by Graham Crossan
These are not the best of times, nor are they the worst of times.
Some people are faring better than others in this pandemic altered world. Others are finding the isolation and particularly the uncertainty of the future difficult to deal with.
That’s why, certainly in Christian circles, the metaphor of ‘wandering in the desert’ is particularly popular at the moment.
We have, many of us, an indelible image of the ancient Jewish nation, newly freed from slavery in Egypt, wandering around in the desert for forty long years.
It’s an amazing story of hope and hardship, doubt and division. Does that sound familiar?
One of my spiritual hobbies is reading Bible stories and then trying to find parallels in my own life. It gives the stories relevance in my world, which is so different from the biblical world.
I have a modern day story that might shed some light on handling the anxiety you may be feeling at this difficult time.
It’s about a desert wandering I did, but this was a wet desert – not hot, but icy cold.
The experience is helping me face another desert crossing I’ve been forced into which has lasted eleven years so far.
Adult Themes Nudity
Up until ten years ago I was a keen swimmer. Not talented, but dedicated. Four days a week I swam about two kilometres in the local public pool. Occasional on a weekend this distance might double.
As well as pool swims, I was talked into entering a number of bay swims. The famous Pier To Pub, the Portsea Classic and several others became fixtures in my life.
Winning for me did not mean reaching the end first. Finishing was my goal.
To achieve this I developed a simple routine. Two weeks before a race I made sure that, in a single session, I swam one and a half times the distance of the upcoming event.
I did this more for mental reassurance than for fitness. If I’d already done it in the pool I was confident I’d manage the race itself.
Then some of my swimming buddies, all at least twenty years younger than me, let slip that they had entered an event I’d never heard of.
‘The Big Bay Swim’ was a race from Beacon Cove to Williamstown – across the shipping lanes of Port Phillip Bay.
The entry form said it was four point five kilometres, which was more than double the longest distance I had attempted outside of a pool.
In spite of my slight trepidation I filled in the form.
On the day, in the cold predawn darkness, I drank some extra water and ate my final food before the race – a banana. I wondered whether my preparation had been adequate.
About three hundred of us waited on the shoreline. Nothing happened for what felt like an eternity.
This sent my carefully calculated routine into disarray.
I’m not a control freak, but in those days I hadn’t learned to loosen my grip on things and let my confidence rest with a higher power. I was the skipper of my boat, and did my own navigation too. Graham the Great! Not outwardly arrogant, but inwardly unprepared to submit to God’s guidance.
I was very much like many of those people in that ancient desert.
Eventually a voice from above, speaking over a loud hailer, informed us that the event officials had been waiting for clearance from the Port Authority to ensure all shipping was clear before sending us off.
Then I heard some course language that shocked me as I stood there in my tracksuit.
‘Oh. By the way, we’ve had to adjust the course slightly, so it’s now five point two kilometres, not four point five.’
My confidence, normally buoyant, sank into my slippers, which I wore to keep my feet warm before entering the dark water.
This swim was testing me even before I was wet.
A few minutes later, stripped to my skimpy Speedos, and Gaynor departed with my clothes and towels to meet me on the other side, I was as ready as the circumstances allowed. Naked in body and spirit.
The first wave of swimmers was set off. These were the under thirties. Ten minutes later the megaphone voice had the Seniors step up.
We were not athletic looking, so the low light was a blessing. There were a few skinny bodies and many more that were distinctly aquatic in shape. Most wore wetsuits, but not this little black duck.
I could say I was old school and tough, but the truth is I was not prepared to spend money on something I might only use a handful of times.
I stood and looked across the sparkling water to orientate myself. Way off in the distance I could make out the giant cranes in the naval dockyard. They were lit up like Christmas trees and seemed much closer than five point two kilometres away.
‘Take your marks…GO!
Off we waddled into Port Phillip Bay, goggles protecting our eyes and swim caps making us more visible in the dark water.
It was from this moment that I became focused solely on myself.
When the water was up to my knees I lunged forward in a shallow dive. There were bodies all around me threshing away in the darkness, but I was oblivious.
With my legs kicking and my arms stroking through the water, I was off.
It was great to be in action at last, and I surged ahead. My body was performing, but my mind was somehow still computing my compromised preparation.
It took a short time to get into my stride, and even less time to shudder to a stop.
I looked ahead to the cranes way over there in Williamstown, then turned to look at where I’d come from.
About five hundred metres was all I’d managed before succumbing to utter exhaustion.
I couldn’t believe it! What was going on? Surely I could swim further than this! But my arms and shoulders were aching.
‘I’d better not go further. Thank goodness I’m only this far from the shore.’
That was my first thought. Relief of sorts. My next was almost panic inducing.
‘If I swim back to shore I’ll be wet, almost completely naked, and there’s no way of contacting Gaynor.’
My mind raced as my legs treaded water and I weighed up my limited options.
‘I can’t go forward, but I can’t go back either.’
That was the emotional voice in my head focusing on all the negatives.
‘Take us back to Egypt, Moses. Slavery was better than this. At least we knew what to expect. It’s all your fault we’re in this mess.’
But then another voice in my head became audible.
‘Get a grip, Graham. You’ve swum much further before, so what’s the problem now?’
A dialogue started to unfold as more swimmers passed me. They sparked a reaction.
‘If they can do it, so can I. Can’t I?’
After what seemed like ten minutes, but was probably only ten seconds, I struck a deal with myself. It was hard bargaining, I can tell you.
‘I WILL do one hundred strokes towards the finish before I allow myself to stop again.’
I shook hands with myself and off I went, in the wake of several aquatic shapes, who were becoming more visible in the dawn light.
What began as a one, two, three, four count each time a hand hit the water, soon progressed to a twenty, and a twenty one, and a twenty two, count each time my right hand went in.
When I got to around eighty strokes I renegotiated with myself because I was feeling quite good. The goal became one hundred and fifty strokes before I’d allow myself to stop.
I kept moving the goal further out and never stopped again until I arrived on the other side, in Williamstown, underneath the cranes.
The lesson for me was understanding that focus is important, but even more important is what you focus on.
Looking back now at the race, I realise that when I was at my weakest, in the darkness and feeling at my most vulnerable, I was being gifted my greatest strength. And that was where I won my personal race.
So look at adversity as an opportunity to grow.
I came so close to giving up and turning back to the safety of the shore, not knowing what I would have lost.
An attitude of ‘Are we there yet’ only makes the journey seem longer.
The wise among us start each morning by saying to themselves, in spite of the circumstances facing them: ‘This is the day that the Lord has made. What’s the best I can do with it?’
Looking toward the week and the month and beyond brings with it dangers to our endeavour.
Here’s the Adult Theme. The situation all of us are facing with the pandemic still around, is that it, like the journey of life itself, is full of changing courses, unforeseen obstacles and moments when we will feel uncomfortably exposed.
How you handle it is a matter of which internal voice you choose to listen to. That is why it’s such a blessing to have the Scriptures downloaded onto your mental hard drive for easy access in critical moments.
That way you can drown out the arguments that go on in your head each time you hit a hurdle.
Gaynor read from James 1 some words that are relevant to any desert wandering.
‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’