Learning to Breathe Underwater

I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbors.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.
And then one day,
-and I still don’t know how it happened -
the sea came.
Without warning.
Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.
— Breathing Under Water (Sr. Carol Bialock, RSCJ) 

This has, over the past several years, become one of my favourite poems.  I think the writer was a lot like me.  She built her house on something solid.  It was sand, but not shifting sand, and it was built out of rock.  She, like me, had been raised in the faith.  She saw from a young age the need for a relationship with God and seemed to have a desire to serve Him with her life.  I could identify with that.  My parents raised me to know who Jesus was and to value my relationship with Him.  They modeled service and sacrifice.  I learned the importance of building a life on something solid.  My faith was important to me.  But over time I began to realize that even that phrasing betrayed me. It was MY faith…faith was an object, out there, that I had, that I held on to.  It was like her relationship with the ocean.   In her own words, 

And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbors.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.

She valued the sea, she loved it.  She wanted to be close to it, but still to keep it at a distance.  I lived that way with my faith.  Jesus became someone I knew about, someone I studied, someone I served.  But there was a distance there.  A “fence of sand” that could allow me to live at a safe distance.  I was “respectful”, full of reverence and worship, but in the quiet moments I knew that I was still holding faith as something that I had, not something that had me.

And then one day,
-and I still don’t know how it happened -
the sea came.
Without warning.
Without welcome, even

These words spell out my own experience.  I can’t even recall how it happened, or even when, but all I knew was that something was different.  It started with a dissatisfaction, almost a fear that what I had been holding to so long wasn’t enough.  But even in those difficult times, times of doubt and anxiety, God was coming to me.  He was moving toward me in ways that I did not understand.  

Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.

As I look back on it now I wish I could describe the process or somehow explain what it was that was happening to me and in me.  As a pastor that’s what I do, I try to teach people how to progress in a life of faith, but there was something about this period of my life that is hard to put into words.  Carol’s poem expresses it in terms that resonate with me.  It was a terrifying time, because I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening or where it would lead.  At times I felt like looking for another job, like chucking church and the whole outward expression of my faith because it seemed like for now it was such a poor reflection of what God was inviting me to.  I was coming to see her words “respectful silence” and “distance” were my way to keep me sitting in the driving seat of my relationship with God.  But something inside was changing, something that was taking faith and trust deeper.  Something that was actually putting to death a part of me, in order to bring to life something deeper.

And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.

All of the sudden, and this is recent, within the last 6-8 years, I realized that faith wasn’t something that I had in my life toolbox.  It wasn’t just a piece of the puzzle.  My relationship with Jesus wasn’t like a friend that I hung out with from time to time.  It was deeper, more profound, and all consuming.  In Carol’s words, 

That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

When the sea came calling in my life, I had to realize that my faith isn’t what I do for God, or what I believe about God, but it is the fact that I am totally consumed by who He is.  My identity isn’t based on how I think or act, but on the fact that He has me.  The doorway has opened up for me to live in a constant relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and that has turned everything on its head.  That understanding, if it can even be called an understanding, has changed everything for me.  And the rest of life is about learning to “breath underwater”.  

I hope this poem connects with you, if not today, then someday.  Because the ocean will never, despite your love and respect for it, stay where it is.  It’s moving toward you, desiring you, ready to consume you and take your house for a coral castle.  And breathing underwater, while a bit scary at first, is the best taste of freedom you will ever have…until that day when all things are made new.

Jeff Kuhn3 Comments