Swimming in Chaos
The other night I had a dream. I was on a surfboard (or was it a kayak?) in the middle of the ocean. All of a sudden, a large wave came up from behind and lifted me high into the air. In the dream I sat there poised at the top of the wave knowing that any second I was going to fall feet after feet and crash into the depths of the ocean, only to be beaten down again and again by the force of the wave.
This dream was no mystery to me.
For weeks I have had a deep sense of doom that something terrible and crushing is about to happen to me. Mainly, I am afraid that both of my elderly parents are going to contract COVID-19 and then die back to back. I fear they will die in a hospital alone without the grace of someone holding their hand and saying “I love you” as they drift into the great hereafter.
And let me tell you something about me. My anxiety-ridden self is not comfortable with chaos of any sort.
When I was in seminary, I learned something about chaos that lodged itself into my heart. The ancient Hebrew culture used symbols and metaphors to describe the great truths of life. Two of these symbols were the ocean, or the great deep, and the Leviathan, a massive sea monster that stalked in that deep. The ocean symbolized all the chaos that exists in the world and the Leviathan represented the danger and evil that lurked in those chaotic waters.
That is why it was so powerful that on the second day of creation God formed the sky. Genesis tells us that the sky is a dome that separates the waters from below (sea) from the waters above (rain). In making the sky, God effectively tamed chaos and created a safe pocket for humans to live in.
That is also why the flood story is so powerful. In anger, God removed the shield of the sky and let the chaos from above join with the chaos below to destroy the earth.
When I am in an anxious place this is exactly what I fear; the divine protection from chaos will be removed and I will be overcome. I will drown in the waters.
Have you ever feared you would drown? It is a horrible feeling. The closest I ever came was the one day I tried to surf. After a few decent attempts at getting up on the board, I took a break while some other people rode the waves. But as I waited out in the water on my board a storm started brewing and the sea got choppy. Eventually, I was hit by a wave so big, and that crested so close I was propelled forward in a tumble of surf. I fell off my board and plunged beneath the surface.
Once under the water, I twisted and tumbled down again and again as the water hit from above. As my ankle was connected to the surfboard, I was also drug through the water toward the shore. For some endless number of seconds, I held my breath. I just kept praying I would reach the shore before my breath ran out, which obviously I did. Sometimes when it rains, I still feel physical aches and pains from that tangle with the chaotic deep, as if the water from above is reminding me that the deep almost took me.
It can be easy to fear the waters of chaos. Especially in times like these. For it is true the waters of chaos are real.
But there is another truth.
At the end of the flood story, God promises to never again let the waters of chaos overcome humanity. As a sign of this promise God put a bow, previously a weapon up in the sky, the protective layer as a symbol of peace.
Over and over again in scripture, God promises to protect us from the chaos. Isaiah reminds us that when we pass through the waters, God will be with us and when we walk through the rivers they won’t overwhelm us (Is:43). The Psalmist tells us that God divides the deep and crushes the head of the Leviathan (Ps:74). When Job cries to God that he is being overwhelmed by his troubles, God counters saying, I am the one who can tame the Leviathan (Job:41). It is as if God is saying if the epitome of danger and chaos is no match for me, then how much less so are the problems in your life.
But my favorite passages about God taming the deep come from the Gospels. When the disciples are facing a big storm on a small boat at sea, Jesus calms the storm. And when after walking on water, Peter dips below the surface and begins to drown, Jesus plucks him right out. Stormy seas are no match for God’s mercy and grace.
In this vision, I knew that the waves were just a surface distraction.
One day, during a stormy time in my life, I learned this truth in a new way. I had sought God in prayer for answers to my trial. What came to me was a brief vision of grace. I saw the wind and waves raging over a grey sea. And then my attention was drawn below the waves. For below the layer of tumult on the top of the water lay a deep, calm ocean. This ocean was full of love and mercy and the presence of God.
In this vision, I knew that the waves were just a surface distraction. The ultimate reality was the peace and joy and love of God that underlies all things at all times.
But the truth is that God is greater than all the world’s chaos.
These times can be scary. We might fear as if we will drown in the chaos of it all. But the truth is that God is greater than all the world’s chaos.
A few days after I had my dream, I visited a spa in our town called Float. I walked to a room in which there was in a container filled with 10 inches of saltwater. As the lights were dimmed and the room settled into quiet, I stepped into the water. Then, I took a deep breath and lay myself back to rest on the water’s surface.
As I allowed myself to rest and relax for the first time in weeks I knew one thing to be true. No matter what storms may come in this life, God will always be holding me. I can either fear the water or I can surrender to grace. And when you are held by God’s grace, you will never be overcome, you will never drown.
For more on using our spiritual life to manage anxiety, check out my upcoming book When Anxiety Strikes. Available for pre-order now and in bookstores Sept 29th.