Saturday, August 25, 2012

I always loved the word "penultimate" which is a fancy way of saying these are "final"  thoughts or reflections, but not really.......there may be more to come.  This seems particularly fitting when speaking of a "pilgrimage" because it never ends.  Like a river there is always something or someone around the next bend.  And even as the river flows into the sea, or in my case the Gulf of Mexico, there is now an ocean of paddling ahead.  One more pen-penultimate thought:  A number of you good folks who have followed my blog have asked if I would be writing a book about my journey.

Initially I thought I wouldn't, because I am finishing another book that I began early in my sabbatical.  I thought the blog would tell the story with more immediacy and, frankly, would be easier to accomplish "in real time".  A blog would also help me keep track of the blurring of days and experiences on the river.  Since I have returned home to Seattle, I have found my mind continuing to remember "stories" which I didn't tell in the blog.  But would anyone other than my 96 year old mother be interested?  So I tested out some of the stories with friends here and they encouraged me to write them down. All this to say that I plan to "noodle" and "fill in the gaps" in my tale and perhaps at some point in the coming months/years publish something. 

So here are some "Penultimate Reflections" from the Paddle Pilgrim:
As you recall from the blog one of my "headings" which addressed my reasons for paddling the Mississippi River was entitled WHY?   I am glad that I did this "pre-flection" before I embarked because it gave me a "frame" through which to view and ultimately organize my experience.  I guess that's the professor in me trying to rationalize and make sense of what I would be doing. My answer to WHY was threefold:  Adventure, Learning, and Pilgrimage. I suspect I may organize the "book" around these headings.

As a boy growing up near the Mississippi River I was fascinated by this little stream that I could walk across at its headwaters but I could barely see across at its widest expanse.  My turtle friend, Minn, (Minn of the Mississippi by H.C. Holling) was my guide down the river introducing me to the sounds, sights, smells, and feel of this watery world.  The "Huck Finn" in me delighted in the variety of "characters" I met along the banks of the Mighty Mississippi.  They became "river angels" who provided food, housing, transportation, encouragement, and a multitude of stories.   Big cities (Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis) and small towns (Osceola, St. Francisville, New Madrid) came to life and became neighborhoods populated by family and friends.

As a "professor" on sabbatical, my river journey focused on "Creation Care: Environmental Ethics".  Studying  history  I learned that the Anishinabe people (Ojibwe Indian) called the river "Mee-zee-see-bee" which means "Big River" or "Father of Waters".  The wisdom of their name became apparent as I encountered the birds (326 species) and fish (241 species) who now uneasily share their polluted home with thousands of boats, barges and ships which ply the waters transporting grain, coal, and hazardous cargo (oil, benzine).  Keeping the water "clean" for fish and fowl and "clear" for barges and business requires a delicate balance much like a kayaker carefully navigating the human "debris" flowing inexorably to the sea.

As a "pilgrim" my journey was in search of the One who created this garden planet and whose "heavens declare the glory of God" (Psalm 19:1)  With few distractions and lots of time to "listen" and "pay attention", God used the river to teach me both how powerful and regenerative the natural environment is and also how fragile and in need of wise care and stewardship.  My kinship with all creation now resonates more deeply with St. Francis' "brother Sun and sister Moon".  Each morning just before dawn a symphony of birds began their musical wake-up call and invited me to launch my boat in the dark and paddle toward the light.  They called me to a new day, to a new beginning, a new life and to pray.  Thanks be to the God revealed by Mother Earth and the Father of Waters!

Finally....(almost)....thanks to all of you who followed my journey and supported me with their prayers, words of encouragement, and even your occasional, "You're doing what?&#??

If you would like to make a donation to the "cause" my pilgrimage supported, go to the blog and the Donate heading where there is more information about The Cedar Tree Institute.

I plan to keep the Paddle Pilgrim blog as an ongoing place for place for reflection.  If you would like to subscribe to the blog and get notifications of "posts" there is a link at the bottom of the home page.

Blessings to each of you on your "pilgrimage"!


