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Down by the Riverside


Rouge River, Southfield, MI, 1995

     In June 2006, our daughter Laura spent her 21st birthday wading in the muddy water of the Middle Rouge River. We'd signed up to work at Rouge Rescue, an annual clean up of the Rouge River watershed in southeast Michigan. The 127 river miles in the watershed included a stretch through our Southfield back yard.
     During Rouge Rescue, volunteers break up log jams, pull out garbage, stabilize the streambanks, and remove invasive species. It isn't uncommon to find shopping carts or tires in the river.
     The Rouge has many problems. Besides residential and industrial pollution, stormwater running over streets and parking lots fills the river with toxins, bacteria, and oil. Fast-moving runoff also causes the water to rise too quickly, eroding banks and washing away vegetation.
     We remembered the aftermath of several storms when the floodplain behind our house completely filled with brown water. We carried our canoe down the hill and paddled among the trees. It was fun, but we knew the flooding wasn't good for the river.
     However, after thirty-five years of Rogue Rescue, river conditions have improved. This fall twenty-five kayakers paddled the Lower Rouge Water Trail in Dearborn. They saw Great Blue Heron and evidence of beaver.
     Sometimes people need the same kind of help that rivers do. In his novel, The Brothers K, David James Duncan said that there are some kinds of human problems that "gently rob us of just enough energy or faith so that days which once took place on a horizontal plane become an endless series of uphill slogs."
     Some intractable problems, Duncan said, are like "high water working year after year at the roots of a riverside tree. [They] quietly undercut our trust or our hope, our sense of place, or of humor, our ability to empathize, or to feel enthused."
     "We don't sense impending danger, we don't feel the damage at all, till one day, to our amazement, we find ourselves crashing to the ground." (page 429)
     It happens.
     If some person or some place you love is getting undercut or is choking with debris, wade in the water. Put on your gloves, pull up your mucking boots, grab a chain saw if need be. Jesus said something like this:


"Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did it for me." Matthew 25:40
Play List: "Wade in the Water," Eva Cassidy, Songbird, 1997, 2006.

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     Ed and I stood on the Delhi Bridge over the Huron River looking at the rapids. Built in 1883, this wrought iron bridge is a Michigan Historic Site, notable for its Pratt through truss construction. (You can look it up.)
     Local legend has it that two residents, Eli Gallup and Edward Outwater, salvaged the bridge in 1917 after it had been thrown into the river by a tornado. They used a team of horses to pull it out. The bridge was rebuilt in 1918 using many of the original trusses.
     As we stood on the bridge and looked at the water rushing over the rocks, we remembered the times we'd used this rapids as a whitewater practice run. "That's the best route," I said, tracing a line just off a big rock. I prefer to skirt the holes and avoid the biggest waves.
     "You could take the middle chute today," Ed said. He likes high water and waves.
     One winter day we saw a kayaker roll over in the middle chute. Brrr. So far, we haven't flipped in Delhi. But that doesn't keep my heart from pounding every time we approach the horizon line of the rapids.
     As we stood on the bridge, I also remembered my friend Barbara Lewis-Lakin, who helped me navigate many internal rapids. Church conflicts, family trauma, the challenges of parenting. Barbara died unexpectedly on June 29th at age 67. We'd known each other almost forty years.
     How I miss her. Barbara comforted me, goaded me, counseled me, consoled me. And sometimes allowed me to do the same for her. I remember a particular day when she sat with my family in the hospital as we waited for news about my sister-in-law who was critically ill with bacterial meningitis.
     Barbara Lewis-Lakin was a godsend to her family, her friends, her colleagues, her clients, her parishioners. A consummate listener, she was someone we could trust. Like "a bridge over troubled water," she laid herself down for us.
     Thank you, Barb, for being my friend.
     Whether it's a family member, a therapist, a pastor, an AA sponsor, or a friend, give thanks today for someone who's helped you navigate the rapids of your life.


"Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts." Psalm 42:7 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Bridge Over Troubled Water," Simon & Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water, 1970.

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Smith Island Rapids, Chattahoochee River, 1985

     In March of 1985, Ed and I took a vacation in northern Georgia. We were impatient for spring weather, and we wanted to canoe the Upper Chattahoochee River, a nice Class II whitewater run near Helen, Georgia. 

     To prepare for the trip, we consulted our go-to guidebooks, Appalachian Whitewater, Volume 1: The Southern Mountains, written by gurus of whitewater paddling who had canoed or kayaked the rivers and streams of Appalachia. Some had made first descents and named different rapids according to whatever carnage had occurred during the run. As in the "Jared's Knee Rapids" on the Upper Tellico River in Tennessee, when something bad must have happened to Jared's knee.
     There were other dangers besides getting trashed in the rapids. The guidebook cautioned boaters making the mandatory portage at Nora's Mill below Helen to begin their portage "well away from the mill as the property owners seem not fond of canoeists." Hhm. A good boater respects property rights anyway.
     We'd also been told to stay away from the left bank when going through the Smith Island Rapids. Supposedly that landowner sometimes took potshots at passing boaters.
     "Do you think we're approaching Smith Island?" I asked Ed partway through our trip. We needed to know where we were on the river.
     The advice of the guidebooks reminded me of the counsel that one of my mentors had given me when we were doing pastoral ministry together on the west side of Detroit. "You need to know what street you're on," Rev. Juanita Ferguson had told me. "Some streets are safe to walk. Some are not."
     I was grateful for the wisdom of those who'd gone before me.
     We had a beautiful day on the Chattahoochee. Sunshine glinted on the riffles, and warmed our winter-pale faces. We made it through all the rapids upright and unharmed.
     How blessed we are to be aided by those who've traveled before us. May we thank them, and share what wisdom we have from our own journeys. 
     It may help save someone else's poor knee.

"Your teachers will be hidden no more…. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it." Isaiah 30:21 (TNIV)

Playlist: "Order My Steps," The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, Favorite Song of All, 1996

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     When I was walking on the nature trail at Hudson Mills Metropark, I saw a sugar maple sapling bent over by a dead tree that had fallen across it. The slender trunk of the maple had been forced to arch all the way to the ground.
    Walking head down at the end of a rainy hike, I might have passed by without noticing. Except that the maple's yellow leaves shone brightly in the wet woods.
     I grabbed the end of the dead tree and heaved it off the sapling. The dead tree thumped on the ground. I shook the trunk of the sapling lightly, hoping to see the tree straighten. It sprung back some, but not all the way.
     It may be awhile before it stands straight again, I thought. If it does. This sapling may always bear the shape of having been bowed down.
     But then I noticed something else. The very tip of the tree turned at a right angle away from the bent-over trunk. I smiled. Though trapped under the weight of the log, the branches of the tree still reached for the light.
     The sight reminded me of the story of how Jesus healed the bent-over woman. Crippled for 18 years, she was, as Luke tells us, "quite unable to stand straight." When Jesus saw her in the synagogue, he called her over, even though men in that culture were not supposed to speak to women in public. Jesus said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." She stood up straight and began praising God. Jesus healed, and she spoke, despite objections from the ruler of the synagogue.
     Like that dead log on the sapling, many things may bow us over and weigh us down. Family conflicts. The memory of childhood abuse. Regret over years lost to addiction. The intransigence of racism.
     Yet I believe God is always at work to help us stand stall. Sometimes we experience God's love through someone who comes by and lifts the log.
     Today may you feel a weight released. Whatever your circumstance, may you shine in the wet woods. And may you always reach for the light.


"Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?" Luke 13:16 (NRSV)
Playlist: "I Am Light," India.Arie, SongVersation: Medicine, 2017

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     Underfoot, on the short quarter-mile of paved trail that goes from the parking lot to the river at Hudson Mills Metropark, I saw three different kinds of nuts. Light-brown shagbark hickory nuts with their segmented shells. Smashed black walnut hulls promising to stain the fingers of anyone foolish enough to pick them up. Acorns rolling like ball bearings under my boots.
     Lots of nuts.

     Biologists say 2021 was a "mast year," part of a natural cycle when certain trees produce more than their usual amount of "mast," which means nuts. A mast year can be brought on by stress like drought in the previous season. 2010 was our last big mast year.
     A mess for humans, but a feast for chipmunks, deer, and squirrels.
     Jesus often talked about how God provides for his creatures, human and non-human, pointing out lilies, sparrows, and fields ripe for harvest. I especially like one of his phrases describing kernels of corn in a jar or basket: "pressed down, shaken together, and running over."
     As I walk, I'm also amazed at how many different kinds of things there are in the woods, which to me is more evidence of God's reckless extravagance. Gerard Manly Hopkins praised the variety of creation in his poem, "Pied Beauty," combining in one line "fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls" and "finches' wings." I imagine the gleaming red-brown of sweet chestnuts and the bright yellow and black of goldfinch wings.
     The profligacy of creation. Not just the bare minimum. More than enough.
     Of course there are lean years. Even famine. But cultivating an attitude of abundance rather than scarcity allows us to enjoy what we do have when we have it.
     A long time ago I read a newsletter from a mission organization that provided food in Africa. The article described the joyous song of children in a village that had been served: "We have food. We have clothes. We have everything."  
     May we always remember the bounty we've been given. And with glad hearts may we share it with others.

"Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." Luke 6:38 (NRSV)
Playlist: "All Creatures of Our God and King," Mark Geslison & Geoff Groberg, All Creatures of Our God and King, 2020.


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A Change in Plans

Laura & Barbara playing in Silvermine Creek by one of our campgrounds

     When our daughters were three and four, we went on a month-long camping trip along the Appalachian Mountain range from Georgia to Maryland. Our plan on this "Month of May" adventure was to canoe as many spring-running whitewater rivers as we could before the girls were in school. Multiple factors had to align for our plan to succeed: weather, water level, shuttle, child care, and appropriate degree of difficulty for our skills. 
     When we were at Harper's Ferry, for example, we hoped to canoe the Staircase section of the Shenandoah River. We found a reputable day care that would accept drop-ins, so childcare was arranged. But the Shenandoah was near flood stage. Seeing us look longingly at the rollicking current, a ranger told us they'd rescued a kayaker by helicopter from that section the day before.

     Okay. Maybe not.
     He suggested we try Antietam Creek, a Class I-II stretch that went through the Antietam National Battlefield. Sigh. Being adrenalin junkies, we'd hoped for a more challenging run.
     But Antietam Creek turned out to be one of the most interesting trips of our month. Paddling through the green fields flanking the river, thinking of the soldiers who'd fallen here, we were filled with sadness and reverence. 23,000 soldiers had been killed or wounded here on September 17, 1862, in the single bloodiest day of the Civil War: part of the awful cost of ending slavery.
     We floated under Burnside Bridge in silence.    

     However, later in the trip, after we sluiced through the remains of an old dam, we got our adrenalin spike anyway. When we eddied upriver behind the dam to look at the stonework, we saw a sudden blur of motion on the rocks.
     "Backpaddle, backpaddle!" Ed shouted.
     Dozens of snakes were waving their heads on the jumbled stones where they'd been sunning themselves. Some slipped into the water. Yikes. We were glad the girls weren't with us.
     We learned two quite different things from our change in plans. The first lesson was easy: Don't mess with snakes. The second lesson took more thought: Honor the fallen. Remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Their example will help us fight injustice where we see it. For the sake of all the children.

"Go to Pharoah and say to him, 'Thus says the Lord: Let my people go.'" Exodus 9:1 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Deep River," Marian Anderson, The Very Best of Marian Anderson, 2009.

