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Over the Reef

Andrew Dunn

Swimming, snorkelling and diving serve as wonderful metaphors for exploring the spiritual life. When we accept the invitation to let go of the edge and trust the water—especially when it's out beyond the safe places we've become familiar with—the discoveries are endless.

Swimming, snorkelling and diving serve as wonderful metaphors for exploring the spiritual life. When we accept the invitation to let go of the edge and trust the water - especially when it's out beyond the safe places we've become familiar with - the discoveries are endless.

Learning to Swim

My first encounters with swimming took place in the Gore public pool before it was heated by the nearby Creamota factory outflow. It began in the early years of school and introduced me to the enjoyment of playing and floating in the warmish water.

Things took a more serious turn after we moved to North Canterbury when our Sefton school classes went to Amberly pool for lessons. The instructor took us through all the preliminaries — encouraging us to trust the water, blow bubbles under it, float on it, breathe, and then to use a crawl stroke and kick. No dog paddling allowed! Soon we could cross the pool from side to side with confidence. Leithfield pool then became our regular school swimming venue and as confidence grew we swam, played, duck-dived and fooled around for hours — great fun in the hot Canterbury nor'westers.

We became more adventurous on picnics at the Ashley river and Waikuku beach and, as long as the bottom was not too far away, enjoyed it all immensely. Swimming in the muddy waters of the Purari delta in western Papua was the next major advance — trouble was you couldn't see anything! Great fun, warm water, soft muddy bottom but no view!


It wasn't until a friend in Port Moresby loaned us his dinghy and some snorkels that a whole new world opened up. Floating behind the dinghy in the shallow reef waters of Idler's Bay was a revelation. How could we not have known that there's another world under the surface, a rich world of beautiful, delicately coloured coral of many shapes and sizes? Colourful anemones, gaping clams, wafting seaweed, banded coral shrimps and fish beyond description. The effect was stunning.

Like new converts we couldn't resist talking about it all! I even used the experience to illustrate sermons and fascinate guests at welcome barbecues on the Boroko Church lawns. Of course we quickly bought our own snorkelling gear and flippers, a set for all the family, and spent wonderful days on the beaches and reefs of central Papua.

Then we began to peep over the edge of the reef. At first one look was enough. The reef wall disappeared vertically down into darkness. The depths were ominous. The underwater view out to sea didn't seem all that safe either — just blue water darkening in the distance and clouds of passing fish. Fish to join if only we knew how!


Then Bob, a friend from our church, began to relate his stories of diving down the reef wall with scuba gear. He and his friends (it was safer to dive in pairs or groups) would float out from the beach over the reef and with the help of their lead-weighted belts would angle down the reef wall into the darkness. The wave movement ceased a few metres below the surface.

On the smooth descent the coral became a rock-like wall with outcrops of colour on ledges and new growth. Iridescent reef fish played in their territories and protected their patch of reef. Seaweeds wafted and floated, every shape and size. Black coral grew there, its trunks and branches of gem-like sheen hidden by a scungy growth on its surface.

All this was so fascinating that Bob and his friends lost all sense of time. The darkness wasn't dark-dark — just another form of filtered light their eyes adjusted to as they explored the depths.

Sometimes there would be a growing sense of foreboding. What if they became lost? What if sharks sensed their presence and came hunting? What if their air ran out? What if they surfaced too rapidly and the bends developed? Yet the risks were part of the thrill of the dive as they pitted their knowledge and skill against the depths. With care they always returned safely, but they never lost their caution, watchfulness and awe.

Then one day when about 15 metres down they saw a sinuous, shadowy shape gliding in to take a look. The shark was large and curious as it swam back and forth a few metres out from the reef wall. What to do? Hide? There was nowhere to hide! Head for the surface? Fast movement might turn interest into attack.

They decided to back into the wall and rest there quietly breathing as little as possible. The shark moved in for a closer look and held them spell-bound by its unblinking eyes as it wove its pattern in the water. Then, satisfied, it glided away as silently as it had come. Phew!

I've never gone diving, at least not below the depth of an ear-crackling snorkel dive, and that's not deep. And yet, wouldn't it be great to try? There's so much mystery and wonder down there — another world to explore. The sense of freedom must be something very special — gliding and exploring, probing and discovering, trusting and finding surprising rewards. I must try it some day! It would offer so much more than the occasional visit to Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World, as great as that is in its own way.

