why did you doubt me?” Part of the purpose of our life journey here on earth is to learn how to love. But just as important, is learning how to trust ourselves to God.
Gazing into the future, I know with six kids there will be many late nights where I will pace in the darkness, beat my chest, weep an ocean, and sadly watch my heart vacillate between fear and faith. Live long enough and each of us will endure the tragic reality of the fragility of the human mind, body and spirit both in those we love and in ourselves. Even more daunting, one day Death’s silhouette will overshadow us.
It’s okay to not know how to swim. What’s not okay is giving up before God has a chance to help us back in the boat or find a new shore.
Live in Hope,