Monday, July 30, 2012

The Communion of Saints and the Dead Poet's Society

Do you ever talk to dead people?  Come honest!  I do.  A few years after my dad died, I found myself occasionally having conversations with him.  I might ask a question or wonder aloud with him about a problem seeking his advice.  Usually I reflected on what a great dad he was and would simply thank him.  And I believe he is listening.  I know that I am not alone in this practice because when I have asked others they readily admit to talking to a parent, grandparent, close friend,or teacher.
Recently on my Mississippi River paddle I had lots of time on my hands. I found myself talking regularly with my dad. But it didn't stop there.  Passing under magnificent cloud formations  I thought of the bible passage in the letter to the Hebrews which uses the image of  being surrounded by a "cloud of witnesses" to describe those people who, though dead, are present with us. Being an athlete I imagined this cloud as bleachers filled with supporters cheering me on in my life-journey.   As I endured bone-numbing, wind-driven rain or  withering 100 degree heat and humidity, I was encouraged to know that I wasn't dad and others were cheering me on.  But one day I began to see other faces in the clouds of witnesses.  There were family members, former teachers and mentors, even historical figures.  This was really getting interesting.

Then I remembered the phrase in the Apostle's Creed, the basic summary of what Christians believe.
"I believe in the communion of saints..."  Might that "communion of saints" be the "cloud of witnesses" cheering me from the packed bleachers?  As I came to this conclusion I wondered why I had never heard this described or discussed in church.  We do talk about "saints" at least once a year on All Saints Day.  Maybe speaking with or praying to the saints is too "catholic" for Lutherans.
Classmate, friend, and colleague, Dr. Timothy Lull, was a world-renowned Luther scholar.  Tim once told me that he was so immersed in the life of Martin Luther that he often felt Luther's presence in his study as he prepared to teach his classes.  Ultimately this led Dr. Lull to write a delightful little book called My Conversations with Martin Luther.  If such a highly respected professor at Timothy Lull spoke regularly with Martin Luther, maybe I wasn't crazy after all.

Back to the I thought more and more about those witnesses who had shaped my life and faith the list grew...the bleachers became a cheering stadium.  As I paddled under the river clouds I set aside time to imagine the "cloud of witnesses". Some times I spoke with an individual and engaged him or her in lively conversation.  Often I offered a prayer of thanks for helping me on my journey.  Regularly I panned the entire cloud-crowd and visualized them bathed in light.
Are you still with me?  What do you think?  Am I crazy?  Or have we lost sight of a wonderful resource for our lives in the "cloud of witnesses" and "communion of saints"?

A favorite movie of mine is the Dead Poet's Society.  In it, Mr Keating, an English teacher, played by Robin Williams, encouraged his students to live boldly. One day he took his class to look at the school trophy case to see the pictures of the school's past heroes. "Lean in and listen to what they are saying......" he tells he whispers loudly "Carpe Diem" "Carpe Diem" "Carpe Diem" which means "seize the day".  A small group of students took his advice and revived the Dead Poet's Society which met regularly in a cave to read poetry aloud and listen to wisdom of "dead poets".

As followers of Jesus we have our own "dead poet's society" populated by generations of "heroes of the faith".These saints played an important role in helping me paddle 2350 miles down the Mississippi River. Who are those heroes and saints in your life?  Take some time by yourself.  Be quiet and listen carefully.   What are they saying?   I suspect that they are cheering you on!
"Carpe Diem!"

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

30,000 feet up

Heading home to Seattle and was struck by this view of the Mississippi River


Reached NOLA yesterday afternoon...landed by mistake on Army Corps of Engineers property (military installation). After "negotiations" the kayak and I were permitted to exit......
Great to be here and help with Lutheran Youth Gathering (35,000) this coming week.  Keep checking blog for future "reflections".  One is titled "The Dead Poet's Society and the Communion of Saints".
Thanks for your prayers. The journey continues!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Embracing the Wilderness

On this paddling pilgrimage it is becoming clearer that there are several stages.  Perhaps they are more like acts in an ongoing drama. 

