The cool of the day

by Mark Safstrom

As I write this I have been spending hours on the water of a lake in Northern Michigan, reading, thinking, swimming, kayaking. I’m no purist outdoorsman, but I am pretty sure that a tent and a Coleman stove are plenty of civilization to bring to a campground. The generator that starts up at 7 a.m. to make someone else’s breakfast in someone else’s camper doesn’t fit well in my morning ritual of hopping in the lake first thing. This is not solely an objection to the noise I hear, but because of the sounds I can’t. I hope someone else’s breakfast is amazing. When the machine sputters and finally turns off – oh, what a sound!

Silence. Not a sound at all.

Sun shines through crystal water onto the rocks under the surface. Fish rhythmically patrol along the shoreline and a submerged birch tree, white bark magnified in a watery prism. Crayfish pop out, fight one another, and retreat. A hummingbird adjusts altitude up and down to inspect hemlock branches, holding position perfectly. Not a plane in the sky. The thunderstorms and steady rain of the previous week are far away. Just several sunny days in the low seventies on a loop. Enough stillness to lose track of time, but plenty of time to plow through a book. I am wanting for nothing and fully present, thinking clearly.

The sun makes the tree trunks appear black by contrast against the bright blue. Yet at other times, sunlight infiltrates the foliage to warm a towel and swimsuit on a clothesline. Then in the golden hour near sunset, the light bounces off the lake to illuminate the entire woods. The sun is shining

from below, up the trunks of the trees at the exact same angle as the hillside.

Not a single tree that was in the shadows can now escape the sun’s glory.

From this static vantage point I am made acutely aware of how scripture begins with a spirit hovering over water and a garden and its creator, who prefers to take walks during the evening breeze. Somehow this Middle Eastern image from antiquity makes perfect sense half a world away in the Northwoods, where atmospheric pressures also still change like clockwork. “In the cool of the day” – I’m glad someone centuries ago wrote that phrase down so we would remember it.

It was in such a moment of stillness that the first humans heard the voice of the Lord and realized their trespass and frailty. Embarrassed and ashamed, they told on themselves; more specifically, Adam told on Eve. Generations of Israel’s storytellers have made it clear that the people God seeks after are a people who can tell the truth about themselves. The pattern of biblical protagonists making mistakes, truth-telling, turning, and returning should be familiar to any of us who grew up with the Hebrew scriptures. And yet, telling the truth about our own failures is the last thing we want to do. Whether the sins are personal, institutional, or societal our inclination is to avoid them, make excuses, or to deny there is anything to tell.

People engaged in social justice reform sometimes speak of catalytic events, which jar people who were previously on the sidelines out of their oblivion or skeptical complacency. What had before just been an “issue” becomes traumatically personal as someone we care about, or we ourselves, are directly wounded by injustice and exclusion. In the wake of such events, sometimes during a calm after the storm, moral clarity finally comes and prompts people to find their voice.

This is the habit of biblical truth-telling that Jeff Hunter encourages us to adopt in his reflections about the church’s historic sins regarding racism, and our current opportunities for practicing solidarity in racial reconciliation. Among the other articles in this issue, Stephen Pitts offers pastoral reflections on how we might empathetically imagine ourselves in the place of those who have been otherized by traditional expectations of Christian expressions of love. Steve Elde speaks a word of encouragement as we continue to process the experience of forsakenness and marginalization of the past year of pandemic and social isolation. And Josh Reese reminds us to look to our own past moments when God worked through our human frailty to accomplish his purposes in our lives.

Whether by water’s edge or someplace far inland or even indoors, we might find in our moments of stillness something far more restorative and purposeful than we imagined. And so we return to the cool of the day and listen for the voice of the Lord: “Come, let us be on our way.”

Guds frid – God’s peace