Right before Christmas I decided to get a membership at the local pool so I could start swimming laps. It's something I've enjoyed doing, off and on, since I was in college and took to the pool for exercise and solitude. I like the ritual: walking (then) or driving (now) to the pool, changing into a bathing suit, donning the goggles and then getting wet. In water, it's peaceful. Sometimes I pray while I'm swimming. I discovered this: that the repetitive nature of the freestyle stroke lends itself nicely to prayer. It's a great way to start the day.
Sometimes when I am finished swimming I go outside and sit in the hot tub for a few minutes. I'm not a fan, in general, of the hot tub experience, but I do like being in warm water outside, especially when it's snowing. Normally I don't go there when there's someone there already, but the other morning something drew me outside, even though there was a gentleman settled comfortably in the tub. I had a sense that he had something to tell me, so I went out and said hello.
"Are you a writer?" he asked me, right off. It caught me by surprise, and for a moment I wondered what might have given him that impression. Was it because it was 9 in the morning and I was swimming in the pool of a nice hotel? Did he think that writers were a lazy lot? Did I look like a writer? And, if so, what does that mean? Are there common writerly characteristics?
From there we dove directly into some very personal information, as if we were old friends needing to catch up, with very little time. We each had lots of questions for the other. He revealed to me some difficult truths. Which, given my nature as a pastor, happens fairly regularly now, just not usually in a container of warm water with someone I've just met.
We talked about religion, about writers we liked, and about some of the pain he had endured as a young man. He told me that he was 60 years old, and I could tell that he was seeking his place in this world; seeking to integrate where he had been and what he had endured with the vision he may have had for himself and the reality that became his life.
I found myself thinking...incredible, how we all suffer so much in this life. How we struggle with our demons, how we manage, if possible, to come to terms with what our life turns out to be, especially when it's nothing close to what we dreamed it would be.
I stayed in the hot tub listening to this lovely gentleman for so long that I was beginning to feel like a poached egg. I didn't want to leave, but I was cooked all the way through, so we shook hands and I walked out of his life, most likely forever.
Driving home, I thought a lot about what he had told me, including the fact that he had clairsentient gifts, which explains how he knew I was a writer before I had said anything. I wondered if he knew about the dreams I have for myself...of writing more and becoming published. And I wondered about the dreams he was holding on to, for himself. I wanted to know more. I wanted him to be OK.
I wished, as I drove on, that I had told him something else. This: in the Book of Mark, in the bit where Jesus, at the age of about 30, is baptised by the fabulous wildman, John, the heavens open up and a voice tells Jesus, You are my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.
You are my beloved.
And with you I am well-pleased.
The voice from above doesn't say, "As soon as you get your act together, lose those 30 pounds, sober up, stop eating all that chocolate, clean your house...you will become my beloved." Or..."one of these days, I promise, as soon as you shape up, I will be pleased."
The voice from above -- and I don't really care what it was or what you need to call it or even if you think it's ridiculous; it doesn't matter -- the voice from above tells us this: you actually already are the beloved of God, and, just as you are, today, this minute, God is well-pleased with you. You don't even have to go to church tomorrow. God isn't waiting there. You don't have to go anywhere or be anything to encounter God.
For me, God is in the pool, and, oddly enough, God was in the hot tub on Tuesday. God is in the folks who show up in my life and teach me the things I need to know and tell me the things I need to hear and there is simply no way to know where or when or why that's going to happen. I will probably never again see the kind man I sat with in that too-hot water the other day. We won't have another chance to talk about God and skiing and sorrow and Lazarus and seminary and singing and the ways that life goes terribly awry and leaves us suffering.
But we did, once, and once is so much better than never. Instead of going into the locker room the other day, I went outside. Robert Frost was right, it makes all the difference.