Whitewater Rapids, Campfires and God Talk

August 25, 1996


Whitewater Rapids, Campfires, and God-talk

Through the courtesy of this church I spend four weeks each summer recreating joy in ministry through vacation retreats in beautiful wilderness places. It has become a tradition on my first Sunday back in the pulpit to share some of that experience with you. Only some of it, of course, not all of it — because a mere travelogue, even an account of how good it was to be with children and grand-children, are of minimal interest. So I try, instead, to talk about things that will have some religious meaning for all of you, including those who may be visiting with us for the first time this morning.
One week of the latest journey was especially unforgettable: whitewater rafting down a spectacular canyon on the famous Salmon River — called “The River of No Return” by the Lewis and Clark expedition because they realized, when they saw the thunderous rapids, that there was no way they get their crude wooden boats back upstream. The five guides for our party of 24 were all Mormons with whom, as you can imagine, I had some good religious discussions. I was impressed, as I have been before, with their clean, healthy lifestyle. When the city boy from Chicago, rafting on the first day, casually tossed out the “F” word, the tall lovely girl guide named Summer glared at him in disbelief. “What did you say?” When he was dumfounded for a moment she said, “I heard you. We don’t talk like that on this trip.” She said it with such passion that he never slipped again. The guide Billie and I were with most often was called “Big Matt,” a gentle giant who liked to proclaim himself “the strongest man in the world” but who watched over children with the tenderness of a mother. He has a degree in philosophy from Brigham Young University, he has completed his two years of missionary service to his church, and he has an application in to med school. If he isn’t accepted on his first try he will teach for a year in an inner city school in Los Angeles. I have a feeling Big Matt, at 6-4, will command respect.
When I encouraged him to talk about his Mormon faith, he stressed his admiration for their lifestyle without any references to theology or to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and other leaders. I wondered if he believed in the story of an angel named Moroni appearing in a vision to Joseph Smith and telling him where to find the buried golden plates from which Smith would later tanslate the Book of Mormon. He said simply, and cautiously: “I do have some problems with the leadership and some of the doctrines, but I like the lifestyle and I like being part of the church.” I thought of the thousands of Christians who love their churches and are inspired by their Scripture to live good lives, but who would tell you frankly that they, too, make a distinction between the poetry of their faith and what they accept as historical fact.
Matt’s feelings about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints whetted my interest in an article about Mormons which I read in the Christian Century on the day I got back home. Despite some private rituals and ceremonies which certainly strike many of us as unusual, Mormons are trying in their public gatherings to move closer to mainstream Christianity. They have recently changed their official logo so that the words “Jesus Christ” are three times larger than the reference to “Latter-Day Saints,” and focus on Joseph Smith has been replaced in important church journals by stories of Christ and early Christianity. Instead of speaking of themselves as Mormons, they increasingly refer to themselves as Christians.
In a recent documentary about Mormons, Mike Wallace was fascinated with the fact that they wear special underclothing, especially as it became clear on that program that some Mormons regard the garments as spiritual armor against physical harm. Tourists who do not know this must be puzzled if they happen to see a bumper sticker for sale in Salt Lake City which proclaims Utah The Land of The Funny Underwear. The television interview left out the fact that those special garments are worn in connection with a covenant made by Mormons at a temple ceremony, which, of course, makes them not quite so ridiculous. I can’t see any great difference between that attempt to use a physical symbol, and wearing a cross around your neck, or having a priest or minister smear your forehead with ashes, or any number of other rituals by which other Christians express their faith.
One last word about the Mormons, in whose company I have been both on the beautiful river and in their cities. We have sometimes been intolerant without a good excuse. For example, I was brought up in a church which professed to imitate all the models of early Christian ritual, but which made great fun of Mormon proxy baptism, that ceremony in which a living person may be baptized on behalf of a dead relative. Yet ironically, in the Apostle Paul’s famous chapter on immortality in 1 Corinthians 15, he speaks of early Christians who also practiced proxy baptism — were baptized for a departed relative or friend — and he mentions the custom without a word of reproof. We were, I came to realize, literalists when it fit our tradition — glossing over Scripture that did not. Our inconsistency should have taught us to be more tolerant of others.
Enough of denominational peculiarities, and back to more mundane matters, particularly the remarkable bonding which took place during that week. Our little band shot the rapids together in paddleboats and kayaks most of the day; ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together; loaded and unloaded gear together; helped each other put up tents; waited patiently for trips up the rugged path to the porta-potty; sat around campfires each evening until the fires faded and the stars came out , and then fell asleep in such close proximity that people who snored heard about it in the breakfast line. In one week we got to know each other better than if we had lived for years on the same city block.
I liked the three Louisiana boys who instead of the grudging “Yeah” of most teenagers said “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” to everybody. It was a pleasant surprise one day, when his mother reached out to help him steady a kayak, to see 17-year-old Taylor kiss her hand affectionately as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But I was equally pleased early one morning to see his father’s insistence on discipline. I was nearby when Dad strolled over to Taylor’s sleeping bag to wake him up. “I need you at my tent.” Taylor muttered something sleepily, hoping for a break, but Dad said, “Now!” When Taylor made the mistake of asking why, his dad spoke with formal firmness: “When you arrive at my tent in the next few seconds, Sir, it will be explained to you why your presence is required.” I never saw a boy get out of a sleeping bag so fast!
