Coming Up For Air (Reflections on Taking a Break)

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For a variety of reasons, Christie and I have never completed our diver certification and become bona fide divers – with tanks, weight belts, depth calculators, etc. Instead, we snorkel – fins, masks, snorkels, and UV protected sun shirts. Divers will say it’s not real diving, but it’s the best we can do.

For three weeks of a two month sabbatical, at a rather remote destination (which I’m not mentioning because if I did, it wouldn’t be as remote!), we’re camping oceanside in weather warm enough to allow snorkeling every day. So far we’ve seen two types of turtles (green and hawksbill), a myriad of colorful corals (both hard and soft), dozens of fish species, and hundreds of living conchs. For us, diving means descending 5’ to as many as 25’ for a closer look, a photographic attempt, or an empty shell retrieval.

But even as snorkelers, we know what it is to dive too deep, to look up and wonder, “Can I get to the surface now that I’m so far down?”

Which leads to this reflection – coming up for air. When I returned from Urbana 12 and we started to scramble to prepare for these weeks away, we both knew that we were overdue for a significant rest. Fall 2012 was perhaps the busiest we could recall in 33 years of marriage. Christie’s full schedule included DAI work, counseling, spiritual direction and extra days at the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital microbiology lab. I was teaching three M.A. courses with DAI, three full courses at Gordon College, managing domestic and international travels, and preparing for Urbana 2012. To my shame (especially as someone who wrote about “simplifying” life), we had only one day off together between September and mid-December.

When we arrived at our remote, unnamed, warm weather location, one of the first statements Christie made became the theme of this essay. She said, “God gave us grace to make it through the Fall, but we really need this time to come up for air.”

Which takes me back to our experiences in surface diving. Why do we find ourselves physically, mentally, or spiritually out of air? Three stories (with what I hope will be an understandable analogy):

• Out of air – for a futile goal. On a trip home from Asia, we had the pleasure of a two-day layover in Hawaii, and we went out snorkeling. As we floated along, I saw what I thought was a beautiful shell laying on the bottom. It looked empty and I really wanted it, so I dove. With fin propulsion I descended to the bottom rather quickly, discovered that my ‘treasure’ was in reality a rotting coconut shell, and then to my shock, I looked up. I saw Christie on the surface and realized that I was 25’—30’ down. My inner dialogue waffled between “Don’t panic; just ascend” and “My lungs are going to explode and I’m going to die for a rotting coconut shell.” Reflection: I wonder, “How often am I completely out of air physically, mentally, or spiritually because I’ve overcommitted myself to something that may not have value?”

• Out of air – for money. Snorkeling in places after tour boats have departed can be quite lucrative. We’ve reaped the harvest from day-trippers on snorkel boats (some of whom have had too much rum punch) who somehow manage to lose masks, snorkels, fins, sandals, hats, sunglasses, and even a beach chair or two. But I’ve never lost breath or dived too deep in search of some guy’s sea-soaked, sand-encrusted baseball cap. However, I did hurt myself over a year ago (and I’m confessing here) when some departed snorkeler must have had cash in his bathing suit pocket that had floated out and sank. As I snorkeled along, I spotted a $20 at about 12’. An easy dive later, I was $20 richer. Then I saw a $10 bill and another, and another – at various depths but none greater than 15’. I dove again and again in short succession. I surfaced with $60, gasping for air and later discovering that I had ruptured my ear drum – probably because of my inexperience. The medical co-pays alone exceeded the value of my bounty! Reflection: I wonder, “How often am I completely out of air physically, mentally, or spiritually (to the point of hurting myself) because I’ve been over-working in hopes of financial gain?”

• Out of air – for competition. The last sad story is not ours but comes from a nearby island over a decade ago. Although my surface dives might exceed 20’ on occasion, professional competitors can somehow exceed 200’. A twenty-something young man, desirous of setting a new island record, tragically succeeded but then something went wrong. When his motionless body surfaced, he could not be revived. Reflection: I wonder, “How often am I completely out of air physically, mentally, or spiritually (to the point of hurting myself) because I’m competing against someone else’s life or ministry or even against some else’s expectation of me?”

So you might ask, “Why did you arrive on this sabbatical so out of breath? Why do you need this time to come up for air?” I don’t really think it’s money; in mission-related ministry, increased money is hard to come by (I’d be better off chasing snorkel boats). I suppose my answers lie within two of my three stories:
> Overwork in pursuit of too many goals – some of which are probably futile (evaluating this type of thing is why we take reflection breaks)
> And competition with my own self-expectation (the root of this is a blog for another day).

In short, my question to myself and to you is this – are we taking time to breathe, to pace ourselves, to come up for air?