Freediving Into Lent
This past week I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time on the couch. I was recovering from a simple knee surgery that was supposed to fix a running injury. It wasn’t that big of a deal; a couple of hours in the hospital and I got to go home the same day. Thing is I’m no so good at being benched. I get grumpy and impatient if I can’t get out there and do things, so in an effort to keep me placated and, I suppose, bearable to be around, my wife went out and got me an assortment of magazines to read. One in the selection immediately caught my attention: Outside Magazine. Outside, the very place I couldn’t go, perfect reading for the vicarious experience. But this wasn’t just any issue of Outside, this was “The Danger Issue: terrifying true tales of risk and survival, 13 adventure nightmares.” We’re talking life and death here folks. Certainly any injury sustained by these adventurers would be worse than mine. I felt better already. My wife is a genius.
It turns out that there is a competitive sport called freediving. And second only to base jumping (that’s when you jump off a cliff and land with a parachute) it is the most dangerous sport around, and naturally, one of the most quickly growing. The premise is simple: swim as deep as you can and resurface without the aid of air tanks. According to one of its practitioners, a successful freedive requires that you “hold your breath for an incredibly long time, exert yourself tremendously, and not freak out.”
Imagine for a moment diving off of a boat in the middle of the ocean, clipped only to a thin guide line to keep your descent straight. As you dive past 30 feet you feel the pressure on your body double, compressing your lungs to about half their normal size. At 100 feet the pressure has quadrupled and the ocean’s surface is barely visible. If you are one of the elite who makes it to 300 feet, the pressure is so extreme that your lungs shrink to the size of oranges and your heart beats at less than half its normal rate to conserve oxygen. And now comes the hardest part, with limited motor control and zero visibility you have to grab a tag from the bottom of the guideline and claw your way back to the distant surface, lungs screaming. If you resurface successfully, you’ve held your breath for approximately three minutes and proven that you are not only physically gifted, but also have the mental capacity to focus and endure under grueling circumstances.
Many who try end up blacking out somewhere along the way and rescue divers have to be called in. But those who try and succeed have an interesting story to tell. When asked what keeps him bound to the sport, the current world champion, New Zealander, William Truebridge, says, “To me, I really don’t have a choice. There is an immortal peace (in) confronting the underwater world on its own terms, with your breath at your breast. The ocean is just where I’m meant to be.”
As bizarre and terrifying as this sport may sound, I think Truebridge and his freediving compatriots are tapping into a phenomenon that has been with us since time immemorial. Truebridge would probably fit right in with folks like astronaut,Neil Armstrong; pilot, Amelia Airhart; antarctic explorer, Earnest Shackelton; and mountaineer, Edmund Hilary — Adventurers in search of Truebridge’s immortal peace. Each set out into the wilderness, faced hardships, fought the urge to turn back, to escape, and yet they endured to find what lay beyond.
I’m not exactly sure what it is that tugs at the human spirit to push the boundaries of our own existence, to flirt with dying, but my guess is that it has something to do with a desire to discover as much as we can about living. So we climb the highest mountains, strap ourselves to the fastest rockets, swim to the greatest depths, brave the most remote wilderness and we emerge, if we emerge at all, having tasted a bit of that illusive immortal peace.
The author of Mark’s gospel does not mince words. In the brief passage we heard this morning Jesus is baptized by John, driven into the wilderness, and then returns to proclaim the Good News in Galilee. So much action told so quickly, and every bit of it is important. Here in these six verses we hear the beginnings of a classic hero’s journey. Author, Joseph Campbell describes this pattern:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
After Jesus’s baptism, his initiation into the calling God had ordained for him, Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit, a region of supernatural wonder, if you will. He was driven. He was forced to go. He had no choice in the matter. Presumably there was something out there, among the dangers of the wild, that he needed to experience in order to live out his calling. He succeeded, and immediately returned to the people to begin his ministry in earnest, more focused perhaps, more aware of his human limitations, more respectful of his mortality, a bearer, in some way, of that immortal peace. Jesus’s journey, as we all know, was no where near complete. The heart of his ministry was yet to come, living in community, sharing and shouldering burdens with and for all of God’s children. Yet scripture would lead us to believe that his 40 days with the wild beasts was invaluable. Remember that you are dust, they might have whispered to him, and to dust you shall return.
Today is the first Sunday in the liturgical season of Lent. For the next four weeks you and I are given the opportunity to venture into a spiritual wilderness. Like a freediver, we are tethered to a life line, so to speak. This is a controlled descent. We have each other on this journey and if ever we feel alone, we must trust that just as the angels waited on Jesus in the darkness, we too will receive the same attention.
Lent is meant to be challenging. As a time of self-reflection, we look into the mirror and we may be surprised at what we see. We may uncover thoughts and memories that are painful, but need our attention nonetheless. We may find ourselves frustrated with each other; resentful of the church, and forget for a moment why we embarked on this journey in the first place. We will walk with Jesus all the way to the cross, witness his death, and follow him into the blackness of the tomb. And just as the pressure becomes almost too much for us to bear, we will turn around, claw our way back to the surface, and begin to see the faintest light in the distance. The light will gradually become brighter and brighter until on Easter Day we encounter the resurrected Christ in all his glory, just as if we were taking a deep breath, filling our oxygen starved lungs.
And that day we will walk from the church doors more focused perhaps, more aware of our human limitations, more respectful of our mortality, bearers, in some way, of that immortal peace. And like Jesus, our journey continues, our ministry begins in earnest. There are others who need to know this story, others craving some of the peace we have discovered out there in the wild.
Lent 1, Year B