In 1987, I compared my experience of entering pastoral ministry to walking at Point Pelee, the southernmost bit of land in Ontario.
I wrote: “My early experience in ministry reminds me of walking along the Lake Erie shoreline with surf pounding in the distance. We’ve just spied that shifting spit of land known as Point Pelee, where waves crash from two directions, with many shipwrecks attesting to the danger. Some years the point is large; other years it’s barely there.
“I step out onto this year’s wide tip, and oh my it’s exhilarating. I’m not sure how much farther out we dare go. I don’t know where reasonable risk ends. I don’t know how to read the signs yet, but for now it seems stable enough underfoot. And though the waves creep towards me from both sides, they seem gentle and warm.”
Three guides in particular helped me find solid footing. Or perhaps more accurately, they helped me cultivate my own ability to read the signs of the wind and the waves, attuned to God’s Spirit, in a vocation where the ground shifts regularly. Gradually I found my bearings as a congregational leader.
Those three seasoned guides included Richard Yordy, a huge resource as the senior pastor at St. Jacobs. When I entered St. Jacobs as associate pastor, I was also pleased that the conference appointed Martha Smith Good as my mentor. Martha left Ontario and Richard retired at about the same time, which coincided with my desire for a spiritual director. Ruth, my first director, was an experienced Anglican clergywoman who saw me at her year-round cottage near Kincardine, Ontario. I looked out onto Lake Huron as we met by her big window. The predictable rhythm of the waves comforted me.
I felt on dangerous ground once again nine summers later. I had recently left my pastorate on good terms, but without another pastoral assignment in the wings. Would I ever find a second placement, I wondered? (I’ve been the kind of transition maker who needs a “neutral zone” between assignments to know what I’m called to next).
Again a shoreline experience ministered to my spirit. We were on vacation on the Long Beach peninsula in the state of Washington – a stretch of shoreline rivaling in danger Ontario’s Point Pelee. I called the little essay I wrote about my experience “Along the Edge of Dangerous.”
I wrote: “I walked along the beach at low tide this morning. I’ve never been able to go that far out into the ocean here before.
“This stretch of shoreline is considered very dangerous. ‘Do not even wade more than ankle deep’ all the signs advise. Why? Because it’s so near the mouth of the Columbia River. There are riptides, shifting sandbars, and clam holes. More than 2000 vessels have been lost here, not to mention 700 lives.
“But at low tide along the edge it is safe. We see sandpipers, skittering quickly and gracefully along the beach on their long legs. We come across many gulls of course, poking around in little puddles of seawater made by indentations in the sand. We walk past soft clam shells, mostly blueish; then a few piles of “sea debris” – rope and kelp and who knows what. We wonder about plant life that might be the runners or roots of dune grass.
“Why walk along the edge of dangerous? Because I’m compelled to somehow. Because it oddly revives my spirit. Because low tide makes it safe and possible to respect the sea, to absorb the environment, to have all powers of observation at work while knowing the limits. Along the edge of dangerous, my footprints are soon gone.”
I was also fascinated by the dune grass, by how it adapts to the stiff sea winds, to the salt spray, to being buried in sand.
“I am tough,” I wrote, “with deep roots and the ability to live and grow underground for a while, and I am flexible. I can sway in the breeze, I can endure salt spray dumped on me. I can be partially buried in sand.
“I like the looks of dune grass. And you can’t get rid of it. If you yank it up, imagine what all you connect with underground. I am fond of dune grass. Very fond.”
I’m grateful that images from Point Pelee and Long Beach calmed my spirit in my 40s. During those same years, the calm but ever-changing waters of Colpoys Bay mirrored my many moods as I decompressed annually at a cottage on its shore.
Now that I’m in my 70s, the rhythm of waves still calms my spirit, and the changing moods of Colpoys Bay still fascinate me.
Questions for Reflection:
- Which bodies of water or other aspects of nature have calmed your spirit during difficult times?
- Who have been spiritual guides and mentors for you through new and scary experiences?
Next week: Colpoys Bay Revisited