Message at Durham Friends Meeting, September 9, 2018
Our summer vacation trip this August took us up into Canada. We spent time in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. We also went camping in Algonquin Provincial Park, and we stayed at a modest family resort just west of the park where I used to go with my family when I was a boy.
We thought of this as our ‘old rocks’ excursion. Last year we went to the Pacific Northwest and saw ‘new rocks.’ Last summer we saw volcanoes of recent geologic origin in various states of formation and explosive destruction. We saw Mt. Hood, Crater Lake, and Mt. St Helen’s. We saw the Cascades and Olympic peaks, we saw lava fields and calderas. It was good; it was very, very good.
This summer, on the other hand, we wanted to see the oldest rocks in North America. There they are north and west of Toronto: the Canadian Shield. Once there had been a mountain range tall as the Himalayas, perhaps even taller: the Grenville Orogeny (Ellen taught me that). But that was a million years ago. Its rocks have been buried and compressed, folded and eroded. They don’t rise very tall today, but where the rocks are exposed you see beautiful colors in folded layers, pinks and blacks, whites and silver flashes of mica.
That’s what we saw that this summer, and it was good, just as God pronounced of creation in the Genesis story. It was very, very good.
As we planned the trip, we saw another possibility. Maybe we could see Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes. There it was, we could see on the map, just west of that family camp where I went as a boy. I’d never seen Lake Huron, or I couldn’t remember that I ever had. I was sure we never went to see it when I was a boy. So we decided to add that to our trip.
We’ll drive over to the edge of Lake Huron, we said to ourselves. We’ll see the big lake stretched out before us in all its majesty. We like big water. There’s something awesome about it, something that fills you with wonder – something spiritual.
The day came, and we set off to see Lake Huron. It’s a huge lake: the fifth largest freshwater lake in the world — about the size of West Virginia. How could we miss it?
Our first attempt was to drive to a place called Honey Harbor. (I’m not making that up.) It proved a delightful town. It had a bit of a resort feel. There were signs for marinas, places to buy or repair or store boats, places to get ice cream. We could tell we were near some big water.
But did we see it? Not really. We saw a finger of water with a few docks and a few boats. In another place we saw a marina with more boats and another finger of water. But we saw no broad expanse, just a sliver here and a finger there.
We tried again. We drove farther away from people, beyond the 45th parallel. We drove northwest on the Trans-Canada Highway, a well-paved four-lane, limited access highway. You can’t see Lake Huron from the Trans-Canadian. So we exited and turned west on a long road out towards O’Donnell Point along Twelve Mile Bay – or so it said on the map.
We drove straight at the lake –- or straight at where the map showed the lake was. We drove a very long way, mostly no cars in sight. We saw some beautiful exposed rocks. From some signs, we realized we were on land owned by indigenous peoples. Eventually we came to an enormous marina. There were hundreds of cars and hundreds of boats. There was another long, narrow finger of water on which the marina sat. We could imagine getting in a boat and going out that long finger and eventually it seemed we would get to the big water, the broad breath-taking expanse. But we couldn’t see it that day, not from where we were.
We never did see Lake Huron that day. Or, rather, we saw only little bits of it.
We realized the shoreline of Lake Huron where we were is like lace, thousands and thousands of little islands and inlets. The roads take you to places to dock or store a boat. But to see the lake in all its majesty, you have to get into a boat and go out onto the water, out some distance. You can’t go just by land. We weren’t prepared to do that on this particular day. So it was a little disappointing. We saw wonderful things, but we didn’t really see Lake Huron.
As I’ve thought about that day, its many joys and its one less-than-perfect accomplishment, I’ve come to think of the excursion as very much like the experience of my spiritual life.
Much of life, I think, is like driving on the Trans-Canadian Highway, or like driving on I-95 or Route 1. You can get somewhere pretty fast. You can deal with the necessities of ordinary life. You can get to work or to a store or to a friend’s house. But the majesty and mystery of life, maybe not so much. That majesty and mystery may be nearby, but the highway won’t take you there. You have to go looking for the big water, and you may not find it. Maybe you have to get into a boat or walk a rocky path. Maybe you have to go to Meeting.
There are many days I’m looking for the big water. There are many days I’m looking for the experience of the divine, the presence of God, the holy. More often than not I never quite see the big water. I might catch glimpses. I might see bits of water through some trees. I might see boats that maybe could get me there, but they aren’t my boats, and most of the ones I see aren’t being used by anyone. I keep hoping to come round a bend and see the big water open up. I keep hoping the next bend will give me the long view, maybe even the eternal view, and take my breath away. Most days my view of the holy is blocked by dozens and dozens of bits of ordinary life.
For all the talk of God in the Bible, there are only a few instances where God makes a direct appearance. Think Moses and the burning bush. But that only happens a few times. And most of those few instances are times when someone simply heard God’s voice. Think Noah, or Samuel, or Paul. Most of the time people are just trying to find out what God wants them to do without ever catching even a glimpse.
Quakers often talk of being seekers. We talk of seeking God. We talk of stilling ourselves, quieting ourselves, getting off the highway away from the buzz, hoping to hear God’s voice. We know it takes effort, practice, prayer, waiting worship.
What’s more, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes we go through spiritual dry spells. Other times the big water, the holy, takes us by surprise. But we know, don’t we, there’s no direct route there, no simple turn-off scenic vista that promises us a view of God.
Still, I know the big water is out there. I know it is, and it’s worth looking for. It is worth the seeking. I know have to get off the highway. I know I have to go out the long peninsulas. I know I have to find ways to go out onto the water.
I’m glad we went looking for Lake Huron that day, even though we only caught tiny glimpses of it.