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Down by the Riverside

Ax

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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Rescue

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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