This is a story about swimming, about God, a little about parenting, and a lot about fear, faith and taking a risk!
I get the impression that a lot of people imagine God as the grumpy lifeguard at the side of the swimming pool, in his lofty position looking down on us all, with the shrill whistle at the ready, who does his best to stop people having fun. Perhaps even pointing with a wagging finger at the list of rules on the pool wall (no running, no diving, no jumping, no bombing, no petting ;-), and so on!), And then pointing at you, accusing, shaming. In taking my son to swimming lessons this week, I saw very different picture of God: God as a loving Father, ‘Daddy’. He lies on his stomach on the side of the pool, hands reaching out over the water as far as he can physically stretch, calling out encouragement to his precious child, “Come on, gorgeous boy, you can do it! Keep going! Daddy’s right here! You’re almost there!”. He wants so much for his little one to succeed, He wishes He could do it for him, feel the fear, take the risk, but this is something his child has to choose to do on his own and God will be there throughout no matter what.
So where did all this swimming malarky start? Well, this last week our 5 year old was staying with his Nanny and Grandpa for the half-term holiday. Nanny was very keen to take him to an intensive swimming course at the local leisure centre. Despite some rather up and down times with one of those well-known baby swimming programmes (which concentrate on getting the babies swimming underwater, and unfortunately for us, ended up with him frightened of putting his head under the water) I figured enough time had gone by for us to give it a go again, although I was pretty sure how my boy would feel about that, i.e. not very keen at all!
Suddenly it was D-Day and I had only casually mentioned the swimming course to my boy over the previous few days, in the manner of, “when you go to Nanny’s you’ll be able to go swimming” (met with “I don’t want to!”). Then I moved on to “you’ll be doing lots of swimming this week” (“where will I go swimming, Mummy?”), to “tomorrow you’re going to have a really special time at the swimming pool, and you’re going to be a big, brave boy (there will be little ones who are only three and a half years old, can you imagine?!) with a lovely lady who is going to do lessons with you!”, at which point he started to get a bit more excited! “Will you come with me, Mummy?”, he asked, and I reassured him that both Nanny and Mummy would come to the poolside and watch although we wouldn’t be getting in with him, and thankfully he was satisfied with that and responded with a resounding, “Yay!”.
That morning we headed off early in the car to the pool, in the pouring rain – always an auspicious start! I think I had more butterflies than my little pickle! Eight small children got into the learner pool (just 0.75m at its deepest point, which meant he would never be out of his depth) with a lovely, friendly young teacher called Jenny. Although my boy looked around, taking it all in somewhat anxiously, he was soon smiling delightedly. And I was glad of all the time and money we’d spent on those early lessons, as the muscle memory seemed to come right back, and his beaming face was worth it!
As we parents and grandparents watched in near silence from the other side of a glass wall (where it was blissfully air conditioned, having been baking hot by the pool!), I pondered the nature of learning to swim…the feeling of being all at sea in unfamiliar surroundings. Suddenly feeling small in an expanse of water; the bravery needed to trust that ‘swimming noodle’ to stop you from sinking beneath the surface; the moment of pushing off the ground and letting your legs float up; the challenge of getting from one side of the pool to the other; that far side may at first seem so very distant, but with a little support and encouragement that it suddenly comes into focus with delight and relief!
It struck me as not being so dissimilar to someone starting to explore questions of faith or looking for a church to try out. Stay with me here for a moment and just imagine someone who has had a bad experience of church or Christians…perhaps being freaked out by the ‘church aerobics’ of people standing up and down without warning or explanation! Or maybe having experienced the embarrassment of the collection bags suddenly appearing and an expectant face waiting for you to put something in. Or perhaps you had taken that brave decision to step into church for the first time, only to be suffocated by incense, deafened by bells, or bored to tears by a dry and irrelevant message from the Vicar, or perhaps still worse, you might have been pounced upon by excited parishioners, eager to keep hold of the ‘new person’ who had stumbled into their dwindling congregation! Perhaps you started getting interested in who this Jesus was, or whether there could be a God, and then you were put off by pictures on the news of placard-waving Christians decrying abortion/gay marriage/the Jerry Springer Opera or whatever that group of people happened to be ‘anti’ this time! Perhaps being in a desperate place, you had reached out to God, had felt his comfort, but still not been able to reconcile this God of your experience, with religion and the violence and wars that seem to be carried out in its name.
