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

Load of Rocks

Didn't realize I was so close...

Beating the heat

Pour water over head!

Foggy Morning

Paddling in the dark has become the fog is scarey!

My Radar Don't Show No Fronts

That's what a "good ol' boy" told me as he fished near Wittenberg, MO.  Fishing chatter invariably involves weather prognostication.  I was surprised by his sophisticated electronic forecast.  Maybe I shouldn't have been given the technological turn in the "sport".  I knew, however, from daily experience that were in the midst of a hot and dry stretch with more to come.  High water and flood stage last year was over 40 feet.  It's currently 14 feet and going down.  The sand bars and wing dams are are like sentinels along the river's path protecting and directing the flow.  We parted with the usual "Be safe!"

Not more than an hour later I made one of my regular over-the-shoulder glances to see if a barge was sneaking up behind me.  What do you suppose I saw?  Sure looked like a weather "front" to me.  Angry gray and darker blue clouds were were marching across the sky and pushing me down the river.  A mixture of fear and excitement quickened my paddle stroke-count.  I figured I could "outrun" the rain.  Yah, right!  The wind picked up and with it began bathing me in a warm shower.  A far cry from the precipitation back in Minnesota which chilled me to the bone. Just before I found my sand bar hotel, the storm was over.  I guess the radar must have missed that one.  I am glad I didn't.


Friday, July 6, 2012


I could close my eyes (often do) and see the typical shoreline in the Lower Mississippi (south of Cairo, IL.)  Natural: a tangle of trees downed and deposited and sand bars (my motel) created by wing dams and natural eddys in river bends, Army Corps of Engineers: various forms of "rip-rap" (rocks and pre-formed slabs of concrete) deposited along countless miles of river to deter erosion.  All of either lines or is inside the equally countless miles of 40 foot-plus levees.  Last year's 400 year flood hit 43 feet .... this year is a drought year and is at 12 feet.

Moon Shot

Just had to include another

Moon Shot

Just had to include another

Thursday, July 5, 2012

There's Nothing Down There

"There's nothing down there."

That's what Ray told me when I left the last "fuel dock" just south of St. Louis.  I had heard variations on that theme from others.

Jeff told me to have at least 5 gallons of water on board south of Memphis because towns were few and far between and temperatures and humidity would soar.  He was right!  Others were probably referring to how the Upper Mississippi's wildlife is so abundant and its shores so scenic.  The Lower Mississippi is a persistent montage of sand bars and rip-wrap levees protecting occasional hamlets and farms.  My conclusion, however, is that it's simply different down here.  The sand bars make for great beach camp sites. The critters may be a bit more ornery (gar, water moccasins, alligators).  But the folks north AND south have been very helpful and friendly.  You have met many of them on this blog.  So, Ray, there's lots down here and more surprises around each bend of the river.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Set record for miles (70) and hours in boat (18) to meet my nephew, Billy, in Greenville, Mississippi.  He is a police investigator in Knoxville, Tennessee and has a side job mowing over 80 yards at homes that have defaulted on loans.