I'm Not Waving; I'm Drowning
When Deep Water Meets Even Deeper Love
She had struggled from childhood with overpowering feelings of
As an adult, it was no better.
British poet Stevie Smith traced much of her struggle to a difficult
childhood and to the devastation that swept over her after her father abandoned
the family. Her most famous poem lent its title to a collection she
published in 1957. She called it simply "Not Waving but Drowning."
Her brief, twelve-line poem pictures a dying man thrashing about in
the surf, gesturing wildly, yet unable to attract the help of people passing by
on the shore. The passersby see him, but they suppose he's merely waving.
And so they walk on, maybe even waving back ... leaving him to drown. The
poem ends with these desolate lines:
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Have you ever felt anything like that?
I have. Sometimes I still do.
Despite the fierce love of Jesus and the measureless grace of God,
sometimes I thrust my hands up in the air, my arms flailing wildly, and
people nod and smile and return what they see as a wave.
But I'm not waving. I'm drowning. Even for those of us who have walked
with Christ for years, wounds from the past can still rush in like an unexpected
In just the past couple of weeks, for example, the waters started to rise as
I returned from a weekend speaking engagement. As is my custom, I texted
my husband, "Landed!" when the wheels of the plane touched down on the
tarmac. I've come to expect his return message, "Yay!" This time he added
that he was picking up our son from a sleepover at his best friend's house.
At a little after 10:00 p.m. I retrieved my bag and headed out to my car. We
live about thirty minutes from the airport, so I felt sure Barry and Christian
would beat me home. As I turned into our driveway, however, the house was
What a desolate feeling, seeing a dark house where I expected welcome
lights flooding from the windows!
Oh well, I told myself. It's probably taking longer than expected to retrieve
Christian's stuff from places only teenage boys would think to leave them. I shrugged
off the small wave of fear and busied myself with unpacking.
By 11:00 p.m., however, I still hadn't heard anything.
I called Barry's cell, but he didn't pick up.
I texted him: "Where are you guys?" Nothing. No reply.
When by almost midnight I still hadn't heard anything, I felt the water
rising over my head and the suffocating fingers of panic close in around my
It's an all-too-familiar emotion. It's the hated voice way down in the
cellar of my soul, whispering, They're gone! You've always known it would
happen one day. You lose what you love, Sheila. Always have, always will.
I felt myself going under for the third time when a few moments later I
finally heard Barry's car pull into the garage. It could have been—should have
been—a moment of warmth and joy, a happy and relieved family reunion
complete with a group hug.
But it wasn't.
Paralyzed by fear, instead of reaching out to my husband, I turned away,
hiding in my own private cell. Instead of receiving a warm greeting from a
wife deeply grateful he'd arrived home safely, my husband bore the silence
of questions I didn't know how to ask. When I did find a voice, I threw my
questions randomly into the air, meaning them as flares—but they stung
I have often found anger more comfortable than fear. Anger gives me
the illusion of control, while fear leaves me naked and exposed.
When the waves finally subsided, I found myself in a puddle of shame.
Why did I react like that?
Have I learned nothing over the years?
How could I lose my footing so quickly?
Barry had stayed with friends longer than expected to talk with them
about a distressing storm of their own. He had also thought I might appreciate
a little time to myself after a tiring weekend. Now, wasn't that ironic? I
had just returned from telling ten thousand women that Christ offers peace
in the fiercest storm—and now my own words battered me.
I'm not waving; I'm drowning.
Unlearning Old Lessons
Over the years I've learned that while Jesus' love remains constant, our
experience of that love does not. That's a big problem for many of us because
we grew up thinking that once we learned whatever lessons God wanted to
teach us, we could sail through life triumphantly on a golden cloud, regardless
of the serious challenges or difficulties that knocked on (or knocked
down) our doors. Maybe you have pleaded with God, as I have, "Lord, I've
learned this lesson. I really have! So can't we move on? Please?"
