Diving on the Great Barrier Reef with a gaggle of nervous scuba enthusiasts, we were sternly lectured by our instructor. Down there, he insisted, pointing over the side of the boat, we would meet sharks, rockfish and the infamous box jellyfish.
As we bobbed around in the swell, seconds from submerging, I wanted to cry and explain between sobs that it had all been a terrible mistake. I couldn’t swim and I needed to get back into the boat.
But I didn’t. I went on the dive. We did see some sharks, but it seems they had recently lunched, so they showed no interest in snacking.
I was yet to encounter another peril on my trip that would cause even more terror. I still feel wobbly as I remember the encounter. The creature was about 4 foot 6 inches. It was a female of the species. It wore a uniform. And a smile. Bizarrely, this creature is often seen brandishing a tambourine.
She was, and is, a Salvation Army officer. General Eva Burrows is 84 and the retired former leader of the world’s Salvationists. A stunningly impressive lady, she is confident – formidable, even – but kind. When General Eva issues a command, people obey. I know I did.
I was preaching at the final night of the army conference in Melbourne. The meeting had gone well, and there was a buzz of excitement and joy as the evening drew to a close. It was then that it happened. The bite came so quickly and from such an unexpected quarter.
It was General Eva. She’d decided that it was time for a ‘glory march’. People were to march around the building, up and down the aisles, round and round, clapping and singing as the band played. Eva grabbed my hand, hauled me into the aisle and hissed, ‘Come on, Jeff. Let’s march.’
So I did. But my mind was screaming. Should I keep hold of her hand? Should I run? Eva broke into a skip. Should I follow suit? I joined in, feeling a bit like a schoolboy on a jaunty bop through the park. And I’m glad I did; it was a delight to dash around with the lovely Eva. Yet it was somehow awful at the same time.
Reflecting on the experience, I realise an unpalatable truth: I spend too much time worrying about what people think of me. Initially, I wanted to refuse the march, but it would have looked wrong, churlish even. I’m not sure if it was pride that fed my thoughts; perhaps it was fear.
The reason that I went ahead with the dive in shark-infested waters was because I was agitated about what people would think if I backed out. I was more scared of others’ verdicts about me than I was of killer jellyfish or sharks with grumbling stomachs.
The double irony of all this is that most of the time, even though people may form opinions of us, we never get to find out what they are. Their judgements remain unspoken. I’m paralysed by people whose names I don’t even know, and I even speculate about thoughts that they may or may not have. Madness indeed.
I’m trying to reduce my anxiety about what others might be thinking about me, and to become a little more like Jesus. He couldn’t have cared more about people, and couldn’t have cared less about what people thought of him. Instead, his primary objective was to please his father, who forms his opinion of us based on a heart scan rather than a cursory glance.