I started swimming on Monday. I mean, obviously, I started swimming years ago when I took swimming lessons, but I mean, I started swimming again on Monday.
My reintroduction to the pool came following a conversation with my nutritionist about adding an exercise to my weekly walking regimen. I mentioned that I loved swimming when I was younger, and as someone who has suffered a knee injury in my past, wanted to do something that would be low impact on my joints. We thought swimming would be the way to go.
So, I ordered prescription goggles because I hate being unable to see when I swim. And I ordered a swim cap to help keep the water out of my ears and because I hate how the strap on goggles always seems to get tangled in my hair. I dug my swimsuit out from the back of my closet, and shortly after 6AM on Monday morning, I headed to the YMCA for lap swimming.
From the word go I felt like, well, a fish out of water. I didn't really know where to go to get to the locker rooms or how to get to the pool area, and I certainly wasn't going to ask for help--people would know that I didn't know what I was doing! I didn't know if I was supposed to put my swim cap on in the locker room or in the pool, so I put it on in the locker room so I could put my goggles on and actually see where I was going. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror before I went out to the pool area and I thought, "Yep, I totally look like a swimmer."
Once in the pool, one of the other "serious swimmers" (I know this because she, too, had a swim cap on) said hello to me, and informed me that we only had half of the pool because of water aerobics. I nodded, pushed off from the side of the pool, and began to swim...sort of. It felt more like a doggy paddle at first. Then it kind of evolved into a breaststroke-ish movement with a lot of heavy breathing and pauses to tread water on my part. I made it to the end of the pool and took a break. 25 meters down. Only 275 meters to go to complete my 300 meter "beginner" workout.
I tried the backstroke next. It actually was probably my best stroke of the day, which really isn't saying too much. I did that for about 4 lengths of the pool, before switching to my "freestyle" stroke. Suffice it to say, it was REALLY freestyle. My breathing was all wrong. I had no rhythm in anything I was doing. At one point it actually felt like I was standing still as I swam. Still, I kept swimming, huffing and puffing my way to 12 lengths of the pool, switching strokes, taking breaks, treading water, and walking in the shallows. When I had swum the 12 lengths of my workout, I toweled off, threw my ball cap and my glasses back on, stepped into sandals, and squeaked and dripped my way out of the YMCA.
Here's the funny thing: For as terrible as I was at swimming laps, I noticed how terrible I didn't feel as I drove home. I noticed my muscles were sore, but my knee didn't hurt. My back didn't hurt. My brain wasn't clouded and crowded by thoughts and stresses and to-do's. My shoulders burned, but they weren't heavy with the weight of my responsibilities. I was refreshed and invigorated and felt accomplished...all by 7AM.
I didn't have to win a prize or be the best at anything to feel that way. I simply had to show up and be open to being changed by the process. Yes, I had to do the work, but nothing would have happened without first showing up and being open. Which makes me wonder just how much I have missed in the past by staying home, staying in my same routine, and being closed off to the gifts a little discomfort might have to offer. The answer, I am sure, is far more than I realize.
How about you? When was the last time you let yourself show up and be open to change? When did you last step out of the places and the routines that give you the comfort of certainty? When did you last ask discomfort to be your guide so that it might show you something new? What are you missing by staying where you are?
The longer I am around, the more I am convinced that our lives of faith were never meant to be a set-in-stone kind of experience. Our faith was always meant to stretch us just beyond what we thought was possible. Just a bit farther than we have ever been. Just a bit more than we were comfortable with. So we could grow to be the just a bit more like the image of God in which we were created by design to be.
Stretching new muscles with you,
The other morning I was up early walking my dog after an overnight morning rain. The air was thick. The leaves on the trees were heavy with water that flung in my face when the wind blew.
I have to say that I don't love the morning after rainfalls. I suppose I should, since everything has been watered amply without my intervention (or my water bill!), but I don't at all. I don't like being wet unless I'm swimming or showering. I don't like the smell of wet dog and having to wipe Hank all down when we get home. I don't love how slick the sidewalk becomes or how I get showered walking under branches left to grow too low over sidewalks. I'm just not a fan.
The other morning in particular, the wind was blowing mightily. Hank's senses were on high alert because of the scents the rain brings out and the wind distributes in the air. I was tired and grumpy--likely due to the walk being before my morning coffee--and I really just didn't want to be out and moving around. But here we were, beginning our walk. As we reached the top of the hill at the corner of our street, I noticed the sidewalk was covered in white. From where I was when I first noticed it, I couldn't tell what all of that "white" was. But as we got closer, I saw that it was flowers. Hundreds of flowers. I wondered for a moment where they had come from, and just as I looked up, another flower fell. And another. And another. This tree, that I would later learn is the Northern Catalpa tree, was raining flowers. Down over me. Down onto Hank. And down to the ground below.
I couldn't do a thing but smile--smile and breathe deep for the first time that morning. Here, during the grumpiest of mornings, beauty had found me. Here, during this morning-after-rain, I was being showered with goodness. Here, in the creation I love but don't always like, the magnificence of something larger than my fatigue found its way to me. And it filled me with an immense amount of surprising joy.
In Psalm 30:4-5, the psalmist writes, "Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning." I forget that sometimes, I think. I forget that the weeping of whatever "night" I am facing doesn't last forever. I forget that the struggles and the pain and the grief don't last forever because JOY comes with the morning. JOY can, will, and DOES find us--out of the blue, without warning, and without our intervention.
Which means, dear siblings in the Spirit, if you find yourself fumbling in the dark hours before the dawn--Just. Keep. Walking. Trust that even just a moment of joy can and will find you. Trust that the weeping of your night will come to an end. Trust that the God in whose image you were made didn't make some cosmic mistake with you, and let the truth of your worthiness and belovedness rain down all around you. JOY comes with the morning. It's not lip service. It's not a dangling carrot. It's the hope that drenches all of creation--even me. Even you.
Don't believe me? Ask the Catalpa tree.
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.