Long, long ago, in olden days, I lived in England and every morning, without fail, I would swim in an Olympic size pool. It was fabulous, clean, sparkling, peaceful. I would plunge in not just to do the grown-up stuff of lengths but to stand on my hands, touch the floor of the diving pool, sit on the bottom and hold my breath until my lungs were bursting so I had to shoot upwards, gasping for air, like a teenage lout I would jump off the spring board and if there was no one near I’d do a bomb…. I loved those mornings. I’m homesick for a few English things but that pool is definitely the main one! There were three elderly women who would come into the pool, every day, stepping carefully through the footbath, their floral swim hats bobbing and their laughter echoing and they made their slow way to the steps. Once in the pool (gingerly) they stayed exactly where they had ‘landed’, halfway along, up to their shoulders in the water, chatting and nodding, a little island of colour and life. They stayed for about half an hour, chit-chattering like a small flock of busy birds, hardly pausing to take breath, smiling at the swimmers as they passed, sharing ribald comments with the pool attendants, shrieking with laughter sometimes, or ‘Ooohing’ and ‘Ahhhing’ at some piece of new news. And then they would make their stately way out again, without having swum so much as an inch. As I continued my lengths I’d keep an eye on the café and there, after another half hour or so, the women would arrive for their coffee and cakes. When I was changed and heading home they were often still there, still talking of course. I used to wonder, much as I do now with married couples, “What do they find to talk about day in and day out?” Just remembering them makes me smile.
I like to think of their families, telling each other, marvelling, “Mum is amazing. She’s 83 but she goes swimming every single day of her life.” I hope they had that myth woven around them, and I hope they smiled demurely and nodded and didn’t confess the truth.
Those three elderly women are in my thoughts because I’ve returned to swimming – not in a lovely olympic sized pool but in small one, barely long enough for 15 breast strokes or 9 front crawls (it’s West Wales, barely adequate is what we aim for). And you know what? It’s OK. It could do with it being just a tad warmer, but if you keep moving it’s OK. It wouldn’t please the chatting trio, that’s for sure.
So, why? Why am I returning to the water even when it’s a bit too cold and a bit too small and a bit too… you know… blah? Listen, and I’ll tell you why. It’s by way of a confession but it’s not a shame faced one – it’s loud and brazen and a bit waggy fingered. So, listen up. I don’t know a whole lot of things for absolute certain but this is something I have come to know to be true. TRUE.
I’m going through a rough time at the moment, with family problems and the news from Ukraine, and some friends who are in a difficult situation, and no real ‘must do’ jobs in my life, so the world seems unrelentingly grim just now. I despair of church traditions that imply we must always be victorious and defiantly jolly Christians. That’s not real. It’s make-believe. It’s self serving, like Eleanor Rigby ‘wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door’. And pretending that all is always swingingly good doesn’t acknowledge our weakness and God’s great strength. I am weak. I stumble and feel lost at times. And that’s OK. That really is OK. Look at what this guy called Asaph said in the Psalms:
I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.
I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
So the poor man couldn’t sleep, he was in despair, felt abandoned. I don’t know what his problems were – probably not a mad Russian dictator or the other things affecting me just now – but he was longing for ‘the old days’ Listen as he remembers being happy, ‘singing songs in the night’
I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
But even remembering the good times he felt desolate.
“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
I too got to the point of saying to God, ‘Enough! Surely, it’s enough? Can’t you please turn your spotlight on someone else for a while? Give us a breather, do!’
But this guy, Asaph, made a decision, a choice. Even though it was hard, he chose to remember, and focus on the things God has done, the great things God has already done. He was intentional even though he felt defeated;
Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”
And as he thought about them, he saw again, the character and the steadfastness of God’s love and began to slowly come out of his slough of despond
Your ways, God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?
You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.
With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
He was thinking about the parting of the Red Sea, when the people of Israel were terrified and fleeing, and exhausted and bewildered… like the poor people of Ukraine. And Asaph remembered that back then, when it was as bad as it could get, when all seemed hopeless and and lost, God stepped in
The waters saw you, God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.
The clouds poured down water,
the heavens resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.
And his last thoughts (I like to think these were his last thoughts before he fell into a deep and reviving sleep) were
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
I know what you’re saying now. “What the hell has that got to do with three old women in Derby twenty years ago?” Well, not a lot, but listen, this is what I’m trying to say: Life deals us a hefty shovel full of ordure sometimes. We can end up old and alone when everything we have been working for is the very opposite, or we can lose our homes in a war not of our making, or our most precious loved ones die too young to make any human sense. These things happen. Don’t pretend it’s all candy floss and merry-go-rounds. But we have a choice. We can buckle under the weight of grief and loneliness or we can do what Asaph did…. we can look to God, remember his goodness, remember when things were better, celebrate past victories and happiness. And in our history we can rediscover and reaffirm the nature of God.
Part of ‘looking to God’ is being aware of our frailty, our vulnerability to despair and it’s our place to shoulder the burden and walk onwards. It’s not our place to pretend that all is well and wonderful and that our faith and love is unshakeable. We are all too shakeable, each of us.
Part of walking away from despair, or depression as we call it nowadays, can be something practical as well as something prayerful. For me it’s going back to something that I know feeds my heart, swimming. And another choice is the deliberate habit of thanking God for each day (whether I feel like it or not), thanking him for good friends who will pray for me if I let them know I’m sinking beneath the waves (this is a very watery blog), for the front crawl and for goose pimples and warm towels. It’s thanking him for those three old women and their echoing laughter, their naughty jokes. It’s thanking him for a doughnut I ate with a pal this morning, and it’s thanking him (and remembering) that I have known what it is to sing songs in the night, and I will again.
God is good. It’s the rest of us that are not so great. How amazing that I read that Psalm this morning, of all mornings. I didn’t know Psalm 77 at all, yet of all the pages in my Bible (well over 1000) that’s the page I came to this morning, when I needed it most. You might think that’s not nearly as marvellous as parting the Red Sea, but it’s the miracle I needed and it’ll do me just fine. A great Pastor I once knew (still do) would call the Bible ‘the Living Word’ and as he said it, he couldn’t help but hold his Bible out to us, and the soft cover would unfold like a bird’s wings.
The Living Word. Taking flight. When we cry out to God for help, the first thing we should look at, with prayer, is his living Word. That’s where we will find him.