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  • Writer's pictureJeff Conway

Treading Water - Presence

It truly was summer vacation. “Back in the day,” as they say — Memorial Day Weekend to the Tuesday after Labor Day — yes, those were the days.

Between my junior high and senior high school days, I had completed enough of my swim lessons in previous years to take Junior Life-Saving. This was the class to take just before Lifeguard training. We did endurance training, diving off the high-dive and learning techniques to help another person get to the side of the pool. At the end of one class, we were told to be fully dressed the next day and ready to jump in the pool. What? Our instructor told us we would be learning survival techniques for the open water after a boat sank. He explained a bit about it but I’m not sure I listened very closely. All of the boys and girls in the class gathered around the pool, fully dressed, chatting and moving around to keep warm for our 7am class as the steam danced five inches over the the water. It was a fun, cohesive group. As crazy early as it was to ride my bike to the club, having such a fun group of friends helped me to keep motivated.

The morning of our sartorial immersion, our instructor shared some different scenarios about how a person could find themselves in a body of water, fully clothed. He was ready to challenge us to jump into the pool, when suddenly he stopped and asked a simple question, “You all have your swimsuits on under your clothes, right?” Rolling their eyes or saying "duh," everyone answered his question with an affirmative — everyone, that is, except Ooo, was I the butt[1] of many jokes that day after being sent back into the locker room to quickly get my suit on underneath.

When I returned with my usual smile—I would have made a brilliant Court Jester if only I was born a few centuries earlier—we all had a chilly awakening as we burst into the morning water. There was a lot of laughter and some splashing. The challenge before us was to tread water for 45 minutes in our clothes. We continued to laugh and enjoy talking to each other, but we found we needed to work much harder in this challenge compared to our regular 45 minute treading practices. The talking became much less frequent as we worked our muscles to keep our heads above water. That is when the instructor spoke up and began to coach us.

We listened carefully and focused intentionally to his words that helped us to tread water as we felt the strength of our wet clothes draw us down. We were moving our arms and legs much more quickly than a normal pool tread in our suits. The instructor first worked on slowing our breathing—deeper more controlled. Then we were encouraged to widen and slow our arm movements. Relaxing the shoulders and creating a smooth skim over the water with our arms, loosening them from our shoulders to our fingertips. Calming and flicking our jeans-covered legs became easier as we were able to find our core strength and center. The 45 minutes moved by swiftly. I remember it all so clearly today. Just like I remember being, “that guy” who wasn’t wearing his swimsuit getting messed with by his friends. Smile. It’s all I can do.

Jesus liked to mess with people; He liked to cause good trouble. Not in any kind of cruel way—just mess with them to encourage a different view, a different understanding of “what it was all about.” In a story Jesus shared he said that the, “Kingdom of heaven was like yeast.” What? Yeast was an image for the people that conjured thoughts of something negative and infectious. It would hit them as hard as Jesus standing here today and saying something like, “the Kingdom of heaven is like COVID 19.” Well, that doesn’t sound like something good. Jesus used illustrations like this to shock people into a deeper listening and learning. He used yeast to illustrate, in a good way, how expansive and inclusive the Kingdom of heaven was for all.

For us, spiritually treading water does not readily bring a positive picture. Maybe it can make you think about someone who is stuck, trapped in one place when the goal is to move forward. It may bring thoughts to you of someone who is in distress and in the serious possibility of going under. Possibly in reminds you of a time when you thought you were thrashing and angry.

For me, treading water, spiritually speaking, is a wonderful place to be. It is the beginning place in following our God who loves us. It is the place where I am more attentive to Jesus troubling the water to lead me to new places of understanding and direction. Treading water is more about being present than an actual action. Treading water is finding the core and relaxing and breathing in a way that clears all of the other numerous actions and thoughts away so that we can lean into the truth God is revealing to us: through the Word (written and living), through the mystery of God’s Spirit holding us afloat, and through the relationship within Godself revealed and the invitation for each of us to a calming tread in the water of relationship with a God who loves us.

On that cold morning tread, I learned a lesson that would stay with me throughout my life. Spiritually gliding my arms with the gentle dance of the legs to keep me centered. There have certainly been many times when I had to refocus and stop spiritually thrashing and lean more fully into the presence of God. But when that recalculation happened, I could spiritually move with an increased strong and healthy approach.

It is just the beginning, being present. We will examine various practices, actions, that help us stay in that place of presence. These are spiritual disciplines that take us back over 2000 years. For instance, being encouraged to not neglect gathering together so that we may spur one another on in our walk with God, a different walk than one alone in the world.

Let’s spend some time encouraging each other to “tread in the water,” in healthy, life-giving ways.


[1] My mother taught me to never use the word “butt,” so if my boys read this they’ll be surprised.

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About Jeff


I've always been a fish out of water (and I love fish). From being an artist in a sports family, to a Christian who leans into the mystery of God while still trained in a Word-centered mainline tradition, and now a person in a wheelchair amongst able-bodied hikers, my life has perpetually been outside the box (or bowl). 

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