An Epiphany at a Public Pool

I swim, I dive, I rise!

Let’s start out with a travelling drone video covering half the world and three quarters of a century in a few seconds followed by a few snapshots from a gathering of somewhat senior citizens in a public swimming pool in Wangaratta, NE Victoria, Australia this last Monday morning. I am the primary focal point at the start, but it gets better.

Here’s the summary flyover: I spent my first half century plus in the Sacramento Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area then fell in love with a man from Australia and moved to Melbourne twenty years ago. Seven years ago, at the age of 67, I was ready to retire from certainly less than illustrious but often enjoyable work as a chaplain and teacher and finally a priest in the Anglican Church of Australia.

There have been some real joys in retirement accompanied by osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, COPD, Parkinson’s disease, prostate cancer and general ageing, to say nothing of bushfires, floods and plague. And then a few days ago I lost my wedding ring in the swimming pool.

For on 10 September 2019, celebrating twenty years together, my partner John (also a priest) and I exchanged rings and vows in a civil marriage ceremony in Melbourne. This was to be followed that weekend by an official diocesan approved service of liturgical blessing near Wangaratta, but the Primate requested we wait over a year while the Appellate Court of the national Church judged whether this was a heretical doctrine or an honest practice. So that Saturday we cobbled together a regular service of Morning Prayer the following weekend with a series of prayers written for victims of sexual abuse we found on the national Church website:

We have evaded responsibility
And failed to confront evil;
We have denied dignity to ourselves and to each other,
and fallen into despair.
We turn to you, O God:
We renounce evil; We claim your love;
We choose to be made whole.

At that time, I here confess, there was a subtext of “Thank God we’re not like those Pharisees (in Sydney)” but looking back I see we were not that different. For the sake of our ministries we followed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, keeping separate bedrooms, using the term “my friend”, playing the political game while denying a substantial picture to others who found love with a member of their own gender. But it got worse. For looking back I realise that in keeping quiet about the love we shared I had avoided acknowledging one of the most important revelations of creative, redeeming, sustaining love in my life. And that was simply bad theology.

And the prayers continued …

For wisdom in working for a future of justice and integrity…,
For honesty and accountability in all our relationships…,
For grace to change and be changed as you forgive us,
Lord, hear our prayer.

After The Lord’s Prayer the people gathered around to lay hands on us and there was a silence that was richer than I had ever known. Family friends and strangers, nearby neighbours and those who come from a long way away, and I would swear the living and the dead, all brought us home and held us fast and let us know that we were touched and held and known by the Grace of Love.

Parkinson’s is helped by exercise. It is useful for counteracting the disease’s manifestations of fatigue, ennui and combatting something like existential and finally physical atrophy. So Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings John and I drive to the Wangaratta Sports and Aquatic Centre (formerly the YMCA) for water aerobics. A lot of us are over sixty, mostly women and a half dozen men, we’re friendly, tending to smile, occasionally singing, with spontaneous humour verging towards the vulgar at just the right moment. It can be a real joy.

This morning before the group started a woman in the pool and I were discussing Australian birds: the distinct surprise of kookaburras, the arrogance of cockies, the always surprisingly beautiful song trills and that lingering curiosity of magpies who often look like they’re expecting a handout. She mentioned giving bits of bacon to the chickens at one of the local Catholic schools and I mentioned the warm welcome I received from a local monsignor when I went to celebrate an Anglican Eucharist at the local Catholic Aged Care facility. She liked listening to podcasts of a younger priest of our diocese and I said I had known him for awhile, had mixed feelings about his theology, and knew that his sermons were very helpful for some people. Then the music came up and we began water aerobics.

I remember the younger priest had spoken with some passion at that last diocesan gathering I attended following retirement, saying that, “the Gospel was hard… required sacrifice”. For me that seemed like a young man’s creed, one I had followed some years before a surprising combustion of sustained failure and unexpected faith convinced me that if God is Love then we can do what we can and lean on the assumption that love will do the rest.

For I don’t believe as much as I used to: dedicated proponents of Scripture, reason and tradition all left tyre marks on my soul, various strident truth tellers have made me want to lie down in safety. While the Church may be a wonderful institution the larger question (paraphrasing the movie version of Auntie Mame) is “who wants to be in an institution?” But certain things abide: The Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, especially in Luke, the two greatest commandments, maybe even a bit of Paul at his best. I’ll still dance to those tunes, they get me moving, wake my heart, make me want to live deeper in love one more time, keep me showing up to celebrations like these water aerobics and other gifts that show up in surprising instances.

It happened three quarters through our forty-five minute routine with background music by Queen. Moving my right hand, arm, leg and foot backward while keeping everything on my left side pushing to the front I felt my wedding ring move off my left hand fourth finger and begin to fall to the bottom of the pool. I turned to my partner and said, “I lost my ring!” He was wearing contact lenses so couldn’t dive and he tried to feel for it beneath his feet. I climbed out of the water, went to my backpack beside the pool, found my old swim goggles and, as I put them on to jump back into the pool, they broke apart. I jumped back into the water, “Are you all right?” asked one woman. I said I had just lost my wedding ring and went under the water again.

This was not easy. COPD and Parkinson’s means fatigue comes fast, especially when accompanied by stress, and I couldn’t stay underwater long. I came up for air, tried another time, found nothing, went for air. My partner said he felt the ring by his foot, another woman reached out to me from the edge of the pool with her own goggles, I put them on, took a another breath, went to the floor of the pool and, with my right hand on John’s ankle, located the ring with my left hand and clenched it in my fist, released John’s ankle and used my own right hand to replace my wedding band on the appropriate finger and then returned to the surface with my hands raised in victory!

By this time you know I am not a chapter and verse kind of guy, but thirty-one years ago I did a special study on the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel where a woman loses a coin, searches for it diligently and when she finds it, invites the neighbours in for a great celebration. It’s a pretty lovely story of basic good news.

In 2019 when ABCTV’s 7:30 program asked the Archbishop of Sydney about the Diocese of Wangaratta approving an order of service blessing those already married in a civil celebration he said, “We do not bless sin”. Funnily enough when Jesus was asked about using coins with Caesar’s face on them he said, “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s” but he seem to love having dinner with the lost, rejoicing in people turning to living whole lives, not throwing the first stone but joining in with the woman finding the lost coin in celebrating and rejoicing, blessing faith, hope and love in all the fine frailty of being human together.

So on this Monday morning I emerged from the chlorinated depths surrounded by concerned faces, women and men who resembled (can I write this?) angels treading water, messengers of concern and care, visibly glad I had retrieved the circle of gold that got lost. “You found it?” said one woman near me. “I did. We worked hard for that ring!” She smiled and said, “I know”.

And I rejoice that love is always looking for what is lost and is continually rejoicing that (finally) all that was lost will be found, whether it is a coin or a ring or the Archbishop of Sydney or the young priest (even you my brother!) and everybody in this Monday morning aerobics class at the Wangaratta Sports and Aquatic Centre and everyplace else.

Right now I am very glad to be alive.

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