Touching Bottom

Michael Metzger

My first encounter with a swimming pool was terrifying.

It happened at the old YWCA in what is today a ghost town—Flint, Michigan. The building looked like the Roman catacombs. The pool was in the basement, deep in the crypt. The water was clean, but sure looked murky to us neophytes. Diving in meant descending to hell and never resurfacing. The lifeguard recognized our reticence: “If you touch bottom, you’ll spring back more quickly.” That’s what you can do this Friday.

This Friday, Christians around the world will be urged to touch bottom. Some will, most won’t. It’s why few experience elation at Easter—no elasticity. You have to touch bottom to bounce back more quickly. A few recognize this reality—insightful leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jim Stockdale, Matt Odmark, and David Runcorn. Their stories reveal why so many are often afraid to touch bottom. They speak to the modern American church’s tendency to stay on the surface and keep the message upbeat.

German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized an upbeat tendency in American religion in the 1940s. In 1939, Bonhoeffer accepted a teaching position at Union Seminary in New York City. But in short order, he recognized he had made a mistake. Hitler’s Nazi Germany was gearing up for war. “I shall have no right to take part in the restoration in Germany after the war,” Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend, “unless I share the trials of this time with my people.”

Bonhoeffer touched bottom, recognizing his need to return home and help the Jews flee Nazi persecution. Within a few months, the war broke out—meaning he would make fewer trips back to New York. In fact, his last was in 1941 when Bonhoeffer became appalled at what he saw permeating American religion: optimism. He left the U.S., returning to Germany and an uncertain fate.

On April 6, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to the notorious concentration camp Flossenbürg. Two years later, on April 7, 1945, he and a group of other prisoners celebrated Easter with a short service. Bonhoeffer read from scripture about being “born anew to a living hope” and then was taken back to Flossenbürg, where on the night of April 8, he was arraigned, convicted, condemned to death, and in the gray dawn of the following morning, April 9, was executed by hanging. The camp was liberated days later. In his diary, Bonhoeffer wrote that hope is “a way of avoiding disappointment.” It’s why “wise people condemn optimism.”

Admiral James Stockdale is one of those wise people that condemn optimism. He was the highest-ranking U.S. military officer imprisoned during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was held in the Hanoi Hilton and repeatedly tortured over eight years. But he made it. Several years ago, Jim Collins asked Stockdale, “Who didn’t make it out?” Stockdale replied: “The optimists. They were the ones who said ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And, Christmas would come and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. Then they died of a broken heart.”

Stockdale concluded the interview with this wisdom: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

In many ways, the modern American church confuses faith with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of today’s world. It confuses hope with optimism, which is a false virtue, writes Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School. Optimism “does not pay attention to truth” because it fears touching bottom. It creates a starry-eyed take on reality. It can’t deal with brokeness, sin, or evil. While the church enjoys many successes today, optimism means it can’t deal with its failures. But both are reality. Sugarcoating doesn’t change the facts. Nor does simply playing happy music all the time.

A few years back, Matt Odmark of the Jars of Clay wrote a song in response to the tragic death of a friend. “Christian” radio stations would not play the “The Valley Song,” telling Matt that it was not “happy” enough for their formats, meaning that their audiences would not want to hear songs about sorrow. They want positive. They want upbeat. What do faith communities say about reality, if they can only be—in Odmark’s indictment—“happyhappyhappyallthetime?”

There is a superficiality that’s the result of a religious life of shallow dives. “There is nothing sadder than a Christian fellowship where every song must be victory, every prayer full of faith, every member always smiling and joyful,” writes David Runcorn. “It is an exhausting pretense to keep up for long and it condemns those who cannot hide from their fears to further pain of failure and inadequacy. It is actually dishonest. It means that we can never offer our tears as well as our smiles, our questions as well as our certainties, our wounds as well as our victories. It means keeping Christ out of the very places in our lives where we need him most—the place of our darkness, uncertainties, and fears.” For most Christians, it means skipping Good Friday services, where we remember that Jesus touched bottom.

“If you touch bottom, you’ll spring back more quickly.” Some of us neophyte swimmers did. But those who tried to tippy-toe toward the bottom inevitably ran short of air and struggled back to the surface. This Good Friday, attendance will be sparse in most sanctuaries as Christians tippy-toe toward the weekend. Two days later however, those same sanctuaries will be stuffed. Yet those who touched bottom on Friday are more likely to experience Easter’s elation—because the elasticity of their faith touches all of reality.

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12 thoughts on “Touching Bottom”

  1. I always thought that ‘realism’/ being realistic was the opposite of optimism…but you’re amplifying that realism by saying that is one based on a solid hope…how the end of the story turns. Our inheritance in heaven that is sure. That is very encouraging and worth chewing on.
    Thank you for your weekly commentaries. They are rich!

  2. I agree with the richness of this commentary. One must experience the “bottom” to rise to the surface. One must continue to build one’s faith.

  3. Thanks, Mike! I’m especially grateful for Runcorn’s quote. You’ve said that all of life comes out of death. At no time is that more clear than Easter and Good Friday. Jesus was ” a man of sorrows and familiar with grief’ as well as the conquering king.

  4. Thomas Keppeler

    Thanks Mike for this timely reminder. Too often, we try to feed people false optimism in the guise of faith that “things will just work out ok”. I recently returned from two weeks in Congo. Amazingly, many of the students we were with live hopefully amidst some very brutal realities– no room for shallow dives there.

  5. I am praying with a friend who is facing death. This article will no doubt be very real to them, and I hope a deep ministry. Thanks for your thoughtfulness. Easter is coming!!

  6. “Even the heavens are weeping…. The great Hosanna’s are silent.” A wonderful song and reminder that things aren’t always happy. I wish we could touch bottom more often to remind us of how fortunate we are.

    Up to now I thought I was an optimist.Positive, yet realistic. Now I realize that I am just hopeful! Thanks Mike!

  7. Great piece Mike and I like having more Mike in the piece! I especially enjoyed the first paragraph and though the quotes, facts, and history were helpful (and necessary) I am curious about your experience in the pool that day, what it meant or means for Mike to touch bottom. You really should share more of yourself in these pieces every so often. And by more of yourself I mean not just your ideas but your story. I think it might make these commentaries not simply true but real. Thank you for your work.

  8. Steve Ashcroft

    Great article Mike. I think many Christians would like to witness Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday but to do so required being there on Friday and that we don’t like. Similarly we would love to see the parting of the Red Sea or water coming out of a rock but we forget that the prerequisite is being thirsty in the desert or seeing Pharaoh’s army bearing down on you with swords drawn. As unpleasant as it is I’ll take the desert because that is where transformation takes place.

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