At the other end of the scale, perhaps it was those over-friendly, enthusiastic, happy clappers, who you feared had been brainwashed and who scared the living daylights out of you! Not, of course, that any of these things have happened to me! 😉 In fact, having just written these words, I’m conscious that I may occasionally slip into that last category myself – I have, after all, already confessed that I am a joyful extrovert, and I am part of a large, kind-of-evangelical, kind-of-Pentecostal, technically Anglican Church, where we do sometimes like to ‘put our hands in the air like we just don’t care’…!
Anyway, you get the idea. So we take this poor person (with their bad experience of the church/Christians/religion), and if we go back to our swimming analogy, we imagine them being encouraged by a friend who would love them to learn to swim, not just so they don’t fear the water and don’t drown, but so they can enjoy the sheer joy and freedom of splashing around in the water; feeling weightless, floating like a star, swimming underwater, and whether in the open ocean or the swimming pool, getting in touch with that childlike part of ourselves that loves to bob around, floating, jumping, splashing, laughing, squealing with delight…and generally having a fantastic time! Is that friend not like those of us who long for our friends and family to be ‘saved’? For our loved ones not only to be assured of eternal life, entry to heaven, life after death, or however we put it, but also for them to have that amazing personal, individual friendship with Jesus. For them to know that once we invite Jesus into our lives we are no longer considered to be sinners; that we have an awesome freedom that comes from knowing that we are completely forgiven for everything wrong that we’ve ever done, thought or said (and will do, think or say!); that God’s grace – his gifts freely given to us despite us never having earned them – is unending, that we can enjoy that promise of being perfectly loved, totally accepted and never abandoned by our omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God, and that drives out our fears!
Even though that friend thinks having faith in Jesus is the best thing since sliced bread, it’s a big deal for that person, who is sitting on the edge of the pool looking in. It feels like a risk, and it does means taking the plunge (let’s be honest, you’re not going to get the most out of a trip to the pool if you only ever stay on the side – dipping your toes in is not the same as swimming!), but I’m a great fan of the phrase, ‘if you live not risking, you risk not living’. After all what have you really got to lose? When you consider some of those ‘bad experiences’ above (and I’m sure others have had both milder experiences and worse) how do they balance up against the amazing promises of a life lived out with Jesus, a life lived to the full? To put it another way, for most of us, wouldn’t we think it crazy that there are people out there who are so afraid of swimming, or so reluctant to go near the water, that they would rather live their lives never swimming, and being so much more vulnerable to drowning??
From my own point of view, the truth is that my life has been transformed since I really got to know Jesus properly in my early 20’s, and all for the better (more on that another day!). Now, that doesn’t mean that life has all been plain sailing; it hasn’t, not by a long way, and that’s not what God ever promises! Whatever challenges life has held for me, it has certainly not been a life sitting back in an easy chair, of mediocrity, or of regrets, or dominated by fears, or of living other people’s dreams for me, or of the world’s definition of success which quite honestly left me empty and unhappy. Instead my life has been undeniably been bigger, better and clearer, more purposeful, more joyful, more stretching, more exciting, in community, with people from every walk of life and background: an adventure of living life to the full. Why wouldn’t I want that kind of awesome fulfilment, peace, joy, and love for my friends and my precious family??!
So lastly, assuming you’ve made it this far, what has this story of swimming and faith brought up for you? Are you more on the side peeking in, or are you the kind of swimmer who completes Triathlons for fun?! Do you feel you’re living life to the full as yet? I’d love to hear how this all resonates with you…