Canoe lesson

My plans for the rest of the summer still involve a couple short trips into Algonquin Park. And a stay in the Park isn’t complete without a paddle in a canoe or kayak.

On my reading list this summer is a recent national best seller by Roy MacGregor entitled “Canoe Country” in which the author surveys the importance of the canoe as a symbol for Canada. I am enjoying the stories he tells of his paddling exploits.

So I have to tell you one: On a journey down the Dumoine River in Quebec, MacGregor describes running the fabled white water rapids called “Canoe Eater”. The name itself suggests what can easily happen running these rapids.

While Roy was a seasoned paddler, he had mostly canoed flat water lakes and rivers. White-whiter was something relatively new to him. Just fresh off a white-water course, he was looking to learn more about this cherished mode of river transportation.

Roy details the two different approaches to running Canoe Eater rapids. Two canoes. Two different pairs of people. Two different approaches. 

The first pair beached their canoe above the rapids and scouted the shore line all the way to the bottom. They read the river, looking for the path between the standing waves, over the haystacks and along the deepest portions of the torrent of flowing water. They even memorized the route: Ferry left here, paddle hard to the right there, and so forth. After the scouting and memorizing were done, the pair, including Roy, got back in the canoe atop the rapids and aimed to replicate their plan.

The second canoe. This pair was led by Lorne, a retired judge. During his days in court Lorne had the reputation of being meticulously prepared for each case he judged, and painstakingly by-the-book.

But for the irony of it all, his super-conscientious, hyper-planned personality in the courtroom was at odds with what took over in the canoe. He was one to show disdain for scouting rapids. Instead of first disembarking and reading the river, Lorne approached Canoe Eater the way he approached any set of rapids:

He stood in the bow of his canoe “like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic,” about to spread his arms to take in and survey the water lines from his perpective. “The ultimate freelancer, he would make it up as he went.”[1]

Of the two canoes, which one do you think made it through Canoe Eater rapids, and which one dumped?

In the concluding sermon in our series this past month we ask one last time: Why do we have congregations? Congregations are the only place in our society where a community learns to love. Congregations are schools of love. In school, we learn. 

How do we learn the faith? Emphasis on how. Three ways:

First, we practice. When we practice loving others, it’s the best and only way to learn our faith. If we are not ready to practice loving others, frankly, we are not ready to learn anything about God, faith or the church. The two are inextricably linked: learning faith and loving. 

Most paddlers on the Dumoine are experienced. These paddlers have taken white-water canoe courses and have spend thousands of hours paddling. All the people in McGregor’s party were expert paddlers and some had already canoed and practiced on this river before. We have to practice, over and over again, how to love.

The second way we learn  faith is being able to change our way of thinking about things. A colleague of mine told me recently that she begins each worship service with these words: “You may not get what you want in this service, but I trust that the Spirit of God will give you what you need.”

Schools of love will challenge us to grow, and that may not always feel good at first. Being challenged in faith is not an indictment against the past. It is simply (yet not easily) a challenge to grow.

In the Gospel text for today, the crowd came looking for Jesus to seek out and learn more. They came with expectations: They thought they knew where Jesus and his disciples were. But he wasn’t there. They had to go somewhere else to find him, to Capernaum by the sea. They themselves had to get into boats to go there – that’s not the mode of transportation they initially thought they would be using to find Jesus. They had to change their way, literally.[2]

“Faith isn’t about having everything figured out ahead of time; faith is about following the quiet voice of God without everything figured out ahead of time.”[3]

Maybe you’ve already guessed it right. Who dumped their canoe? And who made it through? At the first turn in Canoe Eater rapids, the well-prepared, well-intentioned, meticulously-planned pair hit the flat rock they wanted to avoid, then dumped the canoe into the fast-paced and frigid waters of the Dumoine River. Roy MacGregor obviously lived to tell the story; they came out of the water feeling good, if not soaking wet, at the bottom of the run.

Roy had watched from shore as Lorne, the meticulous judge, chose the far side, quickly kneeling from his standing position, “prying the bow over into a dark tongue that seemed to pull them like a giant slingshot down into the churning waters. They danced, slammed, slipped, twisted, shot free and bounced through Canoe Eater, deftly turning to the left at the bottom into quieter water, swirls, and small, harmless whirlpools.”[4]

Like Lorne in the canoe, sometimes our learning in faith will mean we have to change tactic from what we are normally accustomed to, for the sake of others, and for the sake of life to the world.

Finally, learning the faith is about looking for signs of life in the world. The crowds ask Jesus how to do God’s work. Believing in Jesus is about watching for “signs” of Jesus. That’s important for us, over two thousand years later. We have to perceive correctly. And what is that sign of Jesus? 

“The bread of God from heaven that gives life to the world.”[5]Life to the world. Not just life to me for my own sake and personal satisfaction. But, the world. Wherever we perceive God giving life in the world, to others, to creation, there is Jesus. Wherever love and mercy and compassion and forgiveness and right behaviour, justice and goodness are expressed and shared – that is ‘life’ to the world. That is the work of God. 

Learning faith is a process of “being formed in the image of Christ for the sake of others.”[6]This learning takes time, and it is intentional. Being schooled in love means that coming to church is “not primarily about personal satisfaction or fulfillment; it is about being shaped in ways that enable our lives to reflect the life and love of Christ to the world.”[7]

In congregations, we practice being loving to others. We are challenged to change our minds from time to time. And we train our perception to spot signs of God’s life in the world around us. In so doing, we deepen our trust in God’s being in the world. 

We trust that, at the end of the torrid run and turbulent waters we occasionally encounter on the journey, we eventually come out at the bottom into quieter, small whirlpools where peace and love remain.


[1]Roy MacGregor, Canoe Country (Toronto: Penguin Random House; Vintage Canada, 2016), p.57-60

[2]John 6:24-35

[3]Attributed to Rachel Held Evans

[4]MacGregor, ibid.

[5]John 6:33

[6]M. Robert Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey (Intervarsity Press, 2016), p.16

[7]Dave Daubert & Richard E.T. Jorgensen, Jr., Becoming A Hybrid Church(Day 8 Strategies, 2020), p.36-37

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