24 November 2022 | Cheltenham, England [Joanna Shepley]
The thick plastic frame kicked me in the back as I was thrown into the cool water of the river Wye. Behind me splashed the blue barrel which held our personal belongings: jumpers, snacks, picnic food, watches and wallets. The barrel’s job was to keep our things dry in the off chance we capsized. A simple, unnecessary precaution, or so we’d thought. My wet shoes hit the rocky ground below and I stood up quickly, raking the water from my eyes in an attempt to open them, as I needed to assess the situation as quickly as possible. What had happened?
It was a Sunday morning in late June, and the Cheltenham youth group had gone canoeing on the river Wye. It was our second-year canoeing on the river, one of my very favourite youth activities. With five canoes and fifteen of us, we were distributed roughly three bodies per canoe and headed out on our four-hour rowing trip.
Deeyan, Philip and I shared a large red canoe, along with our blue barrel of precious items. The three of us, strong and adept, pulled our weight, so we were rowing efficiently and with great speed in the early morning sunshine. With Philip at the stern, Deeyan in the middle and me at the bow, we pulled the plastic oars through the water, displacing the water below us, to make some headway.
Soon into our four-hour journey, we realised that perhaps we weren’t the dream team after all. We started off quick and fast, full of energy, soaring through the surface of the water, jeering that we were the fastest (which I still believe we were). Little did we know, that ‘steady wins the race’, and the looming four-hour trip down the river Wye would not bear well on our arms and shoulders as we wrestled with how to oar effectively.
Our first problem was the ‘power struggle’. With three oars in the water, one of us rowing on the left side of the canoe, the others on the right, the canoe began heading for the bank. We were not rowing in a straight line! As we reached the left bank, we corrected the rowing, with Deeyan switching her rowing to the left, in order for us to head back to the centre of the river. And soon, very soon, we were heading for the right side of the bank instead. And so began our diagonal movements across the river. Of course, the problem with this was simple. Unlike the rest of our party of friends, Youth leaders and parents, we were covering twice the ground they were. This zigzag pattern through the cool waters was not at all efficient, and soon we were not first, but fifth, last. Not what we intended. Not to mention, we were now trying to row twice as fast, to cover twice the distance, just to keep up with our group.
Over time, another, bigger problem built up.
Each dramatic pull of the oar through the water created a splash. Little did we know, that the water slowly building up by our feet inside the canoe was any danger to our dry swimming costumes and lifejackets. With the progressive movement of water into the canoe, and now two hours into our journey, the water-line was covering our ankles. Our feet were now fully submerged in river water.
Although we noticed that we were carrying extra litres of water inside our canoe, we didn’t want to stop to overturn our canoe, as this would lose time from ‘the race’, which we were convinced this still was.
The river Wye is a beautiful place, with great look out points above the canyons, King fishers along the banks and dragon flies of emerald-green flying over the water, with their helicopter wings. It is a magnificent reminder of God’s incredible handiwork and intelligent design. But as we continued to zigzag, we turned a corner…
It was the initial shock of being thrown out of the sturdy canoe as we tilted on our zigzag path, which surprised us all. Thrown into the river, we slowly emerged from beneath the cool water, with the help of our life jackets. Raking the water from my eyes, I saw that both my friends were alright and with that, we ran after our canoe and our blue barrel of precious things. And then we stood, laughing in the river, telling each other how we “saw it coming”. To our great relief, we were the last canoe, with no witnesses to our little turn turtle.
With our canoe having flipped over, we now had it flip it back and empty the water. Unfortunately, we weren’t strong enough to overturn and empty it of water entirely. Just then, to our rescue, came our youth leaders, Chris and Lovely, who, having been not too far ahead, turned around and saw us standing by our canoe, in the river, failing to empty it. With their timely help, we jumped back into the canoe and headed off once again, with no water by our feet.
After our little stunt, we rectified a few things. Firstly, we took turns rowing, to keep us in a straight line. Which, of course, would have been the smarter option initially, giving us all an opportunity to rest from the arduous work of rowing. Secondly, and more importantly, we kept a watchful eye on the way were rowing, being careful to limit the water we were inviting into the canoe with us.
Isn’t life like that sometimes? We begin a journey. We’re ready for the race. But with time, we start to fill up with different priorities, not so pleasant experiences, intrusive thoughts, bad influences, the wrong company, and our balance starts to shift. Staying afloat and holding on gets harder. We fail to prioritise and let our lives get busier, and we start filling up with the wrong things.
Then, sometimes, we get a wake-up call, we’re too deep in water, and just like that, we get thrown out. That’s when Jesus always comes to our rescue. He sets us free, and takes away our burdens and all the build-up of things we’ve held onto. He helps us back up and gives us back the oars. But to finish the race, we do need to change. We need to re-assess, re-prioritise and actively work to hold on fast to God. So, combatting our temptations and learning how to really follow God’s awesome purpose and plans for our lives needs to become a priority to prevent capsizing again.
Let’s pray for God to give us clarity today, so when He has helped us back into the boat, we are convicted and ready to keep going on the journey, to finish the race with Him by our side.
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
(Matthew 11:28-30 – The Message)
Joanna Shepley, One Year in Mission & Service Student at Newbold College, lives in Watford. Intending to study Medicine in 2023 at Sheffield University. [Photos: Victor Hulbert and Pexels]