I was reinforced in my belief that being a parent means more than being a buddy. It is pleasant to think your children like you; what is imperative is that they respect you. UCC member Willis Nigh told me a few days ago how his daughter overheard her nine-year-old son and his same-age cousin talking just outside an open window. They sounded so serious she decided to listen. “Who do you think is nice?” one of them asked, and after a thoughtful pause the other said, “Well, I think God is nice….and Santa Claus….and….Aunt Opal.” They haven’t seen God, of course, but the Sunday School teacher says He’s nice, and Santa shows up once a year with presents. I happen to know Aunt Opal, and there is no question about how nice she is, but she sees the boys only occasionally, doesn’t have to make them mind, and can afford to be infinitely patient and forgiving. The boys did decide to add grandparents to their short list, but what fascinated me is that they have splendid parents, both of them, weren’t on the “nice people” list because they are the ones around all the time who have to exercise discipline and impose punishments for bad behavior in the hope of building character. Responsible parents will not always be liked, but if they practice the tough love children require, by and by the kids will move them to the top of the list of nice human beings.
Well, that takes care of two of the three items in my title: the whitewater rafting and the campfires. There was also, inevitably, what the title refers to as “God-talk.” TWA’s Flight 800 and the Olympic pipe bomb were both still on all our minds, and there had been a dangerous flood on the river earlier, so the problem of man-made versus natural evil became part of our conversations. We were believers and unbelievers — Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, along with a couple of completely secular humanists. One of them said, when he heard a believer say, “I wonder sometimes why God allows such terrible things to happen,” that it was no problem for him because he didn’t believe in God, anyway. My response will not suprise you: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. Maybe I don’t believe in that God myself.”
When it comes to the business of imagining God, I’m not sure that every adult has risen far beyond Willis and Elaine Nigh’s two grandsons. The mystery beyond our lives becomes either a benevolent Santa Claus or, worse by far, a being we feel sides with us in our oppression of people who understand that mystery differently from ourselves. If such a reality exists, no one person or system can possibly hope to encompass all of it. The part of wisdom…..is to remain open so that our concept of God can expand through a lifetime of reading and experience. Our early imagining of God can be as hilariously narrow as essayist Robert Fulghum says it was for him. His mother’s maiden name was Howard, and the Howard family was spoken of often in the household. So, in the first few years of reciting the Lord’s Prayer, Fulghum did what linguists call “folk etymology” — giving sense to an unfamiiar word — and prayed as follows: “Our Father, which art in heaven, Howard be thy name.” He felt well connected to the Divine Presence, almost as if it were a family enterprise. Without some serious God-imagining in our adult years, some of us never get much beyond that.
One of my favorite sayings about God is from Scripture, when Isaiah says, “The whole earth is full of his glory.” I may be too blind to see the glory in the inner cities of Detroit and Los Angeles, but my eyes open and my imagination soars when I lie down at night, deep in a river canyon, where there are no city lights to dim the stars, and I can pick out Cassiopeia and watch meteors flame out in earth’s air and realize how long it has been since I really noticed that billion-starred celestial highway we call the Milky Way. Once in a while we have to be shocked by how much is left out of our formation of a philosophy simply because we have not been observing well enough. I think of that moment in a Ray Bradbury novel called Dandelion Wine, when two young boys, John and Doug, are walking past a certain house. All of a sudden John closes his eyes and screws up his face. He is upset because during all the years he has come this way, he has failed to notice the colored windowpanes on the little round windows. His friend is puzzled. “What difference does it make?” John knows. He says, “It’s just, if I didn’t see those windows until today, what else did I miss?”
I regret what I must have missed as a child because of the arrogance taught by ministers who were so positive they knew what was worth knowing about God that they stole away both mystery and humility from those of us who listened. I thought about that on the river when I heard about a physicist who was invited to lecture some of his highly intellectual colleagues on the virtue of humility. He said he realized one night that he had not been entirely successful when he passed by the open door of one man’s room and heard him praying on his knees: “Dear Lord, forgive me the sin of arrogance…..and by ‘arrogance’ I mean the following…..”
I don’t know how he finished defining “arrogance” for God, but I can give you an example of a comparable arrogance. Among my catchup mail when I returned to Wichita was a magazine report about some adult members of my childhood church who had gone to be missionaries in London. Not, mind you, in some benighted land with no churches, but in London among all those Methodist and Presbyterian and Anglican and Congregational churches, where people have supposed themselves to have some knowledge of God and the Christian faith since long before the United States came into existence. Listen, now, to arrogance so massive it can almost take your breath away. “Walking daily among the more than six million inhabitants of London,” these good American missionaries report, “is both dizzying and sobering. Living for Christ day to day takes on a different perspective when we realize we may be the only Christians these people have ever seen.” You heard it right: this little band from a denominational college where I once taught have ruled out all those Methodist-Baptist-Anglican-Congregational people who walk the streets of London every day, and have defined faith so narrowly that “we may be the only Christians these people have ever seen.”
If I could have had them on the river, dwarfed by the awesome Bitterroot mountains, watching the goodness of all kinds of Christians during the day, and pondering the remote and eternal stars at night, it’s possible they might learn humility and imagine God in nobler ways. Is it important? Yes. A narrow image of God creates a cramped and narrow soul. I choose for my closing words the observation of our own New England philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Listen…..and remember:
“A person will worship something — have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts — but it will out. That which dominates our imagination and our thought will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
May God grant that there is no day of worship in this church when we do not leave with expanded minds and kinder hearts. Amen.