My dad loved to be on a boat.
He’d whip us around the lake in a speedboat while we clung for dear life to the tube he was towing. He would practice doing rolls in his kayak, somersaulting into and out of the surface of the water while I watched in horror, sure he would get stuck upside-down and drown. In kindergarten, I’d cry “Don’t go bumpity bumpity!” when my dad started to speed the boat up, worried the waves would knock us all into the drink.
My dad loved boats, but frankly they’ve always scared me. I can’t get past the fear of what happens if you fall out.
There’s an old story about my dad as a teenager taking his Sunfish out on a hot day. He jumped out of the boat to take a quick swim, but then the wind picked up and the sail filled. He spent the rest of the afternoon (as the story goes) swimming after it, trying to catch up, as each gust of wind kept it just barely out of his reach.
I love that story, because my dad was a remarkably capable guy. He was great at most things — swimming, whistling, listening. After he died two decades ago, people started to talk about him in those canonizing ways you talk about dead people. He was the best person. A trusted leader. An all around great friend. That’s probably why I just love picturing him flailing around that lake. Utterly, frustratingly, repeatedly… missing the boat. In this story at least, he’s just a regular guy. He’s nobody’s hero.
My faith has changed a lot this year, in lots of ways. Maybe I fell off the boat. Maybe I jumped; I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m no hero, either. The striving, the chasing, the sheer will it would take to get back on the boat — to go back to the way I used to understand God and myself and the world — is simply not within me.
Martin Laird, in a beautiful book about contemplative prayer called Into the Silent Land, wrote something that helps me find peace in this new landscape that I’m still making sense of. He says, “Because God is the ground of our being, the relationship between creature and Creator is such that, by sheer grace, separation is not possible. God does not know how to be absent.”
If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that I really don’t have much control in this life. Nothing has felt more like a School of Powerlessness than watching the whole world, me included, try to navigate a situation so utterly unknown. The God who brought comfort to me, the God who drew very near during this last year, has not been the God of “try harder.” Not a God who needs me to swim just a little faster than what I find my body can muster. Not the God who’s ever out of my reach.
Maybe I was wrong, all this time, to fear what would happen if I fell out of the boat. Maybe the love that formed the universe, the love that sustains us and enfolds us, was never in the boat at all.
Maybe God is the water. And whether we’re swimming or drowning, whether it’s smooth sailing or we’re being tossed about, by sheer grace we are ever-enveloped in the presence of this God. A God who is wild, a God who is everywhere, a God who cannot be controlled.
I’ve come to believe that God need not be chased. Because God is already here.