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Immersion uses the author's experience of swimming from Alcatraz Island to the shore of San Francisco as a metaphor for living out the Great Commandment (loving God and loving others). This book showcases the author's story telling, Bible knowledge, and teaching, which results in a compelling and life changing reading experience.
“To do anything in this world worth doing, we must not stand back shivering and thinking of the cold and danger, but jump in, and scramble through as well as we can.” -Sydney Smith (1771 - 1845) I balanced on the edge of the ferry, my hand gripping the rail, my eyes scanning the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay, and thought, Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea…. The frigid air made me appreciate my fellow competitors packed in beside me on the ferry; it somehow made what I was about to do seem a little more sane. There was a collective inaudible hum of thoughts processing the looming leap into the inhospitable water. As I watched some choose not to make the leap after all, I too asked myself again if I really wanted to follow through with this increasingly irrational decision. Did I want to do what the California prison system said could not be done? Did I really want to attempt this “Escape from Alcatraz”? “Escape from Alcatraz” is an annual triathlon held every summer. The race begins with the most daunting task first, the swim from Alcatraz Island to the shores of San Francisco. This uniquely demanding race admits only 2000 athletes from as many as 40 different countries, all converging on San Francisco with one goal in mind: to break out of “The Rock.” The day before the race, I had the opportunity to take a tour of the island. As I walked the halls of the prison and read the stories of those who were incarcerated there, I felt the oppressive air of the concrete and steel, built to keep a relentless grasp on its inhabitants, to choke out all dreams of a better future. Hope and beauty and anticipation of tomorrow were locked out by its 50’ barbwire-topped walls and intricate fail-safes, all surrounded by the freezing cold waters of San Francisco Bay. SWIM TO FREEDOM So, there I was, willingly ferried out to do what wardens and inmates and politicians alike thought was not possible. As we expected – yet still somehow unthinkably – the race officials instructed us one by one to jump into that choppy leviathan several feet below. There was no getting used to the water; it was either, “all in and swim” or “no go and ferry home.” Most chose to go, but some chose no. The moment came: the official pointed at me. I mustered all my courage and leapt several feet off the ferry – my mind doing its best to prepare my body for the shock of the cold. When I hit the churning water below I felt my goggles – so crucial to my ability to navigate – rip from my head. Knowing my swim was as good as over without them, I frantically searched for my goggles. On all sides people were jumping in, splashing water in my eyes as they hit, bumping into me as they began their swim. In the midst of all the commotion, I managed to find my dislodged goggles and pull them back on. At first I was a little disoriented from the chaos of the jump and the goggles and the mass of other swimmers, but soon I found confidence in my preparation. I began to do what I had trained to do, swim to freedom. Kick, stroke, navigate, breathe, move through the water and get to shore. The swim was everything I expected and nothing I expected all at once. Yes, there were the tangibles, the cold water, fellow swimmers, and the current. All this I had anticipated intellectually. I knew quite well it was coming. But there was also the reality that I had never experienced anything like this before. I was, at the same time, completely ready and utterly unprepared for the swim ahead. I had to rely on my focus on my goal of getting to shore. Kick, stroke, navigate, breathe, and move through the water – it was coming together. The familiarity was overriding the unknowns. Until something I had not trained for happened. From a few yards away, I heard a gurgled shout, “Help!” At first I thought it was my own subconscious playing tricks on me, a shout from within, from a place that was still unsure of the swim ahead. But then I heard it again, louder this time: “HELP!” As I stopped my stroke, another swimmer drafting behind collided into me. I could feel the current immediately pulling me away from my destination. I struggled with the fact that if I helped there was a good chance my race was over. Surely it was not my responsibility to help someone else. Heck, I was barely making it myself! Finally, squashing the selfishness inside, I swam over toward the call for help. Scanning the water, I saw an arm flailing in the distance and swam toward it. By the time I reached the now almost catatonic swimmer, a fellow racer arrived on the scene. In unison we called for help, finally getting the attention of the patrol boat. Unfortunately, there were so many swimmers in the water that the driver couldn’t navigate his boat safely over to us. A few long minutes later a kayaker with a water gurney came paddling up and was able to tend to the shell-shocked swimmer. By this time the current had taken me quite some distance from the course, so with effort I struggled to reestablish my path, and began to once again attempt my swim to freedom. Kick, stroke, navigate, breathe, move through the water and get to shore. The water was rough and the current relentless, but each cycle of my stroke moved me closer to my destination. At times there was a swarm of swimmers all around me, and other times I felt that I was completely alone. For some reason it seemed easier when I was in a pack of other swimmers, but even that had its challenges. At about the halfway point, when I had finally settled in and was really finding my pace, I was suddenly pulled under water. Completely submerged, and