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Down by the Riverside

Lost and Found

Our campsite on the Buffalo River

     We knew better. When you go on a canoe-camping trip on moving water, you're supposed to tightly secure all your storage bags and bins in your boat. That way, if you flip, your sleeping bags don't get wet. And you don't lose your food.
     When Ed and I had led a group of middle-schoolers on a weeklong trip years ago on the Manistee River in northern Michigan, we'd given the campers black garbage bags to place inside a heavy vinyl sack. We told them repeatedly: "Double-wrap your sleeping bags and clothes. Tie the bags shut." So, I had no sympathy for the girl who threw her gear loosely into her canoe, flipped while horsing around, and had to end the day wringing out her sleeping bag and hanging it over a limb to dry.
     But here we were, Ed and I and our two daughters, knee deep in the Buffalo River in Arkansas, picking pots and pans out of the water.  
     It happened so fast. Paddling with thirteen-year-old Barbara in the bow, and our dog, Rascal, in the middle, trying not to scratch the gel coat of our brand new Kevlar canoe on a gravel bar, Ed had swung his canoe wide into the deeper water by the bank and hit a submerged log just as Rascal lunged toward the tipping gunwale.
     Over they went.
     We'd been in a hurry to break camp that morning and had not laced the big white plastic food box shut. Nor had we lashed it to the center thwart. When the canoe capsized, the box fell out, the top flaps opened, and canned food and utensils careened downstream.
     Barbara grabbed the paddles and Ed captured the splashing dog. Laura and I tied our canoe to a tree, and we all began combing the water for our stuff.
     At that moment, the beauty of the clear turquoise water flowing fast over fine gravel was lost on us. Nor did we notice the striated splendor of the high cliffs above us.
     Ah, here's our big kettle. But where's the lid?
     I heard a shout and looked up. Downstream of us about two hundred feet, a man in a muscle shirt and cut-off jeans was standing in the middle of the river, calmly plucking items out of the water: a pot grabber, a measuring cup, a serving spoon, a can of tuna, plastic jars of mayonnaise, peanut butter, and jam.
     "Are these things yours?" he asked with a broad smile.  
     We all make mistakes.

     And sometimes the current is stronger than we thought. 
     May you have someone downstream when that happens. May a gruff and grinning someone help you gather your belongings and restore what you have lost. May you once again see the beauty above you and at your feet.

"I will restore to you the years which the swarming locusts have eaten." – Joel 2:25 (RSV)
Playlist: "Amazing Grace," Judy Collins, Whales and Nightingales, 1970.

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Early Warning

Spring peeper, photo by Beth Weiler,
Southeast Michigan Naturalists

     Guilt has a bad reputation. For good reason. Through the centuries, clergy of different faiths have used guilt to manipulate people into obedience. One recovering Catholic told me that her strongest motivators still are "guilt and chocolate."
     As a pastor, I avoid telling people they've done something wrong.
     Guilt triggers a sinking feeling in my gut that quickly morphs into self-shaming: "Why did you do that? You're a bad person."

     I don't want others to feel badly about themselves.  

     However, the older I get, and the more human stupidity I witness—my own and others'—particularly in the last two years—I have a new respect for guilt.
     I've begun to think about guilt as being like the canaries people used to take into mines to detect the presence of carbon monoxide. If the canary keeled over, miners knew to escape to fresh air.
     Or, guilt may be like "indicator species" in a watershed. In 1991, our family moved to a house in Southfield overlooking the Rouge River. We loved the variety of wildlife below us in the flood plain: deer, raccoons, owls, hawks. Once we even saw a coyote loping along the riverbank, tail out, head high, as if he owned the place.   
     One warm evening in May, we heard a sound like sleigh bells in the distance. Spring peepers! Sometimes I would stand quietly beside the vernal pond dotted with marsh marigold long enough to see tiny brown heads break the surface of the water.
     But after a few years, we didn't hear the peepers anymore.
     Because of their porous skin, amphibians like frogs and toads are very sensitive to toxic chemicals. River conservation groups like Friends of the Rouge conduct annual frog and toad surveys because a decline in the number of amphibians can be an early warning: something is wrong in the watershed.
     We found out later that a water treatment plant upstream of our house had used a massive amount of chlorine trying to eradicate e coli bacteria. That heedless act probably caused the end of the Spring peepers in our part of the watershed.
     Someone needed to convince plant operators to adopt a different method of e coli mitigation.
     Guilt can be good in our personal and corporate lives when it functions as an ethical early warning system. Guilt tells us when we've done something wrong. Guilt alerts us not to keep saying things we'll later regret. Guilt warns us when our behavior is hurting others.
     Conversely, a lack of guilt allows unethical behavior to continue. For example, a lack of guilt lets people spread misinformation that threatens public health. Lack of guilt lets leaders perpetrate lies that endanger democracy.
     Those who feel guilt may help us avoid disaster.
     I'm hoping for the day when riverside dwellers will once again hear the sound of sleigh bells along the Rouge River. In the meantime, whenever and wherever we need it, may we be given the gift of guilt.

"Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also." Psalm 31:9 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Pity Me, God, in My Distress," King David: A Symphonic Psalm in Three Parts by Arthur Honegger, 1924, English translation by Edward Agate.

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Tahquamenon River

     On June 30, 2011, I was crouched in the median of the parking lot at Tahquamenon Falls State Park talking on my cell phone to a funeral director. Ed and I had driven to the Upper Peninsula to begin a delayed vacation right after the committal service for a parishioner, and here was a call to plan another funeral. My fifth funeral in four weeks.
     Because we couldn't get cell service at our cabin, I'd spent an hour the night before at Whitefish Bay picnic area along M-123 talking to the family. Now this call from the funeral director. Ed and I were supposed to be taking an afternoon hike on the Great Pines Trail. He listened to the radio in the car while I talked in the median.
     Pocketing my phone, I blew out my breath in exasperation.
     "I cannot keep doing this job without my full vacations," I said to Ed. "I'm tired of the fact that one phone call can rob me of the recovery time I so badly need."
     Ed nodded. He hadn't wanted to shorten our vacation, either. He reached into the back seat for his hiking boots.  

     "Sondra Willobee?" a voice said. "Is that Sondra and Ed?"
     A car zipped into the space beside us. Our good friend, Nancy, jumped out of the passenger seat.
     "I didn't know you were up here, too," she said. "We drove up yesterday."
     Her husband, Jim, got out of the driver's side and shook Ed's hand. "What are the chances of running into you guys?" he said. I wondered if he and Ed, both engineers, would begin to calculate the probabilities. Instead Jim said, "Let's get a beer."
     Sitting in the wood-paneled Tahquamenon Falls Brew Pub, we made plans. For the rest of the day, we hiked with them, went out for whitefish at The Fish House, and watched the sun set over the Tahquamenon River from their campsite.
     The next day, we drove with Jim and Nancy to canoe the Big Two-Hearted River using the outfitter at the historic Rainbow Lodge.*
     The twisting, dark brown river flowed quickly over sand and gravel through high dune banks with blown-down pine trees. Sometimes we had to ferry the wind and the shifting currents, so we didn't get pushed broadside into bushes along the banks. Sometimes we had to portage over log jams or line the boats through narrow passages. It was a great trip.    
     After we returned the paddles and life vests, we drove to the state forest campground where the Two-Hearted River runs parallel to the beach and empties into Lake Superior. We walked across the suspension bridge out to the cobble beach between the river and Superior's shoreline. Colorful fist-sized rocks shone wetly where waves had rolled them over and over.
     The big lake shimmered in the distance, vast in contrast to the narrow river.
     "I still can't get over meeting you in the parking lot," I said to Nancy.
     Oh, I have preached more than one sermon about how God specializes in sending people to each other just when they need it. Sometimes the message is "You need to change your attitude," as when God sent the Gentile Cornelius to the apostle Peter, who couldn't get with the program that God had no favorites (Acts 10). Sometimes the message comes to people in the wilderness, as when God sent Moses to tell the newly-liberated Israelites that they could trust God to take care of them.
     I reached down and picked up an oblong rock from the cobble beach.
     It fit perfectly in my hand.     
Scripture:  "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself." –Exodus 19:4 (NRSV)

Playlist: "On Eagles' Wings," by Michael Joncas, 1979.

*This was eleven months before the devastating Duck Lake Fire on May 26, 2012 burned 21,000 acres, charring forests along the river and destroying the lodge.