"Moving on," however, isn't always an option. Life is what it is, our
challenges are what they are, and the big changes we long for so intently may
take place within us, rather than around us in our circumstances. It's taken
me a while to "get" that lesson.
Truth be told, I'm still learning.
On the other hand, please don't imagine that my life swings wildly from
the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Actually, some of the situations in
which I find myself can even seem quite funny—at least, after a little time
A few years ago I received an invitation to take part in a crusade in
London, England. Pastor Paul Yonggi Cho from Seoul, South Korea, would
do the main speaking while I would do the singing. Since I love any opportunity
to return to my homeland, I felt excited that the event would take
place in the magnificent new twenty-thousand-seat O2 arena. I flew in the
day before, and as we drove to the hotel, I asked the local event planner
when I could do a sound check. He said he would take me over to the venue
the following afternoon.
When the knock came at my door at 3:00 p.m., I quickly grabbed my
things, ready to leave for the arena. But it wasn't the event planner at my
door; it was a small greeting committee. They said they had just come from
Dr. Cho's room and would like to come in and chat for a few moments. I
invited them in, and after an awkward silence, one man cleared his throat
and declared there had been a "slight change of plan."
In retrospect, it would have been like one of the sailors on Jonah's
storm–tossed ship telling the prophet, "There is a little fish just over the
side of the boat who would love to say hello."
They told me that rather than promote the event themselves, they had
hoped God would do the promoting. But apparently He hadn't. The gentleman
explained that because of the change in circumstances, there would be
a change of venue. Instead of meeting at the O2 Arena, we would hold forth
at Peckham High School. (That's like going from the Cowboys Stadium in
Dallas, Texas, to your local 7–Eleven.)
"That's absolutely fine with me," I replied.
But I spoke too soon.
"Well," he continued, "we were hoping you wouldn't mind going over to
the arena and standing outside with a sign saying the event's been moved—just
in case anyone shows up. Just wave it as high as you can!"
Am I hearing this correctly?
I politely declined that opportunity and settled instead for singing
through a bullhorn in the school gym!
Horrifying at the time, but quite funny today.
What's It Doing in God's Word?
Let's admit right now that a lively wave of the hand often doesn't mean "Hello!"
Sometimes it can mean "Help!"
I think this is especially true when life fails to turn out like we thought it
would. Perhaps we began our Christian lives with great dreams, soaring
hopes, and fervent anticipation. But somewhere down the line, our dreams
decayed, our hopes got hammered, and our anticipation all but vanished into
the abyss. Crushed expectations can leave us feeling desperate, despairing,
Have you ever read Psalm 88?
It isn't likely you will see the words of this psalm on a wall plaque or in
a framed cross–stitch in the family room. This "psalm of lament" could give
even psalms of lament a bad name. While most such songs start out with
some kind of desperate plea—"How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?"—they
normally end in praise or at least with a little hope: "I will sing
to the Lord, for he has been good to me" (Psalm 13:1, 6).
Not so in Psalm 88.
Yes, it definitely opens with a plea for help—"Day and night I cry out
before you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry." But
you will look in vain at the end of the song for praise, for hope, or even for a
teensy bit of light. The writer describes God's "wrath" sweeping over him
and the Lord's "terrors" destroying him, surrounding him, completely
engulfing him. And then comes verse 18:
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the
darkness is my closest friend.
And that's it. End of psalm. Period.
When was the last time you saw anyone use that verse to conclude a worship
service? I never have, and I'm pretty sure you haven't either.
So why did God include Psalm 88 in His Word? Why is it even there? Do
we have so little hardship and pain in this life that we have to read about it
in the Scriptures?
I told you in this book's introduction that I wouldn't offer you a nice,
tidy system of belief that heals all wounds, brings out the sunshine, or
inspires the angels to thunder the Hallelujah Chorus. The truth is, I think
Psalm 88 has a place in our Bibles because it's true. It reflects how we feel
sometimes—yes, even those who have a passionate love for Christ.
