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Down by the Riverside


     Why do Ed and I prefer to canoe on rivers? Big lakes do have their glory, as when the golden path of the setting sun reaches to the horizon. And small lakes have their intimate charm, as when green firs rim a quiet, secluded shore. But give us a river any day.
     Water flowing under the hull quickens our pulse. Water frothing over rocks makes us sit up straight and pay attention to our route. And, we're a little lazy--we like to let the current do some of the work. But the biggest reason we love rivers is that you never know what you're going to see around the next bend.
     Maybe it will be a great blue heron stalking a fish in the shallows, beak glinting like a silver dagger. Or maybe it will be an otter sliding down the bank with gleeful abandon like a four-year-old in a slippery snowsuit who's just discovered how fast he can go.
     Once, while canoeing on the Ocklawaha River in central Florida, Ed and I made a game of counting alligators. The rule we set was that you actually had to see the alligator, not just the ripples left by its departing tail. We canoed without speaking, barely moving our paddles, hoping to see them before they saw us.
     We were only a little afraid. That far upriver, the ecosystem contained only enough prey to support young alligators. Two or three-feet-long from teeth to tail. The big six-footers were much farther downstream. But when we climbed up a small bluff to eat our mid-afternoon snack, we were amazed to see a rope swing hanging from a tree out over the river. I wouldn't want to swim with even baby alligators.
     That sentiment was confirmed late in the trip when we backed the canoe into a small tributary, and I was eye-level with an adolescent gator a few feet away on the bank. For several seconds, the alligator didn't move. It fixed its gaze on me, malevolent, unwavering, its reptilian eye with the vertical slit unblinking as it ever-so-slowly lowered itself into the water. In that moment I understood what ancient biblical writers must have meant by "the evil eye."
     On a different vacation, Ed and I got up before dawn to canoe the Oxbow Bend on the Snake River in Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming. We hoped to see otters, having met some wildlife researchers the day before who were using redlight cameras to study the nighttime habits of these playful mammals. We also hoped to see moose, even though moose can be dangerous to humans. "You don't want to get between a cow moose and her calf," a ranger told us.
     Well, we got part of our wish. Just as light from the rising sun was slanting across the valley, we rounded a bend and saw dark forms lying in a meadow bordered by a U-shaped meander in the river. Two big-eared heads rose above the tall grass, one large, one small. Moose! Mama and Baby. We stopped paddling completely and just floated. I held my breath. Without flickering an eyelash, they watched us pass.
     When we were safely downriver, I let out my breath.
     "Whoa-o-h-h-h," I said.
     Some of my most powerful experiences—and my most important relationships—carry a slight frisson of fear. I'm not in charge. I'm not in control. I don't know exactly what's going to happen next. Perhaps that's part of what the Bible means when it says that we should "fear" God. I used to chafe under that idea, but now understand it to mean that we should have a healthy dose of respect.
     It's good, sometimes, to remember that I'm not the only animal on the planet. It's good, sometimes, to be a careful guest in someone else's home.


"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Proverbs 9:10 (KJV)
Playlist: "How Great Thou Art," British hymn translated from Swedish and Russian by Stuart K. Hine, 1953.

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Aialik Bay

     So, I promised you a story. Aialik Bay.
     I wanted to go. And I didn't want to go.
     We'd made reservations for a kayak tour of this remote, pristine bay in the Kenai Fjords National Park with Kayak Adventures Worldwide out of Seward, Alaska. This late August excursion was to be one of the highlights of our three-week Alaska vacation in 2019. The outfitter's website promised we might see harbor seals, puffins, and other wildlife. Maybe the glacier would calve right before our eyes. I'd been anticipating the trip for months.
     And yet.
     I was a much better canoeist than kayaker.

     I was afraid of deep, cold water.
     Michigan's Lake Superior gives me the heebie-jeebies, and this was the North Pacific Ocean. I flipped in a kayak once while paddling around Grand Island in Lake Superior. I rolled over and came up for air three times before I remembered to tear off the spray skirt and perform a wet-exit. "I thought I was going to have to do a 'dead-man rescue' on you," one of my paddling companions had said. I didn't trust myself in a kayak.
     When our Alaskan kayak guide, Glo, asked each us during the pre-trip shakedown what goal we had for the trip, I did not tell the group what I'd written in my journal the night before:

     · Hope to survive.

     · Hope not to capsize.

     · Hope not to fall behind.

     · Hope to have strength for the whole trip.

     · Hope the wind doesn't come up.

     · Hope not to pee my pants.

I said, instead, that I hoped to see a sea otter close up. We boarded the water taxi that would take us to Aialik Bay. As the taxi pulled away from the dock, up popped the head of an otter, six feet off the bow. "It's only 8:05 a.m.," I said to Glo. "What are you going to do for the rest of the trip?"
     Well. The water taxi took us alongside steep, forested basalt cliffs and snow-studded peaks. In Spire Cove, we squeezed between islands with weirdly wonderful graywacke rock formations. We saw harbor seals on a ledge, stellar sea lions on a rock, and a bird that one of the other guests identified as the rare kittletz murrelet. The captain of the taxi pointed out sea stars on the rocks right at the shoreline. Then he slowed to circle a horned puffin floating on the waves.

