I lingered above the surface long enough to hear, “Glide, Mrs. Duffield, glide!”
I was “multi-tasking,” getting my exercise in while my children practiced with their team. Multi-tasking had become a way of life for me. So much so that once, when I asked my then three-year-old what she was doing, she responded with, “I am eating and playing. I am multi-tasking.”
Perhaps that should have been a turning point. Sadly, it wasn’t.
Usually, I sit beside the pool and work on Sunday’s sermon but on this particular day I’d decided on a different set of tasks. In so doing I got the prophetic word from Coach Harry, “Glide, Mrs. Duffield, glide!” He demonstrated landside with his arms. My breaststroke was, apparently, too quick and too choppy. I was failing to glide between strokes, sabotaging my own forward momentum.
But I am not a natural glider. Gliding involves a kind of inaction that makes me antsy. I prefer to move quickly from one movement to another, it FEELS more efficient and intentional. I am not a natural glider in the pool or in life. One beloved friend gently told me recently, “You have a tendency to fill empty spaces.” Coach Harry’s admonishment added an “amen” to this unwelcome assessment.
“You are working too hard.” This was more unsolicited advice from a different coach regarding a different stroke. This time it was my freestyle that was called into question. “Allow the water to work FOR you. Right now, you are working against it, slapping at it.” Right, I thought, Glide, Mrs. Duffield, glide.
But I am not a natural glider, in the pool or in life. More movement FEELS better even when it exhausts me and thwarts my efforts to move forward. It LOOKS productive — to everyone but the coach, anyway. I have a deep-seated, even if incorrect, notion that moving forward, moving at all, depends upon me and my efforts. The faster and harder I stroke the quicker I’ll get to the designated end, whatever it may be.
The church needs to be growing, worship should be more energetic, Bible study needs to resume, pastoral visits need to be made — stroke, kick, slap, quick breath, stroke, kick, slap. The children have soccer practice, homework, and a birthday party to go to — stroke, kick, slap, breathe, gotta breathe, stroke, kick, kick, kick. My husband and I both have a meeting on the same night. Which one of us was supposed to arrange for a babysitter? Stroke. Kick. Slap. If only I didn’t have to come up for air, I could go even faster. Sunday is coming, the clock is ticking, and the water is turbulent with my frantic efforts but the edge of the pool is slipping farther and farther away. I come up for a breath only because I HAVE to and the coach is shouting, “Glide, Mrs. Duffield! Glide!”
But I am not a natural glider. I fill empty spaces. I go from one movement to the next with my eyes fixed solidly on the designated end. It is the same with sermon preparation. I go to the appointed lectionary text and instinctively think, What will preach? I jump into the water of the text focused on the cross, no, not the cross of Jesus Christ, but the black, bull’s eye cross that marks the end of the lane. How can I USE this text? It is a pragmatic, utilitarian approach. The text has become sermon fodder instead of the living Word of God. My ten-year-old son will often share a story or book or movie with me and then ask with proud anticipation, “What do you think, Mom? Is it sermon fodder?” And I’ll answer, “Son, EVERYTHING is sermon fodder.” It is a joke only a P.K. could understand but, unfortunately, it is often how I approach the Bible. I slap and kick, harder, faster, breathing solely out of necessity in order to make it to the bull’s eye of Sunday morning. I know that I am working too hard, against the water, as if by so doing I can subdue the Word, shape it, contain it, rather than dwelling in it, listening to it, allowing it to surround and uphold and propel me and, in the process, I am rejecting the gift of effortless gliding God longs to offer.
In January of this year I started the Doctorate of Ministry program at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. My first course was “The Bible and the Practice of Ministry.” I flippantly told friends that I am all for using the Bible in the practice of ministry so I ought to do just fine in the class. I joked about it because, really, I was anxious, my knowledge of Greek having long ago been reduced to “Alpha, beta, gamma, delta, hey, hi ho! Give ‘em hell Zeta Kappa! Go, Chi O!”
I walked into Dr. John Alsup’s class knowing that my ignorance was about to be exposed — no amount of frantic movement would mask my inability to recognize a noun from a verb from, God forbid, a participle. I couldn’t rely on my usual slapping and kicking, I was almost too frightened to get in the pool, but, to my great surprise, I would soon learn to glide.
“I want this to be the best learning experience you’ve ever had,” said Dr. Alsup. He continued, “I want us each to bring to the table whatever it is we have to offer. I hope we can throw open the shutters we’ve placed on these texts. I want us to listen to them.” And as he spoke something miraculous happened: I began to breathe, to really breathe, not quick-frantic-so-I-can-keep-moving breathe, but deep-relax-feel-the-air-and-space-breathe. Throw open the shutters, bring what you have, listen — glide, Mrs. Duffield, glide! We jumped into the water of the texts without even a look towards the end of the pool. We were in the waters of Scripture not to get to the other side but to “luxuriate,” to be immersed, surrounded, suspended, upheld, and delighted. We improved our Greek grammar: change the angle of your arm. We considered the genre: allow the water to work for you. We explored the context: take a moment between each stroke. And, eventually, we “crossed the hermeneutical bridge:” take a deep breath. We crossed the hermeneutical bridge, not because we had to, but because the Spirit inspired us to. At that moment I felt something I’d not felt in a very long time, I felt the sheer joy of being breathlessly upheld in kairos, suspended, surrounded, propelled, not by my efforts, but by the power of the living, life-giving Word of God. “Glide, Mrs. Duffield, Glide!”
Jill Duffield is pastor of Tirzah Church in Waxhaw, N.C.