It's a matter of love.
A week ago when we were at our Alpha Retreat in Connecticut, we passed the city of Bridgeport, and I saw signs for an event called Swim Across the Sound. They do it every year—hundreds of swimmers racing across 16 miles of the Long Island Sound to raise millions of dollars for cancer care. Three years ago I was there, not to race, but to film it all from a boat.
On my way out of my room to meet my fellow film crew members that day, I got halfway to my car and realized that I had left the directions behind. I got back to my room, retrieved the paper and some sunscreen, and stopped for a moment just before I closed the door. I don’t know why, but I looked at the books and the furniture and the photos and clothes and papers all around, and I thought---for a moment---this could be the last time I leave this room, maybe I’ll never come back to this room every again. Maybe something will happen to me out there on the water, and I’ll never make it back, and all this stuff will just be there, and someone, sometime, will have to come and just take it all out. It was one of those moments you have, out of nowhere, you just stop and see your life from the outside. There’s somebody’s room, with a lot of stuff.
There were about a hundred swimmers—solos, doubles, and teams of six---of all ages, women and men. There were over 150 boats to help and accompany them. It was an amazing sight, and as we went around and interviewed the swimmers on the ferry taking them to the starting point in Long Island, it was very moving. Every one of them had someone in their family—or themselves—who had cancer. They would be swimming for them. What about the jellyfish, I asked? “I can handle the sting,” one boy said. “My mother’s pain was a lot more than what I might feel from a jelly.” What’s it gonna be like, I asked a young woman. “No idea, really. I just know I’m gonna make it to the other side no matter what,” she said. She was not a small girl, actually she was fairly overweight, and I wondered how that was going to work. Why are you doing this? “Well finally,” an older gentleman said to me, “it’s a matter of love, isn’t it?”. He looked right into the camera, and right into my heart at that moment.
It went on for nine hours under the bright blue skies and clear sunlight that God gave us. I followed three teams from a separate media boat, filming them taking turns 20 minutes at a time, being cheered on by their teammates in the boat trolling right beside them. There were jellyfish, and stings. There were moments of confusion and misdirection. There was dehydration, and frustration, and exhaustion. But in all of it, there was determination, and faith that they would make it to the other side, no matter what. “Well finally, it’s a matter of love, isn’t it?”
Like the story of Abraham in the second reading, wandering around with his people in the desert for 40 years. Why did they do that? Why did they leave behind all the stuff of the rooms of their lives? On the other side, their faith told them, was the promised homeland that God had prepared for them. That was the goal, and the point of their lives, they finally realized. To be at home with God, where nothing else was desired or needed. But they never got to the other side, they never reached the shore. And in the end, it didn’t matter. God was not in the land, He was in the promise, and it was in the journey itself that they found what they were looking for all along.
Midway through the race, the overweight girl was struggling. She was barely making headway through the choppy waters, and it seemed that she was becoming quickly exhausted. Her teammates were wonderful, shouting frequent words of encouragement, supporting her with compliments and cheers. They were with her, heart and soul, and if they had been allowed to swim beside her, to move her arms and legs for her, to keep her afloat in any way, they would have done so. It was an extraordinary sight, and I watched it happen through my lens. This journey and struggle was creating something incredibly beautiful.
There are times when I know that there is such a thing as the Kingdom of God, there are times when there is a kind of parting of the curtain and a brief glimpse of the reality behind our lives, there are times when I have witnessed God’s love made manifest. This was such a moment—heavyset girl struggling in the water, five young women crouching on the boat deck right beside her, hearts to heart---and suddenly it was as though they all recognized what was happening, they all realized that there was something else going on between all of them. The air was lighter, the waters calmer, and the journey became a flight above and beyond the moment they were in. God appears, I believe, in these most unexpected moments, and God certainly made herself known at that time to those six young women. The girl in the water ceased struggling, she swam with new energy, with grace and determination until her time had elapsed, and when she climbed onto the boat after the changeover, she looked transformed. They reached the shore after almost 8 hours of swimming, and though they weren’t first, they weren’t last either. I’m sure they realized, as they swam under the finish line banner, that they had reached the destination long beforehand, in the journey itself. “Well finally,” an older gentleman said to me, “it’s a matter of love, isn’t it?”.
At one point on the Alpha retreat we all went down to a lake. Most of the participants on the Alpha retreat are in their 20’s and 30’s, and I watched them fly off a rope swing and attempt to catch frisbees as they jumped into the sparkling blue water. Some of them are just beginning their careers, some are on their second or third act. I thought about the journey of life that they are on, their future relationships, jobs, children ahead of them. I’m sure they dream of great things to come. The Alpha course poses important questions, like: Is there more to life than this?; Do I have a purpose?; Where is Jesus? In all likelihood, many of them will leave New York, wandering much like the Israelites in search of their promised land and life. I hope that Alpha will help them to begin to recognize that God is not in the land, or the job, or the final destination, but in promise and the journey itself.
As all of us race across our lives, may we be ready to meet him in the most humble of moments, and the most unexpected times. Always be ready for the Lord. Gird your loins and light your lamps,” Jesus said. “…be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”