Deep Waters

This summer my son Nathan and I took a ten-day adventure to Isle Royale–that long green stone nestled in the northwestern waters of Lake Superior. For six days and five nights, we lived with the foxes, moose, red squirrels, and wolves that had arrived on the island long before humans. They were most neighborly hosts. A moose and her calf stepped aside to share the path at Lake Ritchie, a fox helped herself to plump grasshoppers springing about at our Three Mile campsite, and at Lake DeSor red squirrels helped themselves to the honey-roasted soybeans sitting open in our pack. One morning, knowing the nuts were inside, they even dive-bombed our tent door.

The ecology was just as spectacular. From the Minong Ridge, centuries old glacier-scraped basalt, we descend through transitional growth forests of black spruce and paper birch. Then we trudge up to hemlocks and weather-beaten tree trunks on the ridge and down again to beaver ponds, meadows, and cedar swamps. The biosphere seemed to change every couple hundred yards.

The last day was a twelve-mile hike to the Windigo, which is at the west end of the island. We didn’t meet a soul the whole journey and were glad to find a camp store at the end of the day where we bought $20 (there’s a 24% energy tax on everything purchased on the island) of junk food which we promptly scarfed down while we swapped stories of wilderness conquest with others.

Exotic and strenuous trips like this tend to bond people. There is a unique breed of person who doesn’t mind, even thrives on, carrying a forty-five pound pack for 8-10 miles a day, sleeping in a tent on a Thinsulate pad, eating dehydrated food, and then doing it all over again. More than making up for the hardships are the fresh raspberries and thimble berries on the trail, the leap into frigid Superior waters at the end of a sweat-soaked day, and waking at 5:30 in the morning to the flashes of the Aurora Borealis.

Along the trail and at campsites, we swapped stories with an assortment of hikers: a college student who had climbed the Appalachian Trail with his girl friend, a couple who discovered the island from a feature story in The New York Times, and three friends who whitewater kayaked in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, one of whom had scars to show for the three times he had blown out his shoulders. We all concurred that the uninitiated can never know the wonderful things that can happen in the woods and the water.

 
Rough Seas
 

On the dock, waiting for the ferry to return us to the mainland, there was more chatter of moose sightings, previous trips, geography, and the dangers of kayaking around Isle Royale’s east point under a threatening sky. It was a bright clear day with swells and small whitecaps passing under the Queen III. We stood on the deck under the warm sun, letting the spray soak our faces. The din of conversation quieted as we ventured out into the unprotected waters of Superior and waves of four to five feet. The boat pitched from bow to stern, and otherwise hearty souls began to turn green and, trying to find some stability, returned to their seats in the cabin. Headwinds were at 20 knots and forecasts of 30 promised even steeper waves. The pitching was bad enough, but when the boat began to yaw side-to-side and I began to taste the onions from my turkey club eaten three hours earlier, I told myself, “Stare at the horizon line and take deep breaths.” My head swam with nausea, but my lunch remained settled.

Across the cabin a young man, one I had spoken with on the dock, clutched a blanket, rocking methodically up and down. Suddenly he spasmed and vomited into the blanket. His girl friend sympathetically rubbed his back even as she strained against similar impulses. Others dashed to the railings to make their gastronomical offerings to the lake.

All the while, my son walked around on deck eating junk food and complaining that the snack bar had closed. He reported that a smug looking Englishman dressed in khakis and a cotton V-neck tennis sweater performed, without warning, projectile vomiting over the bow. He was impressed, but the smell drove him back inside.

We were miserable together. Not only had the beauty of the island and the wilderness adventure brought us together, but now this. As we neared Copper Harbor the waters calmed. One of the deckhands reported twelve vomitings that day. When the boat finally docked the color returned to our faces and our shoulders went slack. There was some hand shaking, address swapping, and all around bonhomie. We had made it. We survived this thing. There’s nothing like a good puke to bring people together.

I wondered if we could sustain this microcosm of a community over the long haul. We were obviously like-minded, enjoyed the great outdoors, liked to take risks, probably shopped at L.L. Bean, EMS, or REI, gave to the Sierra Club, and detested malls and “personal watercraft.” If, for instance, Kim Jong Il went over the edge and launched a nuclear missile at Japan or South Korea igniting World War III and cut us off from the rest of the world, would we be able to survive? Could we forge a new community based on shared values and a mutual need to survive? Or would we devolve into another Lord of the Flies?

I knew because of original sin and all that we would eventually arrive at the latter. The aging hippies and earth mothers would eventually square off with the Nascar dads who were there to canoe and catch scads of Steelheads. But I also wondered if it would be any better or different than the squabbles we get into at local churches. A nasty ongoing fight at a sister church was in my mind. One faction of the congregation didn’t like the pastor and current board so they held what was later declared an illegal meeting to oust the pastor and the moderator. When denominational officials reinstalled the pastor and board, their response was to revoke the membership of their detractors. It is now in court.

 
And the Waters of Baptism
 

The waters of baptism are supposed to be the great leveler in the Reign of God. There at the font multitudes of strangers gather. Differences fade as we look into the mirror of those waters. There we are all beginners. The old distinctions of black and white, rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight are supposed to wane as we come up dripping from those waters. There we are still being born, still being cleansed of our separations, people with nothing in common except that we have heard the same call of Jesus Christ, answered to the same Name, and come to the same font to follow the same Lord.

The early church was probably much more widely varied than we today in our homo-genous, white, middle-class churches. The gap between slave and free was much more significant than the one between Republican and Democrat. That is why Paul referred his readers back to their baptism, for in baptism, “there is one body and one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:5).

The supposed unity that we experience in many of our organizations, including the church, is based more on sentimentalism than hard reality. I like you because we both like to kayak. I like you because we both belong to the same party, are the same color, subscribe to the same theology, and so on. That kind of unity is easy. The tough kind happens amid real differences. Then we need something transcendent, something greater than our differences that doesn’t diminish them, but overcomes them.

I still like to believe that, though evidence abounds that the Church, local or universal, is hopelessly divided. On occasion, glimpses of the dream come through–like the time when a reconciliation service took place in a church where I served as an interim pastor. The issue was a pastor whom one third hated
and one third adored and the other third was appalled at how the other two-thirds treated one another. Finally, after a year of listening and kvetching, we all held a reconciliation service on Good Friday. Leaders on both sides of the battle led a liturgy of confession and repentance, claiming culpability for their share of the strife.

More often I see people getting annoyed because their birthday was left out of the newsletter, or people won’t volunteer to do coffee hour, or the communion service went too long. Heavy stuff. I want to believe the waters of baptism are deeper than the waters of Lake Superior. Lord, help me in my unbelief.

Norman Bendroth is an Interim Minister at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Grand Rapids, Michigan and also serves as a Peer Group supervisor of seniors at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.