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Party on the Sturgeon River

     On July 3, 2015, Ed and I had just finished a canoe trip on the Sturgeon River near Wolverine, Michigan. Ed hopped on the bike we'd left locked to a tree and rode off to get the car. I waited with our gear.
     Because of its quick current, tight turns, and frequent obstructions, the Sturgeon is one of the Lower Peninsula's most challenging rivers. That's why we like it.
     Other people were down by the river, too, sitting in lawn chairs, cooling their feet in the shallows, or beginning a trip. I saw all kinds of craft: canoes, kayaks, inner tubes, a crocodile float. I assessed each group, speculating how long it would be before they flipped.
     I watched a man and two women unload inflatables from the back of a pick-up. One of the women, lugging a six-pack, tried to sit on her tube while keeping her lit cigarette out of the water. Much laughter. Holding his already-opened beer high, the man helped her get on. The current swept them across the river where they beached on a gravel bar to wait for the other woman in their party.   
     Barefoot, she was towing a big lounge chair that seemed ready to pop. Her flip-flops were tied into the chair, along with a grocery bag containing an orange soda and a can of Pringles. Instead of a bathing suit, she wore a camisole and a long cotton dress that billowed over her ample body.  
     I worried the chair might burst if she hit one of the log jams we'd seen. Or that her dress would snag on a streamside tree.   
     "Get in the chair, just hop on," the man called from across the river.
     When she tried to position the chair, it moved away from her.
     "Just hop in," the other woman shouted.
     I didn't think hopping was something this large woman could do.
     The man got off his tube and wobbled back through the current. "I'll hold it for you," he said. She made a half-hearted lunge backwards, and fell into the water. It took awhile for her to push herself up.

     "Do you want to use my tube and I'll take the chair?" the other woman called. "Come on over and we'll switch."

     "Yeah, just walk across," the man said. He grabbed the chair and hauled it to the other side. They waited, looking at her. Others along the river were watching, too.

     She took a step. "Ow, ow, it hurts my feet," she said.

     "Just come across," the man said.

     "It hurts," she said.
     Suddenly, a different man splashed into the river toward the stranded woman, carrying a pair of water sandals. "Can you use these?" he said.

     "I feel like such a baby," she said. "The stones in this river hurt my feet."

     "That's why I wear sandals—they fasten around the back and stay on and protect your feet." He held them out.

     "Are you sure?" she said.

     "Must be why I've got them," he answered.  

     "My name is Madison," she said. "If you give me your phone number, I'll pay you for the sandals."

     "Nope," he said. "It's an extra pair."

     Then, I was stunned to see him kneel down in the river. Placing her hand on his shoulder for balance, he reached under the water, and one after the other, fastened the sandals on her feet.  
     Step by step, in the sandals she'd been given, the woman named Madison began walking to the other side.

"Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant." –Mark 10:44 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Proud Mary," Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chronicle: The 20 Greatest Hits, 1968.

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Interpretive sign, Lyndon Park North

     Climbing a steep ridge at Lyndon Park North, we were miles from the nearest river. Comfort, too, seemed far away. It was April, 2020, in the first frightening month of the pandemic. Ed and I had gone to the woods because there was no place else to go. Schools, restaurants, businesses, libraries, and gyms were all closed.

     On the way to the park, we'd passed a dead fox beside the road, its rust-colored haunches covered with dust. Vultures circled overhead. I'd read in the newspaper that morgues in Italy had closed because there were too many bodies.

     "Where are you, God?" I said.

     When we topped the hill, an interpretive sign told us that the ridge we'd just climbed was an esker. An esker is a winding, narrow mound of sand or gravel deposited by a stream flowing within or under a glacier. We were walking on the raised bed of a ten-thousand-year-old river.
     As I imagined blue water flowing through ancient ice, my breathing began to calm. I thought of the verse from the Bible, "There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God." The landscape around me, the valleys falling away on either side, had been carved over time by a patient God through tumbling water and cascading debris.

     There is a river... Surely, I thought, the God who shaped the earth over eons has not abandoned us.

     Now, though these days of Omicron feel like a throwback to 2020, there are important differences. We have masks. We have tests. We have vaccines. We know more about how to treat COVID-19. If we protect ourselves and others properly, we can be together indoors.
     I believe that God has also been at work since the beginning of the pandemic through human beings. Through brave and creative people who kept showing up, doing their jobs and taking care of each other.
     God has been at work through nurses, doctors, teachers, grocery clerks, delivery drivers, scientists, restaurant workers, pastors, farmers, artists, police officers, public officials, journalists, bankers, emergency responders, factory workers, pharmacists, school administrators, road crews, parents and grandparents and day care providers who are raising the next generation, day after exhausting day. 

     Their love flows underneath me like an ancient river. Thank you, all. Thank you, God.

"There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God… God will help it when the morning dawns." – Psalm 46:4-5 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Down to the River to Pray," Alison Krauss, O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2000.

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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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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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