Undertow

From a very young age I learned to swim. It was important in my family. For my father, it was rivers and white water. Some of my first memories are of camping trips where my father, aunts, and uncles would whitewater raft and canoe.

For my mother’s side it was much more practical, the pool was our babysitter all summer. Swim team and lifeguards our parents. We rode our bikes a mile to the country club for 8am practice and wouldn’t return home until dinner. Occasionally my step-father would wave from the golf course once or twice a week.

Swim team taught me to swim, but dad’s lessons in the water taught me to survive. My dad has a degree in engineering and thinks like an engineer. I am not. However, I have a visual mind and learn by imagination. His ability to describe things for me were imperative for my learning. Over the years he taught me the ins and out’s of football, the strategy of the game through a board game we played together and then pointing things out during countless Sunday afternoon games. He taught me how to drive a manual transmission (which I still prefer and drive to this day) by describing what happens when you push the gas and release the clutch, I could feel the metal collide too fast and stall, or I could hear and feel the right pressure and speed and they came together and off I went.

Teaching me about water worked the same way. I think, in many ways, water was one of the first things I learned to respect. It was glorious, I was drawn to it at every turn, but it was also dangerous (read: compelling). Dad taught me about eddies and where to steer the boat. If I fell out I was to turn feet first as to not hit my head on a rock, wait for the rapids to end and swim to the side. And above all, never, EVER put yourself between the water and an object. Undertow was not to be messed with.

Water will find a way out, you may not.

It didn’t take long for this respect for water to turn to worship. It connected me to the earth, it flowed, constantly moving. I loved that you could never touch the same water twice in a stream or river or ocean. Water cleansed and was a symbol of life. This only strengthened the deeper my faith became. There are still two ways to get me to experience God almost immediately: Music and moving water.

After a few years I started to test the waters (see what I did there…). I sank my canoe on a class 4 rapid and laughed, I recovered the boat, it made for a good story. I started kaiaking which was easier to control and wasn’t putting other people in danger when I decided to “see what this thing could do”.

Looking back I was young and carless with my life, and there were many reasons for this, but then one day I was leading a youth group on a lazy Sunday afternoon down a river. I gave the youth group a healthy lecture on water and not to get out of the boat, etc. As we paddled along there were people partying, having a great time on the shores. I rolled my eyes, these people had no business being on a river, even one as tame as this. This is what lake canoeing was for (you can only imagine what I thought about lake canoeing!)

As my young companion and I floated lazily I noticed two couples off to the side, one had gotten their canoe stuck behind a tree, all it needed was a push, but they were doing it all wrong. All I had to do was canoe over, hop out of the boat for a second and give it a push. I made my way over, slipped off the side of my boat and there it was…

I was pulled straight under.

Stupid. Seriously. Stupid. I had broken the #1 rule, I put my body between the flowing river and an object. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but death was inevitable and I knew it immediately.

But I was lucky. Us humans, are built for survival. It’s in our DNA. As I went down my hands flew up and I grabbed a branch, hoisted myself up and quickly hopped over the log, putting my body downstream from the tree. The people I was helping had no idea what just happened. I have their boat a push, we exchanged pleasantries, a couple of youth group kids clapped thinking I was a badass. I got back in the boat like nothing had happened.

I had forgotten to respect the water.

To respect the water is to respect life. There are many reasons why water in scripture is the symbol of life and therefore a symbol of God. For years after that incident I feared the water. Not a pool or a lake, but moving water, life giving water. I walked into an ocean one day and felt the pull under the wave and panicked. I knew I had a choice. I could stay and face the fear, learn from my carelessness or forever be sidelined from one of my most beloved joys.

This week as I swim in the ocean I happily collapse under the waves, I let my body float, and be carried, and cleansed. I respect the water, but I also know my part in her dance. I am not the type to be led beside still waters, but crashing, moving, flowing water restores my soul, and for that, I am deeply grateful.

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