PART 1: Written June 15.
When my family lived in Trinidad, we had a small pool in our backyard. I remember a few days before we were set to move back to America, and incidentally the day before I was to be baptized at our church, a huge storm came and began to flood our backyard. The creek behind our house began to rise, the pool was over flowing, and the backyard had a few inches of water in it. Earlier in the day, before all hell broke loose with the rain, my brother and I were playing with those giant boom paddles, you know the ones that are basically a drum head and every time you hit the ping pong sized ball the paddle makes a loud boom. We would shove a coconut in the circular drain that would allow the water in the backyard to drain into the creek behind the house in order for the ball to not roll into the drain and down into the creek. I remembered that the coconut was still lodged in the drain and that it was probably causing the water to not drain properly, thus the inches of water in the yard. I was probably about 8 or 9 years old at the time, and I decided that I needed to go get the coconut out of the drain and hoped that it would allow the backyard to not flood. It was the bravest thing I think I had ever done in my life up to that point. In my mind’s eye, all I remember was how hard it was raining and the lightning and thundering that was all around me. I remember the second I stepped off the porch and into the rain I was drenched, the rain was coming down so hard I could barely see ten feet from me. I ran and I tried to be careful to not fall, then I got to the drain and was up past my ankle in water and removed the coconut. I peaked over the wall that separated our yard from the creek to see how much it had flooded, and it had risen up at least a few feet, to where the bottoms of these concrete bridges that connected one side of the creek to the other, were touching the water. The water in the creek was usually just a few inches deep and I remember why I hated going down there because there were crabs.
To be honest, I thought I was going to die. I thought that the night before I was going to be baptized that I was going to die. And since I was raised baptist, I thought that the night before I was going to be “saved” (baptized) I was going to die. I thought that in my sleep that night the water was going to slowly rise, lift my mattress off the bed, and I would be sent off to sea, eaten by sharks, and then sent to hell.
I somehow managed to survive. The rain stopped that night, and I remember the next day being quite nice actually. I remember getting baptized at our church, San Fernando Baptist Church, and I remember the pastor telling my mother that there was no hot water. The water in the baptistry was freezing cold, I stuck one foot in the water and froze, I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to go in any farther, but since salvation was on the line and since I knew Jesus was all about testing people, I continued to go into the water. The pastor asked me why I was getting baptized, and I remembered what my Sunday school teacher had told me to say a few minutes before I went out there. I managed to say something about how I asked Jesus in my heart and how I wanted him to be my savior or something, but all I could think about was how cold it was. The pastor took a red handkerchief, placed it over my nose and mouth, and dunked me under the water. I was terrified.
The Sunday school teacher greeted me in our classroom a few minutes later with some terrible hot cocoa. The walls in our children’s area were painted with poorly drawn Sesame Street characters. I remember sitting under the painting of the Cookie Monster wondering what I had just done. I confess, I didn’t feel any different. I guess I thought that becoming saved would give me special powers or something, that I would have a lot of knowledge about the Bible, or that I would be able to see a new color. All I got was wet hair, the sensation I liken to frostbite, and a cup of really bad hot chocolate.
I wondered to myself that if I had indeed died the night before, would anything have been different than if I were to die right then sitting under the cookie monster. I wondered about heaven and hell probably for the first time ever as a kid. I had been baptized for five minutes, and I was already doubting my faith and wondering where all of “this” was going.
The next day I went into my backyard again and stood at the edge of the pool. A few weeks previous, the Sunday school teach told us the story about Jesus walking on water and how that other guy walked on water too. She told us that the moment he took his eyes off of Jesus the waves overtook him and he began to drown. So with a heart full of fear and a head full of stories, I took a step off of the edge of the pool and into the water, expecting to walk on the water.
I sank to the bottom.
In the time it took for me to hit the water, submerge, and pop my head out of the water again, I felt completely alone. As alone as an 8 year old could be I guess, but alone nonetheless.
I went back to the story we were taught and assumed I was forgetting something. Ah yes, the part about how he had to keep his eyes on Jesus. So I gave it one more shot, this time though I would be looking straight up, because apparently up is where Jesus is. I took the step again, this time with a little less fear and a head full of happy bearded Jesus thoughts.
Again, I sank to the bottom.
I had to be messing up somewhere in the story. I got back out of the pool and stood on the edge. I looked down into the water, questioning my faith and what I had done the day before. I gave it one more try. My eyes were looking to the heavens and this time I made sure my eyes were open the whole time. Just before I stepped, I said a little prayer to God asking him to make me believe, to make me walk on the water so I could believe. I took the step, and plunged to the pool’s bottom just as I had the previous times. I kept my eyes open even after I fell into the water, almost dramatically as I sank, looking up into the sky the entire time.
Why God, why had you left me?
Like I said, I was 8 or 9 at the time so the laws of gravity and physics were still a few years away, but I felt completely dejected. Remember, I was expecting superpowers and crazy faith after I was baptized. God had let me down at the pool that day. I never tried walking on water ever again. I felt alone that day. I honestly thought that when I found Jesus and was baptized that special things would happen to me.