     After two-and-a-half hours, the water taxi deposited us on a sheltered beach south of Slate Island in Aialik Bay.  Glo removed the tarps from the sea kayaks stored there, and we dragged them down the steep beach, the flat oval stones sliding sideways under our feet.
     Fortunately, the water in the bay was very calm. I don't know what I would have done had there been waves. The kayak moved smoothly and easily through the water. Glo showed me how to space my hands on the shaft of the paddle to ease the strain on my shoulders. What a relief.
     We paddled toward Aialik Glacier for almost an hour. The glacier seemed so close to us, but appearances were deceiving. Glo told us that the face of the glacier was a mile wide and twenty stories high. And what we were seeing was just the terminus of the glacier—a great wall, a colonnade of vertical bluish shafts and shards topped with spikes. Several times we heard a sound like thunder and part of the glacier fell into the water, creating waves that finally reached our kayaks in gentle swells.
     Glo had us raft up half a mile from the face of the glacier, far enough away that the waves would not capsize us if a big portion of the glacier came down.     

     We kept our kayaks in formation for forty-five minutes, eating turkey sandwiches and watching the glacier calve repeatedly. Sometimes a harbor seal swam by. We were surrounded by large and small chunks of gray and blue ice, what Glo called "berg-y bits." She told us not to collide with any piece that was bigger than our cockpit. "That could do you some damage," she said.
     I picked a small piece of ice out of the water and bit it. It tasted clean and pure.
     As I gazed at what one writer called the "impossibly huge" face of the glacier, I imagined rivers of snowmelt flowing somewhere beneath what I could see. I remembered learning in physics class that even in the most solid-seeming structures, something is always moving. Every piece of matter is made up of atoms, electrons circling the neurons and protons in the nucleus like planets orbiting the sun.

     Something is always moving.
     Fear and anxiety do vibrate within us. Let them go. Let them ride like pieces of gravel down the cold, unseen river into the sea. Put your paddle in the icy water and keep going. Maybe you'll see a puffin. Or a seal. For certain there will be deep water. And above you, even more enormous than the face of the glacier, will be the wide arc of the aquamarine sky. 

"Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine." Isaiah 43:1 (RSV)

Playlist: "How Firm a Foundation," early American hymn, 1787.

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     If you ask us, Ed and I would be happy to tell you that we prefer to paddle our canoe on rivers. But we've had some spectacular experiences on lakes. That time on Rollins Pond in the Adirondacks, for instance, when we saw a shooting star fall halfway across the sky. Or, on Kintla Lake in Glacier National Park, when we looked down into seventy feet of water so clear we could see our shadows on the bottom.

     Or, during a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Alaska I haven't told you about yet, when we kayaked on Aialik Bay through shards of ice that hissed against our hulls as we headed toward the steep wall of a tidewater glacier twenty stories high.
     However, on this particular day in 2018 beside Freeland Lake in Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario, I wasn't feeling spectacular. Though mid-September, it was hot, and we were resting before our 430-meter portage into Killarney Lake. We'd hauled our canoe and paddles and camping gear out of the way so others using the portage trail could get around us. We'd already paddled across Freeland Lake and George Lake. We had much of Killarney Lake yet to go before we reached our campsite.
     The trail was surprisingly busy for such a remote place. I imagined the other paddlers were going deep into the interior, maybe all the way to Threenarrows Lake, accessible only by a 3000-meter carry that explorer Kevin Callan called "the portage to hell." We wouldn't be doing that. We weren't as young as we used to be.
     Two twenty-somethings blew past us, not even stopping to wipe their faces. I rubbed my skinny arms and rolled my shoulders to loosen the thin sheath of muscles across my chest.

     Then two couples our own age pulled up. They did not even grunt when they leaned over to gather up their gear. They hefted their packs with practiced ease. Humpf. They reminded me of some of the paddlers in our club at home who were always first down the river on any outing, the ones who grumbled about the guy who was always falling behind to poke around a muskrat lodge or peer into the pools for bass. The front-runners stroked vigorously, their paddles thrusting up and down like pistons. The fastest had their boats loaded onto their roof racks while the rest of us were still easing up to shore.
     I unknotted my bandana and dipped it into the water to cool my neck.
     At least we're still out here, I thought, still making our way across the water and through the woods.  I remembered a line from the prose poem, "Desiderata," I'd read a long time ago. "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself."

     I know now what I didn't know then, in that miserable moment beside the portage trail. That when we finally got to our campsite and set up our tent on the promontory across the water from the white quartzite bluffs of the La Cloche Range, we would sit on our folding chairs in perfect contentment. That we would listen to the lap of small waves against the boulders below us and watch the setting sun spangle the turquoise water with gold.
     Later that night, under stars, I would fall asleep in my tent remembering that "La Cloche" is French for "bell." Native Americans used to strike the rocks in the range as a warning and the rocks would echo with a bell-like tone. In the perfect quiet of that night, I would hear the mountain ring its sweet earthly music into the sky.

     May you treat yourself kindly today. May you "go placidly amid the noise and haste." May your simple self be enough.

Scripture: "The last will be first, and the first will be last." Matthew 20:16 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Onward, Canoe," Douglas Wood, EarthSongs, 1989.

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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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