Dear church community,
The summer is approaching and I feel grateful to be spending another two months with you all. June and July are spread in front of us like a Candy Land board and I look forward to the twists and adventure that this summer may hold.
I recently took a group of teenagers canoeing on the Strong River in D’Lo, Mississippi. Once experienced as sacred by the Choctaw Nation, the banks of the Strong River hosted an annual four-day ritual which sought to initiate teenage boys into adulthood. Now run by inmates from the Simpson County jail, the sacred site operates as an outpost for kayakers, canoers, and tipsy intertubers.
I felt this place would be appropriate for our youth group.
As we stood holding our paddles at the edge of the water, I thought about how we might have been like young Choctaws ourselves, awaiting whatever challenges lie ahead to test our adulthood. Vested in our life jackets, we said a prayer and smeared sunscreen across our faces in preparation. We eased our canoes into the water and paddled away.
As our group snaked its way downriver, passing under country bridges and hanging moss, oak trees stretched their twiggy limbs across the water like arms reaching out overhead. A snake wiggled upstream past our canoes, and June bugs skimmed beside us on the water’s surface. One by one, families of turtles dived from logs into the safety of the water, and a lone crane traveled ahead of us by a hundred yards.
At the end of our float, a thunderstorm appeared, and rain filled our canoes. Popsicle wrappers sloshed at our feet as we paddled in search of our destination. With our clothes stuck to our skin, we approached the bridge where we had been instructed to get off. We grounded our canoes on a sandbar, dragged them ashore, and climbed the steep bank to the county bridge above. We leaned against the railing and waited for our ride.
It stopped raining, and a misty haze now settled over the river. Below, a man stood waist-deep in the water, poking a cane pole between submerged rocks, looking for catfish. On the opposite bank, a family waded silently in a shallow area. A man making his way barefoot across a set of rocks in a faded American flag t-shirt tiptoed past us with a hello.
Suddenly, the world we knew was nowhere to be found. Whatever place this was, we had not meant to come here. Wherever we were, though, (the town of Chapel, we later learned) it marked a transition into a different place and time. Maybe there was still something sacred about this river.
I was distracted suddenly by the rattle of a rusty maroon Chevy Tahoe sailing around a bend in the road, flinging up bits of mud behind it, headed our way. As we looked closer, we could see that it was folks from Simpson County Jail who had come to drive us back to the outpost. Our helpers hopped out of the SUV and loaded our canoes onto the rack on the back of the vehicle. We squeezed into the humid truck and bounced toward the canoe outpost, shoulder to shoulder.
I don’t know if we transitioned closer to adulthood that day, but I do know that the place where we ended up was not the place where we began. Which I think is the nature of grace: it picks us up on one bank and drops us off on a strange and unexpected shore.
I’m looking forward to being washed up on strange shores with you all this summer.