One burden of adulthood is the speed at which times flies. A blessing of childhood is time’ s lethargy. When school dismisses for the year, adults take some comfort in knowing that the summer holidays will pass quickly. Children, in contrast, enter the reign of summer. In the horizon of their eyes, it has no end.
Summer mornings for me meant riding my bike across town, about a mile, for swimming lessons at the city pool. In the morning, it wasn’t open to the general public. The sun hadn’t yet warmed the water. We were there for serious business. Lifeguards were teaching us to swim and to dive.
To dive! That was the challenge. Older kids knew how to dive. They spent their time on the diving boards, even the impossibly high, center diving board. Unable yet to dive, you could tell yourself that you were happy just to jump in. Canon balls were incredibly fun, but somehow you knew that a diving board lay between yourself and the future.
The trick to diving was keeping your head down. You put your hands together over your head and jumped into the water, head first. If you didn’t do it that way, if your courage failed and your mind began to race so fast that your body couldn’t keep up, you did the dreaded belly flop. Instead of piecing the water, you landed on it, full body, and the water slapped your belly with the force of a board. So either you faced your fear, or summer’s endless reign would mean ceaseless pain.
Life is a lot like diving. We can’t help but to draw in and protect ourselves. When first trying to dive, one does that instantaneously, without reflection. In life, the reflex so quickly becomes routine that it goes unnoticed. Indeed, it takes almost a lifetime of observation and reflection even to realize how guarded our conversations are, how we pass from worry to worry, how we surround the small self that entered the world with defenses against who knows what. Often we don’t know ourselves what it is that we dread, which is what gives the fear its power.
It’s always possible to miss the point of parables. Here’s a general rule of interpretation. If the parable doesn’t unsettle you, you’ve not understood it. The parables of Jesus are meant to discomfort us, each and every time that we hear them. When they stop doing that, we’ve translated them into something transparent and anodyne.
When we hear the parable of the rich man’s bountiful harvest, one splash into shallow waters is to think that Jesus is talking about death. On its surface, the parable is about death, but parables aren’t diving lessons if we remain on the surface. Staying on the parables’ surface, we know that you lose everything when you die. You can’t take it with you, as we say. But do you really think that those who first heard the parable didn’t know the same? Would they have been confounded and made uneasy by a reminder that death sweeps everything away? Hearing the parable like that removes its challenge. We don’t have to dive today, because we don’t plan to die today.
But the thrust of the gospel that Jesus preached – the gospel that Jesus is, in his very person – is not a future moment at the end of life. Jesus wants us to ask ourselves: what sort of death-in-life events might suddenly take us unawares, cause us to lose the hoarded securities, the thousand and one defenses, that we carry with us, lest we be forced to dive into life.
Put that way, all sorts of things come to mind besides the death itself. You might lose a job. Your spouse might walk out on you. You might receive a terrible diagnosis. You and a friend might quarrel. Your children might disappoint you. Or, in a myriad of moments, you might simply be frustrated when you don’t get your way.
Those are the times when we suddenly find ourselves forced to dive. Our securities, our hedges, vanish, and those are the moments –Jesus insists – that we face the possibility of truly living. They are, what might be called, gospel moments, points of impact when we decide whether or not we truly trust in the goodness of God, the love revealed in the very person of Jesus. They’re moments we choose to risk life, rather than insure it. They’re dives.
We were meant to dive into life. The water rushes over you as you plunge into the deeps. Unlike the walking moments of life, in diving, for a few moments, the body is carried by a force beyond itself. It pierces the depths.
Yes, death, at the end of life, will be just such a moment, but, if we’ve lived our daily lives without learning to dive, death will be more pained belly flop than a plunge into those water where, for the first time, we truly live.
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2: 21-23 Colossians 3: 1-5, 9-11 Luke 12: 13-21