Russ Dean is an excellent water ski instructor. He and his wife Amy co-pastor Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. They have been dear friends (we figured out at the lake) for some 23 years now—kin, by the way it’s reckoned in the south: his brother married a cousin of mine once removed … or maybe she’s a second cousin … I’m not sure. Her mom’s my mom’s cousin … though growing up I called her Aunt Gwen.
Anyhow, for the past eight years, Russ and I have shared in our lectionary planning peer support encouragement sharing friend group. The last two years (this summer and last), we’ve gathered with families, and so Russ and Amy have brought their two boys, Jackson and Bennett to the North Carolina mountain lake house a couple in their church have so generously made available to us (there aren’t that many places that will accommodate the now twenty of us!). These last two years Russ and Amy have also brought their ski boat.
Which is where I started: Russ is an excellent water ski instructor. He puts beginners on two skis out on the water hanging onto a boom that extends out right behind him in the drivers seat so they can get the feel of being on skis on water—get a sense of both the support the water offers and the pressure you have to exert on the water through the skis—get a sense of the the balance and the speed—get a sense of the spray and the sun and the wind, and have him right there encouraging and advising.
When someone’s gotten the feel of all that, he throws out the rope and circles them in the water, talking all the while, “Okay, now grab the handle, keep the rope between your skis. Keep your knees up in front of you as loose as you can and lean forward. I’ll keep the rope taut. You tell me when you’re ready to go. Once we get going, don’t try and pull yourself up—don’t try and stand up. Let the boat do the work. The boat will pull you right out of the water. You just keep leaning forward over your knees curled up in front of you so you come out kind of crouched over them. It’s like being born! Then you’ll just stand up.” And when you don’t, he patiently circles round and starts all over again. “That was great. You almost had it. Just leaned back a little too far. Remember lean forward. Keep your knees up. Let the boat do the work.”
If you get comfortable on two skis, then he’s talking about how to come up on one. “Okay, a lot of it’s the same. Knees up. Shoulders forward. Face down. Keep weight on the back foot—push the bottom of the ski down, but make sure you keep about a foot of the ski tip out of the water. You’re going to feel a little off balance—off kilter with your back foot tucked in behind you. Don’t worry about that. I’ll pull the rope taut and the pull will keep you balanced. Let me know when you’re ready. I’ll wait till you tell me you’re ready. Hang on.” And as many times as it takes, he circles around back to you with the rope and words of both encouragement and advice.
And there’s always more to challenge you. There’s barefooting. I tried that once. Russ and Jackson both barefoot. And then they do tricks. They tumble while barefooting. Or there’s the slalom course. Over a length of about 850 feet and a width of 75 feet, you ski (or try and ski) around six buoys. You start with 75 feet of rope and you then progressively up the challenge. First, you increase the speed by 2 mph each pass until you get to 36 mph for men/34 mph for women. Then you start shortening the rope. There’s fifteen off (60 feet of rope). Then 22 off, 28, 32, 35, 38, 39.5, and 41 feet off. The men’s world slalom record is 5 buoys at 41 feet off, though there’s some debate as to whether 2 buoys at 43 feet off will qualify as the new record. Now mind you, at 43 feet off, the end of the rope is five and a half feet inside the buoy! I have not tried that. Any of that. I do have pictures of each of the Deans in the slalom course. Of course, both Jackson and Bennett were on skis before they could walk! Russ and Amy have pictures of that.
Hanging out with the Deans, you come to find out both how much more there always is to learn and that it’s so not about reaching a certain level and then having arrived. Yes, in part because there’s always the next challenge, but also because it’s not always just some direct progression. Because as much as there is new to learn, there’s also the challenge of maintaining as much as you can. There’s the playful challenge of the sons wanting to be as good and then better than Dad, and Dad not wanting to be overtaken and yet so very very proud of his boys. And there’s Amy, of course—don’t forget Amy, right in the middle of it all, and integral to the larger truth of the whole process are the relationships and the fun: the chatter, the encouragement, the insults, the laughter. Waterskiing’s not something you can do alone, and it’s more fun to include others.
And all the while you’re playing on the edge of what you know you can do and what you want to try and don’t know you can do—allowing a touch of fear to deepen your appreciation of experience, and within any expertise you’ve gained, acknowledging the gift of uncertainty.
Now, while inner-tubing doesn’t require anywhere near as much instruction or expertise, there is the similar process of consistently upping the challenge. My daughters were initially quite tentative on the tube behind the boat—having fun, but not at all interested in much speed. Quite the opposite! But the more comfortable they got, the more they wanted a little more—a little more speed, a few more waves.
