Having been blogging now for over a week, the challenge of finding things to write about begins to emerge. Last week I wrote about some of the rhythms of an ordinary week in my present life. One solution to the problem of finding writing themes is to delve into the past.
People who have listened to me preach long term have surely heard me tell the following story, perhaps more often than you care to. I wasn’t a confident swimmer as a child. Once, when I was maybe 9, I was swimming as a guest of a friend in a “man-made” lake. There were plenty of people around, but at some point I was swimming alone — I’m not sure where my friend or his mother were. There was a sharp drop off from the shallow to the deep water, with a flotation line marking the boundary. I was swimming with my eyes closed, and somehow managed to cross the boundary. I went to stand up and there was no bottom to place my feet upon. I panicked, thrashing my arms about, which of course simply made it worse. Absolutely helpless and terrified, I would have drowned, if not for some man, a stranger to this day, who came and pulled me to the shore. He deposited me there and disappeared, and I sat there sputtering out the water that I had taken in. The whole experience seemed to have gone largely unnoticed. For the most part I kept the experience to myself, embarrassed as well as horrified by what had happen.
Having come so close to death affected me deeply for weeks to come. It seemed to me that it would have been so easy for me to have drowned, that I was extremely lucky that the stranger saw me thrashing about in the dark water, saving me from drowning. I imagined my lifeless body in a coffin, in the ground, the whole morbid bit. I contemplated the devastation my parents would have endured. For the first time in my life, the reality of death hit me hard, filling me with terror.
These reflections overtook me primarily at night time, lying in my bed, keeping me awake. I have always had a bit of the insomniac in me. A point came when, in a literal cold sweat, I called out in desperation to God for help. (I didn’t think of myself as a particularly religious kid, but I was, as I said, desperate.) Suddenly I felt at peace. The obsessive anxiety was gone, never to return in regard to my near drowning.
I don’t think I made too much of this experience at the time. Mainly I was grateful to be done with the anxiety, able to get on with being a kid. Today I am unable to locate the experience precisely in time; I am not altogether certain what summer this all took place.
It was only years later that I began to seriously reflect on the meanings of this childhood experience. One thing seemed to shift decisively in the moment of the answered prayer. Before I had contemplated with horror a universe that operated merely on blind chance. Afterwards it seemed clear to me something more was at work.
What of the stranger who played such a extraordinary role in my life; who was he? Surely he has no clue of the impact he had on my life. Some might imagine him to have been a supernatural angel who appeared momentarily in human form to rescue me. For me it is enough to think of him as some ordinary Joe to whom God gave a nudge in order to save me.
Underneath everything, the experience clearly seemed to imply a purposeful universe, and a purposeful life. There have been times over the years when grabbing hold of this thought has provided me with support when I have felt myself sinking into life’s dark waters.
And it has also implies a claim on my life. If I was saved, then I better live the life that was saved in a manner that makes it worth having been saved. Better not waste it.
The experience of near drowning also provided me with a fundamental metaphor for faith. Later on in my life I would get past my fear in regard to swimming. I would eventually realize that when it comes to floating, the most important thing is to simply trust — trust that your body will float in the water if you give it a chance. Floating is actually the natural thing; it was my anxious thrashing about that threatened my demise.
When it comes to life, trusting the mystery we call God is the first thing.
May we know that God is worthy of our trust; may we know our lives as truly purposeful. Amen.