The Feeling of Drowning

When I was a kid, my aunt and uncle owned a swimming pool.  In fact, they still do.  An in-the-ground swimming pool! When the temperatures reached food-heating levels, the cousins and various other friends, neighbours and stray children would spend hours and hours from morning until well after the sun went down in the pool.  My aunt would comb through mail order catalogues (remember those?!) and buy the coolest floats and toys for the pool.  One was literally a round, yellow, floating island with two palm trees, pillows and built-in cup holders.  Very similar to this one:

It was better than this one, actually.

Until the day I got stuck under it.

It happened so quickly, and yet I remember it absolutely vividly.  I was probably about eight years old, because my cousin Jennifer was in high school.  I liked to look at the sky from under the water, and the reflections from above.  I would put on goggles or a face mask and swim to the bottom, trying to lie there despite my body's natural inclination to float.  I would stay that way, listening to the gurgling water sounds and looking up until I had just enough breath left to get to the surface.

This time, I didn't realise that they had pushed away from the side of the pool, and suddenly, as I swam up for air, the floating island was above me.  I flailed downward and tried to come up again, and my head hit the float again.  I was panicking, and although somehow I knew that there was something up there, I couldn't seem to remember how to swim.  I remember someone reaching under and grabbing my arm.  Just like that, I was above the surface, spluttering and crying (I always cry) and breathing in the precious oxygen that I wasn't entirely sure I would ever get to again.

I've never forgotten that feeling.  So when a friend confided in me that he felt like he was drowning, I snapped to attention.  He had just told his family that he was gay.

Just like that sensation of being so close to the surface but unable to breathe, he described how it felt to think you are loved, then to have something else entirely happen.  He knew that they wouldn't be happy.  He knew that they wouldn't really understand.  He felt prepared for that.  What he didn't expect was that a love that had built over a lifetime of shared experiences would crumble by just saying a few words.

"They told me that God would still love me, but that they and the church and God couldn't accept my lifestyle.  I don't even have a lifestyle!  I'm still a virgin.  I've never even kissed a man before."

" do you know you're gay?" was my response.

"How do you know you're straight?  You haven't slept with anyone either." he replied.

"I  I feel butterflies when a guy brushes my hand or smiles at me that don't happen with girls."

"Same here."

"Oh.  That makes sense.  As for the God thing, I'm pretty sure he loves you as you are.  Jesus came for everyone.  That's pretty basic stuff.  Some churches are fine with gay people, so maybe this denomination is the wrong one.  Episcopalians?  They drink alcohol and everything.  You can still go to church.  It's pretty much the whole Christian thing that they can't turn you away."

But they did.  No matter which church he went to, as soon as he felt close to them, took communion with them and worshipped with them, he would hold his breath and dive in.  He would look at the world reflected through the water, believing it still to be beautiful and free.  Then, he would stop holding his breath and tell someone.  It felt like coming up for air, a freedom in its own right.

Only, he kept hitting the island.  It was a big one.  We'll call it "Righteousness Island."  This island was amazing, with built-in pillows and cupholders and palm trees for shade.  It was comfortable.  It was so comfortable, that the people on it couldn't be bothered to see what the bumping from below was.  They couldn't see that someone was drowning just next to them.

The first few times, he found his own way out, flailing and spluttering and crying.  Then, the worst thing happened.  Rather than putting out an arm to help him, the inhabitants of the island pushed him back under.  They would rather not let him be a part of things.  They didn't want anything to do with "his kind."  They didn't want to support his "lifestyle", which was fundamentally exactly the same as their lifestyle.  So rather than rescuing him, offering him a place and a warm, dry towel, they pushed him back under.

This time, he drowned.  He never came up for air near them again. They stopped noticing the uncomfortable bumping under the clear water and the droplets of water grazing their arms, and they assumed because something was easy and comfortable, that the island was the perfect place for them.

They were wrong despite all their righteousness.  They needed to abandon the comfort of the island, jump in the water and look in from the other side.  They needed to understand the rejection and the drowning feeling.  You can "right" a wrong, but there doesn't seem to be a verb way of "wronging" someone's righteousness.  Maybe there needs to be.

Jesus fully understood that rejection and that drowning feeling, because he never once pushed people back under.  He never rejected those who asked for love and acceptance.

The bible is full of images of water and drowning.  The psalms are packed full of "RESCUE ME!"  I remember one saying, "The water is up to my neck!"  The miracle of Jesus calming the storm, so important that it is mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke, is almost comical.  Jesus is asleep, and when they waken the creator of the world, the author of life, the most powerful force in heaven and earth to say, "Are you going to do something?!  We're all going to drown!"  He didn't reply with: "Do you deserve it?"  He replied with "Hush, it's done."  A few years ago, I read a devotion that beautifully said that Jesus said "Peace" for us and "Be still" for the water.

When Peter lost faith and began to sink while walking to Jesus on the water, Jesus didn't start by lecturing him about his doubt, he started by pulling him out.  Once he was out, flailing and spluttering and probably crying, Jesus said to him, "Why did you doubt?"  He knew that to pull him out, the very act of saving, was enough.

The feeling of drowning changes the perspective.  It gives you fear and awe and respect of forces well beyond your control.  Sitting on an island doesn't do that.

Do you sit on your little island, ignoring those around you who can't breathe?

Maybe they have lost faith or struggle with doubt.
Maybe they are fighting through another crumbling relationship.
Maybe they are in a sea of debt or pain or memories.
Maybe they are up to their necks in grief or depression.
Maybe they are human.
Maybe they are drowning?

Jesus didn't condemn imperfect people.  He pulled them out of the water.  He saved them.  We are doing others a grave harm when we just ignore the suffering of the drowning just because we are comfortable being dry.  We are called to be life-givers and lifeguards!  We are called to be like Jesus - to pull people out, not just once or twice but over and over.  Even when it hurts our pride or offends our sensibilities. Even when we think people are not worthy of it.  Jesus saved Peter.  Peter.  The one who denied him and caused trouble and doubted?  He saved him and said he would be a ROCK and that he would give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  To someone drowning.  Then, Peter got it.  He understand that rather than lounging around in his righteousness with built-in cupholders, he needed to be waiting and watching the water, ready to pull people out.

"Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble." - 1 Peter 3:8


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