My favorite story in the Bible growing up was David and Goliath. Before I was baptized, my mom had made me a slingshot from a branch from one of the trees in our yard. I used to shoot baby coconuts at the birds in the palm trees. I used to carry the slingshot in my pocket for no other reason than in case a giant showed up then I would be ready with a few smooth baby coconuts in hand.
The beautiful thing about these moments in my life, and let me stress the world beautiful, is that these moments still happen. These moments like the ones at the bottom of the pool that is. Moments where you question everything. Even when you make gigantic steps in your faith or in your life, you still sink to the bottom of the pool more often. Even though my hair had got wet from the day before, my hair dried later and nothing changed in me. I couldn’t walk on water and there were no giants to be slain.
What’s the point of all of this?
It’s been over 15 years since all of that stuff went down, and I still feel the doubts. I still feel that loneliness at night when I can’t sleep. I used to think that, just as it was at the edge of the pool, that I must have been missing a step for my foot to magically stop sinking as it hit the water. Even today, I wonder what I’m not doing right in my life to end up as successful, to have money and all of that. What part of the story am I missing? Was I missing the step that if I opened a certain door or angled my eyes a certain way that I could catch a glimpse of the glory of God. Or anything really. Anything would have been nice.
Perhaps I am just a doubter, a man who forgets the glimpses he has already seen and hangs to the moments of darkness. I sort of understand, as much as a human mind can fathom, God’s omnipresence and how he is basically sitting in the empty chair beside me right now. I don’t always feel Him though. I remember at a church camp years ago, I felt God’s presence. We were worshiping after a service one night and no one wanted it to end. We cancelled the camp talent show and the night swim that was supposed to happen, and no one cared because all we wanted to do was sing songs to God. I can’t think of any other moment where I felt that close to God, as if He were in the room and we could smell Him if we just took the time to breathe.
There’s that. But that was years ago and tonight I will be in my bed looking at the ceiling for hours in wonder. Not in wonder of how great God is, but in wonder if I am on the right track, if I am taking the right steps. In wonder of where He is. In wonder of this all working out. A lot has changed since the bottom of a pool, but not too much in terms of being lost and lonely.
When the pastor pulled me out of the water, his red handkerchief covering my face, I still felt the same. The next day I felt worse. Today, I feel even worse than that. I suppose this is why most of the words we prescribe to our dull and dead lives involve the word bottom. I found myself at the bottom of a pool with a lot of questions, but you may find yourself at rock bottom, at the bottom of an empty bottle, or what have you. Maybe it would be too cliché to mention, but sometimes you just have to be at the bottom, a place where hope doesn’t exist, before you can breathe again.
Even as I write this, my fear is that this message, this entry will have no resolution, that it will end abruptly and oddly. I fear that I will not have a quirky pick me up to help you on your way to not doubting who you are in Christ. Because, as much as I wanted to doubt God from the bottom of the pool, and as much as I want to doubt God from my sleepless bed, I think I am really just doubting myself.
So maybe this is a lament to God, a note to let the big Guy upstairs know that I am not happy, I am not content with “this”. He is going to have to deal with me. I may have to get up early in the morning tomorrow, walk back to the creek behind where I live, and see if I can walk on water yet. I will undoubtedly sink, but maybe God should know that I will not doubt. I may not have any cool super powers, but I don’t know if I really need them anymore. He has given me enough. He has given me the feeling of feeling unsatisfied with who I am, and he has given me the power to change it. The moment I sank to the bottom of the pool for the third time, maybe I never left that spot you know, maybe by reminding me of this moment He is showing me that I’m still there, looking up as the sun is shining through the water, the chlorine stinging my eyes, and the blurriness of the ripples from my own fall bouncing off the walls of the pool. Maybe I’m still there, doubting, believing God has left me.
I rarely quote scripture when I write in fear of taking it and stretching it out of context to fit what I want it to say. But something tells me David wrote Psalm 22 from the bottom of a pool, or at least in the middle of a sleepless night. He starts out by questioning God, (paraphrasing here) “God, God…why have you left me? Why are you so far from me? I’m in pain, I’m lost, yet nothing. No response. All day long I listen for you to say something, but still…nothing. I’m blowing bubbles down here at the bottom of the pool, you are no where to be found. Where is my hope? Where is my faith? At night, I toss and turn and you seem indifferent. My parents and their parents praise how great you are and how you were always there for them, but I am still here. What’s the deal?” He then get’s into and interesting bit about cows, but I’ll spare you. But he ends likes this, in the midst of all of this groaning and questioning, (The Message) “Our children and their children will get in on this (God being good) as the word is passed along from parent to child. Babies not yet conceived will hear the good news-that God does what he says.”
I think God would understand my sarcasm if I told him to screw off right about now. I’m just a boy at the bottom of the pool with zero faith, and yet, at the same time, a man who believes God is who he says he is. Maybe He is just waiting for all of the air to escape my lungs so that He can raise me up out of the water, red handkerchief over my face, and show me what is ahead. No cold shivers, no crappy hot chocolate, only life and love and freedom. Maybe I’m just waiting for God to pull me out of the water of this new baptism.
