One of the greatest thrills of my life has been the opportunity (twice) to snorkel above the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. Even with the emerging evidence of bleaching of the coral due to climate change and too many tourists like myself, it is truly an extra-ordinary experience. As you adapt to breathing through a plastic tube that is attached to your all-important goggles, a whole world of wonder opens up before you beneath the water’s warm surface. It’s not just the multi-tudinal and multi-coloured fish, nor the rich diversity of coral and plant life, it’s the incredible reality that you are witnessing one of the great wonders of the world, the largest living organism on the planet.
As you float way, capturing images and wonders on your underwater camera, you notice that elite band of tourists who very much kept to themselves on the boat ride over: The scuba divers. These hardy folk almost look pityingly at you as you struggle to put on your skin tight swim suits that protect you from jellyfish. Their practised effortlessness at donning heavier equipment as they discuss gauge-levels and previous underwater odysseys sets them apart as those who go deeper.
The next time you see them they are far below you, streams of bubbles rising from expended air. Theirs is a world of true wonder, turtles, giant rays are their companions, alongside a heart-quickening glimpse of a distant shark. Watching a video later of their experiences does not fully capture the awe and wonder of what they saw at greater depth.
And so it can be in our spiritual journey. Many of us feel that in terms of our Christian life, we are simply skimming the surface. We may feel envious of those who seem so effortlessly to be able to go much deeper into their faith. We can be slightly intimidated by their ability to spend hours in prayer and reading the Bible, while we struggle to remember whether the book of Job is in the Old or New Testament. Our yearning to ‘go deeper’ can all too often be hindered by a sense of insecurity and unworthiness. Our vulnerabilities can impede our spiritual growth so that we rarely, if ever, get the awe filled opportunity to experience the presence of God. And that is a great pity.
As most of you know, I am a farmer’s son, I look at life simply and without complication. This allows me to simply believe the truths of our faith. But I have to admit how hard it was to enter the hallowed halls of theological learning. Of course it didn’t help that I was late for the first late evening office of my college life. As I shuffled into my seat self-consciously and picked up my prayer book, this giant hand landed on my shoulder (it was the gentle giant, Gary Hasting, now Rector of Holy Trinity Killiney) and in his broad northern accent he whispered – ‘It’s the other prayer book’. Thus began a daily struggle to keep up. Others seemed already to know so much. Incomprehensible words were used to explain things I just simply accepted: Eschatology – (End times): The Kingdom of God (The presence of God). It took me years to realise that my simple fait was not just acceptable, it was actually helpful. As I watched others struggle with complex concepts of faith, I began to thank God that while I obviously didn’t understand the mystery of His being, I could simply enjoy being in his presence. Now please don’t misunderstand my intention here. Going deeper theologically is both helpful and necessary if we are to grow in our faith, but working from the base of simple faith has helped me grasp deeper truths.
Those of you who follow the Car-pod Church series will know that I have been reflecting a lot on swimming recently as we try to understand what it means to be church. One of the simplest (and most profound) insights that I received into what it means to grow in Christian faith came from a reflection by Rev. Terence McCadden on Ezekiel 47:11-12. In his reflection he spoke of the vision the prophet had about the river which flowed under the city of God. The messenger brought Ezekiel out into the water first to ankle depth, then to his knees, his waist, his chest and then until the point where he was out of his depth. While I know many of you have heard me preach on this a number of times, I want to go over it again, that it might encourage us to go deeper in our faith at a time that we so urgently need sanctuary and security.
If we liken our spiritual journey to that of learning how to swim, it may help us demystify what it means to be a Christian. So as the wintry weather of mid-term assails us, try to imagine that you are standing on a beach at the edge of the water. Being Ireland, you are cautiously testing the water temperature by dipping your toe in. In our faith journey this also applies – we aren’t quite sure if we want to get involved in this thing called ‘Church’ or even if we want to believe in a Higher Power. So we dip our toe, we log in to some Christian Church sites, watch an occasional online service, or short Christian video. We are in no way committed, just exploring.
We may decide to venture in further, into both water and faith; just up to our ankles, no need for commitment here, we can still withdraw and walk away. But it is here, with the chilly water lapping at our knees that we begin to realise that we can relate to, and communicate with almighty God. Although vast and unmeasurable, God is available to us. And so we begin to pray. Nothing too elaborate or dramatic, just simple prayers, very often expressing our concerns for loved ones who are struggling – (‘God bless Mummy, God bless Daddy’ – simple childlike prayers but none the less profound for their simplicity and sincerity).
We now face a choice, to go back or to go on towards the point of no return. In Irish waters, allowing the waves to wash over the lower part of our backs is both thrilling and horrible in equal measure. We scream, groan and question our sanity in equal measure. In faith terms, we tend to associate our waist area with sin, the hidden embarrassing things we do of which we often feel (unhelpful) shame. On a deeper level this speaks of our growing awareness that the choices we make and the things we do, don’t just displease God, they hurt him. And that begins to matter to us because our relationship with God is deepening.
However our relationship with God can be so much more than constant apologising. We have reached a point in our heavenly connection when we care what God thinks and feels. And so we wade on, up to our chests, the cold water numbing us so we actually begin to enjoy the experience and are glad we made the effort. Of course, the heart resides in the chest cavity, and so we realise (sometimes slowly) that we love God and (even slowerly) realise God loves us and it’s unconditional! What a great place to be, to know what it is to feel and experience love without measure, and to receive it too!
But there is another level, deeper and daunting and potentially dangerous. Where we step out of our depth, allow the tide to take us, surrender to a stronger power. Obviously while actually swimming be very careful with this, but in your faith life, go for it. I can say with genuine humble sincerity, this is where the magic happens; fears and anxieties, while still present, lose their power to paralyse; despair changes to hope, loneliness is eased. It’s a journey so not yet perfection but stepping out of our depth with God literally changes everything. Give it a go! You’ll be glad you did.