(Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 143: 8, John 16:13)
We were in the wilderness, several days by canoe away from the nearest Forest Service road. We were out in the Boundary Waters wilderness, which spans from Northern Minnesota into Southern Ontario – an endless maze of lakes that glaciers from the last ice age had carved out of the granite. No motors – only canoes and kayaks – so that after a few days out there you really start to settle into the slower rhythms of the greater-than-human world.
Cedar, juniper, pine. Still waters under the milky way. The tremendous shimmering billows of aurora borealis overhead. Loon-song fluting out sad and slow over the waters, finding an answer in an echo haunting another lake far off. The way the wind stirs the treetops from afar as it grows closer and closer until your boat is rocking in the waves.
We had grown up together, the friends I was with. These were guys from my neighborhood. We had long had this plot to cut loose from civilization and go out into the Boundary Water for a few weeks – a moon cycle. We were in our early twenties and basically directionless and unmoored from any real responsibility, so one summer we managed to get away and make the trip happen.
Day after day we paddled through the lakes and portaged through the trails.
At night we watched to moon. We were waiting for it to grow full. When the full moon was due to come, we stayed at our camp during the day, dozing around. Near sundown we broke camp, and after nightfall we set out. This was our full moon paddle.
It was dark enough that you could not tell the water from the surrounding darkness. It took an act of trust to sit down in that canoe and push out into the inky liquid unknown.
Our attention had to be completely immersed in the soft sounds around us, and the silver lines of detail that the moonlight painted over the water and rocky shoreline and trees.
It was a calm night, no wind.
The lake reflected the stars and moon. We were floating through infinity.
The rhythm and pull of our paddling drew our breath into a sway, like prayer: “Holy, holy, holy.”
We made our way across a big lake with several islands. When it’s hard to see like this, you use “point to point navigation.” You stay fairly close to shore – but not too close – and you look ahead to the point of land that sticks out the farthest, and you figure out how that corresponds on your map. When you get to that point you can then look ahead to the next point you can pick out. So you make your way step-by-step, point-by-point.
When we reached the other side of the lake, we set up our tents, went into the woods to hang our food from a tree, and feel asleep, exhausted.
When we woke up at mid-day, we discovered we had committed a textbook mistake. In the middle of our camp was a tree whose trunk had a big raw slash across it. A bear had been there before we got there. And based on the sap oozing from the slash, it wasn’t all that long before. That meant the bear could well be close by. We hadn’t seen this of course when we set up camp in the darkness. As soon as we did see it, you better believe we got moving in a hurry.
I conjure all this about journeying in canoe by moonlight to suggest that this is mostly what we’re all doing, day by day, year by year, breath by breath: point by point navigation, as we journey in our little boats afloat in infinity.
And the fact that we go through life as best we can, point to point, is clearest when we’re traveling through wilderness times, when we’re outside of comfortable places, and maybe don’t have a lot of light to see by, and therefore we must rely on trust, we rely on our own wits and grit and intuition, we rely on our fellow travelers, and we rely on whatever moon is reflecting the light of God.
We are told that God led the Israelites through the wilderness by stages. It was point to point navigation. And each step tested their trust. Each step required incredible surrender.
We’re talking about a people on the edge of survival. They had broken free of enslavement in Egypt and they were fleeing through the desert, led by a great prophet who was guided by an awesome and mysterious God.
It’s important to recognize that the way that God led them through the wilderness was not at all a straight shot. The Israelites were in the wilderness for an entire generation until they reached the Promised Land. Now, the distance from Egypt to what’s now Israel & Palestine is a long way, but it doesn’t take a couple of decades to walk. The Israelites were wandering, meandering, you could say. But in fact they were being led by their divine guide, who provided for them through whatever hardship. It was important for the people to learn absolute trust in God, and absolute attention to God.
“The basis of survival is respect and humility.” That is a quote from Will Steger, who is a legendary wilderness guide who homesteads up near the Boundary Waters. Here is someone who knows something about finding the right path for survival amidst the massive forces of the greater-than-human world. “The basis of survival is respect and humility.”
If we dare to have that respect and humility, ultimately, for the God of all life … if we dare to trust in that God … if we dare to pay absolute attention to the evidence of what the next point to which we are being led … then we will find that as we journey together we do so like voyagers floating across great waters, guided by the Holy Spirit, with the heavens above reflected in the waters below – voyagers journeying together through infinity.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered March 12, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg.)
* The “Point to point navigation” metaphor is stolen from Gore Vidal, who wrote an autobiography with that title. I committed the robbery, let not the passive construction conceal. In all likelihood, were Mr. Vidal alive today he would not even deign to curse my plagiarism nor the gauche religious end to which it is applied, let alone afford me the privilege of tearing my writing to shreds.
The image is “Promenade de Julie et Saint-Preux sur le lac de Genève” (“Moonlight boating on Lake Geneva”) by Charles Edouard Le Prince.