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Down by the Riverside


Kintla Lake, Glacier National Park

     Ed and I prefer to canoe on rivers, but some of our most awesome experiences have been on lakes. In the summer of 2017, at Glacier National Park, we paddled one morning on a remote, five-mile-long lake near the Canadian border. The water of Kintla Lake was so clear and still underneath the boat that it seemed like we were canoeing on air. As if we were paddling into the sky.
     The return trip, however, reminded us of our human frailty: with the west wind against us, we had to stroke really hard to get back to the car.
     We had a different experience of awe during a nighttime paddle from the campground on Rollins Pond in the Adirondacks. It was a new moon, so the sky was dark. Ed and I quietly slid the canoe off the beach and paddled out until the campfires and lantern lights dotting the shoreline were just pinpricks in the distance.
     Then we looked up. The Milky Way arched across the sky above us. All the stars you never see around here were shining, not only the big constellations, but also the smaller ones, and all of the littler stars in between. Ed pointed out constellations he remembered from his Boy Scout days: Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Draco the Dragon, Scorpio, the Crown, Cassiopeia.

     We put our paddles across the gunwales and just looked. Then, we saw the Perseid meteor shower. Shooting stars! One meteor fell halfway across the sky into the bowl of the Big Dipper.

     "God," I breathed.
     Call it what you like. God. Higher Power. Inner Wisdom. Ground of Being. In the novel The Brothers K by David James Duncan, the character of Everett, who says that he does not believe in God, nonetheless speaks to someone as, "O thing that consoles." Separated from his family in a prison camp while his father is dying, yet grateful for his lover and infant son, Everett is somehow sustained. He says to this unseen being, "You hear me. And I feel you. How clumsily I thank you."
     Whatever language we use, whomever we address, as we remember the gift of the Christ Child and the stars in the Bethlehem sky, may we be filled with awe.

"When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them?" – Psalm 8:3 (NRSV)
Playlist: "The Majesty and Glory of Your Name" by Tom Fettke, Atlanta Sacred Chorale, Lost in Wonder, Love and Praise, 2005.

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Rouge River, 1996

     When our daughter, Laura, was in fifth grade, her class at Macarthur Elementary School in Southfield joined a scientific study monitoring the health of rivers nationwide. One measure of river health is temperature. Since our family lived on the Rouge River, our job was to take a water sample and measure the air and water temperature once a week.   
     That is how I was down at the river at 9:36 a.m. on a cold winter morning lowering a thermometer on a chain into the water.   
     How cold was it? The air temperature was four degrees above zero. It was so cold I had to crack the ice open with an ax. When I lifted the ax out of the water, droplets froze instantly on the ax head.

     If you go to church some time before Christmas, you may hear about John the Baptist. In the Bible readings for Advent, John's job is to get people spiritually ready for Jesus. John had one message: "Repent." Which means to turn around, to change focus or direction.
     John was blunt. He told people that if they had two coats, they should share with someone who had none. He told soldiers not to extort money by threat. He told tax collectors not to collect more than their due. He told religious leaders that they could not count on their ancestry to save them in the coming judgement. 
    "The ax is lying at the root of the trees," John said. "Change your ways."
    It was always uncomfortable when I had to preach about John in a season of feasting and merriment. What a killjoy, we would say over the clink of our glasses and the passing of the hors d'ouevres. Who invited him?

     And yet.  
     Sometimes we need someone like John to tell us a hard truth.
     The Austrian writer Franz Kafka once said that there is a "frozen sea" within each of us, "a deep and cold conviction that [we] cannot love or be loved." John the Baptist is the ax to crack open that frozen sea.
     Whatever the world tells us about wealth, status, power or possessions, the only true measure of our health as human beings is our capacity to give and receive love. A love that shares what we have, refuses to use our power to hurt others, and does right by our neighbors.  

    This year, as we get ready for Christmas, may we be full to overflowing with that kind of love.
Luke 3:7-18
Playlist: "The Gift of Love," Hal Hopson, 1972, to the tune of "The Water is Wide."

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