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Eve in the Garden

Unidentified Spiny Object, Lakelands Trail, Pinckney

     Besides lifting my spirits during the pandemic, daily hikes provided another benefit: the pleasure of learning new things. As I walked through the woods, I saw many plants and trees I did not know.
     So, I decided to identify something beautiful or interesting each day. I started with wildflowers because, unlike birds, flowers don't move. Over time, I got a kick from identifying less popular flora like fungus, ferns, lichen, and vines.
     I felt like Eve in the Garden of Eden, gesturing grandly and saying the names of things as I passed by: Scarlet Cups. Christmas Fern. Wrinkled Shield Lichen.
     This September, I saw a spiny green fruit hanging from a vine that had five-lobed leaves and curly tendrils. "What the heck is that?" I asked Ed. He shrugged.
     This is my method for identifying flora and fauna:

1. Look carefully, Note color, shape, size, habitat.
2. Ask random people walking by. "Do you know what this is?" Most don't, but I get some interesting looks.
3. Take a picture with my cell phone.
4. Once home, consult the nature guidebooks on my shelf. The color-coded sections of the wildflower book are particularly helpful, although the placement of entries is sometimes confusing. Like Blue-Eyed Mary in the purple section.
5. I go to the internet only after these steps don't work.    
     "Why don't you use an app right away?" someone said. "I just point my phone at it and use an image search." His expression conveyed what he was thinking: You dinosaur.
     Well, I learn better when I pay close attention. And I retain the knowledge longer. Most of all, I have the thrill of discovery. 
     Curiosity helps keep me alive and moving in the dreariest of seasons. When I found some cute little yellow mushrooms in the moss along the Huron River last November, it chirked me up no end. Their name? Waxy Cap.  
     And the spiny fruit on the vine? Wild Cucumber. Though it's related to domestic cucumber, it has no fleshy fruit, and with those spines, you wouldn't want to eat it anyway. But it's fun to know.
     May you learn something new today. And may that discovery bring you joy.

"The human named all the livestock, all the birds in the sky, and all the wild animals." Genesis 2:20 (CEB)
Playlist: "Morning Has Broken," Cat Stevens, Greatest Hits, 1975.

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Tree Reflections, Paved Trail, Hudson Mills Metropark

     The last Monday of October gave us a sneak preview of what was coming. Cold. Damp. Gray.
     "My favorite Michigan weather," a friend of mine grumbled. "39 degrees and raining."
     The Scots call such weather dreich. "It's pronounced dree-xch," Rev. Derek Webster explained on a preaching website. "You have to gargle the last sound in the back of your throat, '—ahch.' Just saying it, you feel it: Dreich."

     November is my least favorite month. And people know it. My parishioners used to tease me, "Here comes Sondra's annual I-hate-November sermon."
     My father suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a depressive condition brought on by shorter daylight hours. Perhaps I do, too. Like a bear preparing to hibernate, I just want to eat sweets and sleep.
     I always dread the coming dark.
     And yet.
     When I remembered on that Monday how daily hikes helped keep my spirits up during the pandemic last fall, I decided to go for a walk. Even though the sun had already set. When I pulled into the parking lot of Hudson Mills Metropark, there were only two other cars. And they were leaving. I had the whole 2.7-mile paved walking trail all to myself.
     The wet trail shone in the dim light. Feeling smug and protected in my raincoat and rain pants, I strode through the puddles. Unseen leaves rattled over the pavement. Acorns skittered away from my boots. Faintly silver, the Huron River flowed alongside me in the dark.

     I came home happy and glowing warm. Like it says in the old spiritual, I had laid down my burden "down by the riverside." I scrolled through my phone to find this photo from last November. I never would gotten the photo had I stayed home.
     May comfort come to you in the dark.

"Even the darkness is not dark to you." Psalm 139:12 (NRSV)
Play List: "Down by the Riverside," Etta James, Oh Happy Day, 2003

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