The first sermon at the first church I ever served (which is also the only church I have served) was called “Swimming Lessons.” Countless seminary papers and exams had brought me to this moment. Now, time had come to climb into the pulpit to impart the great wisdom available to a young man with a Divinity degree on his wall.
Here’s the gist: as a swimmer learns to trust that water will hold a body, so, too, must a person learn to trust in the Holy. Have you attended any church in the world for, say, four or five Sundays? If so, you yourself will have heard a take on this very same sermon. It’s like arguing that people should remember to floss when they brush. But, with my pressed khaki pants, and a hair-cut that shone, I delivered the message with messianic conviction.
I told the Congregation that they and I would be learning to risk faith together. It would require of us allowing ourselves to be known and be held in the Spirit, as a swimmer is held by the water. As a sign of my willingness to be seen as imperfect—lest there be any doubt—I confessed to them that, at my advanced age, I didn’t know how to swim. But, I assured them, I intended to learn. So, as their new pastor literally learned how to swim, we would all learn to navigate the metaphorical waters of the newness we shared with one other. Everyone seemed pleased when it finally came time to sing the last hymn, and then go on to the social hall to drink coffee and gossip.
What I imagined the Congregation would take from the sermon was a fresh understanding of the nature of faith. But, a couple days later, it became clear to me that this was not what most had gained from my talk. What seemed to stick with most in attendance was, instead, that the new pastor was bent at long last on mastering a basic childhood skill.
Obligingly, a few of the church elders had already inquired at the Civic Center for me about adult swim lessons. They learned I’d be welcome in a morning class offered for seniors which met three times a week. It was all arranged. The coach would be waiting. The class was made up almost entirely of women several decades older than me, and was called “Swimmin’ Women.”
After a lifetime on dry land, had I really intended to learn how to swim? Well, sure. Almost certainly. Probably. I would have no doubt looked into the matter. At some point in my life. But the congregation seemed to believe that, simply because I had declared from the pulpit my intent to take swimming lessons, I had an intention to take swimming lessons. They assumed, in other words, that I meant what I said.
Growing up, my sister and I had, in fact, spent a lot of time at the faculty club pool down near the University of Tennessee. But, while my sister had spent these summer days in the water, and ultimately competed for the swim team, her stout younger brother could be found outside the fence, on a hill overlooking the Tennessee River, with a steak and cheese sandwich you could get at the snack bar, charged to the account.
It was not that I was afraid of the water. It was that, when you get in a pool, there were people who want to splash you in the face. Some want to grab you and dunk you, while others stand in the shallow end, gazing in reverie at passing clouds while they urinate. If someone offered you the choice of spending summer days being splashed with chlorinated human waste, and then dunked in it, or else going out to a hill on a river by yourself to enjoy a steak and cheese sandwich, you too might end up as an adult who didn’t know how to swim.
Either I live in a small city, or else a large town. Whichever, news here travels fast. So, within a few days, it seemed that everyone around was aware of my future with the Swimmin’ Women. At the grocery store, at the video rental store, everywhere. Wherever I went, there were kindly smiles that only barely masked gentle smirks. People knew.
To that point, my history of physical exertion had been sporadic, half-hearted. I tended to sign up eagerly, then not follow through. It was my way. No one seemed to mind, least of all me. But it seemed I was now living a life in which my preferred sluggishness might become a matter of public concern.
The Swimmin’ Women coach was named Bobbie–a retired gym coach who was all business. She lined up her swimmers according to skill. This meant that, while swimmers who had swum since the Truman administration took up the far lanes, where their perfect strokes sliced the water, I had the slow lane entirely to myself. Well, except for the kickboard. Bobbie, it turned out, was a stickler for form. I was not going to dog-paddle, nor run out the clock with my limb-draping take on the dead man’s float. No. More was expected of a Swimmin’ Woman. Bobbie was determined. And so, as I churned through the water behind a kickboard, making my way, lap after lap, there she was, right above me at poolside, calling down corrections to whatever my legs had been doing.
Four months later, at the Christmas party, the Women gave me a new swimsuit in recognition that, while any of them could have beaten me in a race, it could now charitably be said that I knew how to swim. The gap between my declared intent and my actual life, at least with swimming, had been closed. In its place, a grudging pinch of integrity.
Everyone knows that congregations are boring, old- fashioned, and more political than Congress before an election. But, on the bright side, they can also be judgmental. Think of an old friend who lets you know exactly the one thing that you need to hear. Now, picture a whole community like that in your life. Maybe how things are for you matches precisely how you intended them to be. All I know is that, when it comes down to me, for a long time, I was only floating. And it was a congregation that finally required me to apply myself to practice, and keep in the struggle of effort, which as it turns out, is what it takes to swim.