This is a post by Nathan Holst. Nathan is a youth director, environmental and racial justice organizer in Duluth, Minnesota. The following reflection was given as a sermon for a celebration of Lake Superior Day. Nathan wrote this reflection using Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56.
“Come like water, go like water.” That’s a wonderful phrase I learned from a friend of mine in the Church of the Brethren. When he used to go off on trips to do peace activism with other church members, they always used to go to this particular elder’s house before they left to get a blessing. The elder would simply come out of their house with a glass of water, say the words “come like water, go like water”, and splash water all over the car as a blessing for their trip. It’s a beautiful ritual with so many different layers of meaning in our tradition—it’s baptism, it’s healing, it’s liberation and justice, it’s life.
It’s no wonder that in our gospel story today, Jesus seeks out healing rest for the weary disciples by traveling on the water to a wilderness space. Jesus started his ministry with baptism in the waters of the Jordan and went through intense spiritual transformation in the wilderness of the desert. Even if he didn’t use the same language, he knew the meaning of “come like water, go like water”, and he knew the sacred power of the natural world around him.
It’s that same sacred power that leads us here in Duluth to celebrate Lake Superior Day, a day to be thankful for the Lake, and to give special attention to the Anishinaabe women who have a traditional role as keepers of the water. A number of years ago, a group of Ojibwe women from Bad River Wisconsin walked 1,300 miles around Lake Superior to bring attention to the sacredness of water and keeping our water clean for all the generations who come after us. How might our view of these women change if we started to see them in our biblical stories, perhaps as John the Baptist figures calling to all of us who would listen to repent of the pollution that we have created and turn toward Jesus’ way of healing, both our water and earth, and all the people who suffer from illness related to pollution, often people living in poverty?
Or perhaps you can hear their story echo the disciple’s story in today’s gospel text, gathering with their leader Jesus after their first “mission trip”, excited to share everything with him, but exhausted from the journey. They have been going nonstop doing what Jesus asked—teaching and healing throughout the region. Now they are finally back, eagerly talking with their teacher, but ready for some Sabbath time. Any of you who have been on a work camp like we’re going on next week can relate to needing rest, at least on some level, right? I’m sure those Ojibwe women certainly knew something about that. So Jesus suggests that they go across the water (perhaps the distance from Duluth to Superior) to get some quiet. But before they can reach their long awaited rest, they are interrupted by crowds coming for teaching and healing, by one more thing that needs to be done.
When I first read this story, I mostly just feel bad for the disciples that they didn’t get their rest. It’s kind of like coming back from the work camp, building project after exhausting project, only to return home to someone saying they need a project done back here and they need it now, the minute you walk in the door. Thankfully, with a little help from Author Parker Palmer and his book, The Active Life, I was opened up to the possibility that rather than being a frustrating story about how Jesus kept the disciples from getting their Sabbath time or just another story about Jesus healing, instead the story brings us beyond our usual thinking to highlighting the interplay of contemplation and action.
Now, before we get into the details, I want to say I am a firm believer in creating time for Sabbath (I know both Jesus and the disciples had it at other times), and I love the Wayne Muller book that some are reading here at Peace. But there’s also deep wisdom in this contemplation-action perspective—certainly one that Jesus and the Disciples with constantly interrupting crowds must have engaged with in some way, and it’s worth a deeper look.
Most of us are used to what Palmer calls alternation—where we work really hard for a period of time and then when we are exhausted, we take a vacation until we have enough energy to plunge back in, much like the disciples expected would happen. But then Palmer suggests that Jesus is bringing us deeper, showing us how to integrate, to bring what we often see as separate contemplation and action together into the whole where we take contemplative action.
Palmer explains, “…contemplation and action cannot be separated the way that we separate work and vacation. Action will always set up the need for contemplation. But true contemplation is never a mere retreat. Instead, it draws us deeper into right action by getting us more deeply in touch with the gifts that we have to give, with our need to give them, with the people and problems that need us…Jesus does not cling to the notion that contemplation can happen only when we are in silence and in solitude. Instead he turns this entire event into an occasion for contemplation, and in doing so he reveals again the paradox of contemplation and action.”