Then Amy got back there on the tube with them. Gave them quite a start when she dove right between them. She put her arms around them, gave them her big smile, and Russ bumped the speed up a notch … or two … or three, and started turning the boat a little more frequently—a little more sharply, and it wasn’t long at all before the girls would hop on the tube with Amy already asking (before the tube ever started to plane) when they were going to go over the wake. In fact, it wasn’t too long before their readiness to inner-tube posed quite the challenge to Amy’s sense of general well-being not to mention everyone else’s desire to have a turn! And let it be said, as often as it was appropriately their turn, Amy climbed back on the tube with the girls—blessing them in more ways than I know for all of which I am eternally grateful.
And it wasn’t too long before Amy was picking herself or one of the girls out of the water saying, “Now Russ, that just wasn’t a little girl ride at all!” But up in the boat, we could hear them laughing and squealing and screaming away! And Amy said the laughter never stopped!
Watching Jackson on the inner-tube, I commented to Amy, “He’s gotten so comfortable on the inner-tube, he invents ways in which to challenge himself, doesn’t he?” We put two tubes behind the boat and he went to war with whoever was on the other tube. He went back and forth between the tubes. He pulled one side of his tube way up into the air. He rode sitting up. He rode standing up. He rode backwards lying down with his feet up in the air. I have pictures of it all.
There’s something about pushing it to the next level that is so very obviously exhilarating and fun. Conversely, there’s something about not pushing it that leads to disinterest and boredom. “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Significantly, I can’t wait—my girls can’t wait—until the next time we have the opportunity to gather with the Deans at some lake.
There you go. Something we need to hear. We get together regularly for Bible study, communion and worship. At first, it’s instruction. It’s a story to learn. Here’s how it goes, let me tell it to you. Now let me circle around and tell it to you again … in a different way. Recognize it? It’s always the God story—a story so very different from the stories of the world. And here’s what you look for—beyond the particular characters, setting, context. The story of God is always characterized by the surprising initiatives of grace and the transforming power of love. Now here it is again—another version. Are you beginning to get the feel of it?
Because we don’t want to stay with instruction too long. We want to up the challenge. And the story first learned, we then help each other look for. Can you recognize it around you? Do you name grace and love within your experience? And when you don’t, can you imagine what it might be like if they were unfolding around you?
Once learned and recognized—once you begin to imagine the story of God—once you begin to apply it in and to the various circumstances of your living, it’s time to up the challenge again. Because this is ultimately a story to live by. If we, as people of the story, allow experience of the story to be just about knowing the story, people aren’t going to stay interested. They will get bored. But not because of the story. It’s never the story that’s boring—it’s us not taking it to the next level.
Oh there will always be a need for instruction and encouragement. Keep your life relaxed. Absorb the resistance. Lean forward into the story. As your community of faith, we’ll keep the tension between the stories of the world and the story of God. Don’t think you can find a legitimate sense of balance without that tension. Let us know when you’re ready. Then let the story do the work. Let it pull you into itself. It’s like being born. It is the living word, after all—God at work.
There will still be instruction and encouragement, but the challenge changes from knowing the story—from recognizing the story—to being recognized as part of the story. It is, after all, a word not just once made flesh, but always to be made flesh. You’re to incorporate this, and if you do, you’re going to feel it later, I promise you—the strain of it—the exertion—the tremendous wear and tear on muscles you’re not used to using. But I also promise you, you’ll remember the joy. Hang on!
It is incumbent upon us as community of faith to cultivate such joy. To provide enough presence, assurance and encouragement—enough of our own sense of joy and anticipation that we can drive the boat a little faster—turn a little more frequently and a little more sharply—to find every last quiet, hidden cove and to spin through them all, such that the turbulence of this story reaches every last shore—the waves and the laughter—finds and subjects every aspect of life to the God story.
And we’ll come to see that upping the risk doesn’t just make it all the more worthwhile—all the more transformative—all the more redemptive, but also all the more fun. Until others say “You know, hanging out with them, you come to find out both how much more there always is to learn but also that it’s so not about reaching a certain level—not about having said anything in particular—done anything in particular—and then having arrived. It is rather always about the next challenge—the next opportunity. It’s nothing you can do alone. It’s about relationships and fun and living on the edge of what you think you know and what you know you don’t. It’s allowing a touch of fear and awe to deepen experience—acknowledging within whatever sense of accomplishment we claim that touch of uncertainty that borders on the awareness of mystery. Until, so very significantly, we part and can’t wait until we gather again.”