Act 1 "Discipleship: Learning from the Master"  For several weeks I paddled with writer/adventurer, Jim Lewis. He taught me what I need to know about the river, camping, kayaks, and life to move on to the next "act".

Act 2 "Community: Surrounded by a Cloud of Witnesses/River Angels"  Again for several weeks as I began my solo journey, God provided the right people at the right place and time to give me love, support, supplies, and encouragement.

So what is Act 3? When I left St. Louis and began to approach the "Lower Mississippi" I was told "there's not much down there".

As I have paddled two images have persisted.

Act 3. The Solitude: Embracing the Wilderness.   While I still encounter people (occasionally) I am alone. But am I?  I am by myself, but I am not alone.  I am surrounded by "clouds of witnesses".  Each of you is with me is the most powerful and visceral way. Each morning I spend a good bit of time praying.  Usually it is "out loud".  I talk to God.  I sing.  I laugh. I weep. You are with me in the very deepest of senses.

Maybe the strangest and most wonderful part of my praying is conversations with "dead people". I  began talking to my dad who died several years ago.  Then I thought of all the special people in my life who have "passed", gone over, entered "glory".  There wasn't room in my kayak for them all, but they don't weigh anything or take up any space, so.....  One of my seminary professors/mentors was Henri Nouwen. He coined a phrase in one his books which captures the spirit of this third act of this pilgrimage drama.  I have moved from "loneliness to solitude". 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Running of the Bulls

Arrived in New Orleans yesterday.   Staying with friend, Mike Adler who is pictured in this event that could only happen here....

Friday, July 13, 2012

Bellechase Marine Transport

Just 14 miles from NOLA a big storm hit and I took refuge with this crazy group whose company "provisions" ships...thanks, guys

Creole Quick Stop

Saw church steeple over levee and next door was a this wonderful restaurant run by jazz legend, Eddie. "Duke" Edwards, and his actress/singer daughter, Desiree Edwards.  Eddie heads the Louis Armstrong Foundation and plays percussion in the Foundation band,

Paddling with the big boys...

From Baton Rouge south the shore is lined with refineries, graineries, quaries, chemical plants...all sorts of huge loading facilities servicing bigger and bigger ships....not fun paddling!

Stand By Me

Nick, Hunter, and Wayne made a food run and swapped tales while fishing,,,,reminding me of the trio in a favorite movie/song.


Birds and bovine share narrow grazing strip along water

Dr. King

On my "rest day" in Memphis I visited the National Civil Rights Museum.  It's located on the site of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.  It's displays, pictures, documents, and videos (see blog) transported me back in time to a very formative period in my life.

I can remember vividly hearing MLK speak at a Luther League (youth) Convention in Miami Beach in the early 60's.  He challenged us to live our faith beyond Sunday to the rest of the week and outside of church to the streets of our lives.  At the time I was living in a small town in Iowa and "diversity" wasn't about color but about Swedes/Norwegians/Germans. Over the years Dr. King's writing/speeches/vision have continued challenge me.  Several other "movements" (Peace, Women, Environmental) have also shaped my spirituality and life direction.  They still do.   My river pilgrimage is partly prompted by my deep concern and care for the planet and all creation. 

I had forgotten why Dr. King was in Memphis that day.  He had come to support the sanitation workers (garbage collectors) whose wages and working conditions were deplorable. The rallying cry of their protests were clear and simple,  "I AM A MAN!"

The night before he was shot, he uttered those still breath-taking words,  "I might not be with you, but that does not matter.  For I have been to the mountaintop.  My eyes have seen the glory!" 

I met a bright young Afro-American woman today. Her name is Kenyarda. She is a special ed teacher and has begun work on her Master's degree. In her I see a bit of that "glory"!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Stormy Weather

After a very hot stretch there have been several days with awe-inspiring and frightening storms...

Baton Rouge

Smelly refinery, sunk barge salvage, big ships from here on down the river....I miss the headwaters in Minnesota!

Barge "high and dry"

Not sure what happened but this barge is parked way up on the levee