a bit panicked, thoughts of Jaws ran through my head. What had pulled me under? After a few frantic seconds I discovered the cause of my attack. Another swimmer had grabbed my foot and pulled me under. I am not sure why he did it; maybe he was panicked, maybe he was trying to sabotage my race. Whatever the reason it was so unexpected that it took me several seconds to get back into the rhythm of the race. But, again, my goal and my focus took over: kick, stroke, breathe, move through the water and get to shore. After 54 minutes I finally reached the shore. A cheering crowd and, more importantly, my friends and family were there to support me in my “escape from Alcatraz.” A LIFE IMMERSED Our faith journey is a lot like swimming from Alcatraz Island. We begin as prisoners to our brokenness faced with a choice. Are we going to serve a life sentence? Or are we going to try to make a break for it – and swim to freedom? The leap from captivity to freedom can be daunting, even terrifying, as we move from the familiar (as bad as that might be) into the unknown. To be successful it is “all in and swim.” There is no getting used to it, there is the ledge and there is the leap – and, waiting for us, the startling water of a complete immersion into faith. Once we hit the water, unexpected things will happen to us. Perhaps our goggles will be knocked off by the sudden change in environment, as our world view is rocked by our encounter with the one and only living God. While this is certainly a good thing, it can be scary nonetheless. The world we’d constructed suddenly taken apart and reordered is a frightening prospect, even when the reordering is an infinitely vast improvement. Often we also feel an overwhelming sense of hope flooding into our lives, a beautiful change, but sometimes hard to accept after years of skepticism and disappointment. Along the way, once we think we are on track we press forward, struggling to stay on the right path, things may arise that make us question whether we truly are on the right track or not. So often these trials of doubt come from unexpected sources, like a fellow swimmer pulling us down as they struggle in their own swim to freedom. Or maybe we have to backtrack or seemingly veer off course to aid another swimmer who is in trouble. Will we find the course again? The doubts stack up quickly. Through the hindrances and unexpected struggles, again and again we must regain our bearings and resume our swim to freedom. Breathing, navigating, kicking, and pulling for the goal, for ultimately a dry, secure shore awaits – and a host of those who cheer us on. In the end, being fully immersed in the life God has envisioned for us depends upon the power of God who gives us the ability to finish the race. A life immersed requires that we first leap into the water, learn to breathe in the life giving spirit of God, use our minds to navigate toward the shore, use our strength to kick and pull our strokes, all in concert with each other. This is the redemptive struggle of our swim toward freedom in Christ. SWIMMING THE GOOD RACE “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful.” -Apostle Paul Jesus was tested by the religious leaders of his day in all kinds of subtle and not so subtle ways. One of these tests came in the form of a simple question. What is the most important commandment? In other words, what is the key to “swimming the good race” according to God? As usual, Jesus’ response is both disarmingly simple and profound in its application: The most important commandment is this: ‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these. Familiarity can be blinding. Psychologists Daniel Simons and Chris Chabris of Harvard University performed a fascinating study demonstrating that humans process very little information once we think we know the situation. The phenomenon is called “change blindness,” when a person only sees what he or she originally took in, blind to the true reality of the situation. Change blindness is the foundation of magic shows. The audience assumes the most obvious explanation: the hat is a regular hat; the rabbit is the same rabbit the magician just showed them, the pack of cards is a standard set of cards. This is all fine and dandy for magic shows, but when it comes to life, this blindness can have devastating results. The familiarity of “The Great Commandment” can be a stumbling block. It certainly was with me. The change blindness of what seemed to me like oversaturation in this verse left me thinking I understood it. At some point I stopped processing the depth and significance of Christ’s answer to the Pharisees’ question. I have run into similar change blindness in others repeatedly over the past three years while working on my doctorate. When “churched” people asked me what my dissertation or book is about, I used to tell them: living out the Great Commandment in the 21st century. I found that as soon as I mentioned the Great Commandment their demeanor would change. It’s become predictable, the sharp shift from interested to dismissive. Of course, the Great Commandment is not “old news.” Christ is the very embodiment of the new. His command is the very core of what our lives are to be about. Jesus’ answer to the question from the religious leaders states unequivocally what we are meant to focus on in life in order to achieve the prize. We are to holistically love God and love people. This book is about answering the question, what would a life look like if a person loved God with all of the heart (emotions), soul (spirit), mind (intellect), strength (physical self), and loved others as themselves (social).
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Dr. Mark McNees (born 1969) was born in Los Angeles, California and is best known for his compelling storytelling and writing style. He brings masterfully blended biblical truth through personal experience, humor, and honesty. His passion is helping people live out the vision God has for their life.