Diary: Catherine Fox

23 August 2019

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Uphill all the way

THIS August Bank Holiday, let’s talk about boats. I’m a total landlubber. I grew up in Buckinghamshire; so I don’t require a sea view to settle my spiritual equilibrium. I need green fields. This is not to say I get no pleasure out of boats. Or ships. There’s a difference, by the way. Ships are what you call big boats; thus, a ship will have a ship’s boat. Never refer to a tall ship as a boat, or you’ll be keel-hauled by maritime pedants. There’s also a difference between a canoe and a kayak, but, frankly, who cares? I like to use the terms interchangeably.

The Bishop and I occasionally go canoe-aking. We learned early on in our paddling career that we needed a boat each. I dare say there is some form of etiquette concerning who is in charge in a two-person canoe, but we never resolved that to our satisfaction. If you’re at the back, you have one distinct advantage, however. You are less likely to get a blow to the head from an awkwardly-wielded paddle —Oops! Clumsy me! — shortly after barking a terse command.

My favourite kind of kayaking is downstream on a fast-flowing river, on a summer’s day in France. Under those circumstances, it’s basically just a matter of steering and crying out “Look! A kingfisher!” Lake kayaking is much less fun. Lakes may look flat, but this is an optical illusion. They are very slightly uphill, whichever direction you happen to be paddling in.

Your own canoe

EVEN paddling downstream can be hard work, if the river is lazy and slow. The Bishop and I once did a gentle three-hour trip down the Wye, which took about five hours, and, in the end, he offered to tow me. Repeatedly. I responded each time with an airy “No! I’m fine!” The result was that, when we finally arrived at our destination, I was almost too weak to climb ashore, and had to spend the rest of the day in bed, moaning weakly. Lessons were learned. From now on, if people generously offer to tow me, I will circumvent them by never kayaking down the Wye again unless it’s in spate.

Why is it so hard to accept help? Sometimes, it’s as if we regard an offer of help as a cunning form of attack — one that we must deflect, backs to the wall, with the trusty blade of omnicompetence. “I’ve got this. [Swish!] It’s fine. [Swish!] I don’t need anything, thanks. [Swish!]” And, perhaps, it is an attack — on our sense of self-sufficiency and control. To accept help is to admit that we need help; and this is hard when we’ve set out our stalls as the ones who offer help. Yet we begin this life needing help, and most of us will end our lives relying on the help of others. Self-sufficiency is only ever an illusion. Like effortless kayaking downstream on a sunny day, it’s a product of happy circumstances.

Bear necessities

I REJECT out of hand solo kayaking as a sermon illustration for the life of faith. (Apart from joyful exclamations over kingfishers.) Instead, I propose white-water rafting. I was fortunate enough to try this a couple of summers ago, in Colorado, and it has remained with me as a lively metaphor. There are degrees of rapids in rafting, ranging from “Pooh! I’ve seen worse when I let out the bathwater!” through to “We’re all going to die!”

The rapids we encountered weren’t at the truly fearsome end of the scale. With hindsight, the scariest thing of all was the safety talk at the start, when we were given instructions on what to do if the raft capsized and you got stuck underneath, and then a bear came along and ate your leg.

All the same, there were spikes of terror against the backdrop of exhilaration, as we corkscrewed downstream between jutting rocks, thinking “I will never live to see my grandchildren.” We were all complete amateurs. The trick was to jam your foot in, hang on to your paddle, and trust to your lifejacket and helmet. And, above all, for everyone to listen the whole time to the leader — the only one who knew the river and how to raft — and do exactly what he said, exactly when he said to do it. “Right side, forward. Stop! Left side, backwards. Stop! Lean in!”

But, suddenly, we were through the rapids, soaked to the skin, and somehow laughing. Woo-hoo! Can we do that again?

Trust and obey

AND so, boys and girls, next time you are being swept along by life’s rapids, I want you to listen to the Lord Jesus, and do exactly what he tells you, exactly when he tells you to do it. Altogether: With Jesus in the boat, you can smile at the storm!

I’ll be honest with you: I’ve never yet managed to smile at the storm while shipping green water in my small boat, with the Lord Jesus fast asleep and heedless. Yet I draw comfort from Mark’s account of him sleeping through it all. Sometimes, the deep waters are where we’re called to be. In the end, the storm is his.

Catherine Fox is a writer, and a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her husband is the Bishop of Sheffield.

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