Do you feel as though God's wrath has withered you, whether for some
good reason or for no reason at all? So did the psalmist.
Do you feel as though His terrors are destroying you, surrounding you,
completely engulfing you? So did the psalmist.
Do you feel as though all your loved ones and companions have been
snatched from you? So did the psalmist.
Does the darkness feel like your closest friend? It certainly did for the
In chapter 6, we'll discuss some ways to deal with dark feelings such as
this, but for now I just want you to recognize that God knows such feelings
exist, and He chose to honor them by including a record of them in His Holy
Why? Because those are words that may come from our own hearts
someday, if they haven't already. What's more, "He knows our frame; he
remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:14 ESV). Don't make the common
mistake of trying to deny your feelings or pretending they don't matter or
feeling guilty and condemned because you have them. While I don't counsel
you to wallow in them, neither do I suggest that you hide from them or run
away from them.
Listen to one of my favorite quotes from Shakespeare's profoundly
tragic tale King Lear:
The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel,
not what we ought to say.
Remember this: God sees your arms flailing, and He knows very well
that you're not waving; you are going under for the third time. As the ultimate
Lifeguard, He's seen a lot of thrashing arms in the wild surf of life:
* Moses—"If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right
now ... and do not let me face my own ruin" (Numbers 11:15).
* Job—"Why then did you bring me out of the womb? I wish I had died before
any eye saw me" (Job 10:18).
* David—"What gain is there in my destruction, in my going down into the
pit?" (Psalm 30:9).
* Jonah—"Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to
live" (Jonah 4:3).
* Eelijah—"I have had enough, Lord.... Take my life; I am no better than my
ancestors" (1 Kings 19:4).
* The disciples—"Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" (Mark 4:38).
* Paul—"We despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence
of death" (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
* Jesus"—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46).
Early in the morning I love to take a mug of good, strong coffee out onto the
patio and watch the sun rise. Our home backs onto a lake, and the beautiful
scenery changes with the seasons. For all the loveliness and color of that
scene, however, my gaze always returns to a certain stone ... a mosaic stone
at the edge of our lawn. With its garishly bright colors and uneven shapes,
you might think it looks a little out of place. But I consider it a priceless
I remember the morning that my son, Christian, then seven years old,
gave the stone to me. I remember it well for two reasons. First, this beautiful
homemade gift came from the heart of my little boy, and, second, he
almost collapsed my lungs when he thrust it upon me!
As my birthday approached, Christian told his dad he wanted to make
something special for me. After considering a number of ideas, they finally
settled on a project Christian had seen advertised in a magazine—a mosaic
stepping–stone kit. The magazine showed a picture of a beautiful finished
piece, and I think Christian imagined that's what he was ordering. So when
the kit arrived and he opened it up, he felt very disappointed.
"Look, Dad, it's just a box of broken things. I can't give that to Mom!"
Barry explained that Christian would use the pieces to create his own
pattern to make a one–of–a–kind gift. Once he caught a glimpse of the plan,
Christian really liked that idea. For the next few days, the boys banned me
from the guest bedroom, where they'd spread out the materials over a large
towel until they could complete the masterpiece. Barry told our young son
that he should pick and choose which pieces to use, but Christian felt determined
to work in every single piece from the box. His creation wound up in
poured concrete, so the finished product weighed a ton.
On the morning of my birthday, Christian came staggering into our
bedroom, carrying his gift in a box. He asked me to close my eyes and hold
out my hands. I closed my eyes and prepared to hold out my hands, but
when his gift got too heavy for him, he unloaded it onto my chest. It almost
flattened me! We took the stone outside that very morning and placed it
right at the edge of the lawn by the patio, and even today that's the first thing
you see when you set foot outside.
I love that stepping-stone.
Excerpted from "God Loves Broken People: And Those Who Pretend They're Not" by Sheila Walsh. Copyright © 0 by Sheila Walsh. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.