Exploring spiritually

Growing spiritually is like that. We have to be introduced to it by the gentling attraction of the 'something more' of faith's journey as Jesus teases us into owning our desire. Not only do we have to learn of him but we have to start taking the risks of his "unforced rhythms of grace".1 And that often means we have to float free and trust the water.

The confidence of learning a few strokes encourages us to keep at it. When we're ready to take a few more risks we discover that Jesus likes to introduce us to the snorkel and the views below the surface. The fascination is often beyond description and there's an endless world to explore as he points us to this new insight and that fresh panorama.

It's the sense of no boundaries in our exploration of God and our growing relationship that both grips our hearts and frightens us. Yet who can deny the joy of our glimpses into the love, the light, the reality, the truth, the darkness, the mysteries or whatever it is to which we're being introduced. And when they become familiar and we start to feel at home there, what happens? Why, Jesus encourages us to look over the edge of our safe places.

Deep begins to call to deep.2 We start to discover that we're at home in the water, and with the view. We feel enticed to range a little wider, even to look into the darkness and to find that it's not really dark, but merely different. We discover that our union with God is not simply a theological truth but an experience. And it's an experience that is growing.

The enticing invitation to swim free can't be resisted. The flags on the beach marking the safe places grow less important as heart calls to heart, the Holy Spirit loves our spirits to the deeper places, or the higher places or the different places, and we must go there.

Is it Safe?

Is it safe? Well, no, it's not safe. The Living One is not safe — never has been. "I am who I am" is shocking and frightening to the human heart. Close encounters of this kind aren't meant to be cosy and safe. Secure? Certainly! The water envelopes us completely, is hungry for us. "The one in whom we live and move and have our being" is how Paul describes the glimpse he caught as he explored what his union with Christ Jesus his Lord meant.

Yet it is right to go — how can one resist? It is important to go with company for this is no self-indulgent journey. It's also important to find an accompanier who knows a bit about this stuff. But in the end it's a matter of trusting grace and learning that God is never far from us as we swim. After all, who is the water, who is the view, who is the depths, who is the different light, the darkness, the mystery, the love, who is the way?

And So?

So in practical terms what is happening here? At the heart of it is the desire for exploration, God given, God inspired! In the later stages of faith we are unsatisfied by sameness, by narrow boundaries and by inadequate images, shallow teaching and the clamouring noise of so much in our various faith walks and life experiences.

We are undernourished with closed systems of theology, worship, church and faith. We are cramped by recipes that originate elsewhere and don't fit here. They limit our explorations of God and God's work and way in our world. When the freeing experiences of grace are replaced by cramping Pelagianism in the many forms that are in our churches today (eg 'be this' or 'do that' before God will bless) we eventually rebel.

We need to be free and encouraged to experiment with God, test the edges of reality, follow Jesus into fresh landscapes of faith and discipleship, experience the freeing and renewing winds of the Spirit, and allow the relational life of God to be in us, around us and between us.

As believers we long to be extended intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. We won't be manipulated, limited or abused any longer. There's a deep desire to wrestle with the paradoxes of faith and life, the mysteries of our existence, and the challenges of the universe and its origins to our limited vision.

Many older swimmers develop a deep sense of the importance of creation but are cautioned by others' fears of the 'new age', the fear of ecology, the fear of freer thinking and exploration of nature. But it's God's world. Creation and ecology are central to life and existence, and humans are the world's only conscience and voice. So the enticement to explore and protect is a noble cause for any Christian and can't be denied.

Look at the large numbers of post-church people who have joined Royal Forest and Bird and other nature and ornithological groups, as well as those still within our churches who will opt for an outdoor trip rather than attending worship. Some of course do both.

However it is expressed, the desire to explore increases like the call of the wild to a caged bird. How this desire is expressed varies greatly, but, by whatever means, the exploration must occur or personal and spiritual crippling and stunting takes place.

he images of swimming and diving over the reef offer great potential for thought and prayer. Learning how to do it, the awkwardness of commencing, the fear of the unknown, the threat of the unseen, the vulnerability of it all gives way to sheer delight and discovery that expands the heart, renews our faith and takes us deeper into God. Who can deny that?