There was a book from my childhood that I remember having read to me, and later reading it on my own. Maybe you have heard of it.
Paddle-to-the-Sea is the story of a small wooden model of a Native American in a canoe. A boy in Lake Nipigon, Canada takes the toy to the lake’s edge and puts it in the water. On the bottom of the canoe, he has carved the words “Put me back in the water, I am Paddle-to-the-sea.” The story chronicles the toy’s travels through the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean.
I had ridden in and tried to paddle a real canoe. I remember imagining what it was like to be tossed and carried by the currents and large ships’ wakes. It both intrigued and terrified me. The toy canoe had no rudder, no active paddler. It had no control. It survived countless challenges. And yet – the forces of nature and the kindness of many strangers helped the little canoe to its planned destination.
Somehow, the book, with its art and many accompanying vignettes, was a comforting adventure and I read again and again. The power of the water and waves were not impossible to overcome. There were difficult situations, but the little canoe was OK. I wondered if I could re-create something like it, perhaps with a message in a bottle.
The journey into the unknown is one that we can take with confidence that we do not go without God’s care and blessing. Kind of like the maritime blessing of “Fair winds and following seas,” we generally hope that whatever we face in this life will not be with too much stress or worry. But that’s not the reality of life as most of us know it. Cancer, unexpected death, job losses, natural disaster, shattered relationships — all these life event tear at our carefully constructed pipe dreams of a secure and gentle life.
As Christians, we sometimes fall into this trap of believing that “everything will be OK if we just have faith.” Nice idea. But no. We say this to try and comfort one another. It rarely works. Saying the platitudes might make us feel better – for a moment – but then the heartache rebounds and the questions remain. I have heard many times these well-intentioned but theologically incorrect platitudes about facing adversity: “Well, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle!” Or “Heaven must have needed another angel.” Or among my least favorites, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” (Um… let’s not blame our human error, stubbornness or sin on God, OK?)
So how does one balance this idea of God’s protection and care with a gentle realism that, on occasion, life sucks? It’s not easy.
Perhaps these verses, part of this week’s Lectionary readings, offer a perspective on how to weather the storm…
From Isaiah 43:
1 But now, says the Lord—
the one who created you, Jacob,
the one who formed you, Israel:
Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched
and flame won’t burn you.
3 I am the Lord your God,
the holy one of Israel, your savior.
God spoke to those under persecution and occupation – I AM HERE. The flood waters and fires would not consume or overwhelm. Though situations seemed dire, God was there. God, their redeemer, creator, and savior. The Holy One of Israel. The Lord.
Waters that move and surge, molding the shoreline and moving the topsoil. Waters that create boundaries between countries. Waters that host fish for our table. Waters that constantly seek to move to the ocean. Waters that soak and nourish the vegetation.
And waters that come to represent the fresh start, the new life — the waters of baptism.
To me it is no coincidence that these verses from Isaiah are included in the Lectionary’s focus on baptism. John the Baptist met Christ in the Jordan River. We follow Christ’s example of baptism to lay our belief and trust in the trustworthiness of God and to remember the abiding Presence of the Spirit. Sealed by the Spirit, marked as God’s own.
“Remember your baptism” say my pastor friends to their congregations. Some of us were baptized as infants or toddlers. What can we possibly remember? If nothing else, the assurance from family and friends that we were loved, cherished and invited into the larger Family of God. For those of us baptized as adults, there is the memory of being wet. If we were immersed in a baptistry or pool, we remember being VERY wet.
The promise we celebrate in baptism is that of God’s Presence with us — even in those times of floodwaters. Life will have many times of rough waters, but God will be present with us as we struggle through them.
Keep paddling-to-the-sea, to the Shore. God invites us to ride the waves… and paddles with us.