I think I see the sky clearly now, the water is still in my eyes, but I think the sun’s warmth is upon me, that maybe if I opened my mouth, I could breathe new air.
Part 2: June 20.
On Friday afternoon, I got off work about 4:00pm and I was having a rough week. I won’t get into a lot of details, but I got busted big time on some things I had been holding on to, some sins that I have been needing to get rid of for a long time. Sins and addiction are a fickle bitch, you know. I’ve had a couple really beautiful conversations with people since then about grace and how I cannot overcome sin on my own. That the reason Jesus came and died wasn’t so that I would go to heaven necessarily, but so that I could be free from sin. My own sins have been holding me back for way too long. What is written there in Part 1, describing me hopeless at the bottom of the pool, is really just metaphor for being lost in my sins, with no hope of ever being rescued. My beautiful friend Rex and I talked the other day, and he put me in my place. We were talking about how I felt I needed to overcome my own sins, you know, because they were my sins, my wrongdoings, and so I had to fix them. He told me I was full of it because only Jesus can rescue me from sin, that as humans we are flawed, that part of the separation from God is sin, and that Jesus is the sacrifice for those sins. I had never really thought of that before, that even though I’ve been raised in a church my whole life, the thought of Jesus doing His work in me and rescuing me from myself had never really occurred to me. I always thought I had to heal myself in order for Jesus to love me, as if we were on a journey together and He was waiting on me to catch up, tapping His foot and looking at His watch while I try to work out my own shit. This, as Rex told me, is false.
Anyways though, I had got off work, and I was in the mood for a challenge. I wanted to ride my bike to Texas or something, kayak a river, or run a marathon. I needed a physical challenge because It was where my spirit was, it was running from whatever responsibility I had. I wanted to drive to Portland because I want to live there, I wanted to run out of gas just as I came over the Burnside Bridge and have no other choice but to stay there. This was just a literal representation of me running from grace really, I was embarrassed of my sins and wanted to run, I wanted to do what Adam and Eve did after they got busted for sinning, I wanted to put some clothes on and go hide.
But I didn’t drive to Portland because I was too busy thinking about how cool it would be to watch the sun rise at the Grand Canyon. I counted up all the money I had, $250, and put a tank of gas in my car, threw some things together, and joined up with I-40 West and just drove. It’s almost 1,000 miles from my home to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. It was going to take almost 13 hours, but by 5:00 on Friday evening, I was already on my way.
To be honest, I thought I was insane for what I was doing. I obviously wasn’t thinking about funding for the trip, where I was going to stay, that sort of thing. I never really got the vibe that I was running from my sins though, I got the sense that I was running to something, which isn’t really the vibe I wanted. When I was gathering some food before I left, I synced up my ipod to my computer because there was an album I had just downloaded and I wanted it for the trip: Josh Garrels “Love & War & The Sea In Between” which turned out to be just about the only thing I listened to the entire trip, there and back.
I drove through the night and reached Flagstaff, AZ about 75 miles outside of the Canyon. I stopped at a rest area to nap because sunrise was still about an hour away. The sun began rising when I was driving through the Oconino National Forest, just outside of the Grand Canyon. It was rising over the mountains and through trees, the sun was big and orange and I almost ran over two gigantic elk. I think we were all admiring the sunrise, so I couldn’t be too upset.
Not long after, I finally made it to the Canyon. I paid my entry fees and drove to the nearest lookout. I parked at the visitor’s center and jogged over to Mather point. I had to cross a couple of parking lots and walk through some trees that were guarding the canyon.
In a moment’s glance, almost by accident, I caught a glimpse of the canyon through some branches. I began to weep. I walked through the trees and took it all in. I was sobbing at this point. I kept mumbling “What?!?! What!?!?!” In complete confusion of what I was seeing. I couldn’t walk, and I couldn’t breathe, and I’m not just saying that for hyperbole’s sake, I couldn’t. I inched to the railing, I stuck my hands out to grab the rail but I was still probably 7 or 8 feet away from it. My knees were being so goofy that I didn’t want to fall. The sun was still rising and there was still morning fog in the canyon.
“You see this? Look to your left and to your right. Look down. Look ahead. Follow the canyon as it splits off into all directions, each one as deep and wide as this.” God was telling me. “This is my grace.”
I didn’t even care that people were beside me, my tears nearly uncontrollable at this point.
“You see this? This is my grace, Mitchell.” He continued. “Your sins, your years of hiding and addiction to yourself and pleasures that are not of Me, are just a pebble at the bottom of this. Your sins are a pebble at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, it is meaningless.”
That was all I could think about the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. That everything I was running from didn’t matter, that God’s grace was infinitely bigger than it. As far as I was concerned, the Grand Canyon at that moment, was where east met west and my sins were no where to be found. My sins were meaningless and lost in God’s grace…
I gasped for air in the moment. My own God had pulled me out of the water. The red handkerchief was removed and I could breathe. I could see. God had baptized me and this time I felt different. This time I had felt redemption. He kissed me on the cheek and asked me if I was ready. “Ready for what?” I asked. He just smiled.