This seems particularly important for a congregation whose lives are full of activity–activism, service work, family events. Sometimes we are not able to find the time for rest, and that’s where Jesus invites us to integration, to bring our contemplation–which Palmer describes as anything that unmasks our illusions to reveal the truth–into the business of our lives, where we are always co-creating with the Spirit.
The place where this contemplation-action way of being has most come alive for me is in my experience of when I was a canoe guide at Camp Amnicon in Wisconsin. As canoe guides, we may not have been on par with the work that the disciples were doing, but I can’t help but see some of the parallels. We typically traveled in pairs, taking the bare essentials with us, facilitating a certain kind of teaching and healing of the crowds of 10 or 12 Jr or Sr high campers. It was really tiring work, with not much of a Sabbath break all summer, but always full of meaning and it was there that I learned how there is a deep kind of energy when I hit rock bottom, one that reveals what’s true and asks for growth and new life.
One of my most transformative weeks was with a camper named Lizzy. I could tell early on that the week traveling on the Brule River to Lake Superior was going to be a challenge for Lizzy because she did not like taking risks, and she really didn’t like the idea of tipping in a canoe, and at about 350 pounds, I knew the chance of tipping on a white water canoe trip was fairly high. Still, I had been on a lot of unlikely trips like this before, and I knew that sometimes the most important learning and healing happened on trips like this, especially on a journey to Lake Superior.
On the way, Lizzy often asked to be in the same canoe as me, because as she said, “it’s less likely that I’ll tip if I’m with a guide.” One of the things I love about canoe trips is that it’s a natural place of connection for two people. If you’re stuck in a canoe together all day, even the most closed people end up talking about life sooner or later. Each day, I got to know more about Lizzy, and even though she was too guarded to give specifics on some of the hurts that she had experienced in life, my heart went out to her as she shared that “it’s not really worth loving people because it just causes more hurt. Why would I take a risk when I’m safer just being on my own?” I tried to offer words of encouragement, but knew that mostly all I could was just be a supportive listener. She would have come to healing and growth through her own experience, and I hoped that a week traveling down the Brule to the Lake would offer her something useful.
It wasn’t until the last full day on the river when the shift came. As is the case with most growing experiences, she had to dive down to rock bottom before breaking through. Lizzy’s fears came to reality as the two of us tipped over our canoe. As you can imagine, it wasn’t very pleasant after that, but then something of a miracle happened. We got to a spot in the river where we had to portage our gear across a trail, but it was extremely muddy and on a slanted bank. Lizzy took one look at the trail and said, “there’s no way this will ever work. This 350 pound body can’t go across that kind of muddy trail. That’s beyond something that could actually happen.” Even though my co-guide was inclined to agree with her, we devised a plan to link arms and support each other on the trail. I knew it was kind of long shot, but I also saw an opportunity for something transforming to happen through using the strength of the group. Very slowly, step by step, we all watched the illusion of impossibility melt away as we progressed along the trail until we had reached our destination. Lizzy was astonished. She had seen the truth in this contemplation moment, that if she let her trust move beyond herself, she could allow a group of people to bring her places she never thought she could go. It was a reminder to all of us about the power of community, all in the context of a journey to the Lake. Come like water, go like water.
Theologian Ched Myers invites his readers to imagine water as a map of God. He says, “Water is a symbol of justice. Most substantial when fluid, it flows downward, seeking the level, a poignant metaphor of divine concern for the “lowest.” Thus Amos appeals for “justice to flow down like a perennial stream” (Amos 5:24).” And when we say God has concern for the lowest, I believe this is meant for all of us, not only the “widow and orphan” of our time. We all have parts of us that are hurting, the lowest places in our being that long for healing waters. Like Lizzy on the Brule, we’re invited to flow down the perennial stream of contemplation and action, knowing like the disciples, even when we cannot rest, there are moments of transformation and renewal.
So as we celebrate our sacred Lake Superior today, reminded of the stories of the Ojibwe women, may we all find those moments of contemplation-action. May we all live into our own stories of healing and teaching that are calling to us.
Song by Jane Aas, a musician who attends Peace Church, where Nathan gave the sermon.